Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1661
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 or drinking wine. After dinner, the publisher tells Lavengro what his new assignment is to be: He is to prepare a collection of the stories of the lives and trials of famous criminals incarcerated at Newgate. In addition, he is to translate the publisher’s book of philosophy into German and to write an article about it for the Review.
In the company of an acquaintance named Francis Ardry, Lavengro visits many of the underworld spots of London. The experiences he has there, together with the research he does in preparing his series of stories on criminals, give him a wide and practical knowledge of the underworld. Then Lavengro’s brother comes to London and introduces him to a painter of the heroic. The peculiar thing about this painter’s pictures is the short legs of all the people depicted in them.
When Lavengro has finished writing his stories of crime, he takes them to the publisher, who is displeased because Lavengro has omitted several of the publisher’s favorite criminal histories. Lavengro goes to visit the apple-woman again, and his despondent appearance leads her to think that he has been caught stealing—Lavengro has never told the apple-woman about his profession. He talks her into letting him read her cherished copy of the life of Mary Flanders.
The publisher’s speculations fail, and Lavengro is left without money, but he eventually obtains all the wages that were due him. Taggart, the publisher’s assistant, tells Lavengro that Glorious John, another printer, will publish Lavengro’s ballads and the songs of Ab Gwilym, but Lavengro never offers his ballads to Glorious John. In midwinter, he goes again to visit the apple-woman and finds that she has moved her stall to the other side of the bridge. He promises to take her book and trade it in for a Bible; however, he loses the book and has nothing to trade. He decides to purchase a Bible and never let her know about his negligence.
About this time, Lavengro saves an Armenian from pickpockets. The Armenian wishes him to translate some Armenian fables into English, but Lavengro refuses. The Armenian, who has inherited one hundred thousand pounds from his father, is intent upon doubling the amount through speculation. The Armenian runs into a bit of luck and comes into possession of two hundred thousand pounds. Lavengro’s advice to the Armenian is to take his fortune and fight the Persians.
When his money runs short, Lavengro decides to do the translations for the Armenian, but the man has already departed to invest his money in a war against the Persians. Lavengro leaves London after having some small success writing fiction. He meets and talks with many and various people on his travels about England. On his rambles, he hears stories concerning the Flaming Tinman, who holds a great repute as a fighter and who has forced Jack Slingsby, another tinker, out of business with threats of death. Lavengro meets Slingsby and buys out his business. He decides to become a tinker himself in the hope of meeting the Flaming Tinman.
One day while he is mending pots and pans, Lavengro encounters Mrs. Herne and Leonora, a thirteen-year-old girl who is traveling with the old woman. Leonora brings him cakes made by Mrs. Herne, and after eating one of them he becomes seriously ill. When the evil old crone comes to gloat over him, he realizes that the cakes had been poisoned. Then the sound of wheels frightens the old woman away, and Lavengro is saved by the timely arrival of Peter Williams, a traveling Welsh preacher, and Winifred, his wife. Peter Williams tells Lavengro the sad story of his life and relates how he was led to commit a sin against the Holy Ghost, a sin for which there is no redemption. Peter has become a preacher to warn other people against the unforgivable sin. Lavengro journeys with Peter and his wife as far as the Welsh border, where he leaves them to join Jasper Petulengro and his band of gypsies.
Jasper tells Lavengro that Mrs. Herne hanged herself because of her failure to poison him. Because Jasper is a blood kinsman of Mrs. Herne, it is required by Romany law that he obtain revenge from Lavengro. Lavengro, however, has really been only indirectly responsible for the old woman’s death, a fact of which Jasper is well aware. The two young men retire to a place where they can fight, and there Jasper receives full satisfaction when he makes Lavengro’s nose bleed.
Soon after his friendly tussle with Jasper, Lavengro meets the Flaming Tinman, Moll, his wife, and Isopel Berners, the daughter of a gypsy mother and a noble father and now a free woman of the roads. Isopel is responsible for Lavengro’s victory in a brawl with the Flaming Tinman, for she has told him to use his right hand and to strike at the bully’s face. The Flaming Tinman and Moll depart, leaving the territory to Lavengro the tinker, but Isopel remains behind with her belongings. The story of the Flaming Tinman’s defeat is soon known throughout the neighborhood, and Lavengro becomes a hero of the roads. At a public house, he meets a priest whom he calls the Man in Black. The priest and Lavengro have many conversations concerning religion and the attempt to establish Catholicism in England.
On a wild, stormy night, Isopel and Lavengro help a coachman to right his overturned coach. Later, the coachman tells them the story of his life, a tale that proved to Lavengro that in those days romance journeyed on the highways and adventure waited around the turn of any English lane.