Ramsay Wood recommends a Neglected Writer: George Borrow

May 20th, 2008

In passing along news of a new edition of his Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai, writer Ramsay Wood shared his own recommendation:

My candidate for the two most neglected books would be Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857) by George Borrow. In a way he was the first ordinary, modern English travel writer. But it takes a good 50 pages to tune into his language, which is obviously quite removed from English usage today.

150 years ago, Borrow was one of the most popular writers in the English language: one of his first books, The Bible in Spain, even outsold Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. His novels and non-fiction books, especially those about the Gypsies of Spain and elsewhere, were considered masterpieces of their time: dramatic, colorful, and comic. And for a good hundred years afterward, you could count on finding at least one or two titles by Borrow in any good collection of classics (Everyman’s, the Modern Library). Now, you have a choice between over-priced e-publisher editions or free downloads from Project Gutenberg.

It’s true that Borrow’s prose can, at times, be at least one or two removes from today’s language:

But to return to my own history. I had now attained the age of six: shall I state what intellectual progress I had been making up to this period? Alas! upon this point I have little to say calculated to afford either pleasure or edification. I had increased rapidly in size and in strength: the growth of the mind, however, had by no means corresponded with that of the body. It is true, I had acquired my letters, and was by this time able to read imperfectly; but this was all: and even this poor triumph over absolute ignorance would never have been effected but for the unremitting attention of my parents, who, sometimes by threats, sometimes by entreaties, endeavoured to rouse the dormant energies of my nature, and to bend my wishes to the acquisition of the rudiments of knowledge; but in influencing the wish lay the difficulty.

But scan through The Romany Rye, for example, and you’ll find much dialogue, some narrative, but little in the way of heavy-lifting prose. As Anthony Campbell argues, “In fact, he is a penny plain writer, not a tuppence coloured one; you don’t find those purple passages of description that were thought to be the mark of “style” at the time. In other words, he is closer to Defoe than to De Quincy.” And you’ll also find, from a man who was employed by the Bible Society, a remarkable share of irreverence:

“One thing,” said I, “connected with you, I cannot understand; you call yourself a thorough-going Papist, yet are continually saying the most pungent things against Popery, and turning to unbounded ridicule those who show any inclination to embrace it.”

“Rome is a very sensible old body,” said the man in black, “and little cares what her children say, provided they do her bidding. She knows several things, and amongst others, that no servants work so hard and faithfully as those who curse their masters at every stroke they do. She
was not fool enough to be angry with the Miquelets of Alba, who renounced her, and called her ‘puta’ all the time they were cutting the throats of the Netherlanders. Now, if she allowed her faithful soldiers the latitude of renouncing her, and calling her ‘puta’ in the market-place, think not she is so unreasonable as to object to her faithful priests occasionally calling her ‘puta’ in the dingle.”

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