by Ann M. Ridler
A great deal has been written about Borrow as a traveller in Spain. He himself wrote of the five ‘most happy years’ he spent there (BiS vii), but as we often find with Borrow, the truth is just a little different: in fact, after staying in Portugal for less than two months from 12 November 1835, he spent not five but 4¼ years in Spain, from 6 January 1836, when he crossed the border at Badajóz, to 3 April 1840, when he sailed from Cadiz for England with his future wife Mary Clarke and her daughter Henrietta.
During those 4¼ years Borrow spent some time resident in Madrid and in Sevilla, but he also travelled considerable distances in Spain, from Badajóz to Madrid, from Madrid to the north and north-west of Spain as far as Finisterra, and between Madrid and various parts of Andalucía. He did not, as far as we know, venture much into Estremadura, except to travel through it on the way to Madrid, nor did he visit Cataluña, which was the territory of another of the Bible Society’s agents, Lieutenant Graydon.
Borrow’s description is almost like the opening of a ballet - the abstract notions of famine, plunder and murder are personified as demons, like dancers on a stage, while in the background sinister hordes wander hither and thither. It’s a very striking visual image.
And again, he writes:
It is as if he can’t help playing a role in this drama, even to the possibility of dressing up, as a beggar or Gypsy, his imagination racing ahead to visualize the worst that could befall him. Borrow’s letters to the Bible Society were read aloud to the Committee, and one can imagine how entranced its members must have been as they listened to these graphic descriptions - but of course he wasn’t murdered, nor was he eaten by wolves, although as he wrote a few days later, the cold nearly killed him. He tells how he and a travelling companion reached Aranjuez late on Christmas day, where he got into the house of an Englishman, and swallowed nearly two bottles of brandy, observing that ‘it affected me no more than warm water’! (Darlow, 194)
While Borrow was writing The Bible in Spain, between 1841 and 1842, he had much good advice on similar lines from his friend, the great Hispanist, Richard Ford: ‘What the world wants,’ Ford wrote, ‘are racy, real, genuine scenes... Dialogues always tell; they are dramatic and give an air of reality.’ (Knapp I: 387) - scenes, dialogue, drama - these were indeed what brought The Bible in Spain to life, and made it such a popular success - but I can’t help feeling that Borrow did not need Ford’s encouragement. His own temperament was dramatic enough, and his own instincts encouraged him to present his experiences in this dramatic way. It comes out especially in his encounters on the road or in wayside inns, in mysterious night-time scenes lit by moonlight, reminiscent of many romantic paintings of the period - perhaps most notably in his meeting with the Spanish Jew in Chapter 11, where he writes:
The word ‘Herculean’, meaning ‘gigantic’ like the Hercules of classical mythology, was a word Borrow often used throughout his life, even in his private diaries, and this in itself is dramatic, describing strong and imposing men who stand out from the crowd.
And to give one more example, one of my favourites, here is a quotation from Ch.6 of The Bible in Spain, where he describes the past scenes of his life as if they are projected on to a torn curtain, through the holes in which the real landscape can be glimpsed. One has to imagine something like early cinema, or to be closer to Borrow’s lifetime, a magic lantern show, both of which are dramatic forms of representation:
And only the sound of a fowler’s gunshot brings him back to reality with a start. I think Borrow gives us here an important insight into how the recovery of past memories affects him in the present. One might perhaps imagine a computer screen with one window partly covering another, to be worked on or concealed at will.
First and foremost, he was an agent of the British & Foreign Bible Society. Now you might say that that wasn’t a role - it was his job, but I am going to suggest that it was indeed a role as well. As an agent of the Society, it is important for us to be clear that he was not a missionary, although he is often described as such, but had two main tasks. First, he was required to produce a new edition of the New Testament in Spanish. His task was to seek permission to print it, to commission a printer to undertake the work, and to ensure production of an accurate text. He seems to have done this very effectively, for by the end of March 1837, barely 15 months after his arrival in Spain, this first part of his task was completed. One has to say, however, that whether or not he had full official permission to print was subsequently contested. He may have had permission from the civil authorities, but not from any religious authority.
The second element of his job as agent was the distribution of the texts. One aspect of this was to delegate the task to others. He wrote to the Bible Society (Darlow, 209) that he had arranged for ‘Some hundreds of our books’ to be ‘placed in the hands of a bookseller at Madrid’, and ‘ordered them to be advertised, once a week, in the principal journals’. At the same time, however, he had formed an ambitious plan to travel to Salamanca, from thence to Burgos, and then, I quote, ‘to the Asturias, Galicia, and Biscay, and along the whole chain of the Pyrenees’, in order to sell his New Testaments. Borrow himself had wanted to visit the wildest parts, to dispose of his Testaments. And it is here that the idea of his role as agent begins to emerge. Borrow admired ‘wildness’ as much as he admired men of Herculean size and strength. He wrote to the Bible Society’s Committee that he wanted to take his Testaments ‘to the wild people of the wild regions which I intend to visit’ (Darlow, 199), to which the Committee’s response was, predictably, ‘Can the people in these wilds read?’ As the Secretary, Mr Brandram, wrote: ‘Is there no middle sort of course? Can you not establish a depot in some principal place, and thence make excursions of two or three days at a time, instead of devoting yourself wholly to the wild people?’ (Darlow, 201).
I said that Borrow was not a missionary. Brandram, in his letters to Borrow, frequently reminded him of the distinction between mission and distribution: ‘as far as our Society is concerned, it is our duty to leave the Bible to speak for itself... We must never forget we are not preachers’, and again, ‘An Agent of the Bible Society is a Reformer, not by his preaching or denouncing, but by the distribution of the Bible.’ (Darlow, 271 and 317) Not surprisingly, Mr Brandram often found it necessary to put a brake on Borrow’s enthusiasm! He was only too willing to denounce the priesthood in letters to the press.
A fairly recent writer on Borrow, Professor Michael Collie, in his biography George Borrow, Eccentric (CUP, 1982), has tended to cast doubt on Borrow’s sincerity in his work for the Bible Society, suggesting that he did not have the religious faith that he claimed. Well - it is true that the tone of his writing is very different from that of much writing by missionaries. He does not display the simple and instinctive faith shown in so many of their memoirs. Yet, for instance, when he writes of his experiences in the customs house at San Lucar de Barrameda (BiS Ch. 50), one is carried along by his fervour. He writes:
My own view is that, yes, it was a role, but that once he had accepted it he entered into it wholeheartedly. How else could he have supported the hardships he had to undergo? He could have opted for a quiet life, staying in the relative safety of Madrid and Sevilla, instead of which he risked his health, permanently damaging his eyesight, suffering from intermittent fevers, coping with indifferent nourishment in the wilds of Spain, imprisoned in Madrid and Sevilla, and risking his life, indeed, at the hands of bandits and wandering criminals.
That sword was, of course, metaphorical. Borrow is referring to the Bibles he distributed. He writes further: ‘there are many brave Spaniards ... who took Bibles from his hands, and read them and profited by them, learning from the inspired page the duties of one man towards another...’ (RR 312-3). All the elements of what we have discussed so far are here in these few lines, full of movement and noise - the dramatic picture of himself, the Bible Society’s agent as a soldier of the Lord, with the fire of religious zeal awakened in him, laying about him with a sword, causing a great rumpus to put the forces of the Catholic Church to flight.
One cannot press the analogy too far, however. Borrow would never have portrayed himself as a deluded madman, as Cervantes often cruelly portrays Don Quijote, and much of his comic verve is reserved for his descriptions of his guides and servants. There was, for instance, the native of Padrón, who indulges in wild acrobatic leaps and somersaults, rather as Don Quijote does - Borrow writes: ‘he was at best evidently half-witted, and was by his own confession occasionally seized with paroxysms which differed from madness in no essential respect’ - and with such a companion he traversed, as he wrote, ‘the wildest heath of the wildest province of Spain’(BiS 423). One might argue here that Borrow was projecting on to his description of his companions elements of madness which burdened his own psychological make-up. Some of these are evident in his later work, Lavengro, and Professor Giménez has shown that when Borrow was in prison in Sevilla in 1839, the prison governor had anxieties about Borrow’s instability of mind, and on these grounds released him from prison. (See ‘La prisión de George Borrow en Sevilla’, in Historia, 16, añoXI, no. 120, abril 1986.)
In a curious way, Borrow in his later works, especially in Wild Wales, resembles Don Quijote more closely than is apparent from The Bible in Spain, in that his motivation, and what he chooses to see on his travels, is profoundly influenced by his reading in medieval literature, as was that of Don Quijote. For an Englishman with no formal education in the Welsh language and literature Borrow had an unrivalled knowledge of, and interest in, the medieval poetry of Wales and in its legends and folklore, and it coloured everything he did on his travels in Wales. In Spain, by contrast, similar instincts are there but he was not travelling in order to re-live the past. If past history comes up it is incidental to his main purpose, though it gives rise to some wonderful descriptive passages. When he walks on the beach at Duyo, near Finisterre, for instance, where St James is said to have touched land, he writes of
Again we have this amazing artistry in his prose, not just in works he intended as works of art, but in a simple letter to a friend.
In Spain, Borrow’s pursuit of Gypsies resulted in his first major work, which had the title The Zincali; or an account of the Gypsies of Spain, with an original collection of their songs and poetry, and a copious dictionary of their language, originally published in 1841. Before that, in 1837, he had notably become the first person to publish any complete work in a Romani dialect, by producing his translation of the Gospel of Luke into Spanish Romani or caló. And when he came to write The Bible in Spain his pursuit of Gypsies forms a leitmotif throughout. He seems to make instant contact with them on his arrival in Badajóz in January 1836, lodges with them and travels with them, giving the impression that he is instantly fluent in caló, and uses them, especially some of the women, as assistant translators, both in his work on the Gospel of Luke and in translating such texts as the Creed into caló. It is evident from various scattered references in The Zincali that he pursued this task especially in Madrid, Córdoba and Sevilla, but he often surrounds these activities with an air of mystery and makes the time he spent with them seem much longer than it actually was. And he acquired a reputation for carrying a notebook and pencil with him with which he jotted down his notes, a procedure often regarded with some suspicion by those he met!
All this was part of a much broader preoccupation Borrow had with the language, customs and origins of the Gypsies, wherever he came across them. In a notable passage in Chapter 12 of The Romany Rye he expresses through the mind of his hero all his longings, speculating on what might have happened if he had lived two or three hundred years earlier:
Yet both in The Zincali and in The Bible in Spain the atmosphere is different from that of his later autobiographical works. In Spain Borrow seems both attracted and repelled by the Gypsies, drawn to their company yet well aware that some of them are notorious criminals. As he wrote to the Bible Society on 19 July 1836 - ‘so much squalidness, dirt and misery I had never before seen... the Gypsy of Spain is a cheat in the market-place, a brigand and murderer on the high-road, and a drunkard in the wine-shop, and his wife is a harlot and thief on all times and occasions...’ (Darlow, 168-9). Further on he writes: ‘Their mouths teem with abomination, and in no part of the world have I heard such frequent, frightful, and extraordinary cursing as amongst them’ - yet this did not deter him from sending to the Committee for their delectation ‘Specimens of the Horrid Curses in Use Amongst the Spanish Gypsies’. Unfortunately, Darlow, as editor of Borrow’s letters, was too squeamish to include the actual text Borrow sent, but there were sixteen curses, with a rendering of each in English!
Borrow originally intended the Spanish Gypsy vocabulary he composed to be attached to the Gospel of Luke, but the Bible Society forbade it. Later, the vocabulary, in caló, Spanish and English, was printed at the end of some, but not all, editions of The Zincali, and because of its original religious purpose contains a very strange blend of religious vocabulary - such as terms for ‘God’, ‘spirit’, ‘salvation’, ‘repentance’ - with a very down-to-earth glossary of terms associated with daily life and bodily functions, evidently collected orally from the Gypsies he met! Subsequent compilers of glossaries of caló were to make considerable use of Borrow’s pioneering work.
Borrow’s interest in the languages he encountered in Spain was not limited to Romani. He delighted in the sounds of Spanish, which he thought ‘magnificent’ and ‘beautiful’ compared with Portuguese, and commented especially on the problems of understanding the Galician dialect. Having servants who were not Spanish also enabled him to converse in other languages - one thinks especially of his Greek servant of the Italian name, Antonio Buchini, who in fact came from Constantinople, and conversed with him in French. And then there was his Basque servant, Francisco, who sadly died of jail fever while in prison with Borrow in Madrid. How much Basque Borrow himself picked up is not very clear, but he was interested in the history and origins of the language, and was involved in seeing through the press a translation by Dr Oteiza of St Luke’s Gospel into Basque. In Sevilla especially he got to know a Greek bookseller, Dionysius, who in turn introduced him to a Greek bricklayer, Johannes Chrysostom, both of whom helped him with the distribution of New Testaments. Borrow never claims to have spoken Greek fluently but he had a good ear and describes listening to conversations between the bookseller and the bricklayer, which were presumably in their native Greek.
Borrow also engaged in an activity which I have described elsewhere as ‘linguistic slumming’, in other words, exploring the language of low life. This is most obvious in the use he made while in prison of the chance to learn thieves’ slang. In fact, in The Bible in Spain, when he describes how he came to be imprisoned in Madrid, he explicitly says (I quote):
Yet he devotes much of what he writes to the prisoners’ appearance and manners, not to their language, and what we do hear comes indirectly from his landlady, María Díaz, when she visits him in prison, so that the impression we get is one of inflated rumour. His landlady tells him that the priests are regretting having Borrow arrested:
To which María replies:
This is absolutely typical of Borrow: he avoids saying exactly how much he achieved by passing on a distorted impression from a third party which exaggerates the true state of affairs - and when one looks at his chapter on ‘Robber Language’ at the end of The Zincali, it is really what in English we would call a ‘damp squib’, not nearly as informative or exciting as the promise of the title, using extracts from other books rather than direct information. One can’t help concluding that in this case the glamour of the subject got the better of his judgment: he promised more than he was able to fulfil.
Borrow in solitude or with Antonio, lost in these vast landscapes, on his epic journey to the far north-west, offers us a more sympathetic side of his personality. It may seem wrong-headed of him as the Bible Society’s agent to press ever deeper into the wild emptiness of Spain away from the main centres of population where he would have had most chance of selling his Bibles and Testaments, yet this vast, wild area had to be crossed for him to reach Lugo, Coruña and Santiago, as well as the other important coastal towns of the Pilgrim Route, and when he got to Santiago something made him press on, to the wild shores of Finisterra. Writing to his Danish friend John Hasfeld in St Petersburg in November 1838, he says:
Borrow had in fact longed to be allowed to press further still into a faraway world. In another letter to Hasfeld of December 1838, writing of his wish to reach China through furthest Russia, he says:
Alas, it was not to be. Borrow’s relationship with the Bible Society became fraught with tensions, not least because of his independence of character and his wilful disregard of the Bible Society’s wishes. There was no way they would have agreed to continue employing him, and the failure of this particular dream was one of the great disappointments of his life.
Borrow, George. The Bible in Spain (London, 1899)
Borrow, George. Embéo e Majaró Lucas (Madrid, 1837)
Borrow, George. The Romany Rye, A Sequel to 'Lavengro' (London, 1903)
Borrow, George. Wild Wales: its People, Language and Scenery (London, 1901)
Borrow, George. The Zincali; or an account of the Gypsies of Spain, with an original collection of their songs and poetry, and a copious dictionary of their language (London,1901).
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World to That Which Is To Come (Available in numerous editions. It has been translated into over 100 languages.)
Collie, Michael. George Borrow: Eccentric (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)
Darlow, T.H., ed. Letters of George Borrow to the British & Foreign Bible Society (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911)
Forster, E.M. A Passage to India (Penguin Modern Classics, 1961, 284)
Fraser, Angus, ed. Letters to John Hasfeld 1835-1839 (Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1982)
Knapp, W.I. The Life, Writings & Correspondence of George Borrow (London: John Murray, 2 vols., 1899)