Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1758
First published: 1857
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Simulated autobiography
Time of work: Nineteenth century
Lavengro, a scholar gypsy
Isopel (Belle) Berners, his companion
Jasper Petulengro, a gypsy
Jack Dale, a horse trader
Murtagh, an Irishman and Lavengro’s childhood friend
In those days, Lavengro and Isopel Berners traveled the English highroads together. Lavengro was a scholar who had become a gypsy tinker, and Isopel, whom he called Belle, was a strapping woman of the roads and dingles. One night, they rescued a coachman whose carriage had overturned in a swollen stream, and, while they waited for daylight, he entertained them with the story of his life. In the morning, Lavengro forged a new linchpin for the broken wheel, and the coachman continued on his way. The Man in Black, a Catholic priest whom Lavengro had met before, visited Lavengro again that evening, and the two of them discussed and argued the merits of Catholicism and Protestantism, with an occasional remark from Belle.
The next morning, Lavengro informed Belle that Jasper Petulengro and his band of gypsies had camped nearby during the night and that he was going to invite Mr. and Mrs. Petulengro for breakfast. Lavengro’s gypsy friend refused his invitation, however, saying that he and his wife would pay a visit later in the day when they were better settled. On the next Sunday, they all went to church together. Following the service, Jasper and Lavengro began a lengthy discussion on morals.
Belle had indicated to Lavengro that she thought it time their paths separated. When she informed him that she was going on a journey, he feared she was leaving for good, but she told him she would come back before too long. One evening while she was gone, Lavengro had a long talk with Ursula, Mrs. Petulengro’s sister, and he then learned her story. She had been married some years before. Her husband, escaping from a constable, had met with an unfortunate accident and had drowned. She had been a widow until just two days before, when she had married Sylvester, another member of the gypsy band and a widower with two children. Lavengro and Ursula discussed many subjects, including morals, virtue, marriage customs, and words. It was about the meanings of some of the gypsy words that Lavengro wanted most to talk with Ursula.
Belle returned that night. The next day Lavengro, who had thought the matter over in her absence, asked Belle to marry him and to migrate with him to America. When she told him that she could not give him her answer immediately, he planned to attend a fair in a nearby village the next day. Belle agreed to consider his proposal during his absence and to give him her reply when he returned. At the fair, Lavengro saw a horse that he desired, but he did not have the money to buy the animal and refused to borrow the money from Jasper, who was willing to lend it to him.
When Lavengro returned to the dingle, Belle had disappeared. At first, he thought she had gone only on a short journey, but when two days went by and she did not appear, he began to fear she would not return. A few days later, he received a letter from her, telling him that on her previous short journey she had made arrangements to dispose of all her goods and go to America. When he proposed to her, she had been tempted to accept his offer, but after thinking it over carefully, she had decided that her first plan would be the best after all. Lavengro never saw her again.
That night at a nearby public house, Lavengro again saw the horse he had admired at the fair and learned the animal could be bought for fifty pounds. Jasper insisted on giving Lavengro the money to buy the horse, and Lavengro reluctantly agreed. He and Jasper planned to meet about ten weeks later. Lavengro departed the following morning. On his way, he met an old man who had just had his mule taken away from him by force. Lavengro rode after the offender and returned the mule.
As Lavengro and his horse were resting at the door of an inn one afternoon, he met his old friend, the coachman, and through him obtained a job in the hostelry as a keeper of accounts in exchange for room and board for himself and his horse.
After a short while at the inn, Lavengro decided it was time for him to be on his way again. He had decided to go to Horncastle, a town about one hundred and twenty-five miles away. There he hoped to sell his horse at a good profit. He journeyed at a leisurely pace for several days and was nearing Horncastle late one evening when his horse, frightened by a light on a gig, threw him and knocked him unconscious. When he recovered consciousness, he found himself in the home of the man who owned the gig. The man informed him that his horse was safe and uninjured in the barn. Soon after, a surgeon came to examine Lavengro and to bandage his injured arm. While recuperating, Lavengro learned his host’s story—how at the shattering of all of his hopes for happiness with the death of his beloved, he had turned to the study of Chinese as a way to occupy his mind. Through this man, Lavengro learned much of the character of Chinese language and writing.
The surgeon finally declared Lavengro well enough to continue to the fair and gave him a letter to an innkeeper in Horncastle, so that he might find room and board for both himself and his horse. He proceeded to Horncastle. The next morning, after displaying his horse’s abilities to the best advantage, he sold him to Jack Dale, a horse trader, who was acting as a representative for a Hungarian. Later that evening, Lavengro and the Hungarian began a discourse in German, and Lavengro learned much of the history of Hungary. He also heard Jack Dale’s life story. Jack, the son of a forger, had experienced a difficult and unhappy childhood. His life had been made even more difficult because of his physical ugliness. After his father was convicted and sent away to serve a prison sentence, Jack decided to live an upright life, as he had promised his father he would do. After much struggling, he had finally achieved a respectable place in the community.
While walking through the town the next morning, Lavengro saw a thimblerigger chased off by Jack Dale. Lavengro recognized the thimblerigger as a boyhood friend, Murtagh, and followed him. After much recollection of old times, he gave Murtagh five pounds to return to Ireland and become a priest, a profession for which Murtagh had studied as a young man, but in which he had never been ordained because of difficulties over card playing.
Lavengro left Horncastle and walked eastward. He continued his journey for two days until he came to a large town. There, on the outskirts, he was accosted by a recruiting sergeant who tried to get him to join the Honorable East India Company and to go to India to fight. Lavengro was struck by the similarity of words the sergeant used and those of the gypsies; but when the sergeant noticed that Lavengro’s hair was beginning to turn gray, he withdrew his offer. All of his life Lavengro was to wonder what new adventures he might have encountered if he had gone to India.
George Henry Borrow’s THE ROMANY RYE is the sequel to LAVENGRO. In both books the narrator, a man of wide-ranging interests whose adventures are based on those of the author himself, is the same eccentric intellectual who must become a tinker to make a living. Lavengro’s poverty, however, gives him access to an area of nineteenth century existence that generally remained a mystery to English readers. His life among the gypsies, particularly, held a deep fascination for the middle class: dark, perhaps with an unrecognized sexual attraction, their migratory lives had no seeming pattern. Moreover, the gypsies were purported to have special powers that drew Lavengro to them, seeking their knowledge and experience.
The popularity of LAVENGRO and the THE ROMANY RYE was also a part of a new interest in the underside of life. Like Charles Dickens’ novels and the perceptive sociological observations of Henry Mayhew’s LONDON LABOUR AND THE LONDON POOR (1851-1864), Borrow’s two books, even though in fictive disguise, informed their Victorian audience of life on the road with such eccentric character studies as those of Belle and the Petulengros. Borrow’s subject matter also included events from everyday life in rural England. Lavengro’s adventure at the fair, the bartering for the horse, and the attendant atmosphere broadened the experience of the average urban reader.
To add further interest, together with Lavengro’s conversations about religion and language, Borrow wove into his narration the story of his hero’s love for Belle and his loss of her when she migrates to America. As in Matthew Arnold’s great poem, “The Scholar Gypsy,” published a few years before THE ROMANY RYE, therefore, readers are left with a solitary traveler, a man of learning who for his own reasons remains alone, outside respectable society, seeking his own personal truth, although too old now to make the journey to India.
As a work of literature, both LAVENGRO and THE ROMANY RYE suffer from several artistic weaknesses. One reviewer’s description of the novel as “a collection of bold picaresque sketches” points the way to the basic structural flaw in the work: the plot is not sufficient to give the characters space to develop, while at the same time the characterizations are not strong enough to compensate for the inadequate story line. Even viewed separately as vignettes, the various scenes display a wide variance in quality; those in which the author digresses into philological discussions, for example, or indulges in tirades against Catholicism, are invariably unsuccessful, while scenes such as those depicting the fight with the Flaming Tinman or presenting the old apple-woman of London Bridge are excellent and enjoyable sketches. Borrow’s style is likewise uneven and ranges from writing that is tiresome, verbose, and cliched to passages vigorous and colorful enough to hold their own among the finest specimens of nineteenth century prose.