Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Biographical > The Life of George Borrow > CHAPTER IV A Wandering Childhood
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
CHAPTER IV A Wandering Childhood
 We do not need to inquire too deeply as to Borrow’s possible gypsy origin in order to account for his vagabond propensities1.  The lives of his parents before his birth, and the story of his own boyhood, sufficiently2 account for the dominant3 tendency in Borrow.  His father and mother were married in 1793.  Almost every year they changed their domicile.  In 1801 a son was born to them,—they still continued to change their domicile.  Captain Borrow followed his regiment4 from place to place, and his family accompanied him on these journeys.  Dover, Colchester, Sandgate, Canterbury, Chelmsford—these are some of the towns where the Borrows sojourned.  It was the merest accident—the Peace of Amiens, to be explicit—that led them back to East Dereham in 1803, so that the second son was born in his grandfather’s house.  George was only a month old when he was carried off to Colchester; in 1804 he was in the barracks of Kent, in 1805 of Sussex, in 1806 at Hastings, in 1807 at Canterbury, and so on.  The whole of the first thirteen years of Borrow’s life is filled up in this way, until in 1816 he and his parents found a home of some permanence in Norwich.  In 1809–10 they were at East Dereham, in 1810–11 at Norman Cross, in 1812 wandering from Harwich to Sheffield, and in 1813 wandering from Sheffield to Edinburgh; in 1814 they were in Norwich, and in 1815–16 in Ireland.  In this last year they returned to Norwich, the father to retire on full pay, and to live in Willow6 Lane until his death.  How could a boy, whose first twelve years of life had been made up of such continual wandering, have been other than a restless, nomad-loving man, envious7 of the free life of the gypsies, for whom alone in later life he seemed to have kindliness8?  Those twelve years are to most boys merely the making of a moral foundation for good or ill; to Borrow they were everything, and at least four personalities9 captured his imagination during that short span, as we see if we follow p. 26his juvenile10 wanderings more in detail to Dereham, Norman Cross, Edinburgh, and Clonmel, and the personalities are Lady Fenn, Ambrose Smith, David Haggart, and Murtagh.  Let us deal with each in turn:  
In our opening chapter we referred to the lines in Lavengro, where Borrow recalls his early impressions of his native town, or at least the town in the neighbourhood of the hamlet in which he was born.  Borrow, we may be sure, would have repudiated11 “Dumpling Green” if he could.  The name had a humorous suggestion.  To this day they call boys from Norfolk “Norfolk Dumplings” in the neighbouring shires.  But East Dereham was something to be proud of.  In it had died the writer who, through the greater part of Borrow’s life, remained the favourite poet of that half of England which professed12 the Evangelical creed13 in which Borrow was brought up.  Cowper was buried here by the side of Mary Unwin, and every Sunday little George would see his tomb just as Henry Kingsley was wont14 to see the tombs in Chelsea Old Church.  The fervour of devotion to Cowper’s memory that obtained in those early days must have been a stimulus15 to the boy, who from the first had ambitions far beyond anything that he was to achieve.  Here was his first lesson.  The second came from Lady Fenn—a more vivid impression for the child.  Twenty years before Borrow was born Cowper had sung her merits in his verse.  She and her golden-headed cane16 are commemorated17 in Lavengro.  Dame18 Eleanor Fenn had made a reputation in her time.  As “Mrs. Teachwell” and “Mrs. Lovechild” she had published books for the young of a most improving character, The Child’s Grammar, The Mother’s Grammar, A Short History of Insects, and Cobwebs to Catch Flies being of the number.  The forty-fourth edition of The Child’s Grammar by Mrs. Lovechild appeared in 1851, and the twenty-second edition of The Mother’s Grammar in 1849.  But it is her husband that her name most recalls to us.  Sir John Fenn gave us the delightful19 Paston Letters—of which Horace Walpole said that “they make all other letters not worth reading.”  Walpole described “Mr. Fenn of East Dereham in Norfolk” as “a smatterer in antiquity20, but a very good sort of man.”  Fenn, who held the original documents of the Letters, sent his first two volumes, when published, to Buckingham Palace, and the King acknowledged p. 27the gifts by knighting the editor, who, however, died in 1794, before George Borrow was born.  His widow survived until 1813, and Borrow was in his seventh or eighth year when he caught these notable glimpses of his “Lady Bountiful,” who lived in “the half-aristocratic mansion” of the town.  But we know next to nothing of Borrow in East Dereham, from which indeed he departed in his eighth year.  There are, however, interesting references to his memories of the place in Lavengro, the best of which is when he goes to church with the gypsies and dreams of an incident in his childhood:
It appeared as if I had fallen asleep in the pew of the old church of pretty Dereham.  I had occasionally done so when a child, and had suddenly woke up.  Yes, surely, I had been asleep and had woke up; but no! if I had been asleep I had been waking in my sleep, struggling, striving, learning and unlearning in my sleep.  Years had rolled away whilst I had been asleep—ripe fruit had fallen, green fruit had come on whilst I had been asleep—how circumstances had altered, and above all myself whilst I had been asleep.  No, I had not been asleep in the old church!  I was in a pew, it is true, but not the pew of black leather in which I sometimes fell asleep in days of yore, but in a strange pew; and then my companions, they were no longer those of days of yore.  I was no longer with my respectable father and mother, and my dear brother, but with the gypsy cral and his wife, and the gigantic Tawno, the Antinous of the dusky people.  And what was I myself?  No longer an innocent child but a moody21 man, bearing in my face, as I knew well, the marks of my strivings and strugglings; of what I had learnt and unlearnt.
But Borrow left Dereham in his eighth year, only to revisit it when famous.
In Lavengro Borrow recalls childish memories of Canterbury and of Hythe, at which latter place he saw the church vault22 filled with ancient skulls23 as we may see it there to-day.  And after that the book which impressed itself most vividly24 upon his memory was Robinson Crusoe.  How much he came to revere26 Defoe the pages of Lavengro most eloquently27 reveal to us.  “Hail to thee, spirit of Defoe!  What does not my own poor self owe to thee?”  In 1810–11 his father was in the barracks at Norman Cross in Huntingdonshire.  Here the Government had bought a large tract29 of land, and built upon it a huge wooden prison, and overlooking this a substantial barrack also of wood, the only brick building on the p. 28land being the house of the Commandant.  The great building was destined30 for the soldiers taken prisoners in the French wars.  The place was constructed to hold 5000 prisoners, and 500 men were employed by the War Office in 1808 upon its construction.  The first batch31 of prisoners were the victims of the battle of Vimeiro in that year.  Borrow’s description of the hardships of the prisoners has been called in question by a later writer, Arthur Brown, who denies the story of bad food and “straw-plait hunts,” and charges Borrow with recklessness of statement.  “What could have been the matter with the man to write such stuff as this?” asks Brown in reference to Borrow’s story of bad meat and bad bread: which was not treating a great author with quite sufficient reverence32.  Borrow was but recalling memories of childhood, a period when one swallow does make a summer.  He had doubtless seen examples of what he described, although it may not have been the normal condition of things.  Brown’s own description of the Norman Cross prison was interwoven with a love romance, in which a French officer fell in love with a girl of the neighbouring village of Yaxley, and after Waterloo returned to England and married her.  When he wrote his story a very old man was still living at Yaxley, who remembered, as a boy, having often seen the prisoners on the road, some very well dressed, some in tatters, a few in uniform.  The milestone33 is still pointed34 out which marked the limit beyond which the officer-prisoners might not walk.  The buildings were destroyed in 1814, when all the prisoners were sent home, and the house of the Commandant, now a private residence, alone remains35 to recall this episode in our history.  But Borrow’s most vivid memory of Norman Cross was connected with the viper36 given to him by an old man, who had rendered it harmless by removing the fangs37.  It was the possession of this tame viper that enabled the child of eight—this was Borrow’s age at the time—to impress the gypsies that he met soon afterwards, and particularly the boy Ambrose Smith, whom Borrow introduced to the world in Lavengro as Jasper Petulengro.  Borrow’s frequent meetings with Petulengro are no doubt many of them mythical38.  He was an imaginative writer, but Petulengro was a very real person, who lived the usual roving gypsy life.  There is no reason to assume otherwise than that Borrow did actually meet him p. 29at Norman Cross when he was eight years old, and Ambrose a year younger, and not thirteen as Borrow states.  In the original manuscript of Lavengro in my possession, “Ambrose” is given instead of “Jasper,” and the name was altered as an afterthought.  It is of course possible that Borrow did not actually meet Jasper until his arrival in Norwich, for in the first half of the nineteenth century various gypsy families were in the habit of assembling their carts and staking their tents on the heights above Norwich, known as Mousehold Heath, that glorious tract of country that has been rendered memorable39 in history by the tragic40 life of Kett the tanner, and has been immortalised in painting by Turner and Crome.  Here were assembled the Smiths and Hernes and Boswells, names familiar to every student of gypsy lore41.  Jasper Petulengro, as Borrow calls him, or Ambrose Smith, to give him his real name, was the son of Fāden Smith, and his name of Ambrose was derived42 from his uncle, Ambrose Smith, who was transported for stealing harness.  Ambrose was twice married, and it was his second wife, Sanspirella Herne, who comes into the Borrow story.  He had families by both his wives.  Ambrose had an extraordinary varied43 career.  It will be remembered by readers of the Zincali that when he visited Borrow at Oulton in 1842 he complained that “There is no living for the poor people, brother, the chokengres (police) pursue us from place to place, and the gorgios are become either so poor or miserly that they grudge44 our cattle a bite of grass by the wayside, and ourselves a yard of ground to light a fire upon.”  After a time Ambrose left the eastern counties and crossed to Ireland.  In 1868 he went to Scotland, and there seems to have revived his fortunes.  In 1878 he and his family were encamped at Knockenhair Park, about a mile from Dunbar.  Here Queen Victoria, who was staying at Broxmouth Park near by with the Dowager Duchess of Roxburghe, became interested in the gypsies, and paid them a visit.  This was in the summer of 1878.  Ambrose was then a very old man.  He died in the following October.  His wife, Sanspi or Sanspirella, received a message of sympathy from the Queen.  Very shortly after Ambrose’s death, however, most of the family went off to America, where doubtless they are now scattered45, many of them, it may be, leading successful lives, utterly46 oblivious47 of the associations of one p. 30of their ancestors with Borrow and his great book.  Ambrose Smith was buried in Dunbar cemetery48, the Christian49 service being read over his grave, and his friends erected50 a stone to him which bears the following inscription:—
In Memory of
Ambrose Smith, who died 22nd
October 1878, aged51 74 years.
Thomas, his son,
who died 28th May 1879, aged 48 years.
Three years separated the sojourn5 of the Borrow family at Norman Cross from their sojourn in Edinburgh—three years of continuous wandering.  The West Norfolk Militia52 were watching the French prisoners at Norman Cross for fifteen months.  After that we have glimpses of them at Colchester, at East Dereham again, at Harwich, at Leicester, at Huddersfield, concerning which place Borrow incidentally in Wild Wales writes of having been at school, in Sheffield, in Berwick-on-Tweed, and finally the family are in Edinburgh, where they arrive on 6th April, 1813.  We have already referred to Borrow’s presence at the High School of Edinburgh, the school sanctified by association with Walter Scott and so many of his illustrious fellow-countrymen.  He and his brother were at the High School for a single session, that is, for the winter session of 1813–14, although with the licence of a maker53 of fiction he claimed, in Lavengro, to have been there for two years.  But it is not in this brief period of schooling54 of a boy of ten that we find the strongest influence that Edinburgh gave to Borrow.  Rather may we seek it in the acquaintanceship with the once too notorious David Haggart.  Seven years later than this all the peoples of the three kingdoms were discussing David Haggart, the Scots Jack55 Sheppard, the clever young prison-breaker, who was hanged at Edinburgh in 1821 for killing56 his gaoler in Dumfries prison.  How much David Haggart filled the imagination of every one who could read in the early years of last century is demonstrated by a reference to the Library Catalogue of the British Museum, where we find pamphlet after pamphlet, broadsheet after broadsheet, treating of the adventures, trial, and execution p. 31of this youthful gaolbird.  But by far the most valuable publication with regard to Haggart is one that Borrow must have read in his youth.  This was a life of Haggart written by himself, a little book that had a wide circulation.  From this little biography we learn that Haggart was born in Golden Acre, near Canon-Mills, in the county of Edinburgh in 1801, his father, John Haggart, being a gamekeeper, and in later years a dog-trainer.  The boy was at school under Mr. Robin25 Gibson at Canon-Mills for two years.  He left school at ten years of age, and from that time until his execution seems to have had a continuous career of thieving.  He tells us that before he was eleven years old he had stolen a bantam cock from a woman belonging to the New Town of Edinburgh.  He went with another boy to Currie, six miles from Edinburgh, and there stole a pony58, but this was afterwards returned.  When but twelve years of age he attended Leith races, and it was here that he enlisted59 in the Norfolk Militia, then stationed in Edinburgh Castle.  This may very well have brought him into contact with Borrow in the way described in Lavengro.  He was only, however, in the regiment for a year, for when it was sent back to England the Colonel in command of it obtained young Haggart’s discharge.  These dates coincide with Borrow’s presence in Edinburgh.  Haggart’s history for the next five or six years was in truth merely that of a wandering pickpocket60, sometimes in Scotland, sometimes in England, and finally he became a notorious burglar.  Incidentally he refers to a girl with whom he was in love.  Her name was Mary Hill.  She belonged to Ecclefechan, which Haggart more than once visited.  He must therefore have known Carlyle, who had not then left his native village.  In 1820 we find him in Edinburgh, carrying on the same sort of depredations61 both there and at Leith—now he steals a silk plaid, now a greatcoat, and now a silver teapot.  These thefts, of course, landed him in gaol57, out of which he breaks rather dramatically, fleeing with a companion to Kelso.  He had, indeed, more than one experience of gaol.  Finally, we find him in the prison of Dumfries destined to stand his trial for “one act of house-breaking, eleven cases of theft, and one of prison-breaking.”  While in prison at Dumfries he planned another escape, and in the attempt to hit a gaoler named Morrin on the head with a stone he unexpectedly killed him.  His p. 32escape from Dumfries gaol after this murder, and his later wanderings, are the most dramatic part of his book.  He fled through Carlisle to Newcastle, and then thought that he would be safer if he returned to Scotland, where he found the rewards that were offered for his arrest faced him wherever he went.  He turned up again in Edinburgh, where he seems to have gone about freely, although reading everywhere the notices that a reward of seventy guineas was offered for his apprehension62.  Then he fled to Ireland, where he thought that his safety was assured.  At Dromore he was arrested and brought before the magistrate63, but he spoke64 with an Irish brogue, and declared that his name was John M‘Colgan, and that he came from Armagh.  He escaped from Dromore gaol by jumping through a window, and actually went so far as to pay three pound ten shillings for his passage to America, but he was afraid of the sea, and changed his mind, and lost his passage money at the last moment.  After this he made a tour right through Ireland, in spite of the fact that the Dublin Hue65 and Cry had a description of his person which he read more than once.  His assurance was such that in Tullamore he made a pig-driver apologise before the magistrate for charging him with theft, although he had been living on nothing else all the time he was in Ireland.  Finally, he was captured, being recognised by a policeman from Edinburgh.  He was brought from Ireland to Dumfries, landed in Calton gaol, Edinburgh, and was tried and executed.
We may pass over the brief sojourn in Norwich that was Borrow’s lot in 1814, when the West Norfolk Militia left Scotland.  When Napoleon escaped from Elba the West Norfolk Regiment was despatched to Ireland, and Captain Borrow again took his family with him.  We find the boy with his family at Clonmel from May to December of 1815.  Here Borrow’s elder brother, now a boy of fifteen, was promoted from Ensign to Lieutenant66.  In January, 1816, the Borrows moved to Templemore, returning to England in May of that year.  Borrow, we see, was less than a year in Ireland, and he was only thirteen years of age when he left the country.  But it seems to have been the greatest influence that guided his career.  Three of the most fascinating chapters in Lavengro were one outcome of that brief sojourn, a thirst for the acquirement of languages was another, and perhaps a taste for romancing a third.  Borrow never came to have the p. 33least sympathy with the Irish race, or its national aspirations67.  As the son of a half-educated soldier he did not come in contact with any but the vagabond element of Ireland, exactly as his father had done before him.  Captain Borrow was asked on one occasion what language is being spoken:
“Irish,” said my father with a loud voice, “and a bad language it is. . . .  There’s one part of London where all the Irish live—at least the worst of them—and there they hatch their villainies to speak this tongue.”
And Borrow followed his father’s prejudices throughout his life, although in the one happy year in which he wrote The Bible in Spain he was able to do justice to the country that had inspired so much of his work:
Honour to Ireland and her “hundred thousand welcomes”!  Her fields have long been the greenest in the world; her daughters the fairest; her sons the bravest and most eloquent28.  May they never cease to be so. [33a]
In later years Orangemen were to him the only attractive element in the life of Ireland, and we may be sure that he was not displeased68 when his stepdaughter married one of them.  Yet the creator of literature works more wisely than he knows, and Borrow’s books have won the wise and benign69 appreciation70 of many an Irish and Roman Catholic reader, whose nationality and religion Borrow would have anathematised.  Irishmen may forgive Borrow much, because he was one of the first of modern English writers to take their language seriously. [33b]  It is true that he had but the most superficial knowledge of it.  He admits—in Wild Wales—that he only knew it “by ear.”  The abundant Irish literature that has been so diligently71 studied during the last quarter of a century was a closed book to Borrow, whose few translations from the Irish have but little value.  Yet p. 34the very appreciation of Irish as a language to be seriously studied in days before Dr. George Sigerson and Dr. Douglas Hyde had waxed enthusiastic and practical kindles72 our gratitude73.  Then what a character is Murtagh.  We are sure there was a Murtagh, although, unlike Borrow’s other boyish and vagabond friend Haggart, we know nothing about him but what Borrow has to tell.  Yet what a picture is this where Murtagh wants a pack of cards:
“I say, Murtagh!”
“Yes, Shorsha dear!”
“I have a pack of cards.”
“You don’t say so, Shorsha ma vourneen?—you don’t say that you have cards fifty-two?”
“I do, though; and they are quite new—never been once used.”
“And you’ll be lending them to me, I warrant?”
“Don’t think it!—But I’ll sell them to you, joy, if you like.”
“Hanam mon Dioul! am I not after telling you that I have no money at all?”
“But you have as good as money, to me, at least; and I’ll take it in exchange.”
“What’s that, Shorsha dear?”
“Yes, you speak Irish; I heard you talking it the other day to the cripple.  You shall teach me Irish.”
“And is it a language-master you’d be making of me?”
“To be sure!—what better can you do?—it would help you to pass your time at school.  You can’t learn Greek, so you must teach Irish!”
Before Christmas, Murtagh was playing at cards with his brother Denis, and I could speak a considerable quantity of broken Irish. [34]
With what distrust as we learn again and again in Lavengro did Captain Borrow follow his son’s inclination74 towards languages, and especially the Irish language, in his early years, although anxious that he should be well grounded in Latin.  Little did the worthy75 Captain dream that this, and this alone, was to carry down his name through the ages:
Ah, that Irish!  How frequently do circumstances, at first sight the most trivial and unimportant, exercise a mighty76 and permanent influence on our habits and pursuits!—how frequently is a stream turned aside from its natural course by some little rock or knoll77, causing it to make an abrupt78 turn!  On a wild p. 35road in Ireland I had heard Irish spoken for the first time; and I was seized with a desire to learn Irish, the acquisition of which, in my case, became the stepping-stone to other languages.  I had previously79 learnt Latin, or rather Lilly; but neither Latin nor Lilly made me a philologist80.
Borrow was never a philologist, but this first inclination for Irish was to lead him later to Spanish, to Welsh, and above all to Romany, and to make of him the most beloved traveller and the strangest vagabond in all English literature.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved