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HOME > Biographical > The Life of George Borrow > CHAPTER XIX Mary Borrow
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 Among the many Borrow manuscripts in my possession I find a page of unusual pathos1.  It is the inscription2 that Borrow wrote for his wife’s tomb, and it is in the tremulous handwriting of a man weighed down by the one incomparable tragedy of life’s pilgrimage:  
Sacred to the Memory of Mary Borrow,
the Beloved and Affectionate Wife of
George Borrow, Esquire, who departed
this Life on the 30th Jan. 1869.
George Borrow.
The death of his wife saddened Borrow, and assisted to transform him into the unamiable creature of Norfolk tradition.  But it is well to bear in mind, when we are considering Borrow on his domestic and personal side, that he was unquestionably a good and devoted4 husband throughout his married life of twenty-nine years.  It was in the year 1832 that Borrow and his wife first met.  He was twenty-nine; she was a widow of thirty-eight.  She was undeniably very intelligent, and was keenly sympathetic to the young vagabond of wonderful adventures on the highways of England, now so ambitious for future adventure in distant lands.  Her maiden5 name was Mary Skepper.  She was one of the two children of Edmund Skepper and his wife Anne, who lived at Oulton Hall in Suffolk, whither they had removed from Beccles in 1805.  Mary’s brother inherited the Oulton Hall estate of three hundred acres, and she had a mortgage, the interest of which yielded £450 per annum.  In July, 1817, Mary married, at Oulton Church, Henry Clarke, a lieutenant6 in the Navy, who died eight months later of consumption.  Two months after his death their child Henrietta Mary, the “Hen.” who was Borrow’s life companion, was born.  There is a letter among my Borrow p. 141Papers addressed to the widow by her husband’s father at this time.  It is dated 17th June, 1818, and runs as follows:
I read your very kind, affectionate, and respectful Letter of the 15th Inst, with Feelings of Satisfaction and thankfulness—thankful that God has mercifully given you so pleasing a Pledge of the Love of my late dear, but lamented7 son, and I most sincerely hope and trust that dear little Henrietta will live to be the Joy and Consolation9 of your Life: and satisfyed I am that you are what I always esteemed10 you to be, one of the best of Women; God grant! that you may be, as I am sure you deserve to be one of the happiest—His Ways of Providence11 are past finding out; to you—they seem indeed to have been truly afflictive12: but we cannot possibly say that they are really so; we cannot doubt His Wisdom nor ought we to distrust His Goodness, let us avow13, then, where we have not the Power of fathoming—viz. the dispensations of God; in His good time He will show us, perhaps, that every painful Event which has happened was abundantly for the best—I am truly glad to hear that you and the sweet Babe, my little grand Daughter, are doing so well, and I hope I shall have the pleasure shortly of seeing you either at Oulton or Sisland.  I am sorry to add that neither Poor L. nor myself are well.—Louisa and my Family join me in kind love to you, and in best regards to your worthy14 Father, Mother, and Brother.
Mary Skepper was certainly a bright, intelligent girl, as I gather from a manuscript poem before me written to a friend on the eve of leaving school.  As a widow, living at first with her parents at Oulton Hall, and later with her little daughter in the neighbouring cottage, she would seem to have busied herself with all kinds of philanthropies, and she was clearly in sympathy with the religious enthusiasms of certain neighbouring families of Evangelical persuasion15, particularly the Gurneys and the Cunninghams.  The Rev16. Francis Cunningham was rector of Pakefield, near Lowestoft from 1814 to 1830.  He married Richenda, sister of the distinguished17 Joseph John Gurney and of Elizabeth Fry, in 1816.  In 1830 he became vicar of St. Margaret’s, Lowestoft.  His brother, John William Cunningham, was vicar of Harrow, and married a Verney of the famous Buckinghamshire family.  This John William Cunningham was a great light of the Evangelical Churches of his time, and was for many years editor of The Christian18 Observer.  His daughter Mary Richenda married Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, the well-known judge, and the brother of Sir Leslie Stephen.  p. 142But to return to Francis Cunningham, whose acquaintance with Borrow was brought about through Mrs. Clarke.  Cunningham was a great supporter of the British and Foreign Bible Society, and was the founder19 of the Paris branch.  It was speedily revealed to him that Borrow’s linguistic20 abilities could be utilised by the Society, and he secured the co-operation of his brother-in-law, Joseph John Gurney, in an effort to find Borrow work in connection with the Society.
We do not meet Mary Clarke again until 1834, when we find a letter from her to Borrow addressed to St. Petersburg, in which she notifies to him that he has been “mentioned at many of the Bible Meetings this year,” adding that “dear Mr. Cunningham” had spoken so nicely of him at an Oulton gathering21.  “As I am not afraid of making you proud,” she continues, “I will tell you one of his remarks.  He mentioned you as one of the most extraordinary and interesting individuals of the present day.”  Henceforth clearly Mary Clarke corresponded regularly with Borrow, and one or two extracts from her letters are given by Dr. Knapp.  Joseph Jowett of the Bible Society forwarded Borrow’s letters from Russia to Cunningham, who handed them to Mrs. Clarke and her parents.  Borrow had proposed to continue his mission by leaving Russia for China, but this Mary Clarke opposed:
I must tell you that your letter chilled me when I read your intention of going as a Missionary22 or Agent, with the Manchu Scriptures23 in your hand, to the Tartars, that land of incalculable dangers.
In 1835 Borrow was back in England at Norwich with his mother, and on a visit to Mary Clarke and the Skeppers at Oulton.  Mrs. Skepper died just before his arrival in England—that is, in September, 1835—while her husband died in February, 1836.  Her only brother died in the following year.
Thus we see Mary Clarke, aged3 forty-three, left to fight the world with her daughter, aged nineteen, and not only to fight the world but her own family, particularly her brother’s widow, owing to certain ambiguities25 in her father’s will.  It was these legal quarrels that led Mary Clarke and her daughter to set sail for Spain, where Mary p. 143had had the indefatigable26 and sympathetic correspondent during the previous year of trouble.  Borrow and Mary Clarke met, as we have seen, at Seville and there, at a later period, they became “engaged.”  Mrs. Clarke and her daughter Henrietta sailed for Spain in the Royal Tar24, leaving London for Cadiz in June, 1839.  Much keen correspondence between Borrow and Mrs. Clarke had passed before the final decision to visit Spain.  His mother was one of the few people who knew of Mrs. Clarke’s journey to Seville, and must have understood, as mothers do, what was pending27, although her son did not.  When the engagement is announced to her—in November, 1839—she writes to Mary Clarke a
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