George Henry Borrow (July 5, 1803, East Dereham, Norfolk - July 26, 1881, Oulton, Suffolk, was an English author who wrote novels and travelogues based on his own experiences around Europe. Over the course of his wanderings, he developed a close affinity with the Gypsy nomads of Europe, and they figure prominently in his work. His best known book, Lavengro, is largely autobiographical.
Borrow was born at East Dereham, Norfolk, the son of a recruiting officer, and had a somewhat wandering childhood. He was educated at Norwich grammar school as well as the Edinburgh High School. He studied law, but languages and literature became his main interests. In 1825, he began his first major European journey, walking in France and Germany. Over the next few years he visited Russia, Portugal, Spain and Morocco, acquainting himself with the people and languages of the various countries he visited. After his marriage in 1840, he settled near Lowestoft, but continued to travel both inside and outside the UK.
Because of his precocious lingustic skills George Borrow in his youth became the protegé of the Norwich-born scholar William Taylor. Borrow depicts Taylor, an advocate of German Romantic literature, in his semi-autobiographical novel Lavengro (1851). In his recollection of his early youth in Norwich some thirty years earlier, Borrow depicts an old man (Taylor) and a young man (Borrow) discussing the merits of German literature, including Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. Taylor confesses himself to be no admirer of either The Sorrows of Young Werther or its author but nevertheless states-
- It is good to be a German (for) the Germans are the most philosophical people in the world.
With Taylor’s encouragement Borrow embarked upon his first translation: Von Klinger's scandalous variant upon the Faust legend with the full title Faustus, his Life, Death and Descent into Hell, first published in St.Petersburg in 1791. In his translation Borrow altered the name of one City, thus making one passage of the legend read --
- They found the people of the place modelled after so unsightly a pattern, with such ugly figures and flat features that the devil owned he had never seen them equalled, except by the inhabitants of an English town, called Norwich, when dressed in their Sunday's best.
For his lampooning of Norwich society the young Borrow earned the humiliation of having public subscription libraries burn his first ever publication. The events and repercussions of Borrow's translation of Von Klinger's scandalous work antecede those of another controversial work, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.
George Borrow was a fabled adept at acquiring new languages. He informed the British and Foreign Bible Society that-
- I possess some acqaintance with the Russian, being able to read without much difficulty any printed Russian book.
He duly left Norwich to arrive in Saint Petersburg on the 13th of August 1833. As an agent of the Bible Society Borrow was charged with the duty of supervising a translation of the Bible into Manchu. As a traveller however he was overwhelmed by the beauty of Saint Petersburg, writing --
- Notwithstanding I have previously heard and read much of the beauty and magnificence of the Russian capital……There can be no doubt that it is the finest City in Europe, being pre-eminent for the grandeur of its public edifices and the length and regularity of its streets.
During his two year sojourn in Russia Borrow called upon Pushkin but the poet was out on a social visit. He left two copies of his translations of Pushkin’s literary works and later Pushkin expressed his regret at not meeting.
Borrow described the Russian people as --
- The best-natured kindest people in the world, and though they do not know as much as the English, they have not the fiendish, spiteful dispositions and if you go amongst them and speak their language, however badly, they would go through fire and water to do you a kindness.
Borrow had a life-long empathy with nomadic people such as gypsies, and was fascinated by gypsy customs, songs and dance. He became so familiar with their language as to publish a dictionary of it. He visited Russian gypsies who camped outside Moscow in the summer of 1835. His impressions formed part of the opening chapter of Zincali: or an account of the gypsies of Spain (1841).
With his mission of supervising a Manchu translation of the Bible completed, Borrow returned to Norwich in September 1835. In his report to the Bible Society he confessed --
- I quitted that country, and am compelled to acknowledge, with regret. I went thither prejudiced against that country, the government and the people; the first is much more agreeable than is generally supposed; the second is seemingly the best adapted for so vast an empire; and the third, even the lowest classes, are in general kind, hospitable, and benevolent.
Such was Borrow's success working as an agent for the Bible Society that on November 11th 1835 he set off for Spain, once more as an agent of the Bible society. Borrow claimed to have stayed in Spain for nearly five years and his reminiscences of Spain were the basis of his travelogue, The Bible in Spain, of 1843. Borrow was often not only a perceptive traveller but also on occasion opinionated in his observations upon foreign lands. He remarked in The Bible in Spain --
- the huge population of Madrid, with the exception of a sprinkling of foreigners,...is strictly Spanish, though a considerable portion are not natives of the place. Here are no colonies of Germans, as at Saint Petersburg; no English factories, as at Lisbon: no multitudes of insolent Yankees lounging through the streets, as at the Havannah, with an air which seems to say, the land is our own whenever we choose to take it; but a population which, however strange or wild, and composed of various elements, is Spanish, and will remain so as long as the city itself shall exist.
The above quotation is an example both of Borrow's empathy with native, indigenous peoples, and also of his occasional bout of prejudice; here in observing the latent stirrings of 19th century 'American Imperialism'.
In 1840 Borrow's career with the Bible Society came to an end, and he married Mary Clarke, a widow with a grown-up daughter and a small estate on Oulton Broad in Suffolk. There Borrow began to write his books. The Zincali (1841) was moderately successful, and The Bible in Spain (1843) was a huge success, making Borrow a celebrity overnight. But the eagerly awaited Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857) puzzled many readers, who were not sure how much was fact and how much fiction (a question debated to this day). Borrow made one more overseas journey, across Europe to Istanbul in 1844, but the rest of his travels were in the UK, long walking tours in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Only the Welsh tour yielded a book, Wild Wales (1862).
Borrow's restlessness, perhaps, led to the family living in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in the 1850s, and in London in the 1860s. Borrow visited Gypsy encampments in Wandsworth and Battersea, and wrote one more book, Romano Lavo-Lil, a wordbook of the Romany (1874). Mary Borrow died in 1869, and in 1874 Borrow returned to their home in Oulton, where he was later joined by his stepdaughter and her husband, who looked after him until his death on 26 July 1881.
Borrow was a man of striking appearance and great vigour and originality of character and mind. His writings hold a unique place in English literature.
- The Zincali (1841)
- The Bible in Spain (1843)
- Lavengro (1851)
- Romany Rye (1857)
- Wild Wales (1862)
- Romano Lavo-lil (1874)
- W.I. Knapp: Life, writings and correspondence of George Borrow, London 1899
- T.H. Darlow (ed.): Letters of George Borrow to the British and Foreign Bible Society, London 1911
- H. Jenkins: The Life of George Borrow, London 1924
- M.D. Armstrong: George Borrow, London 1950
- M. Collie: George Borrow, eccentric, Cambridge 1982
- This article incorporates public domain text from: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J.M. Dent & sons; New York, E.P. Dutton.