Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434
Lavengro may or may not be an autobiographical novel. George Henry Borrow was trained in law and traveled widely. His primary interest, however, was literature. How much of himself he put into that literature—and how much he fantasized—is irrelevant, because the writing stands on its own merits. Although he contributed to the Newgate Calendar—a compilation of stories of infamous crimes—Borrow is best known for his works about gypsy life: The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies in Spain (1841), Lavengro, and The Romany Rye (1857). The fact that Borrow was well traveled and proficient in languages may account for some of his knowledge of and easy entrée into non-Anglo cultures, hence his familiarity with esoteric customs.
As Borrow depicts it, Romany life certainly differs from Western European life. Lavengro, in the Romany tongue, means “philologist”—a student of languages. In Borrow’s novel, the lust for language amounts to a lust for life—a theme carried more or less explicitly through his other novels. Knowledge of languages is the key to a gypsy’s survival, since the gypsy is by definition a nomad and must adapt to differing linguistic circumstances on a moment’s notice. Linguistic facility is thus at a premium, and Borrow’s novel is aptly titled to suggest the central ingredient in a gypsy’s life.
One consequence of the peripatetic Romany life, however, is a selective skepticism toward political and religious institutions. Here, Lavengro delivers the message clearly: Popery, radicalism, and anything inimical to the Church of England were abhorrent, Romany customs notwithstanding. Gypsies can adapt to and live within a system while still maintaining their own customs and integrity, but because their way of life is dissident, they cannot tolerate dissidents in their own ranks, as these individuals endanger the safety of the Romany community. Borrow has not been given proper credit for this astute political insight, for he demonstrates it rather than preaches it.
To nineteenth century readers, Borrow’s Lavengro was at least a curiosity and at most a perplexity. It depicted a totally foreign way of life—something exotic and appealing yet simultaneously repugnant for its unconventional ways. Even today, Western readers may be caught in a similar dilemma. Although Lavengro possesses a compelling fascination, the novel nevertheless depicts an experience largely alien to Western readers because the Romany are essentially a private people with their own customs and values. Assimilation with the dominant culture is incompatible with Romany life. This novel can help Western readers understand the features that human beings hold in common as well as appreciate the differences between cultures.