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...
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