Lavengro is the son of an army officer who fought against Napoleon, and the boy spends his early years at army garrisons in various parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. When he is six years old, Lavengro discovers Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), a book that stimulates his imagination and arouses in him a desire to read and to study languages. One day, while wandering on the outskirts of a garrison town, he meets a group of Romany, or gypsies, who threaten to do him harm. They draw back, however, when he shows them a tame snake that he is carrying. The gypsies, becoming friendly, nickname him Sapengro, or snake tamer. A young gypsy named Jasper declares that he and Sapengro will always be brothers. Lavengro also meets a man at the gypsy camp whom he will eventually see hanged fifteen years later at Newgate prison.
A few years later, the boy begins the study of Latin. About the same time, his father is ordered to Edinburgh, Scotland, and while living there Lavengro is involved in several bickers, or fights, with his schoolmates; he also learns the sport of mountain climbing. In 1815, Lavengro’s father is ordered to Ireland, and there Lavengro attends a seminary at Clonmel and studies more Latin and Greek; in incidental fashion, he also learns to speak Irish. His brother John is made an ensign and is transferred to a post a few miles away. After Britain signs a peace treaty with the French, however, opportunities for military employment are few. As John has always wanted to paint, the young man’s father allows him to go to London to study art.
Lavengro again meets Jasper, his gypsy friend, and discovers that Jasper’s last name is Petulengro. Jasper is now a Romany kral, or gypsy king, as well as a horseshoer, pugilist, jockey, and soothsayer. Through Jasper, Lavengro makes the acquaintance of a malignant old crone named Herne, who hates him because she believes that he is stealing the Romany tongue. It is Jasper who has named him Lavengro, which means “word-master,” because he has learned the gypsy language so rapidly. All the gypsies depart for London, except Mrs. Herne, who goes to Yorkshire. Lavengro remains at home with his parents while his father tries to decide what to do with him. It is finally agreed that Lavengro will enter a solicitor’s office to study law. Lavengro, however, neglects his law studies while he learns Welsh and translates the poetry of Ab Gwilym. About the same time, Lavengro obtains a Danish book and learns to read it by first studying the Danish Bible. One day, Lavengro is sent to deliver a thousand pounds to a magistrate, and he has a very entertaining conversation with the man concerning the art of self-defense. In spite of the magistrate’s fondness for boxing, however, he refuses a match with Lavengro.
Lavengro meets Jasper again and puts on the gloves with him for a friendly bout. Later, he returns home and discovers that his father is seriously ill. His brother John also arrives home just before their father dies. Shortly afterward, Lavengro goes to London to seek his fortune as a writer, taking with him a letter of introduction to a noted publisher. The publisher seems delighted to be able to employ him but is not interested in such things as Lavengro’s translations of the songs of Ab Gwilym and of Danish songs. Lavengro is informed that the reading public scoffs at works such as those. Instead, the publisher recommends that he write a story modeled on a work that has sold well.
While walking through the London neighborhood of Cheapside one day, Lavengro climbs onto the balustrade of a bridge in order to see something below. An old woman selling apples nearby thinks that he is trying to commit suicide and begs him not to fling himself over. Lavengro learns that the old lady has a partiality for a book about the “blessed” Mary Flanders, and thereafter he returns from time to time to visit with her.
Lavengro is invited to dinner at the publisher’s house one Sunday, and he discovers that the publisher does not believe in eating meat...
(The entire section is 1661 words.)