Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

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.

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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.

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