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George Borrow Post by :executive1 Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :2915

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George Borrow

Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his delightful Memories and Portraits, takes occasion to tell us, amongst a good many other things of the sort, that he has a great fancy for The Bible in Spain, by Mr. George Borrow. He has not, indeed, read it quite so often as he has Mr. George Meredith's Egoist, but still he is very fond of it. It is interesting to know this, interesting, that is, to the great Clan Stevenson who owe suit and service to their liege lord; but so far as Borrow is concerned, it does not matter, to speak frankly, two straws. The author of Lavengro, The Romany Rye, The Bible in Spain, and Wild Wales is one of those kings of literature who never need to number their tribe. His personality will always secure him an attendant company, who, when he pipes, must dance. A queer company it is too, even as was the company he kept himself, composed as it is of saints and sinners, gentle and simple, master and man, mistresses and maids; of those who, learned in the tongues, have read everything else, and of those who have read nothing else and do not want to. People there are for whom Borrow's books play the same part as did horses and dogs for the gentleman in the tall white hat, whom David Copperfield met on the top of the Canterbury coach. ''Orses and dorgs,' said that gentleman, 'is some men's fancy. They are wittles and drink to me, lodging, wife and children, reading, writing, and 'rithmetic, snuff, tobacker, and sleep.'

Nothing, indeed, is more disagreeable, even offensive, than to have anybody else's favourite author thrust down your throat. 'Love me, love my dog,' is a maxim of behaviour which deserves all the odium Charles Lamb has heaped upon it. Still, it would be hard to go through life arm-in-arm with anyone who had stuck in the middle of Guy Mannering, or had bidden a final farewell to Jeannie Deans in the barn with the robbers near Gunnerly Hill in Lincolnshire. But, oddly enough, Borrow excites no such feelings. It is quite possible to live amicably in the same house with a person who has stuck hopelessly in the middle of Wild Wales, and who braves it out (what impudence!) by the assertion that the book is full of things like this: 'Nothing worthy of commemoration took place during the two following days, save that myself and family took an evening walk on the Wednesday up the side of the Berwyn, for the purpose of botanising, in which we were attended by John Jones. There, amongst other plants, we found a curious moss which our good friend said was called in Welsh Corn Carw, or deer's horn, and which he said the deer were very fond of. On the Thursday he and I started on an expedition on foot to Ruthyn, distant about fourteen miles, proposing to return in the evening.'

The book is full of things like this, and must be pronounced as arrant a bit of book-making as ever was. But judgment is not always followed by execution, and a more mirth-provoking error can hardly be imagined than for anyone to suppose that the admission of the fact--sometimes doubtless a damaging fact--namely, book-making, will for one moment shake the faithful in their certitude that Wild Wales is a delightful book; not so delightful, indeed, as Lavengro, The Romany, or The Bible in Spain, but still delightful because issuing from the same mint as they, stamped with the same physiognomy, and bearing the same bewitching inscription.

It is a mercy the people we love do not know how much we must forgive them. Oh the liberties they would take, the things they would do, were it to be revealed to them that their roots have gone far too deep into our soil for us to disturb them under any provocation whatsoever!

George Borrow has to be forgiven a great deal. The Appendix to The Romany Rye contains an assault upon the memory of Sir Walter Scott, of which every word is a blow. It is savage, cruel, unjustifiable. There is just enough of what base men call truth in it, to make it one of the most powerful bits of devil's advocacy ever penned. Had another than Borrow written thus of the good Sir Walter, some men would travel far to spit upon his tomb. Quick and easy would have been his descent to the Avernus of oblivion. His books, torn from the shelf, should have long stood neglected in the shop of the second-hand, till the hour came for them to seek the stall, where, exposed to wind and weather, they should dolefully await the sack of the paper-merchant, whose holy office it should be to mash them into eternal pulp. But what rhodomontade is this! No books are more, in the vile phrase of the craft, 'esteemed' than Borrow's. The prices demanded for the early editions already impinge upon the absurd, and are steadily rising. The fact is, there is no use blinking it, mankind cannot afford to quarrel with George Borrow, and will not do so. It is bad enough what he did, but when we remember that whatever he had done, we must have forgiven him all the same, it is just possible to thank Heaven (feebly) that it was no worse. He might have robbed a church!

Borrow is indeed one of those lucky men who, in Bagehot's happy phrase, 'keep their own atmosphere,' and as a consequence, when in the destined hour the born Borrovian--for men are born Borrovians, not made--takes up a volume of him, in ten minutes (unless it be Wild Wales, and then twenty must be allowed) the victory is won; down tumbles the standard of Respectability which through a virtuous and perhaps long life has braved the battle and the breeze; up flutters the lawless pennon of the Romany Chal, and away skims the reader's craft over seas, hitherto untravelled, in search of adventures, manifold and marvellous, nor in vain.

If one was in search of a single epithet most properly descriptive of Borrow's effect upon his reader, perhaps it would best be found in the word 'contagious.' He is one of the most 'catching' of our authors. The most inconsistent of men, he compels those who are born subject to his charm to share his inconsistencies. He was an agent of the Bible Society, and his extraordinary adventures in Spain were encountered, so at least his title-page would have us believe, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula. He was a sound Churchman, and would have nothing to do with Dissent, even in Wild Wales, but he had also a passion for the ring. Mark his devastations. It is as bad as the pestilence. A gentle lady, bred amongst the Quakers, a hater of physical force, with eyes brimful of mercy, was lately heard to say, in heightened tones, at a dinner-table, where the subject of momentary conversation was a late prize-fight: 'Oh! pity was it that ever corruption should have crept in amongst them.' 'Amongst whom?' inquired her immediate neighbour. 'Amongst the bruisers of England,' was the terrific rejoinder. Deep were her blushes--and yet how easy to forgive her! The gentle lady spoke as one does in dreams; for, you must know, she was born a Borrovian, and only that afternoon had read for the first time the famous twenty-fifth chapter of Lavengro:

'But what a bold and vigorous aspect pugilism wore at that time! And the great battle was just then coming off; the day had been decided upon, and the spot--a convenient distance from the old town (Norwich); and to the old town were now flocking the bruisers of England, men of tremendous renown. Let no one sneer at the bruisers of England; what were the gladiators of Rome, or the bull-fighters of Spain, in its palmiest days, compared to England's bruisers? Pity that ever corruption should have crept in amongst them--but of that I wish not to talk. There they come, the bruisers from far London, or from wherever else they might chance to be at the time, to the great rendezvous in the old city; some came one way, some another: some of tip-top reputation came with peers in their chariots, for glory and fame are such fair things that even peers are proud to have those invested therewith by their sides; others came in their own gigs, driving their own bits of blood; and I heard one say: "I have driven through at a heat the whole hundred and eleven miles, and only stopped to bait twice!" Oh! the blood horses of old England! but they too have had their day--for everything beneath the sun there is a season and a time.... So the bruisers of England are come to be present at the grand fight speedily coming off; there they are met in the precincts of the old town, near the field of the chapel, planted with tender saplings at the restoration of sporting Charles, which are now become venerable elms, as high as many a steeple; there they are met at a fitting rendezvous, where a retired coachman with one leg keeps an hotel and a bowling-green. I think I now see them upon the bowling-green, the men of renown, amidst hundreds of people with no renown at all, who gaze upon them with timid wonder. Fame, after all, is a glorious thing, though it lasts only for a day. There's Cribb, the champion of England, and perhaps the best man in England--there he is, with his huge, massive figure, and face wonderfully like that of a lion. There is Belcher the younger--not the mighty one, who is gone to his place, but the Teucer Belcher, the most scientific pugilist that ever entered a ring, only wanting strength to be--I won't say what.... But how shall I name them all? They were there by dozens, and all tremendous in their way. There was Bulldog Hudson and fearless Scroggins, who beat the conqueror of Sam the Jew. There was Black Richmond--no, he was not there, but I knew him well. He was the most dangerous of blacks, even with a broken thigh. There was Purcell, who could never conquer till all seemed over with him. There was--what! shall I name thee last? Ay, why not? I believe that thou art the last of all that strong family still above the sod, where may'st thou long continue--true piece of English stuff, Tom of Bedford, sharp as Winter, kind as Spring!'

No wonder the gentle lady was undone. It is as good as Homer.

Diderot, it will be remembered, once wrote a celebrated eulogium on Richardson, which some have thought exaggerated, because he says in it that, on the happening of certain events, in themselves improbable, he would keep Clarissa and Sir Charles on the same shelf with the writings of Moses, Homer, Euripides, and Sophocles. Why a literary man should not be allowed to arrange his library as he chooses, without being exposed to so awful a charge as that of exaggeration, it is hard to say. But no doubt the whole eulogium is pitched in too high a key for modern ears; still, it contains sensible remarks, amongst them this one: that he had observed that in a company where the writings of Richardson were being read, either privately or aloud, the conversation became at once interesting and animated. Books cannot be subjected to a truer test. Will they bear talking about? A parcel of friends can talk about Borrow's books for ever. The death of his father, as told in the last chapter of Lavengro. Is there anything of the kind more affecting in the library? Somebody is almost sure to say, 'Yes, the death of Le Fevre in Tristram Shandy.' A third, who always (provoking creature) likes best what she read last, will wax eloquent over the death of the little princess in Tolstoi's great book. The character-sketch of Borrow's elder brother, the self-abnegating artist who declined to paint the portrait of the Mayor of Norwich because he thought a friend of his could do it better, suggests De Quincey's marvellous sketch of his elder brother. And then, what about Benedict Moll, Joey the dog-fancier of Westminster, and that odious wretch the London publisher? You had need to be a deaf mute to avoid taking part in a conversation like this. Who was Mary Fulcher? All the clocks in the parish will have struck midnight before that question has been answered. It is not to take a gloomy view of the world to say that there are few pleasanter things in it than a good talk about George Borrow.

For invalids and delicate persons leading retired lives, there are no books like Borrow's. Lassitude and Languor, horrid hags, simply pick up their trailing skirts and scuttle out of any room into which he enters. They cannot abide him. A single chapter of Borrow is air and exercise; and, indeed, the exercise is not always gentle. 'I feel,' said an invalid, laying down The Bible in Spain, as she spoke, upon the counterpane, 'as if I had been gesticulating violently for the space of two hours.' She then sank into deep sleep, and is now hale and hearty. Miss Martineau, in her Life in the Sick Room, invokes a blessing upon the head of Christopher North. But there were always those who refused to believe in Miss Martineau's illness, and certainly her avowed preference for the man whom Macaulay in his wrath, writing to Napier in Edinburgh, called 'your grog-drinking, cock-fighting, cudgel-playing Professor of Moral Philosophy,' is calculated to give countenance to this unworthy suspicion. It was an odd taste for an invalid who, whilst craving for vigour, must necessarily hate noise. Borrow is a vigorous writer, Wilson a noisy one. It was, however, his Recreations and not the Noctes Ambrosianæ, that Miss Martineau affected. Still the Recreations are noisy too, and Miss Martineau must find her best excuse, and I am determined to find an excuse for her--for did she not write the Feats on the Fiord?--in the fact, that when she wrote her Life in the Sick Room (a dear little book to read when in rude health), Borrow had published nothing of note. Had he done so, she would have been of my way of thinking.

How much of Borrow is true and how much is false, is one of those questions which might easily set all mankind by the ears, but for the pleasing circumstance that it does not matter a dump. Few things are more comical than to hear some douce body, unread in Borrow, gravely inquiring how far his word may be relied upon. The sole possible response takes the exceptionable shape of loud peals of laughter. And yet, surely, it is a most reasonable question, or query, as the Scotch say. So it is; but after you have read your author you won't ask it--you won't want to. The reader can believe what he likes, and as much as he likes. In the old woman on London Bridge and her convict son, in the man in black (how unlike Goldsmith's!), in the Flaming Tinman, in Ursula, the wife of Sylvester. There is but one person in whom you must believe, every hour of the day and of the night, else are you indeed unworthy--you must believe in Isopel Berners. A stranger and more pathetic figure than she is not to be seen flitting about in the great shadow-dance men call their life. Born and bred though she was in a workhouse, where she learnt to read and sew, fear God, and take her own part, a nobler, more lovable woman never crossed man's path. Her introduction to her historian was quaint. 'Before I could put myself on my guard, she struck me a blow on the face, which had nearly brought me to the ground.' Alas, poor Isopel! Borrow returned the blow, a deadlier, fiercer blow, aimed not at the face but at the heart. Of their life in the Dingle let no man speak; it must be read in the last chapters of Lavengro, and the early ones of The Romany Rye. Borrow was certainly irritating. One longs to shake him. He was what children call 'a tease.' He teased poor Isopel with his confounded philology. Whether he simply made a mistake, or whether the girl was right in her final surmise, that he was 'at the root mad,' who can say? He offered her his hand, but at too late a stage in the proceedings. Isopel Berners left the Dingle to go to America, and we hear of her no more. That she lived to become a happy 'housemother,' and to start a line of brave men and chaste women, must be the prayer of all who know what it is to love a woman they have never seen. Of the strange love-making that went on in the Dingle no idea can or ought to be given save from the original.

'Thereupon I descended into the Dingle. Belle was sitting before the fire, at which the kettle was boiling. "Were you waiting for me?" I inquired. "Yes," said Belle, "I thought you would come, and I waited for you." "That was very kind," said I. "Not half so kind," said she, "as it was of you to get everything ready for me in the dead of last night, when there was scarcely a chance of my coming." The tea-things were brought forward, and we sat down. "Have you been far?" said Belle. "Merely to that public-house," said I, "to which you directed me on the second day of our acquaintance." "Young men should not make a habit of visiting public-houses," said Belle; "they are bad places." "They may be so to some people," said I, "but I do not think the worst public-house in England could do me any harm." "Perhaps you are so bad already," said Belle with a smile, "that it would be impossible to spoil you." "How dare you catch at my words?" said I; "come, I will make you pay for doing so--you shall have this evening the longest lesson in Armenian which I have yet inflicted upon you." "You may well say inflicted," said Belle, "but pray spare me. I do not wish to hear anything about Armenian, especially this evening." "Why this evening?" said I. Belle made no answer. "I will not spare you," said I; "this evening I intend to make you conjugate an Armenian verb." "Well, be it so," said Belle, "for this evening you shall command." "To command is hramahyel," said I. "Ram her ill indeed," said Belle, "I do not wish to begin with that." "No," said I, "as we have come to the verbs we will begin regularly: hramahyel is a verb of the second conjugation. We will begin with the first." "First of all, tell me," said Belle, "what a verb is?" "A part of speech," said I, "which, according to the dictionary, signifies some action or passion; for example, 'I command you, or I hate you.'" "I have given you no cause to hate me," said Belle, looking me sorrowfully in the face.

'"I was merely giving two examples," said I, "and neither was directed at you. In those examples, to command and hate are verbs. Belle, in Armenian there are four conjugations of verbs; the first ends in al, the second in yel, the third in oul, and the fourth in il. Now, have you understood me?"

'"I am afraid, indeed, it will all end ill," said Belle. "Hold your tongue!" said I, "or you will make me lose my patience." "You have already made me nearly lose mine," said Belle. "Let us have no unprofitable interruptions," said I. "The conjugations of the Armenian verbs are neither so numerous nor so difficult as the declensions of the nouns. Hear that and rejoice. Come, we will begin with the verb hntal, a verb of the first conjugation, which signifies to rejoice. Come along: hntam, I rejoice; hyntas, thou rejoicest. Why don't you follow, Belle?"

'"I am sure I don't rejoice, whatever you may do," said Belle. "The chief difficulty, Belle," said I, "that I find in teaching you the Armenian grammar proceeds from your applying to yourself and me every example I give. Rejoice, in this instance, is merely an example of an Armenian verb of the first conjugation, and has no more to do with your rejoicing than lal, which is also a verb of the first conjugation, and which signifies to weep, would have to do with your weeping, provided I made you conjugate it. Come along: hntam, I rejoice; hntas, thou rejoicest; hnta, he rejoices; hntamk, we rejoice. Now repeat those words." "I can't bear this much longer," said Belle. "Keep yourself quiet," said I. "I wish to be gentle with you, and to convince you, we will skip hntal, and also, for the present, verbs of the first conjugation, and proceed to the second. Belle, I will now select for you to conjugate the prettiest verb in Armenian, not only of the second, but also of all the four conjugations. That verb is siriel. Here is the present tense: siriem, siries, sire, siriemk, sirèk, sirien. Come on, Belle, and say siriem." Belle hesitated. "Pray oblige me, Belle, by saying siriem." Belle still appeared to hesitate. "You must admit, Belle, that it is softer than hntam." "It is so," said Belle, "and to oblige you I will say siriem." "Very well indeed, Belle," said I, "and now to show you how verbs act upon pronouns in Armenian, I will say siriem zkiez. Please to repeat siriem zkiez." "Siriem zkiez," said Belle; "that last word is very hard to say." "Sorry that you think so, Belle," said I. "Now, please to say siriá zis." Belle did so. "Exceedingly well," said I. "Now say girani thè sireir zis." "Girane thè sireir zis," said Belle. "Capital!" said I. "You have now said I love you--love me. Ah! would that you would love me!"

'"And I have said all these things?" said Belle. "Yes," said I. "You have said them in Armenian." "I would have said them in no language that I understood," said Belle. "And it was very wrong of you to take advantage of my ignorance, and make me say such things!" "Why so?" said I. "If you said them, I said them too."'

'Was ever woman in this humour wooed?'

It is, I believe, the opinion of the best critics that The Bible in Spain is Borrow's masterpiece. It very likely is so. At the present moment I feel myself even more than usually disqualified for so grave a consideration by my over-powering delight in its dear, deluding title. A quarter of a century ago, in all decent homes, a boy's reading was, by the stern decree of his elders, divided rigorously, though at the same time it must be admitted crudely, into Sunday books and week-day books. 'What have you got there?' has before now been an inquiry addressed on a Sunday afternoon to some youngster, suspiciously engrossed in a book. 'Oh, The Bible in Spain,' would be the reply. 'It is written by a Mr. Borrow, you know, and it is all about'--(then the title-page would serve its turn) 'his attempts "to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula!"' 'Indeed! Sounds most suitable,' answers the gulled authority, some foolish sisters' governess or the like illiterate, and moves off. And then the happy boy would wriggle in his chair, and, as if thirsting to taste the first fruits of his wile, hastily seek out a streaky page, and there read, for perhaps the hundredth time, the memorable words:

'"Good are the horses of the Moslems," said my old friend; "where will you find such? They will descend rocky mountains at full speed, and neither trip nor fall; but you must be cautious with the horses of the Moslems, and treat them with kindness, for the horses of the Moslems are proud, and they like not being slaves. When they are young and first mounted, jerk not their mouths with your bit, for be sure if you do, they will kill you; sooner or later, you will perish beneath their feet. Good are our horses, and good our riders. Yea, very good are the Moslems at mounting the horse; who are like them? I once saw a Frank rider compete with a Moslem on this beach, and at first the Frank rider had it all his own way and he passed the Moslem, but the course was long, very long, and the horse of the Frank rider, which was a Frank horse also, panted; but the horse of the Moslem panted not, for he was a Moslem also, and the Moslem rider at last gave a cry, and the horse sprang forward and he overtook the Frank horse, and then the Moslem rider stood up in his saddle. How did he stand? Truly he stood on his head, and these eyes saw him; he stood on his head in the saddle as he passed the Frank rider; and he cried ha! ha! as he passed the Frank rider; and the Moslem horse cried ha! ha! as he passed the Frank breed, and the Frank lost by a far distance. Good are the Franks, good their horses; but better are the Moslems, and better the horses of the Moslems."'

That boy, as he lay curled up in his chair, doting over the enchanted page, knew full well, else had he been no Christian boy, that it was not a Sunday book which was making his eyes start out of his head; yet, reckless, he cried, 'ha! ha!' and read on, and as he read he blessed the madcap Borrow for having called his romance by the sober-sounding, propitiatory title of The Bible in Spain!

'Creeds pass, rites change, no altar standeth whole.'

In a world of dust and ashes it is a foolish thing to prophesy immortality, or even a long term of years, for any fellow-mortal. Good luck does not usually pursue such predictions. England can boast few keener, better-qualified critics than that admirable woman, Mrs. Barbauld, or, not to dock her of her accustomed sizings, Mrs. Anna Lætitia Barbauld. And yet what do we find her saying? 'The young may melt into tears at Julia Mandeville, and The Man of Feeling, the romantic will shudder at Udolpho, but those of mature age who know what human nature is, will take up again and again Dr. Moore's Zeluco.' One hates to contradict a lady like Mrs. Barbauld, or to speak in terms of depreciation of any work of Mrs. Radcliffe's, whose name is still as a pleasant savour in the nostrils; therefore I will let Udolpho alone. As for Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling, what was good enough for Sir Walter Scott ought surely to be good enough for us, most days. I am no longer young, and cannot therefore be expected to melt into tears at Julia Mandeville, but here my toleration is exhausted. Dr. Moore's Zeluco is too much; maturity has many ills to bear, but repeated perusals of this work cannot fairly be included amongst them.

Still, though prediction is to be avoided, it is impossible to feel otherwise than very cheerful about George Borrow. His is a good life. Anyhow, he will outlive most people, and that at all events is a comfort.

(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: George Borrow

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