The Bible in Spain Essay - Critical Essays

George Henry Borrow


George Borrow labored in darkest Spain for nearly five years, from 1835 to 1839, as the agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society in printing and settling (with another agent) thirty thousand copies in Spanish of the New Testament, a book proscribed by the Index. This remarkable achievement in the face of determined and unscrupulous opposition by the Roman Catholic hierarchy is more the background than the subject of THE BIBLE IN SPAIN, a detailed record of dangerous missionary work which begins and ends abruptly and is often a daily account of Borrow’s travels. It is pervaded by his delight in his remarkably efficient grasp of Spanish, his stamina, his defiance of authority, and the individuals he met during “the most happy years of my existence,” as he says in his preface.

Borrow was thirty-two when he went to Spain and forty when he published the book that launched his literary career. After twenty-nine years of roaming around England (sometimes with gipsies) and cultivating his linguistic abilities—at eighteen he knew thirteen languages, including Welsh and a gipsy dialect—in 1832 he found his vocation in being employed by the Bible Society to supervise the printing of a Manchu version of the New Testament in St. Petersburg and to arrange for its distribution across the Russian border into China. Tsarist opposition killed the project, but the efficient Bible Society decided that Spain was as good a field as China and conditions were favorable for its work there, for in the civil war then raging the monarchy was largely supported by English arms. A version of the Bible in Castilian had been printed by 1793; if this could be cheaply reprinted and widely distributed the work of the society would raise Spain to the level of Portugal, where Portuguese versions of the Bible were already in circulation.

In November, 1835, Borrow arrived in Lisbon on his way to Spain, a month after he had left Russia. His stay in Spain was broken by two visits to London, the first late in 1836, after his exploration of the official position in Madrid, when he returned for instructions; the second, when he fell ill in August, 1838, after nearly two years in Spain. He returned to Spain late in 1838 to carry on the work so energetically that growing clerical opposition finally defied the British ambassador and insisted that Borrow, his books, and the Society leave Spain in August, 1839. Borrow got most of his Testaments out and distributed some in Tangier before returning to England. There he completed THE ZINCALI: AN ACCOUNT OF THE GYPSIES OF SPAIN, which he had drafted while in Spain. He married a widow of comfortable means and settled down to the life of a gentleman author by writing THE BIBLE IN SPAIN. Its successful publication established his vocation and formed the narrative style and episodic structure he would use later in LAVENGRO and THE ROMANY RYE. Embittered at the reception of these books, he confined himself thereafter to infrequent publication, generally translations or philology, with the exception of WILD WALES, which has more in common with THE BIBLE IN SPAIN than with his books on gipsy life and character.

Three things interested Borrow: eccentric characters, dangerous situations, and philological curiosities. In these preferences he exhibits his romantic nature, further shown in the supremely confident way he coped with all characters and situations; he warns the governor of the prison in...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)