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George Borrow Post by :bzwiz Category :Essays Author :George Saintsbury Date :October 2011 Read :2282

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George Borrow

In this paper I do not undertake to throw any new light on the little-known life of the author of Lavengro. Among the few people who knew Borrow intimately, surely some one will soon be found who will give to the world an account of his curious life, and perhaps some specimens of those "mountains of manuscript" which, as he regretfully declares, never could find a publisher--an impossibility which, if I may be permitted to offer an opinion, does not reflect any great credit on publishers. For the present purpose it is sufficient to sum up the generally-known facts that Borrow was born in 1803 at East Dereham in Norfolk, his father being a captain in the army, who came of Cornish blood, his mother a lady of Norfolk birth and Huguenot extraction. His youth he has himself described in a fashion which nobody is likely to care to paraphrase. After the years of travel chronicled in Lavengro, he seems to have found scope for his philological and adventurous tendencies in the rather unlikely service of the Bible Society; and he sojourned in Russia and Spain to the great advantage of English literature. This occupied him during the greater part of the years from 1830 to 1840. Then he came back to his native country--or, at any rate, his native district--married a widow of some property at Lowestoft, and spent the last forty years of his life at Oulton Hall, near the piece of water which is thronged in summer by all manner of sportsmen and others. He died but a few years ago; and even since his death he seems to have lacked the due meed of praise which the Lord Chief Justice of the equal foot usually brings, even to persons far less deserving than Borrow.

There is this difficulty in writing about him, that the audience must necessarily consist of fervent devotees on the one hand, and of complete infidels, or at least complete know-nothings, on the other. To any one who, having the faculty to understand either, has read Lavengro or The Bible in Spain, or even Wild Wales, praise bestowed on Borrow is apt to seem impertinence. To anybody else (and unfortunately the anybody else is in a large majority) praise bestowed on Borrow is apt to look like that very dubious kind of praise which is bestowed on somebody of whom no one but the praiser has ever heard. I cannot think of any single writer (Peacock himself is not an exception) who is in quite parallel case. And, as usual, there is a certain excuse for the general public. Borrow kept himself, during not the least exciting period of English history, quite aloof from English politics, and from the life of great English cities. But he did more than this. He is the only really considerable writer of his time in any modern European nation who seems to have taken absolutely no interest in current events, literary and other. Putting a very few allusions aside, he might have belonged to almost any period. His political idiosyncrasy will be noticed presently; but he, who lived through the whole period from Waterloo to Maiwand, has not, as far as I remember, mentioned a single English writer later than Scott and Byron. He saw the rise, and, in some instances, the death, of Tennyson, Thackeray, Macaulay, Carlyle, Dickens. There is not a reference to any one of them in his works. He saw political changes such as no man for two centuries had seen, and (except the Corn Laws, to which he has some half-ironical allusions, and the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, which stirred his one active sentiment) he has referred to never a one. He seems in some singular fashion to have stood outside of all these things. His Spanish travels are dated for us by references to Dona Isabel and Don Carlos, to Mr. Villiers and Lord Palmerston. But cut these dates out, and they might be travels of the last century. His Welsh book proclaims itself as written in the full course of the Crimean War; but excise a few passages which bear directly on that event, and the most ingenious critic would be puzzled to "place" the composition. Shakespeare, we know, was for all time, not of one age only; but I think we may say of Borrow, without too severely or conceitedly marking the difference, that he was not of or for any particular age or time at all. If the celebrated query in Longfellow's Hyperion, "What is time?" had been addressed to him, his most appropriate answer, and one which he was quite capable of giving, would have been, "I really don't know."

To this singular historical vagueness has to be added a critical vagueness even greater. I am sorry that I am unable to confirm or to gainsay at first hand Borrow's wonderfully high estimate of certain Welsh poets. But if the originals are anything like his translations of them, I do not think that Ab Gwilym and Lewis Glyn Cothi, Gronwy Owen and Huw Morris can have been quite such mighty bards as he makes out. Fortunately, however, a better test presents itself. In one book of his, Wild Wales, there are two estimates of Scott's works. Borrow finds in an inn a copy of Woodstock (which he calls by its less known title of The Cavalier), and decides that it is "trashy": chiefly, it would appear, because the portrait therein contained of Harrison, for whom Borrow seems, on one of his inscrutable principles of prejudice, to have had a liking, is not wholly favourable. He afterwards informs us that Scott's "Norman Horseshoe" (no very exquisite song at the best, and among Scott's somewhat less than exquisite) is "one of the most stirring lyrics of modern times," and that he sang it for a whole evening; evidently because it recounts a defeat of the Normans, whom Borrow, as he elsewhere tells us in sundry places, disliked for reasons more or less similar to those which made him like Harrison, the butcher. In other words, he could not judge a work of literature as literature at all. If it expressed sentiments with which he agreed, or called up associations which were pleasant to him, good luck to it; if it expressed sentiments with which he did not agree, and called up no pleasant associations, bad luck.

In politics and religion this curious and very John Bullish unreason is still more apparent. I suppose Borrow may be called, though he does not call himself, a Tory. He certainly was an unfriend to Whiggery, and a hater of Radicalism. He seems to have given up even the Corn Laws with a certain amount of regret, and his general attitude is quite Eldonian. But he combined with his general Toryism very curious Radicalisms of detail, such as are to be found in Cobbett (who, as appeared at last, and as all reasonable men should have always known, was really a Tory of a peculiar type), and in several other English persons. The Church, the Monarchy, and the Constitution generally were dear to Borrow, but he hated all the aristocracy (except those whom he knew personally) and most of the gentry. Also, he had the odd Radical sympathy for anybody who, as the vernacular has it, was "kept out of his rights." I do not know, but I should think, that Borrow was a strong Tichbornite. In that curious book Wild Wales, where almost more of his real character appears than in any other, he has to do with the Crimean War. It was going on during the whole time of his tour, and he once or twice reports conversations in which, from his knowledge of Russia, he demonstrated beforehand to Welsh inquirers how improbable, not to say impossible, it was that the Russian should be beaten. But the thing that seems really to have interested him most was the case of Lieutenant P---- or Lieutenant Parry, whom he sometimes refers to in the fuller and sometimes in the less explicit manner. My own memories of 1854 are rather indistinct, and I confess that I have not taken the trouble to look up this celebrated case. As far as I can remember, and as far as Borrow's references here and elsewhere go, it was the doubtless lamentable but not uncommon case of a man who is difficult to live with, and who has to live with others. Such cases occur at intervals in every mess, college, and other similar aggregation of humanity. The person difficult to live with gets, to use an Oxford phrase, "drawn." If he is reformable he takes the lesson, and very likely becomes excellent friends with those who "drew" him. If he is not, he loses his temper, and evil results of one kind or another follow. Borrow's Lieutenant P---- seems unluckily to have been of the latter kind, and was, if I mistake not, recommended by the authorities to withdraw from a situation which, to him, was evidently a false and unsuitable one. With this Borrow could not away. He gravely chronicles the fact of his reading an "excellent article in a local paper on the case of Lieutenant P----"; and with no less gravity (though he was, in a certain way, one of the first humorists of our day) he suggests that the complaints of the martyred P---- to the Almighty were probably not unconnected with our Crimean disasters. This curious parochialism pursues him into more purely religious matters. I do not know any other really great man of letters of the last three-quarters of a century of whose attitude Carlyle's famous words, "regarding God's universe as a larger patrimony of Saint Peter, from which it were well and pleasant to hunt the Pope," are so literally true. It was not in Borrow's case a case of sancta simplicitas. He has at times flashes of by no means orthodox sentiment, and seems to have fought, and perhaps hardly won, many a battle against the army of the doubters. But when it comes to the Pope, he is as single-minded an enthusiast as John Bunyan himself, whom, by the way, he resembles in more than one point. The attitude was, of course, common enough among his contemporaries; indeed any man who has reached middle life must remember numerous examples among his own friends and kindred. But in literature, and such literature as Borrow's, it is rare.

Yet again, the curiously piecemeal, and the curiously arbitrary character of Borrow's literary studies in languages other than his own, is noteworthy in so great a linguist. The entire range of French literature, old as well as new, he seems to have ignored altogether--I should imagine out of pure John Bullishness. He has very few references to German, though he was a good German scholar--a fact which I account for by the other fact, that in his earlier literary period German was fashionable, and that he never would have anything to do with anything that fashion favoured. Italian, though he certainly knew it well, is equally slighted. His education, if not his taste for languages, must have made him a tolerable (he never could have been an exact) classical scholar. But it is clear that insolent Greece and haughty Rome possessed no attraction for him. I question whether even Spanish would not have been too common a toy to attract him much, if it had not been for the accidental circumstances which connected him with Spain.

Lastly (for I love to get my devil's advocate work over), in Borrow's varied and strangely attractive gallery of portraits and characters, most observers must perceive the absence of the note of passion. I have sometimes tried to think that miraculous episode of Isopel Berners and the Armenian verbs, with the whole sojourn of Lavengro in the dingle, a mere wayward piece of irony--a kind of conscious ascetic myth. But I am afraid the interpretation will not do. The subsequent conversation with Ursula Petulengro under the hedge might be only a companion piece; even the more wonderful, though much less interesting, dialogue with the Irish girl in the last chapters of Wild Wales might be so rendered by a hardy exegete. But the negative evidence in all the books is too strong. It may be taken as positively certain that Borrow never was "in love," as the phrase is, and that he had hardly the remotest conception of what being in love means. It is possible that he was a most cleanly liver--it is possible that he was quite the reverse: I have not the slightest information either way. But that he never in all his life heard with understanding the refrain of the "Pervigilium,"

Cras amet qui nunquam amavit, quique amavit eras amet,
I take as certain.

The foregoing remarks have, I think, summed up all Borrow's defects, and it will be observed that even these defects have for the most part the attraction of a certain strangeness and oddity. If they had not been accompanied by great and peculiar merits, he would not have emerged from the category of the merely bizarre, where he might have been left without further attention. But, as a matter of fact, all, or almost all, of his defects are not only counterbalanced by merits, but are themselves, in a great degree, exaggerations or perversions of what is intrinsically meritorious. With less wilfulness, with more attention to the literature, the events, the personages of his own time, with a more critical and common-sense attitude towards his own crotchets, Borrow could hardly have wrought out for himself (as he has to an extent hardly paralleled by any other prose writer who has not deliberately chosen supernatural or fantastic themes) the region of fantasy, neither too real nor too historical, which Joubert thought proper to the poet. Strong and vivid as Borrow's drawing of places and persons is, he always contrives to throw in touches which somehow give the whole the air of being rather a vision than a fact. Never was such a John-a-Dreams as this solid, pugilistic John Bull. Part of this literary effect of his is due to his quaint habit of avoiding, where he can, the mention of proper names. The description, for instance, of Old Sarum and Salisbury itself in Lavengro is sufficient to identify them to the most careless reader, even if the name of Stonehenge had not occurred on the page before; but they are not named. The description of Bettws-y-Coed in Wild Wales, though less poetical, is equally vivid. Yet here it would be quite possible for a reader, who did not know the place and its relation to other named places, to pass without any idea of the actual spot. It is the same with his frequent references to his beloved city of Norwich, and his less frequent references to his later home at Oulton. A paraphrase, an innuendo, a word to the wise he delights in, but anything perfectly clear and precise he abhors. And by this means and others, which it might be tedious to trace out too closely, he succeeds in throwing the same cloudy vagueness over times as well as places and persons. A famous passage--perhaps the best known, and not far from the best he ever wrote--about Byron's funeral, fixes, of course, the date of the wondrous facts or fictions recorded in Lavengro to a nicety. Yet who, as he reads it and its sequel (for the separation of Lavengro and The Romany Rye is merely arbitrary, though the second book is, as a whole, less interesting than the former), ever thinks of what was actually going on in the very positive and prosaic England of 1824-25? The later chapters of Lavengro are the only modern Roman d'Aventures that I know. The hero goes "overthwart and endlong," just like the figures whom all readers know in Malory, and some in his originals. I do not know that it would be more surprising if Borrow had found Sir Ozana dying at the chapel in Lyonesse, or had seen the full function of the Grail, though I fear he would have protested against that as popish. Without any apparent art, certainly without the elaborate apparatus which most prose tellers of fantastic tales use, and generally fail in using, Borrow spirits his readers at once away from mere reality. If his events are frequently as odd as a dream, they are always as perfectly commonplace and real for the moment as the events of a dream are--a little fact which the above-mentioned tellers of the above-mentioned fantastic stories are too apt to forget. It is in this natural romantic gift that Borrow's greatest charm lies. But it is accompanied and nearly equalled, both in quality and in degree, by a faculty for dialogue. Except Defoe and Dumas, I cannot think of any novelists who contrive to tell a story in dialogue and to keep up the ball of conversation so well as Borrow; while he is considerably the superior of both in pure style and in the literary quality of his talk. Borrow's humour, though it is of the general class of the older English--that is to say, the pre-Addisonian--humorists, is a species quite by itself. It is rather narrow in range, a little garrulous, busied very often about curiously small matters, but wonderfully observant and true, and possessing a quaint dry savour as individual as that of some wines. A characteristic of this kind probably accompanies the romantic ethos more commonly than superficial judges both of life and literature are apt to suppose; but the conjunction is nowhere seen better than in Borrow. Whether humour can or cannot exist without a disposition to satire co-existing, is one of those abstract points of criticism for which the public of the present day has little appetite. It is certain (and that is what chiefly concerns us for the present) that the two were not dissociated in Borrow. His purely satirical faculty was very strong indeed, and probably if he had lived a less retired life it would have found fuller exercise. At present the most remarkable instance of it which exists is the inimitable portrait-caricature of the learned Unitarian, generally known as "Taylor of Norwich." I have somewhere (I think it was in Miss Martineau's Autobiography) seen this reflected on as a flagrant instance of ingratitude and ill-nature. The good Harriet, among whose numerous gifts nature had not included any great sense of humour, naturally did not perceive the artistic justification of the sketch, which I do not hesitate to call one of the most masterly things of the kind in literature.

Another Taylor, the well-known French baron of that name, is much more mildly treated, though with little less skill of portraiture. As for "the publisher" of Lavengro, the portrait there, though very clever, is spoilt by rather too much evidence of personal animus, and by the absence of redeeming strokes; but it shows the same satiric power as the sketch of the worthy student of German who has had the singular ill-fortune to have his books quizzed by Carlyle, and himself quizzed by Borrow. It is a strong evidence of Borrow's abstraction from general society that with this satiric gift, and evidently with a total freedom from scruple as to its application, he should have left hardly anything else of the kind. It is indeed impossible to ascertain how much of the abundant character-drawing in his four chief books (all of which, be it remembered, are autobiographic and professedly historical) is fact and how much fancy. It is almost impossible to open them anywhere without coming upon personal sketches, more or less elaborate, in which the satiric touch is rarely wanting. The official admirer of "the grand Baintham" at remote Corcubion, the end of all the European world; the treasure-seeker, Benedict Mol; the priest at Cordova, with his revelations about the Holy Office; the Gibraltar Jew; are only a few figures out of the abundant gallery of The Bible in Spain. Lavengro, besides the capital and full-length portraits above referred to, is crowded with others hardly inferior, among which only one failure, the disguised priest with the mysterious name, is to be found. Not that even he has not good strokes and plenty of them, but that Borrow's prejudices prevented his hand from being free. But Jasper Petulengro, and Mrs. Hearne, and the girl Leonora, and Isopel, that vigorous and slighted maid, and dozens of minor figures, of whom more presently, atone for him. The Romany Rye adds only minor figures to the gallery, because the major figures have appeared before; while the plan and subject of Wild Wales also exclude anything more than vignettes. But what admirable vignettes they are, and how constantly bitten in with satiric spirit, all lovers of Borrow know.

It is, however, perhaps time to give some more exact account of the books thus familiarly and curiously referred to; for Borrow most assuredly is not a popular writer. Not long before his death Lavengro, The Romany Rye, and Wild Wales were only in their third edition, though the first was nearly thirty, and the last nearly twenty, years old. The Bible in Spain had, at any rate in its earlier days, a wider sale, but I do not think that even that is very generally known. I should doubt whether the total number sold, during some fifty years, of volumes surpassed in interest of incident, style, character and description by few books of the century, has equalled the sale, within any one of the last few years, of a fairly popular book by any fairly popular novelist of to-day. And there is not the obstacle to Borrow's popularity that there is to that of some other writers, notably the already-mentioned author of Crotchet Castle. No extensive literary cultivation is necessary to read him. A good deal even of his peculiar charm may be missed by a prosaic or inattentive reader, and yet enough will remain. But he has probably paid the penalty of originality, which allows itself to be mastered by quaintness, and which refuses to meet public taste at least half-way. It is certainly difficult at times to know what to make of Borrow. And the general public, perhaps excusably, is apt not to like things or persons when it does not know what to make of them.

Borrow's literary work, even putting aside the "mountains of manuscript" which he speaks of as unpublished, was not inconsiderable. There were, in the first place, his translations, which, though no doubt not without value, do not much concern us here. There is, secondly, his early hackwork, his Chaines de l'Esclavage, which also may be neglected. Thirdly, there are his philological speculations or compilations, the chief of which is, I believe, his Romano-Lavo-Lil, the latest published of his works. But Borrow, though an extraordinary linguist, was a somewhat unchastened philologer, and the results of his life-long philological studies appear to much better advantage from the literary than from the scientific point of view. Then there is The Gypsies in Spain, a very interesting book of its kind, marked throughout with Borrow's characteristics, but for literary purposes merged to a great extent in The Bible in Spain. And, lastly, there are the four original books, as they may be called, which, at great leisure, and writing simply because he chose to write, Borrow produced during the twenty years of his middle age. He was in his fortieth year when, in 1842, he published The Bible in Spain. Lavengro came nearly ten years later, and coincided with (no doubt it was partially stimulated by) the ferment over the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill. Its second part, The Romany Rye, did not appear till six afterwards, that is to say, in 1857, and its resuscitation of quarrels, which the country had quite forgotten (and when it remembered them was rather ashamed of), must be pronounced unfortunate. Last, in 1862, came Wild Wales, the characteristically belated record of a tour in the principality during the year of the Crimean War. On these four books Borrow's literary fame rests. His other works are interesting because they were written by the author of these, or because of their subjects, or because of the effect they had on other men of letters, notably Longfellow and Merimee, on the latter of whom Borrow had an especially remarkable influence. These four are interesting of themselves.

The earliest has been, I believe, and for reasons quite apart from its biblical subject perhaps deserves to be, the greatest general favourite, though its literary value is a good deal below that of Lavengro. The Bible in Spain records the journeys, which, as an agent of the Bible Society, Borrow took through the Peninsula at a singularly interesting time, the disturbed years of the early reign of Isabel Segunda. Navarre and Aragon, with Catalonia, Valencia, and Murcia, he seems to have left entirely unvisited; I suppose because of the Carlists. Nor did he attempt the southern part of Portugal; but Castile and Leon, with the north of Portugal and the south of Spain, he quartered in the most interesting manner, riding everywhere with his servant and his saddle-bag of Testaments at, I should suppose, a considerable cost to the subscribers of the Society and at, it may be hoped, some gain to the propagation of evangelical principles in the Peninsula, but certainly with the results of extreme satisfaction to himself and of a very delightful addition to English literature. He was actually imprisoned at Madrid, and was frequently in danger from Carlists, and brigands, and severely orthodox ecclesiastics. It is possible to imagine a more ideally perfect missionary; but it is hardly possible to imagine a more ideally perfect traveller. His early habits of roughing it, his gipsy initiation, his faculties as a linguist, and his other faculties as a born vagrant, certain to fall on his feet anywhere, were all called into operation. But he might have had all these advantages and yet lacked the extraordinary literary talent which the book reveals. In the first chapter there is a certain stiffness; but the passage of the Tagus in the second must have told every competent reader in 1842 that he had to deal with somebody quite different from the run of common writers, and thenceforward the book never flags till the end. How far the story is rigidly historical I should be very sorry to have to decide. The author makes a kind of apology in his preface for the amount of fact which has been supplied from memory. I daresay the memory was quite trustworthy, and certainly adventures are to the adventurous. We have had daring travellers enough during the last half-century, but I do not know that any one has ever had quite such a romantic experience as Borrow's ride across the Hispano-Portuguese frontier with a gipsy contrabandista, who was at the time a very particular object of police inquiry. I daresay the interests of the Bible Society required the adventurous journey to the wilds of Finisterra. But I feel that if that association had been a mere mundane company and Borrow its agent, troublesome shareholders might have asked awkward questions at the annual meeting. Still, this sceptical attitude is only part of the official duty of the critic, just as, of course, Borrow's adventurous journeys into the most remote and interesting parts of Spain were part of the duty of the colporteur. The book is so delightful that, except when duty calls, no one would willingly take any exception to any part or feature of it. The constant change of scene, the romantic episodes of adventure, the kaleidoscope of characters, the crisp dialogue, the quaint reflection and comment relieve each other without a break. I do not know whether it is really true to Spain and Spanish life, and, to tell the exact truth, I do not in the least care. If it is not Spanish it is remarkably human and remarkably literary, and those are the chief and principal things.

Lavengro, which followed, has all the merits of its predecessor and more. It is a little spoilt in its later chapters by the purpose, the antipapal purpose, which appears still more fully in The Romany Rye. But the strong and singular individuality of its flavour as a whole would have been more than sufficient to carry off a greater fault. There are, I should suppose, few books the successive pictures of which leave such an impression on the reader who is prepared to receive that impression. The word picture is here rightly used, for in all Borrow's books more or less, and in this particularly, the narrative is anything but continuous. It is a succession of dissolving views which grow clear and distinct for a time and then fade off into vagueness before once more appearing distinctly; nor has this mode of dealing with a subject ever been more successfully applied than in Lavengro. At the same time the mode is one singularly difficult of treatment by any reviewer. To describe Lavengro with any chance of distinctness to those who have not read it, it would be necessary to give a series of sketches in words, like those famous ones of the pictures in Jane Eyre. East Dereham, the Viper Collector, the French Prisoners at Norman Cross, the Gipsy Encampment, the Sojourn in Edinburgh (with a passing view of Scotch schoolboys only inferior, as everything is, to Sir Walter's history of Green-breeks), the Irish Sojourn (with the horse whispering and the "dog of peace,") the settlement in Norwich (with Borrow's compulsory legal studies and his very uncompulsory excursions into Italian, Hebrew, Welsh, Scandinavian, anything that obviously would not pay), the new meeting with the gipsies in the Castle Field, the fight--only the first of many excellent fights--these are but a few of the memories which rise to every reader of even the early chapters of this extraordinary book, and they do not cover its first hundred pages in the common edition. Then his father dies and the born vagrant is set loose for vagrancy. He goes to London, with a stock of translations which is to make him famous, and a recommendation from Taylor of Norwich to "the publisher." The publisher exacted something more than his pound of flesh in the form of Newgate Lives and review articles, and paid, when he did pay, in bills of uncertain date which were very likely to be protested. But Borrow won through it all, making odd acquaintances with a young man of fashion (his least lifelike sketch); with an apple-seller on London Bridge, who was something of a "fence" and had erected Moll Flanders (surely the oddest patroness ever so selected) into a kind of patron saint; with a mysterious Armenian merchant of vast wealth, whom the young man, according to his own account, finally put on a kind of filibustering expedition against both the Sublime Porte and the White Czar, for the restoration of Armenian independence. At last, out of health with perpetual work and low living, out of employ, his friends beyond call, he sees destruction before him, writes The Life and Adventures of Joseph Sell (name of fortunate omen!) almost at a heat and on a capital, fixed and floating, of eighteen-pence, and disposes of it for twenty pounds by the special providence of the Muses. With this twenty pounds his journey into the blue distance begins. He travels, partly by coach, to somewhere near Salisbury, and gives the first of the curiously unfavourable portraits of stage coachmen, which remain to check Dickens's rose-coloured representations of Mr. Weller and his brethren. I incline to think that Borrow's was likely to be the truer picture. According to him, the average stage coachman was anything but an amiable character, greedy, insolent to all but persons of wealth and rank, a hanger-on of those who might claim either; bruiser enough to be a bully but not enough to be anything more; in short, one of the worst products of civilisation. From civilisation itself, however, Borrow soon disappears, as far as any traceable signs go. He journeys, not farther west but northwards, into the West Midlands and the marches of Wales. He buys a tinker's beat and fit-out from a feeble vessel of the craft, who has been expelled by "the Flaming Tinman," a half-gipsy of robustious behaviour. He is met by old Mrs. Hearne, the mother-in-law of his gipsy friend Jasper Petulengro, who resents a Gorgio's initiation in gipsy ways, and very nearly poisons him by the wily aid of her grand-daughter Leonora. He recovers, thanks to a Welsh travelling preacher and to castor oil. And then, when the Welshman has left him, comes the climax and turning-point of the whole story, the great fight with Jem Bosvile, "the Flaming Tinman." The much-abused adjective Homeric belongs in sober strictness to this immortal battle, which has the additional interest not thought of by Homer (for goddesses do not count) that Borrow's second and guardian angel is a young woman of great attractions and severe morality, Miss Isopel (or Belle) Berners, whose extraction, allowing for the bar sinister, is honourable, and who, her hands being fully able to keep her head, has sojourned without ill fortune in the Flaming Tinman's very disreputable company. Bosvile, vanquished by pluck and good fortune rather than strength, flees the place with his wife. Isopel remains behind and the couple take up their joint residence, a residence of perfect propriety, in this dingle, the exact locality of which I have always longed to know, that I might make an autumnal pilgrimage to it. Isopel, Brynhild as she is, would apparently have had no objection to be honourably wooed. But her eccentric companion confines himself to teaching her "I love" in Armenian, which she finds unsatisfactory; and she at last departs, leaving a letter which tells Mr. Borrow some home truths. And, even before this catastrophe has been reached, Lavengro itself ends with a more startling abruptness than perhaps any nominally complete book before or since.

It would be a little interesting to know whether the continuation, The Romany Rye, which opens as if there had been no break whatever, was written continuously or with a break. At any rate its opening chapters contain the finish of the lamentable history of Belle Berners, which must induce every reader of sensibility to trust that Borrow, in writing it, was only indulging in his very considerable faculty of perverse romancing. The chief argument to the contrary is, that surely no man, however imbued with romantic perversity, would have made himself cut so poor a figure as Borrow here does without cause. The gipsies reappear to save the situation, and a kind of minor Belle Berners drama is played out with Ursula, Jasper's sister. Then the story takes another of its abrupt turns. Jasper, half in generosity it would appear, half in waywardness, insists on Borrow purchasing a thorough-bred horse which is for sale, advances the money, and despatches him across England to Horncastle Fair to sell it. The usual Le Sagelike adventures occur, the oddest of them being the hero's residence for some considerable time as clerk and storekeeper at a great roadside inn. At last he reaches Horncastle, and sells the horse to advantage. Then the story closes as abruptly and mysteriously almost as that of Lavengro, with a long and in parts, it must be confessed, rather dull conversation between the hero, the Hungarian who has bought the horse, and the dealer who has acted as go-between. This dealer, in honour of Borrow, of whom he has heard through the gipsies, executes the wasteful and very meaningless ceremony of throwing two bottles of old rose champagne, at a guinea apiece, through the window. Even this is too dramatic a finale for Borrow's unconquerable singularity, and he adds a short dialogue between himself and a recruiting sergeant. And after this again there comes an appendix containing an apologia for Lavengro, a great deal more polemic against Romanism, some historical views of more originality than exactness, and a diatribe against gentility, Scotchmen, Scott, and other black beasts of Borrow's. This appendix has received from some professed admirers of the author a great deal more attention than it deserves. In the first place, it was evidently written in a fit of personal pique; in the second, it is chiefly argumentative, and Borrow had absolutely no argumentative faculty. To say that it contains a great deal of quaint and piquant writing is only to say that its writer wrote it, and though the description of "Charlie-over-the-waterism" probably does not apply to any being who ever lived, except to a few school-girls of both sexes, it has a strong infusion of Borrow's satiric gift. As for the diatribes against gentility, Borrow has only done very clumsily what Thackeray had done long before without clumsiness. It can escape nobody who has read his books with a seeing eye that he was himself exceedingly proud, not merely of being a gentleman in the ethical sense, but of being one in the sense of station and extraction--as, by the way, the decriers of British snobbishness usually are, so that no special blame attaches to Borrow for the inconsistency. Only let it be understood, once for all, that to describe him as "the apostle of the ungenteel" is either to speak in riddles or quite to misunderstand his real merits and abilities.

I believe that some of the small but fierce tribe of Borrovians are inclined to resent the putting of the last of this remarkable series, Wild Wales, on a level with the other three. With such I can by no means agree. Wild Wales has not, of course, the charm of unfamiliar scenery and the freshness of youthful impression which distinguish The Bible in Spain; it does not attempt anything like the novel-interest of Lavengro and The Romany Rye; and though, as has been pointed out above, something of Borrow's secret and mysterious way of indicating places survives, it is a pretty distinct itinerary over great part of the actual principality. I have followed most of its tracks on foot myself, and nobody who wants a Welsh guide-book can take a pleasanter one, though he might easily find one much less erratic. It may thus have, to superficial observers, a positive and prosaic flavour as compared with the romantic character of the other three. But this distinction is not real. The tones are a little subdued, as was likely to be the case with an elderly gentleman of fifty, travelling with his wife and stepdaughter, and not publishing the record of his travels till he was nearly ten years older. The localities are traceable on the map and in Murray, instead of being the enchanted dingles and the half-mythical woods of Lavengro. The personages of the former books return no more, though, with one of his most excellent touches of art, the author has suggested the contrast of youth and age by a single gipsy interview in one of the later chapters. Borrow, like all sensible men, was at no time indifferent to good food and drink, especially good ale; but the trencher plays in Wild Wales a part, the importance of which may perhaps have shocked some of our latter-day delicates, to whom strong beer is a word of loathing, and who wonder how on earth our grandfathers and fathers used to dispose of "black strap." A very different set of readers may be repelled by the strong literary colour of the book, which is almost a Welsh anthology in parts. But those few who can boast themselves to find the whole of a book, not merely its parts, and to judge that whole when found, will be not least fond of Wild Wales. If they have, as every reader of Borrow should have, the spirit of the roads upon them, and are never more happy than when journeying on "Shanks his mare," they will, of course, have in addition a peculiar and personal love for it. It is, despite the interludes of literary history, as full of Borrow's peculiar conversational gift as any of its predecessors. Its thumbnail sketches, if somewhat more subdued and less elaborate, are not less full of character. John Jones, the Dissenting weaver, who served Borrow at once as a guide and a whetstone of Welsh in the neighbourhood of Llangollen; the "kenfigenous" Welshwoman who first, but by no means last, exhibited the curious local jealousy of a Welsh-speaking Englishman; the doctor and the Italian barometer-seller at Cerrig-y-Druidion; the "best Pridydd of the world" in Anglesey, with his unlucky addiction to beer and flattery; the waiter at Bala; the "ecclesiastical cat" (a cat worthy to rank with those of Southey and Gautier); the characters of the walk across the hills from Machynlleth to the Devil's Bridge; the scene at the public-house on the Glamorgan Border, where the above-mentioned jealousy comes out so strongly; the mad Irishwoman, Johanna Colgan (a masterpiece by herself); and the Irish girl, with her hardly inferior history of the faction-fights of Scotland Road (which Borrow, by a mistake, has put in Manchester instead of in Liverpool); these make a list which I have written down merely as they occurred to me, without opening the book, and without prejudice to another list, nearly as long, which might be added. Wild Wales, too, because of its easy and direct opportunity of comparing its description with the originals, is particularly valuable as showing how sober, and yet how forcible, Borrow's descriptions are. As to incident, one often, as before, suspects him of romancing, and it stands to reason that his dialogue, written long after the event, must be full of the "cocked-hat-and-cane" style of narrative. But his description, while it has all the vividness, has also all the faithfulness and sobriety of the best landscape-painting. See a place which Kingsley or Mr. Ruskin, or some other master of our decorative school, has described--much more one which has fallen into the hands of the small fry of their imitators--and you are almost sure to find that it has been overdone. This is never, or hardly ever, the case with Borrow, and it is so rare a merit, when it is found in a man who does not shirk description where necessary, that it deserves to be counted to him at no grudging rate.

But there is no doubt that the distinguishing feature of the book is its survey of Welsh poetical literature. I have already confessed that I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of Borrow's translations, and by no means disposed to over-value them. But any one who takes an interest in literature at all, must, I think, feel that interest not a little excited by the curious Old-Mortality-like peregrinations which the author of Wild Wales made to the birth-place, or the burial-place as it might be, of bard after bard, and by the short but masterly accounts which he gives of the objects of his search. Of none of the numerous subjects of his linguistic rovings does Borrow seem to have been fonder, putting Romany aside, than of Welsh. He learnt it in a peculiarly contraband manner originally, which, no doubt, endeared it to him; it was little known to and often ridiculed by most Englishmen, which was another attraction; and it was extremely unlikely to "pay" in any way, which was a third. Perhaps he was not such an adept in it as he would have us believe--the respected Cymmrodorion Society or Professor Rhys must settle that. But it needs no knowledge of Welsh whatever to perceive the genuine enthusiasm, and the genuine range of his acquaintance with the language from the purely literary side. When he tells us that Ab Gwilym was a greater poet than Ovid or Chaucer I feel considerable doubts whether he was quite competent to understand Ovid and little or no doubt that he has done wrong to Chaucer. But when, leaving these idle comparisons, he luxuriates in details about Ab Gwilym himself, and his poems, and his lady loves, and so forth, I have no doubt about Borrow's appreciation (casual prejudices always excepted) of literature. Nor is it easy to exaggerate the charm which he has added to Welsh scenery by this constant identification of it with the men, and the deeds, and the words of the past.

Little has been said hitherto of Borrow's more purely literary characteristics from the point of view of formal criticism. They are sufficiently interesting. He unites with a general plainness of speech and writing, not unworthy of Defoe or Cobbett, a very odd and complicated mannerism, which, as he had the wisdom to make it the seasoning and not the main substance of his literary fare, is never disgusting. The secret of this may be, no doubt, in part sought in his early familiarity with a great many foreign languages, some of whose idioms he transplanted into English: but this is by no means the whole of the receipt. Perhaps it is useless to examine analytically that receipt's details, or rather (for the analysis may be said to be compulsory on any one who calls himself a critic), useless to offer its results to the reader. One point which can escape no one who reads with his eyes open is the frequent, yet not too abundant, repetition of the same or very similar words--a point wherein much of the secret of persons so dissimilar as Carlyle, Borrow, and Thackeray consists. This is a well-known fact--so well known indeed that when a person who desires to acquire style hears of it, he often goes and does likewise, with what result all reviewers know. The peculiarity of Borrow, as far as I can mark it, is that, despite his strong mannerism, he never relies on it as too many others, great and small, are wont to do. The character sketches, of which, as I have said, he is so abundant a master, are always put in the plainest and simplest English. So are his flashes of ethical reflection, which, though like all ethical reflections often one-sided, are of the first order of insight. I really do not know that, in the mint-and-anise-and-cummin order of criticism, I have more than one charge to make against Borrow. That is that he, like other persons of his own and the immediately preceding time, is wont to make a most absurd misuse of the word individual. With Borrow "individual" means simply "person": a piece of literary gentility of which he, of all others, ought to have been ashamed.

But such criticism has but very little propriety in the case of a writer, whose attraction is neither mainly nor in any very great degree one of pure form. His early critics compared him to Le Sage, and the comparison is natural. But if it is natural, it is not extraordinarily critical. Both men wrote of vagabonds, and to some extent of picaroons; both neglected the conventionalities of their own language and literature; both had a singular knowledge of human nature. But Le Sage is one of the most impersonal of all great writers, and Borrow is one of the most personal. And it is undoubtedly in the revelation of his personality that great part of his charm lies. It is, as has been fully acknowledged, a one-sided, wrong-headed, not always quite right-hearted personality. But it is intensely English, possessing at the same time a certain strain of romance which the other John Bulls of literature mostly lack, and which John Bunyan, the king of them all, only reached within the limits, still more limited than Borrow's, of purely religious, if not purely ecclesiastical, interests. A born grumbler; a person with an intense appetite for the good things of this life; profoundly impressed with, and at the same time sceptically critical of, the bad or good things of another life; apt, as he somewhere says himself, "to hit people when he is not pleased"; illogical; constantly right in general, despite his extremely roundabout ways of reaching his conclusion; sometimes absurd, and yet full of humour; alternately prosaic and capable of the highest poetry; George Borrow, Cornishman on the father's side and Huguenot on the mother's, managed to display in perfection most of the characteristics of what once was, and let us hope has not quite ceased to be, the English type. If he had a slight overdose of Celtic blood and Celtic peculiarity, it was more than made up by the readiness of literary expression which it gave him. He, if any one, bore an English heart, though, as there often has been in Englishmen, there was something perhaps more as well as something less than English in his fashion of expression.

To conclude, Borrow has--what after all is the chief mark of a great writer--distinction. "Try to be like somebody," said the unlucky critic-bookseller to Lamartine; and he has been gibbeted for it, very justly, for the best part of a century. It must be admitted that "try not to be like other people," though a much more fashionable, is likely to be quite as disastrous a recommendation. But the great writers, whether they try to be like other people or try not to be like them (and sometimes in the first case most of all), succeed only in being themselves, and that is what Borrow does. His attraction is rather complex, and different parts of it may, and no doubt do, apply with differing force to this and that reader. One may be fascinated by his pictures of an unconventional and open-air life, the very possibilities of which are to a great extent lost in our days, though patches of ground here and there in England (notably the tracts of open ground between Cromer and Wells in Borrow's own county) still recall them. To others he may be attractive for his sturdy patriotism, or his adventurous and wayward spirit, or his glimpses of superstition and romance. The racy downrightness of his talk; the axioms, such as that to the Welsh alewife, "The goodness of ale depends less upon who brews it than upon what it is brewed of"; or the sarcastic touches as that of the dapper shopkeeper, who, regarding the funeral of Byron, observed, "I, too, am frequently unhappy," may each and all have their votaries. His literary devotion to literature would, perhaps, of itself attract few; for, as has been hinted, it partook very much of the character of will-worship, and there are few people who like any will-worship in letters except their own; but it adds to his general attraction, no doubt, in the case of many. That neither it, nor any other of his claims, has yet forced itself as it should on the general public is an undoubted fact; a fact not difficult to understand, though rather difficult fully to explain, at least without some air of superior knowingness and taste. Yet he has, as has been said, his devotees, and I think they are likely rather to increase than to decrease. He wants editing, for his allusive fashion of writing probably makes a great part of him nearly unintelligible to those who have not from their youth up devoted themselves to the acquisition of useless knowledge. There ought to be a good life of him. The great mass of his translations, published and unpublished, and the smaller mass of his early hackwork, no doubt deserve judicious excerption. If professed philologers were not even more ready than most other specialists each to excommunicate all the others except himself and his own particular Johnny Dods of Farthing's Acre, it would be rather interesting to hear what some modern men of many languages have to say to Borrow's linguistic achievements. But all these things are only desirable embellishments and assistances. His real claims and his real attractions are comprised in four small volumes, the purchase of which, under modern arrangements of booksellers, leaves some change out of a sovereign, and which will about half fill the ordinary bag used for briefs and dynamite. It is not a large literary baggage, and it does not attempt any very varied literary kinds. If not exactly a novelist in any one of his books, Borrow is a romancer, in the true and not the ironic sense of the word, in all of them. He has not been approached in merit by any romancer who has published books in our days, except Charles Kingsley; and his work, if less varied in range and charm than Kingsley's, has a much stronger and more concentrated flavour. Moreover, he is the one English writer of our time, and perhaps of times still farther back, who seems never to have tried to be anything but himself; who went his own way all his life long with complete indifference to what the public or the publishers liked, as well as to what canons of literary form and standards of literary perfection seemed to indicate as best worth aiming at. A most self-sufficient person was Borrow, in the good and ancient sense, as well as, to some extent, in the sense which is bad and modern. And what is more, he was not only a self-sufficient person, but is very sufficient also to the tastes of all those who love good English and good literature.


(The end)
George Saintsbury's essay: George Borrow

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