George Henry Borrow

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

George Henry Borrow (BAHR-oh) was a rara avis of English letters, a man whose life was even more romantic and picaresque than any of his works. The son of an itinerant recruiting officer, he picked up a catch-as-catch-can education, mainly in Edinburgh, Scotland. William Taylor, Robert Southey’s friend, interested the boy in learning languages, in which he developed an extraordinary facility. His curious career as a traveler, autobiographer-novelist, and philologist began when, after a brief period as a solicitor’s apprentice in Norwich and a frustrating career as a publisher’s hack in the late 1830’s, he was sent to Spain as a distributing agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He recorded his adventures with colorful embellishments in The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies in Spain and The Bible in Spain. In St. Petersburg, he published Targum: Or, Metrical Translations from Thirty Languages and Dialects, a curious sort of anthology and literary tour de force. Widely hailed as a genius, Borrow became a literary lion and developed a vanity bordering on megalomania. With his royalties and money from Mary Clarke, whom he married in 1840, he bought an estate at Oulton Broad where he permitted gypsy encampments. Eventually, he published the first dictionary of the language of British gypsies, followed by two strange and fascinating narratives of gypsy life, Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest, and its sequel, The Romany Rye, which were reprinted in scholarly editions in the early years of the twentieth century. These accounts—actually autobiography in the form of a picaresque novel—are Borrow’s chief claim to the odd niche in English literary history that he holds, but they were not very popular in his own day. That fact led him to fulminate bitterly against the British reading public. Borrow protested the genteel novels of the Victorians, especially the “humbug and Philistinism” of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Benjamin Disraeli. He became even more a rebellious bohemian, lived a riotous life among the Welsh gypsies, and wrote Wild Wales and Romano Lavo-Lil. The immense range of his learning can be seen in his translations of the New Testament into Manchu, the Gospel of Luke into Gitanos, “Bluebeard” into Turkish, and, into English, the Danish Death of Balder, a German Faustus, the Cambrian Sleeping Bard, Russian folktales, and other works.

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He was a powerfully built, striking figure, given to dramatic stances and highly colored rhetoric that alternated with gradually increasing periods of gloomy depression. In his old age, he settled in Suffolk, where he died on July 26, 1881, at Oulton Broad. His five main works constitute a highly readable but very untrustworthy and loosely connected autobiography.

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