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The Wind on the Heath

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‘What’s that book that’s making you laugh so much?’ said my wife. It was my old Everyman Lavengro, still for some reason in its bright red dust jacket, now tattered and torn. It’s a reprint of Everyman’s 1906 edition and it has a curiously hostile introduction by Thomas Seccombe, who a few years later was to be given the Chair of English Literature at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Poor George Borrow, he declared, ‘had anything but a fluent pen’, his inventive faculty was small, his style ‘peculiarly dry’, and he wrote only because he had to.

It’s true that there was a seven-year gap between Lavengro, first published in 1852, and Borrow’s previous book, The Bible in Spain, suggesting either that he was a slow writer or that he had other things to do. But you have only to get a few pages into the book to see how wrong Thomas Seccombe could be. Fluent? Lavengro begins with a virtuoso invocation to the author’s dead mother, an invocation whose rhetorical brio, if that’s the word, looks back to Lamb; a few pages on and he’s giving us a description of Alpine scenery that shows he knew all about what Ruskin a few years later was to call the Pathetic Fallacy. This was fluent all right. Of course he hoped to be paid for it, as professional writers do; but the one thing we can be sure of, whatever he himself may have said on the subject, is that he enjoyed what he was doing. It’s an instantly recognizable joie d’écrire, and we share his pleasure.

As to his inventive faculty, although he presents the book to us as though it were his autobiography, he finds it hard to stick to facts. Indeed, Everyman’s scarlet livery proclaims the book as fiction. Our current obsession with biographical truth (Did Eric Gill really seduce his daughters? What was the real relationship between Hughes and Plath?) makes it hard for us sometimes to live in this sort of halfway house. I have to admi

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‘What’s that book that’s making you laugh so much?’ said my wife. It was my old Everyman Lavengro, still for some reason in its bright red dust jacket, now tattered and torn. It’s a reprint of Everyman’s 1906 edition and it has a curiously hostile introduction by Thomas Seccombe, who a few years later was to be given the Chair of English Literature at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Poor George Borrow, he declared, ‘had anything but a fluent pen’, his inventive faculty was small, his style ‘peculiarly dry’, and he wrote only because he had to.

It’s true that there was a seven-year gap between Lavengro, first published in 1852, and Borrow’s previous book, The Bible in Spain, suggesting either that he was a slow writer or that he had other things to do. But you have only to get a few pages into the book to see how wrong Thomas Seccombe could be. Fluent? Lavengro begins with a virtuoso invocation to the author’s dead mother, an invocation whose rhetorical brio, if that’s the word, looks back to Lamb; a few pages on and he’s giving us a description of Alpine scenery that shows he knew all about what Ruskin a few years later was to call the Pathetic Fallacy. This was fluent all right. Of course he hoped to be paid for it, as professional writers do; but the one thing we can be sure of, whatever he himself may have said on the subject, is that he enjoyed what he was doing. It’s an instantly recognizable joie d’écrire, and we share his pleasure. As to his inventive faculty, although he presents the book to us as though it were his autobiography, he finds it hard to stick to facts. Indeed, Everyman’s scarlet livery proclaims the book as fiction. Our current obsession with biographical truth (Did Eric Gill really seduce his daughters? What was the real relationship between Hughes and Plath?) makes it hard for us sometimes to live in this sort of halfway house. I have to admit that it doesn’t worry me. The date inside the cover, in the neat handwriting I had then, reminds me that I was given my copy of the book as part of a twenty-first birthday present from Maurice Marston, the general secretary of what afterwards became the National Book League; and it was just up my street. My heroes were still word-spinning essayists like Rose Macaulay, and I enjoyed Scott’s ‘big bow-wow strain’, now out of fashion – we prefer those sensitive nuances that Austen had and that Scott wished he had too. Hardly anyone reads Scott now. But what joy to go back every now and then to Borrow when he’s in full flight! (His contempt for Byron, incidentally, and for those who worshipped him, is quite magnificent.) Borrow was the son of an Army officer stationed first at Norwich, then in Edinburgh and in Ireland. Young George was articled to a Norwich solicitor but spent little time on the law; instead he became obsessed with foreign languages and taught himself many. (‘Lavengro’ is the gypsy word for a philologist.) When his much-loved father died he went to London and tried his luck as an author. Some of the funniest bits of this book are about the vile semi-educated publisher who gave him work for near-starvation wages; they made me realize that Borrow is by no means quaintly out-of-date, and that Barabbas does not change. His dialogues with publishers, and with all the people he meets, high or low, are full of zest. After his failure in Grub Street he decided to take to the road, got to know gypsies, and became an itinerant tinker and blacksmith. The gypsies took to him although he was a Gorgio, and he got their respect for having learned Romany, as well as for his impressive physique. He in turn admired them for their culture, for the whiff of the exotic, and for the sweet life they lived, ‘the wind on the heath, brother’, as their leader famously puts it in Lavengro. Many people have thought Borrow’s account of the gypsies absurdly romanticized, but his close friend Theodore Watts-Dunton (Swinburne’s minder), who knew a lot about them himself, says he gave a true picture of them. In a longish entry about Borrow in the 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Watts-Dunton writes that there is quite a bit of Lavengro that’s untrue only in the sense that Borrow transferred his own experiences to some other, fictional, person – like the depressive country squire who had to touch things to keep the Evil One at bay, which was something he often saw Borrow do. Perhaps, too (though Watts-Dunton doesn’t say so), like the Methodist preacher who thought he was damned for having sinned against the Holy Ghost and was cured by Borrow himself. The story breaks off inconsequentially, and I advise anyone coming to Lavengro for the first time not to bother with the last three chapters, which are merely an intemperate tirade, unworthy of its author, against the ‘priestcraft’ of the Roman Catholic Church. Borrow shared the prejudices of his day – Lavengro was written just before the Catholic Emancipation Act – and many English people felt much the same; but you won’t want to spoil this delicious feast with such a sour aftertaste. His preface can also be skipped, for the same reason.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © George Borrow on 2004


About the contributor

Nicholas Bagnall was once the literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph. His favourite prose author is Dr Johnson, and he contributes a Words column to the Independent on Sunday.

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