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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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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