A Word for Lavengro
Lavengro is the history up to a certain period of one of rather a peculiar mind and system of nerves, with an exterior shy and cold, under which lurk much curiosity, especially with regard to what is wild and extraordinary, a considerable quantity of energy and industry, and an unconquerable love of independence. It narrates his earliest dreams and feelings, dwells with minuteness on the ways, words, and characters of his father, mother, and brother; lingers on the occasional resting-places of his wandering half military childhood; describes the gradual hardening of his bodily frame by robust exercises, his successive struggles, after his family and himself have settled down in a small local capital, to obtain knowledge of every kind, but more particularly philological lore; his visits to the tent of the Romany chal and the parlour of the Anglo–German philosopher; the effect produced upon his character by his flinging himself into contact with people all widely differing from each other, but all extraordinary; his reluctance to settle down to the ordinary pursuits of life; his struggles after moral truth; his glimpses of God and the obscuration of the Divine Being to his mind’s eye; and his being cast upon the world of London, by the death of his father, at the age of nineteen. 183 In the world within a world, the world of London, it shows him playing his part for some time as he best can in the capacity of a writer for reviews and magazines, and describes what he saw and underwent whilst labouring in that capacity; it represents him, however, as never forgetting that he is the son of a brave but poor gentleman, and that if he is a hack author, he is likewise a scholar. It shows him doing no dishonourable jobs, and proves that if he occasionally associates with low characters, he does so chiefly to gratify the curiosity of a scholar. In his conversations with the apple-woman of London Bridge the scholar is ever apparent, so, again, in his acquaintance with the man of the table, for the book is no raker up of the uncleanness of London; and if it gives what at first sight appears refuse, it invariably shows that a pearl of some kind, generally a philological one, is contained amongst it. It shows its hero always accompanied by his love of independence, scorning in the greatest poverty to receive favours from anybody, and describes him finally rescuing himself from peculiarly miserable circumstances by writing a book, an original book, within a week, even as Johnson is said to have written his ‘Rasselas,’ and Beckford his ‘Vathek,’ and tells how, leaving London, he betakes himself to the roads and fields.
In the country it shows him leading a life of roving adventure, becoming tinker, gypsy, postillion, ostler; associating with various kinds of people, chiefly of the lower classes, whose ways and habits are described; but, though leading this erratic life, we gather from the book that his habits are neither vulgar nor vicious, that he still follows to a certain extent his favourite pursuits — hunting after strange characters, or analyzing strange words and names. At the conclusion of the fifth volume, which terminates the first part of the history, it hints that he is about to quit his native land on a grand philological expedition.
Those who read this book with attention — and the author begs to observe that it would be of little utility to read it hurriedly — may derive much information with respect to matters of philology and literature; it will be found treating of most of the principal languages from Ireland to China, and of the literature which they contain; and it is particularly minute with regard to the ways, manners, and speech of the English section of the most extraordinary and mysterious clan or tribe of people to be found in the whole world — the children of Roma. 184 But it contains matters of much more importance than anything in connection with philology, and the literature and manners of nations. Perhaps no work was ever offered to the public in which the kindness and providence of God have been set forth by more striking examples, or the machinations of priestcraft been more truly and lucidly exposed, or the dangers which result to a nation when it abandons itself to effeminacy, and a rage for what is novel and fashionable, than the present.
With respect to the kindness and providence of God, are they not exemplified in the case of the old apple-woman and her son? These are beings in many points bad, but with warm affections, who, after an agonizing separation, are restored to each other, but not until the hearts of both are changed and purified by the influence of affliction. Are they not exemplified in the case of the rich gentleman, who touches objects in order to avert the evil chance? This being has great gifts and many amiable qualities; but does not everybody see that his besetting sin is selfishness? He fixes his mind on certain objects, and takes inordinate interest in them because they are his own, and those very objects, through the providence of God, which is kindness in disguise, becomes snakes and scorpions to whip him. Tired of various pursuits, he at last becomes an author, and publishes a book, which is very much admired, and which he loves with his usual inordinate affection. The book, consequently, becomes a viper to him, and at last he flings it aside and begins another. The book, however, is not flung aside by the world, who are benefited by it, deriving pleasure and knowledge from it; so the man who merely wrote to gratify self has already done good to others, and got himself an honourable name. But God will not allow that man to put that book under his head and use it as a pillow; the book has become a viper to him, he has banished it, and is about another, which he finishes and gives to the world. It is a better book than the first, and everyone is delighted with it, but it proves to the writer a scorpion because he loves it with inordinate affection; but it was good for the world that he produced this book, which stung him as a scorpion. Yes, and good for himself, for the labour of writing it amused him, and perhaps prevented him from dying of apoplexy. But the book is banished, and another is begun, and herein, again, is the providence of God manifested; the man has the power of producing still, and God determines that he shall give to the world what remains in his brain, which he would not do had he been satisfied with the second work; he would have gone to sleep upon that as he would upon the first, for the man is selfish and lazy. In his account of what he suffered during the composition of this work, his besetting sin of selfishness is manifest enough; the work on which he is engaged occupies his every thought — it is his idol, his deity, it shall be all his own, he won’t borrow a thought from anyone else, and he is so afraid lest, when he publishes it, that it should be thought that he had borrowed from anyone, that he is continually touching objects, his nervous system, owing to his extreme selfishness, having become partly deranged. He is left touching, in order to banish the evil chance from his book, his deity. No more of his history is given; but does the reader think that God will permit that man to go to sleep on his third book, however extraordinary it may be? Assuredly not. God will not permit that man to rest till He has cured him to a certain extent of his selfishness, which has, however, hitherto been very useful to the world.
Then, again in the tale of Peter Williams, is not the hand of Providence to be seen? This person commits a sin in his childhood — utters words of blasphemy — the remembrance of which in after life, preying upon his imagination, unfits him for quiet pursuits, to which he seems to have been naturally inclined; but for the remembrance of that sin, he would have been Peter Williams the quiet, respectable Welsh farmer, somewhat fond of reading the ancient literature of his country in winter evenings after his work was done. God, however, was aware that there was something in Peter Williams to entitle him to assume a higher calling; He therefore permits this sin, which, though a childish affair, was yet a sin, and committed deliberately, to prey upon his mind till he becomes at last an instrument in the hand of God, a humble Paul, the great preacher, Peter Williams, who, though he considers himself a reprobate and a castaway, instead of having recourse to drinking in mad desperation — at many do who consider themselves reprobates — goes about Wales and England preaching the Word of God, dilating on His power and majesty, and visiting the sick and afflicted, until God sees fit to restore to him his peace of mind, which He does not do, however, until that mind is in a proper condition to receive peace — till it has been purified by the pain of the one idea which has so long been permitted to riot in his brain, which pain, however, an angel, in the shape of a gentle faithful wife, had occasionally alleviated; for God is merciful even in the blows which He bestoweth, and will not permit anyone to be tempted beyond the measure which he can support. And here it will be as well for the reader to ponder upon the means by which the Welsh preacher is relieved from his mental misery; he is not relieved by a text from the Bible, by the words of consolation and wisdom addressed to him by his angel-minded wife, nor by the preaching of one yet more eloquent than himself, but by a quotation made by Lavengro from the life of Mary Flanders, cut-purse and prostitute, which life Lavengro had been in the habit of reading at the stall of his old friend the apple-woman, on London Bridge, who had herself been very much addicted to the perusal of it, though without any profit whatever. Should the reader be dissatisfied with the manner in which Peter Williams is made to find relief, the author would wish to answer, that the Almighty frequently accomplishes His purposes by means which appear very singular to the eyes of men, and at the same time to observe that the manner in which that relief is obtained is calculated to read a lesson to the proud, fanciful, and squeamish, who are ever in a fidget lest they should be thought to mix in low society, or to bestow a moment’s attention on publications which are not what is called of a perfectly unobjectionable character. Had not Lavengro formed the acquaintance of the old apple-woman on London Bridge, he would not have had an opportunity of reading the life of Mary Flanders, and, consequently, of storing in a memory which never forgets anything, a passage which contained a balm for the agonized mind of Peter Williams. The best medicines are not always found in the finest shops. Suppose, for example, if, instead of going to London Bridge to read, he had gone to Albemarle Street, and had received from the proprietors of the literary establishment in that very fashionable street permission to read the publications on the tables of the saloons there, does the reader think he would have met any balm in those publications for the case of Peter Williams? Does the reader suppose that he would have found Mary Flanders there? He would certainly have found that highly objectionable publication, ‘Rasselas,’ and the ‘Spectator,’ or ‘Lives of Royal and Illustrious Personages,’ but, of a surety, no Mary Flanders. So, when Lavengro met with Peter Williams, he would have been unprovided with a balm to cure his ulcerated mind, and have parted from him in a way not quite so satisfactory as the manner in which he took his leave of him; for it is certain that he might have read ‘Rasselas,’ and all the other unexceptionable works to be found in the library of Albemarle Street, over and over again, before he would have found any cure in them for the case of Peter Williams. Therefore the author requests the reader to drop any squeamish nonsense he may wish to utter about Mary Flanders and the manner in which Peter Williams was cured.
And now with respect to the old man who knew Chinese, but could not tell what was o’clock. This individual was a man whose natural powers would have been utterly buried and lost beneath a mountain of sloth and laziness had not God determined otherwise. He had in his early years chalked out for himself a plan of life in which he had his own ease and self-indulgence solely in view; he had no particular bad passions to gratify, he only wished to lead an easy quiet life, just as if the business of this mighty world could be carried on by innocent people fond of ease and quiet, or that Providence would permit innocent quiet drones to occupy any portion of the earth and to cumber it. God had, at any rate, decreed that this man should not cumber it as a drone. He brings a certain affliction upon him, the agony of which produces that terrible whirling of the brain which, unless it is stopped in time, produces madness; he suffers indescribable misery for a period, until one morning his attention is arrested and his curiosity is aroused by certain Chinese letters on a teapot; his curiosity increases more and more, and, of course, in proportion as his curiosity is increased with respect to the Chinese marks, the misery in his brain produced by his mental affliction decreases. He sets about learning Chinese, and after the lapse of many years, during which his mind subsides into a certain state of tranquillity, he acquires sufficient knowledge of Chinese to be able to translate with ease the inscriptions to be found on its singular crockery. Yes, the laziest of human beings, through the providence of God — a being, too, of rather inferior capacity — acquires the written part of a language so difficult that, as Lavengro said on a former occasion, none but the cleverest people in Europe, the French, are able to acquire it. But God did not intend that man should merely acquire Chinese. He intended that he should be of use to his species, and, by the instrumentality of the first Chinese inscription which he translates, the one which first arrested his curiosity, he is taught the duties of hospitality; yes, by means of an inscription in the language of a people who have scarcely an idea of hospitality themselves, God causes the slothful man to play a useful and beneficent part in the world, relieving distressed wanderers, and, amongst others, Lavengro himself. But a striking indication of the man’s surprising sloth is still apparent in what he omits to do; he has learnt Chinese, the most difficult of languages, and he practises acts of hospitality because he believes himself enjoined to do so by the Chinese inscription, but he cannot tell the hour of the day by the clock within his house; he can get on, he thinks, very well without being able to do so; therefore, from this one omission, it is easy to come to a conclusion as to what a sluggard’s part the man would have played in life but for the dispensation of Providence; nothing but extreme agony could have induced such a man to do anything useful. He still continues, with all he has acquired, with all his usefulness, and with all his innocence of character, without any proper sense of religion, though he has attained a rather advanced age. If it be observed that this want of religion is a great defect in the story, the author begs leave to observe that he cannot help it. Lavengro relates the lives of people so far as they were placed before him, but no further. It was certainly a great defect in so good a man to be without religion; it was likewise a great defect in so learned a man not to be able to tell what was o’clock. It is probable that God, in His loving kindness, will not permit that man to go out of the world without religion — who knows but some powerful minister of the Church, full of zeal for the glory of God, will illumine that man’s dark mind — perhaps some clergyman will come to the parish who will visit him and teach him his duty to his God. Yes, it is very probable that such a man, before he dies, will have been made to love his God; whether he will ever learn to know what’s o’clock is another matter. It is probable that he will go out of the world without knowing what’s o’clock. It is not so necessary to be able to tell the time of day by the clock as to know one’s God through His inspired word; a man cannot get to heaven without religion, but a man can get there very comfortably without knowing what’s o’clock.
But, above all, the care and providence of God are manifested in the case of Lavengro himself by the manner in which he is enabled to make his way in the world up to a certain period without falling a prey either to vice or poverty. In his history there is a wonderful illustration of part of the text, quoted by his mother: ‘I have been young, and now am old, yet never saw I the righteous forsaken or his seed begging bread.’ He is the son of good and honourable parents, but at the critical period of life, that of entering into the world, he finds himself without any earthly friend to help him, yet he manages to make his way. He does not become a captain in the Life Guards, it is true, nor does be get into Parliament, nor does the last volume conclude in the most satisfactory and unobjectionable manner by his marrying a dowager countess — as that wise man Addison did — or by his settling down as a great country gentleman, perfectly happy and contented, like the very moral Roderick Random or the equally estimable Peregrine Pickle; he is hack author, gypsy, tinker, and postillion, yet upon the whole he seems to be quite as happy as the younger sons of most earls, to have as high feelings of honour; and, when the reader loses sight of him, he has money in his pocket honestly acquired to enable him to commence a journey quite as laudable as those which the younger sons of earls generally undertake. Surely all this is a manifestation of the kindness and providence of God, and yet he is not a religious person — up to the time when the reader loses sight of him he is decidedly not a religious person, he has glimpses, it is true, of that God who does not forsake him, but he prays very seldom, is not fond of going to church, and, though he admires Tate and Brady’s version of the Psalms, his admiration is rather caused by the beautiful poetry which that version contains than the religion; yet his tale is not finished — like the tale of the gentleman who touched objects, and that of the old man who knew Chinese without knowing what was o’clock; perhaps, like them, he is destined to become religious, and to have, instead of occasional glimpses, frequent and distinct views of his God; yet, though he may become religious, it is hardly to be expected that he will become a very precise and straight-laced person; it is probable that he will retain with his scholarship something of his gypsyism, his predilection for the hammer and tongs, and perhaps some inclination to put on certain gloves, not white kid, with any friend who may be inclined for a little old English diversion, and a readiness to take a glass of ale, with plenty of malt in it and as little hop as may well be — ale at least two years old — with the aforesaid friend when the diversion is over; for, as it is the belief of the writer that a person may get to heaven very comfortably without knowing what’s o’clock, so it is his belief that he will not be refused admission there because to the last he has been fond of healthy and invigorating exercises, and felt a willingness to partake of any of the good things which it pleases the Almighty to put within the reach of His children during their sojourn upon earth.
182 We first hear of this Appendix in a letter to Murray, dated Nov. 11, 1852, in which Borrow expresses his intention of ‘adding some notes’ to the present work. The result is this extraordinary ‘Malebolgia,’ as Professor Knapp terms it, into which Borrow has thrust all those who had incurred his ill-will, even for the most trivial of reasons. His enmity with Rome dates from his Spanish experiences as colporteur of the Bible Society in 1838 and 1839. ‘Mr. Flamson’ is placed in the pillory, because he had offended Borrow by carrying a railway line through his Oulton grounds; and Scott, apparently for no better reason than his neglect to acknowledge a presentation copy of the ‘Romantic Ballads.’ The ‘Lord–Lieutenant’ experiences Borrow’s resentment because he did not see his way to making ‘Lavengro’ a magistrate; and the ‘Old Radical’ is gibbeted because he obtained an official position which Borrow desired for himself.
183 Twenty. George Borrow was born July, 1803, and his father died February, 1824.
184 Borrovian for ‘gypsydom.’
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