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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1454

First published: 1842

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Type of work: Travel journal

Principal Personages:

George Henry Borrow, the narrator

Antonio Buchini, Borrow's servant and colporteur

Maria Diaz, Borrow's landlady and adviser


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 Madrid that he is delighted to be incarcerated so that he can learn the argot of the thieves of Madrid; he visits the tombs of Fielding at Lisbon and Moore at Corunna and apostrophizes them as a true-born Englishman would; he goes all the way to Cape Finisterre to leave a Testament at the end of the Old World. The rapid succession of episodes and characters is indicated in the subtitle—"The Journeys, Adventures, and Imprisonments of an Englishman in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in Spain"—and in the more than five hundred subheadings to each of the fifty-seven chapters. He arranges the incidents chronologically, helped by his journals and reports to the Society, although, as he says, "the greater part . . . has been supplied from memory." The result is that only his journeys are fully described. It took three months to print the first edition of five thousand copies of the Testament in Madrid in 1837, an event which, he observes, "could possess but little interest for the reader." All three periods in Spain involved exciting journeys, and these he records in daily installments, along with any general observations on politics, religion, language, gipsies, horses, inns, and roads. (For much of this material an index would be helpful and an annotated edition is essential to understanding the book.)

The first trip took twelve weeks, from November, 1835, to February, 1836, when with help from gipsies he crossed from Lisbon to Madrid via Badajoz. The wolves, robbers, and Jews he meets on the way equally fascinate Borrow. The British ambassador, to whom Borrow later dedicated THE ZINCALI, helped him, as did highly placed friends who were impressed more with the commercial than with the military power of England and felt it was in some way connected with the free circulation of the Bible there. Borrow thought his way was clear when the Prime Minister verbally authorized his printing the Spanish Testament, but a week later that government was overthrown in riots Borrow observed from an upper window. He returned to London for instructions but by November, 1836, he was in Cadiz and four weeks later, after prospecting Seville and Cordova, he was in Madrid. The British ambassador, the Bible Society, and Borrow agreed that further delay for official permission would be wasteful; the Testament was edited and printed. Then began Borrow's most important period in Spain and his longest journey.

Borrow left Madrid with his faithful servant, a Greek named Antonio Buchini, on May 25, 1837; he was not to return until four months later, in the meantime covering about one thousand miles in the northern and northwestern provinces of Galicia, the Asturias, and Old Castile. During his journey he visited all the principal cities to establish depots of the Testament at the leading booksellers. On the whole he found they favored his plans, being of moderate, radical, or national sympathies, though he occasionally met government or clerical opposition and had trouble with the Carlist or rebel troops and with suspicious villagers. It is obvious that this was the kind of adventure Borrow loved; he was at heart a smuggler and he could indulge this longing in defying a worthy opponent on the highest moral grounds. Borrow, in fact, saw himself in personal combat with the Pope of Rome for the souls of the Spaniards. Furthermore, he was always on the move and he loved that gipsy way of life.

On his return to Madrid he was imprisoned, to the great embarrassment of the authorities and eventually of the priests, and his distribution of the Testaments, which he had by now produced in gipsy and Basque versions, was stopped. Nothing daunted, he seized the suggestion of his landlady, the remarkable Maria Diaz, and began selling his wares throughout the small villages in the Toledo and La Granja districts, some thirty miles from Madrid; at three reals (thirty farthings) he found numerous buyers, and he records selling twenty-five in half an hour and over five hundred in a week. Keeping up his supplies by smuggling in consignments was difficult, but he felt his labors amply repaid when he frequently observed the Testament being read to groups who had never heard it, or heard of it, before. He fell ill in August, 1838, and returned to England, but in January, 1839, he was back in Madrid to carry on his personal sales in the face of increasingly effective opposition. For the third time he changed his tactics and decided to sell on the streets of the capital. He had now discovered a flaw in his operations: the demand for Bibles, which were too bulky to print and distribute clandestinely, exceeded that for the New Testament, for much of the New is inexplicable except in the light of the Old, and neither was familiar to the Spanish people. He apparently acquiesced in the government seizure of all his stock and was thankful to get out of Spain with the remaining Testaments which he left at Gibraltar and Tangier. His "labors in the field" were now concluded.

It is impossible to estimate the value of Borrow's work in Spain. The most concrete and obvious achievement in this vivid record of his adventures there.

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