If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll know I’m a great fan of the 19th century writer George Borrow…
Who? you might ask…
Well, I’ll tell you something about Borrow (1803-1881)- the great lost genius of Victorian writing. A man who at one time was outselling Charles Dickens, then went into a rapid decline in popularity.
The author of Lavengro and The Romany Rye is scarcely read these days, his books darting in and out of print. Yet a century ago he was an undisputed influence on a whole generation of readers, the subject of a dozen or more biographies and scores of learned essays.
The early years of the twentieth century were something of a renaissance for the “Gypsy Gentleman”. His first moment of great fame came in 1843 with the publication of The Bible in Spain which, despite its deadly title, is a rollicking tale of adventure describing Borrow’s journeys around the Peninsula during the Carlist Wars. For a moment in time Borrow was the most famous writer in the land, his exploits praised in Parliament by the Prime Minister, and his book a bestseller. But his later fictionalised autobiographies Lavengro and The Romany Rye, failed to catch the public mood, and Borrow found his reputation eclipsed.
But later, his tales of romantic adventure on the roads of England in the days of stagecoaches, encounters with Gypsies and tinkers, and Borrow’s early struggles as a Grub Street journalist, appealed to those who sought the great outdoors as an escape from the growing blight of industrial Britain.
For much of his childhood, George led a wandering life, on the march with his father’s regiment. As a result he became a considerable walker capable of covering sixty miles a day. He was also something of a linguist, fluent in a couple of dozen languages.
Settling in Norwich he was an unwilling pupil at the Grammar School hard by Norwich Cathedral’s Erpingham Gate, staining his face with walnut juice so that he might seem more the Gypsy, and leading his fellow students into trouble. Borrow agreed to be apprenticed to the law, but spent a good deal of time roaming the countryside and studying languages. On the death of his father in 1824, he headed for London determined to secure a reputation as a writer, failed, and took to the roads, first as a relatively respectable traveller, and then as an itinerant tinker, meeting up with his Gypsy friend Jasper Petulengro and his family.
George Borrow had fallen out of favour once more by the time I discovered his writings as a teenager. But even then he was still anthologised and referred to in books by the older generation of writers about walking. I found a great delight in his work, which has remained with me to this day.
He was much influenced by Defoe, and it shows in the vividness of his writing. We should read Lavengro/The Romany Rye in the way we might read Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders.
So determined am I to put George Borrow back on the literary map, I’ve promoted his books in a chapter of my outdoors memoir Wayfarer’s Dole, and I often have characters reading his works in some of my own novels.
My historical mystery character, William Quest, is a Borrow fan. I’ve just written a new Quest adventure – Dark Shadow – where Quest goes to York to solve a puzzle, taking Lavengro as his bedside read. The volume plays a slight part in the events that follow.
At one point an overwhelmed William Quest takes inspiration from Lavengro as his difficulties mount up, referring to one of his favourite Borrow quotes:
“He (Quest) reached out and picked up the volume of Lavengro by his bedside. It opened at random to a chapter which ended with the words: There are few positions, however difficult, from which dogged resolution and perseverance may not liberate you. It was one of Quest’s favourite quotations, one he referred to often. He hoped that, on this occasion, Mr George Borrow’s philosophy was to be proved right.”
I shan’t rest until George Borrow’s eclipsed reputation is restored. So why not give him a go…?
You can find out more about him at the excellent George Borrow Society website at http://georgeborrow.org/home.html
My new Quest adventure, Dark Shadow is published in paperback and on Kindle on the 26th July. Order now for a discounted pre-publication price at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Shadow-William-Victorian-Thriller/dp/1722416890/ref=sr_1_4_twi_pap_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1531728484&sr=1-4&keywords=john+bainbridge+books
My book Wayfarer’s Dole, which has a Borrovian chapter, is still available in paperback and as an eBook on Kindle.