The Romany Rye, by George Borrow


‘Lavengro’ and ‘The Romany Rye’ are one book, though the former was published in 1851 and the latter not until 1857. After a slumber of six years the dingle re-awakes to life, Lavengro’s hammer shatters the stillness, and the blaze of his forge again lights up its shadows, while all the strange persons of the drama take up their parts at the point where the curtain had been so abruptly rung down. The post-chaise overturned in the last chapter of ‘Lavengro’ is repaired in the first of this sequel, the Man in Black proceeds with his interrupted disquisition, and Borrow resumes his cold-blooded courtship of poor Isopel, playing with her feelings as a cat with a mouse. The dingle episode is divided equally between the two works; and had not ‘Glorious John,’ after a series of peremptory notes from the author, at last consented to publish ‘The Romany Rye’ ‘to oblige Mr. Borrow,’ we had lost some of the most delightful scenes of which that enchanted spot was the theatre.

What part of this narrative is Dichtung and what is Wahrheit has been a debated question. In his chapter on pseudo-critics in the appendix to the present book, Borrow denies that he ever called ‘Lavengro’ an autobiography, or authorized any other person to call it so. But it had been advertised for some months as, ‘Lavengro: an Autobiography’; while as early as 1843 Borrow writes to Murray that he is engaged upon his life; and as late as 1862, in an account of himself written for Mr. John Longe of Norwich, Borrow says that ‘in 1851 he published “Lavengro,” a work in which he gives an account of his early life.’ There is indeed no doubt that the earlier part of ‘Lavengro’ is, in the main, a true history of the life and adventures of George Borrow, however embellished here or there with Borrovian touches; it is only of the truth of the occurrences just before and after leaving London that scepticism has been expressed. Borrow’s story, however, is so circumstantial that we should at least be able to discover whether this part of his history is credible and consistent.

Plainly, the year when Borrow leaves London is 1825. ‘Somewhat more than a year before,’ in March (or rather April) 1 of the year of Byron’s funeral, 2 he had entered the ‘Big City,’ a youth verging on manhood. In his preface to ‘Lavengro’ he speaks of the time as embracing ‘nearly the first quarter of the present century,’ and in ‘The Romany Rye’ refers to having edited the Newgate Chronicle some months ago. 3 We know also that his youthful contributions to literature ceased with his translation of Klinger’s ‘Faustus,’ published on April 18, 1825. About this time, then, when Borrow was literally reduced to his last shilling, he describes himself as visiting a fair in the neighbourhood of London. He refuses a loan of 50 pounds from Jasper Petulengro, and, returning homewards, notices in a publisher’s window a request for a tale or novel. Subsisting on bread and water, he writes in a week the ‘Life of Joseph Sell,’ for which he receives 20 pounds, and twelve days after attending the fair leaves London. Passing through Salisbury, he travels northward and encamps in a dingle, where he is poisoned by his old enemy Mrs. Herne. Saved by the timely intervention of a methodist preacher and his wife, he recovers on the following day (Sunday), and nine days later accompanies his friends to the Welsh border. Here he again meets Jasper, returning with him the greater part of the day’s journey, settling in ‘Mumpers’ Dingle,’ where he is visited by his gypsy friends, four days before the Sunday upon which they all attend church.

A casual remark of Mr. Petulengro’s on this occasion affords a valuable clue to the precise date. ‘Any news stirring, Mr. Petulengro?’ said Borrow; ‘have you heard anything of the great religious movements?’ ‘Plenty,’ said Mr. Petulengro; ‘all the religious people, more especially the evangelicals, those who go about distributing tracts, are very angry about the fight between Gentleman Cooper and White-headed Bob, which they say ought not to have been permitted to take place; and then they are trying all they can to prevent the fight between the lion and the dogs, which they say is a disgrace to a Christian country.’ The prize-fight between Baldwin and Cooper was fought on Tuesday, July 5, 1825, near Maidenhead. The combat between the lion, Nero, and six dogs took place at Warwick on Tuesday, July 26, and for months beforehand had been the subject of much discussion in the London and provincial press. 4 The Wednesday, therefore, when the gypsies visited Borrow in the dingle must have fallen between these two events — i.e., must have been the 6th, 13th, or 20th of July. The fair to the south-east of London, towards which Borrow was attracted by a huge concourse of people, all moving in the same direction, is unmistakably the Greenwich Fair, held on Whit–Monday, May 23, 1825. 5 He must, then, have set out after this date, and on a Tuesday, as we calculate by reckoning backwards from the first Sunday passed with Peter Williams. The gypsies’ visit occurred on the 58th day of his tour, so that he must have left London on Tuesday, May 24, 1825, since to have started on any later day would have carried him beyond the date of the lion fight.

From these data we can now construct an exact diary of Borrow’s adventures, from the day on which he left London to that on which he arrived at the posting-inn on the Great North Road.


1st day [Tuesday, May 24, 1825]. Leaves London, afternoon; walks nine miles S.W.; takes coach to [Amesbury].

2nd day [Wednesday, May 25]. Arrives [Amesbury] before dawn; sees Stonehenge; crosses Avon; descends to City of the Spire [Salisbury].

3rd day [Thursday, May 26]. Salisbury.

4th day [Friday, May 27]. Leaves Salisbury; walks N.W., about twelve miles to small town [? Heytesbury].

5th to 8th day [Saturday, May 28, to Tuesday, May 31]. Walks N.W., twenty to twenty-five miles per day.

9th day [Wednesday, June 1]. About two reaches small town, meets author and accompanies him home (two miles off main road).

10th day [Thursday, June 2]. Rev. Mr. Platitude visits author, Borrow leaves early; walks N. for two hours; buys Slingsby’s pony and cart; afternoon travels N.W.; late at night arrives at a dingle [in Shropshire].

11th day [Friday, June 3]. Learning tinkering in dingle.

12th to 14th day [Saturday, June 4, to Monday, June 6]. Tinkering in dingle. 6

15th day [Tuesday, June 7]. Visited by Leonora.

16th day [Wednesday, June 8]. Collects kettles to mend.

17th to 18th day [Thursday, June 9, to Friday, June 10]. Uneventful.

19th day [Saturday, June 11]. Poisoned by Mrs. Herne’s cake; saved by intervention of Welsh preacher and his wife; travels with them by night.

20th day [Sunday, June 12]. Peter Williams preaches; Borrow bathes; meets the dairyman’s daughter.

21st day [Monday, June 13]. Uneventful.

22nd day [Tuesday, June 14]. Peter promises to tell his tale.

23rd to 24th day [Wednesday, June 15, to Thursday, June 16]. Uneventful.

25th day [Friday, June 17]. Peter tells his tale.

26th day [Saturday, June 18]. Peter tranquillized.

27th day [Sunday, June 19]. Peter preaches.

28th day [Monday, June 20]. Borrow talks of departing.

29th day [Tuesday, June 21]. Accompanies preacher and wife to Welsh border; meets Mr. Petulengro; returns with him; parts near the Silent Woman; settles in Mumper’s Dingle.

30th to 32nd day [Wednesday, June 22, to Friday, June 24]. Practises making horse-shoes.

33rd day [Saturday, June 25]. Succeeds (after four days); at evening the horrors.

34th day [Sunday, June 26]. Better; reads Welsh Bible.

35th day [Monday, June 27]. Uneventful.

36th day [Tuesday, June 28]. Fight with Flaming Tinman; meets Isopel Berners, who remains in dingle.

37th day [Wednesday, June 29]. Visits public-house (landlord says fight took place day before); meets Man in Black; gives Belle her first Armenian lesson; Man in Black visits dingle.

38th to 40th day [Thursday, June 30, to Saturday, July 2]. Uneventful.

41st day [Sunday, July 3]. Landlord tells Borrow of approaching cock-fight.

42nd to 43rd day [Monday, July 4, to Tuesday, July 5]. Uneventful.

44th day [Wednesday, July 6]. The cock-fight.

45th to 47th day [Thursday, July 7, to Saturday, July 9]. Uneventful.

48th to 50th day [Sunday, July 10, to Tuesday, July 12]. Landlord’s loss of cock-fight generally known.

51st day [Wednesday, July 13]. Landlord proposes fight between Borrow and Belle.

52nd to 53rd day [Thursday, July 14, to Friday, July 15]. On one of these days Man in Black probably visits dingle.

54th to 55th day [Saturday, July 16, to Sunday, July 17]. Uneventful.

56th day [Monday, July 18]. Thunderstorm; postillion’s chaise overturned.

[End of ‘Lavengro.’]

NOTE. — The last twenty dates are thus arrived at. There are two references to the lapse of a fortnight since June 29, which was the date of Borrow’s first visit to the public-house, and of Belle’s first Armenian lesson. ‘In about a fortnight Belle had hung up 100 Haikan numerals on the hake of her memory;’ while the landlord, on the occasion when he suggests a fight between Borrow and Belle, complains that Hunter calls him an old fool, whereas a fortnight ago it was he who called Hunter a fool. The date, then, of this last visit of Borrow’s to the public-house must have been on or about July 13. The defeat of the landlord’s game-cocks has been noised abroad for the past three days (July 10, 11, 12), and since the landlord had referred ten days before to the fact that the fight was about to come off on the following Wednesday, it must have occurred on July 6. ‘One day’— not necessarily the 14th or 15th, but this date is unimportant — the Man in Black revisits the dingle, and then follow three uneventful days, on the last evening of which is the great thunderstorm (July 18). Henceforward the daily record is plain and straightforward, and definitely fixed by the mention of the Sunday on which Borrow and the gypsies attend the church of M—.

[Beginning of ‘Romany Rye.’]

57th day [Tuesday, July 19]. Makes linchpin; postillion departs; evening, Man in Black.

58th day [Wednesday, July 20]. Arrival of gypsies; Belle goes on short journey.

59th day [Thursday, July 21]. Gypsies feast at Ursula’s wedding.

60th to 61st day [Friday, July 22, to Saturday, July 23]. Uneventful.

62nd day [Sunday, July 24]. Afternoon church at M—; talk with Ursula under hedge; Belle returns at night.

63rd day [Monday, July 25]. Landlord in despair; evening, gypsies prepare for fair.

64th day [Tuesday, July 26]. Attends fair with gypsies; last view of Belle; sees horse.

65th day [Wednesday, July 27]. Gypsies return from fair.

66th to 67th day [Thursday, July 28, to Friday, July 29]. No Belle.

68th day [Saturday, July 30]. Belle’s letter; Borrow sleeps soundly.

69th day [Sunday, July 31]. Landlord in luck; horse at public-house; Petulengro lends Borrow 50 pounds.

70th day [Monday, August 1]. Buys horse.

71st day [Tuesday, August 2]. Leaves dingle; rescues old man’s ass; puts up at small inn on the North Road.

72nd day [Wednesday, August 3]. Reaches posting house [Swan Hotel, Stafford].

So far as we have proceeded the accuracy of this calculation depends upon two dates only. Can we verify it by establishing the truth of any of the events recorded by Borrow? In reply to my enquiry whether the Wolverhampton Chronicle contains any reference to a thunderstorm occurring on July 18, Mr. J. Elliot, the city librarian replied by sending me the following extract from that paper for Wednesday, July 20, 1825:

‘On Monday afternoon [i.e., July 18] three men who were mowing in a field at the Limes, near Seabridge, in this county, took shelter under the hedge from a violent thunderstorm. They had not been long there before one of them was struck with the electric fluid, causing his immediate death. The other two men were a short distance from the ill-fated man above mentioned, and were stunned about an hour, but not injured further.’

Again, Borrow mentions attending a horse and cattle fair, in company with the gypsies, on the morning of the day when, looking backward toward the dingle, he saw Isopel Berners for the last time ‘standing at the mouth, 7 the beams of the morning sun shining full on her noble face and figure.’ It seems probable that this fair, which took the party about two hours to reach, was the Tamworth horse and cattle fair held on July 26.

Again, Borrow tells us that ‘a young moon gave a feeble light,’ as he mounted the coach to Amesbury, and on May 24 the moon was in its first quarter. 8 The planet Jupiter, too, he could have seen after 10 p.m. on June 3, but his reference to the position of Ursus Major on the evening of his talk with Ursula is less satisfactory. ‘On arriving at the mouth of the dingle, which fronted the east, I perceived,’ says Borrow, ‘that Charles’s Wain was nearly opposite to it high above in the heavens, by which I knew that the night was tolerably well advanced.’ But on July 24, as I learn, Charles’s Wain was in the N.W., and at midnight or 1 a.m. lay nearly due north, and as low down in the sky as it could be. This, however, is perhaps to consider too closely. Indeed, the general accuracy of this part of Borrow’s story renders it probable that it was expanded from a brief diary kept at the time.

It will be seen that the dates thus arrived at differ from those of Borrow’s biographer. According to Professor Knapp, 9 Borrow visits Greenwich Fair on May 12, 1825, writes ‘Joseph Sell’ May 13 to 18, and disposes of the MS. on the 20th; leaves London on the 22nd, reaches Amesbury on the 23rd; leaves Salisbury May 26, and meets author (man who touches) May 30. On May 31 he buys Slingsby’s pony, is in dingle June 1, visited by Leonora on the 5th, and drugged by Mrs. Herne on the 8th. He passes Sunday, June 12, and the following week with Peter Williams and his wife, on the 21st he sees them to the border, turns back with Petulengro and settles in Mumpers’ Dingle. His fight with the Flaming Tinman, Professor Knapp tells us, must have occurred about the end of June. The Professor’s chronology, however, seems to me derived from a calculation — not in itself over-exact 10 — based upon the erroneous idea that the fair took place on May 12. 11 This is traceable to a statement in Thorpe 12 that ‘the fair lasted as a “hog” and pleasure fair, and was held on May 12 and October 11, till 1872’; but Thorpe here refers to a later period, and there is no doubt that in 1825 the Greenwich Fair was held on Whit–Monday, May 23.

Not the least interesting corollary from this correction is the discovery that ‘that extraordinary work,’ the ‘Life of Joseph Sell,’ was never written. To me Borrow’s insistent iteration of the bare statement that he wrote such a book is in itself suspicious, and it is not a little strange that a work for which ‘during the last few months (before August, 1825) there has been a prodigious demand’13 should have entirely disappeared from the face of the earth. The name ‘Sell,’ which in some curious fashion seems to carry conviction to Professor Knapp’s mind, 14 seems to me a singularly inauspicious one, especially when coming from a writer who, like Pakomovna, was ‘born not far from the sign of the gammon,’ and who boasts in his appendix of having inserted deliberate misstatements in his books in order to deceive and mislead his critics. 15 But why should Borrow pretend to have written this book? Chiefly, I think, to emphasize that independence of character of which he so frequently boasts, and which, after his marriage fifteen years later to a well-to-do widow, he is perhaps a little apt to antedate. 16 However Borrow obtained the money which enabled him to leave London, it is plain that it was not by writing ‘Joseph Sell’ at the time and in the manner described. If he were in as desperate circumstances as he represents, he probably accepted Mr. Petulengro’s offer, 17 unless we are to suppose that he imitated the methods of Jerry Abershaw, Galloping Dick, or some of the ‘fraternity of vagabonds’ whose lives Borrow had chronicled in his ‘Celebrated Trials.’

Borrow’s narrative after his arrival at Stafford becomes dull, shadowy, and unconvincing — a strong argument against its truth; for while Borrow easily lived the life romantic, he seems to have lacked the power to imagine it. He describes himself as accepting a somewhat nondescript office at the posting-inn on the Great North Road, where he remains for an undefined but considerable period, and meets again with Francis Ardrey and the Rev. Mr. Platitude. On leaving the inn he refuses to accept the landlord’s offer of an honorarium of 10 pounds, and sets off with his horse to Horncastle Fair. He meets with an accident a day’s journey from his destination, which confines him for eight days in the house of the old man who could read Chinese crockery, but could not tell what was o’clock. Ultimately he reaches Horncastle before the end of the fair, sells his horse to Jack Dale the jockey, and journeys towards Norwich, where we part with him at Spalding.

These statements are mutually irreconcilable. Horncastle Fair was held from August 10 (the Feast of St. Lawrence) to August 21, and had ‘just begun’ on the day following his accident; but, as his journey lasted six days, this leaves no time at all for his experiences at the inn, where he must have stopped for some weeks, and apparently a much longer period, as ‘a kind of overlooker in the stables.’ If, on the other hand, we allow even a fortnight for his stop at the inn, for which 10 pounds would be handsome payment, then he could not have arrived at Horncastle before the end of the fair. Which part of his story, if any, are we to accept?

The Stafford story is decidedly weak. Borrow, being no fool, would not have journeyed north for two days on his road to Horncastle, nor would Ardrey have taken coach to Stafford en route for a lion fight at Warwick, which had taken place several days before. Mr. Platitude’s reappearance is extremely artificial, and the ostler’s tales of Abershaw and Co. are obviously reminiscences of Borrow’s ‘Celebrated Trials.’ But the Horncastle story is weaker still. The ‘Lord’-Lieutenant, so free and young,’ is pilloried, because eighteen years afterwards he did not see his way to make Borrow a J.P. (Who would?) Murtagh is introduced merely as a lay figure, upon which to drape an inverted account of Borrow’s own travels at a later period; and that very tedious gentleman, the tall Hungarian, is a character, Professor Knapp tells us, whom Borrow met in Hungary or Wallachia in 1884. It is plain that at this point the whole story has become what Borrow calls a ‘fakement.’

But that Borrow did buy a horse with money lent by Petulengro, and sold it at a profit, we have some reason to credit. Nearly ten years before Borrow wrote ‘The Romany Rye,’ in the second edition of his ‘Zincali,’ published in 1843, he quotes a speech of Mr. Petulengro’s ‘on the day after mol-divvus, 18 1842.’ ‘I am no hindity mush, 19 as you well know,’ says Jasper. ‘I suppose you have not forgot, how, fifteen years ago, when you made horse-shoes in the little dingle by the side of the Great North Road, I lent you fifty cottors 20 to purchase the wonderful trotting cob of the innkeeper with the green Newmarket coat, which three days later you sold for two hundred.’ This earlier version seems more probably the true one, and since three days would find Borrow in Stafford, it seems reasonable to conclude that he sold his horse there and not in Lincolnshire. Personally, however, I must confess to feeling little interest in the fate of the animal — Belle’s donkey were a dearer object.

Mumpers’ Dingle might well become the Mecca of true Borrovians, could we but determine the authentic spot. Somewhere or other — who will find it for us? — in west central Shropshire 21 is a little roadside inn called the Silent Woman; 22 a little further to the east is a milestone on the left hand side, and a few yards from the milestone the cross-road where Petulengro parted from Borrow. Ten miles further still is a town, and five miles from the town the famous dingle. Mr. Petulengro describes it as ‘surprisingly dreary’; ‘a deep dingle in the midst of a large field about which there has been a law-suit for some years past; the nearest town five miles distant, and only a few huts and hedge public-houses in the neighbourhood;’ 23 and Borrow speaks of it as ‘a deep hollow in the midst of a wide field; the shelving sides overgrown with trees and bushes, a belt of sallows surrounding it on the top, and a steep winding path leading down into the depths.’ 24 It was surrounded by a copse of thorn bushes, 25 and the mouth of the dingle fronted the east, 26 while the highroad lay too far distant for the noise of traffic to reach Borrow’s ears. 27

Professor Knapp has located the dingle in Monmer Lane, Willenhall, and a visit to the locality and references to old and new ordnance surveys support this view. Willenhall lies in the coal measures of Staffordshire, and the modern development of its coal and iron industries has transformed the ‘few huts and hedge public-houses’ into a thriving town of about 17,000 inhabitants. The name of ‘Mumpers’ Dingle’ did not seem to be locally recognised, and, indeed, was scornfully repudiated by the oldest inhabitant; but this may have been merely his revenge for my intrusion just about his dinner hour. But Monmer Lane, still pronounced and in the older ordnance surveys written ‘Mumber Lane,’ is known to all. At the top of this lane on the east side of the bridge lies the ‘Monmer Lane Ironworks,’ which Professor Knapp, a little carelessly, assumes to have been the site of the dingle; 28 and to the west a large flat, bare, uncultivated piece of land, Borrow’s ‘plain,’ cut in two by the Bentley Canal, which runs through it east and west. A walk of 500 yards along the tow-path brings us to a small bridge crossing the canal. This is known as ‘Dingle Bridge,’ the little hawthorn-girt lane leading to it is called ‘Dingle Lane,’ and a field opposite bears the name of ‘Dingle Piece.’ The dingle itself has disappeared, possibly as a consequence of levelling operations in the construction of the canal, and must not be hastily identified by the pilgrim with the adjoining marl-pit, which has been excavated still more recently. But we can hardly doubt that somewhere hereabouts is the historic spot where Borrow fought and vanquished the Flaming Tinman, that here he lived with Miss Berners ‘in an uncertificated manner,’ that under an adjoining thorn-bush he held his astounding conversation with Ursula, and that from here, wearied of her companion’s frigid regard and strange bantering, poor Isopel turned away with her little donkey-cart and a heavy heart.

The public-house kept by the landlord in the green Newmarket coat, who was ‘the wonder and glory of the neighbourhood,’ and who had fought and beaten ‘Tom of Hopton,’ is still standing, though it is no longer used as an inn, and the pious Borrovian must abandon any hopes he may have cherished of drinking to the Lavengro’s memory in ‘hard old ale.’ A quaint old ‘half-way house,’ it lies, as Borrow describes, about two miles east of the dingle — he saw the setting sun as he returned from his frequent visits there — on the right-hand side of the highroad to Walsall, along which the brewer proposed to establish ‘a stage-coach and three to run across the country’, and a little nearer Willenhall, on the north side of the road, is Bentley Hall, the ‘hall’ from which the postillion must have been returning when overtaken by the thunderstorm. The church attended by Borrow and his gypsy friends, when Mrs. Petulengro horrified the sexton by invading the nobleman’s vacant pew, may confidently be identified with Bushbury Church, which has all the features described by Borrow. It is rather over three miles’ distance from the dingle, has a peal of bells, a chancel entrance, and is surrounded by lofty beech-trees. The vicar in 1825 was a Mr. Clare, but whether of evangelical views and a widower with two daughters, the present vicar is unable to inform me. ‘The clergyman of M— as they call him,’ probably took his name from Moseley Court or Moseley Hall, country seats in the parish of Bushbury.

It is as a contribution to philology, Borrow tells us in the Appendix, that he wishes ‘Lavengro’ and this book to be judged. Fortunately for himself, his fame rests upon surer foundations. A great but careless linguist, Borrow was assuredly no philologist. ‘Hair-erecting’ (haarstraubend) is the fitting epithet which an Oriental scholar, Professor Richard Pischel, of Berlin, finds to describe Borrow’s etymologies; while Pott, in quoting from the ‘Zincali,’ indicates his horror by notes of exclamation; or, when Borrow once in a way hits on the right etymon, confirms the statement with an ironical ‘Ganz recht!’ Though Borrow had read Borde, it was reserved for a Viennese scholar, Dr. Zupitza, to discover that the specimens of ‘Egipt speche,’ in our original Merry–Andrew’s ‘Boke of Knowledge,’ were in reality good Anglo–Romany. And whatever may have been Lavengro’s vaunted acquaintance with Armenian, it was apparently insufficient to enable him to identify any of the Armenian elements in the gypsy language.

Touching Borrow’s knowledge of Romani, it must be confessed that while he has been the means of attracting others to the study of that interesting tongue, his own command of it was of the slightest. He never mastered ‘deep’ (or inflected) Romani, and even his broken gypsy is a curious Borrovian variety, distinct from the idiom of the tents. No gypsy ever uses chal or engro as a separate word, or talks of the dukkering dook or of penning a dukkerin. His genders are perversely incorrect, as in the title of the present book; and his ‘Romano Lavo–Lil: Word Book of the Romany or English Gypsy Language’ probably contains more ‘howlers’ than any other vocabulary in the world. He is responsible for the creation of such ghost-words as asarlas, ‘at all, in no manner’ (mistaking helpasar les for help asarlas, pp 18, 110); cappi, ‘booty, gain’ (to lel cappi, pp 28, 176 = ‘to get blankets’); ebyok, ‘sea’ (? the gypsy questioned, mishearing ‘ebb-eye’ for ‘ebb-tide’); is, ‘if,’ p. 51; kokkodus, ‘uncle’ (perhaps mistaking some such phrase as ‘like my koko does’ for ‘like my kokkodus’); lutherum, ‘sleep’; medisin, ‘measure’ (perhaps because medicine is measured out); moskey, ‘a spy’ (? mistaking dikamaski for dik! a moskey); o, ‘he’ (mistaking kai jivela for kai jivvel o, p. 53); pahamengro, ‘turnip’ (probably mistaking pusamengro, ‘pitchfork,’ for the turnip it was used to uproot); pazorrhus, ‘indebted’ = ‘trust us’); pios, ‘drunken as a health’ (aukko tu [to] pios, p. 78 = ‘here’s fun’); sar, ‘with’; sherrafo, ‘religious, converted,’ pp. 89, 194 (really ‘chief, principal,’ from shero, ‘head’); sicovar, ‘eternally’ (si covar ajaw, p. 90 = ‘so the thing is’); sos, ‘who’ (= ‘what’s’); talleno, ‘woollen, flannel’ (mistaking talleno chofa, p. 93, ‘under-skirt’ for ‘flannel petticoat’), etc. Perhaps the most amusing instance of all is the word hinjiri in ‘Lavengro.’ When Mrs. Herne hanged herself, Petulengro says that she ‘had been her own hinjiri,’ 29 and the word is explained by Professor Knapp as the feminine of hinjiro, ‘executioner,’ from djandjir, ‘a chain.’ 30 But there is no such word as hinjero, and hinjiri is merely the English ‘injury’ with a superfluous aspirate.

On the Sunday evening after his conversation with Ursula, Borrow, moved by his discovery of the original meaning of the gypsy word patteran, falls into a strange train of thought. ‘No one at present,’ he says, ‘knew that but myself and Ursula, who had learnt it from Mrs. Herne, the last, it was said, of the old stock; and then I thought what strange people the gypsies must have been in the old time. They were sufficiently strange at present, but they must have been far stranger of old; they must have been a more peculiar people — their language must have been more perfect — and they must have had a greater stock of strange secrets. I almost wished that I had lived some two or three hundred years ago, that I might have observed these people when they were yet stranger than at present. I wondered whether I could have introduced myself to their company at that period, whether I should have been so fortunate as to meet such a strange, half-malicious, half good-humoured being as Jasper, who would have instructed me in the language, then more deserving of note than at present. What might I not have done with that language had I known it in its purity? Why, I might have written books in it! Yet those who spoke it would hardly have admitted me to their society at that period, when they kept more to themselves. Yet I thought that I might possibly have gained their confidence, and have wandered about with them, and learnt their language and all their strange ways, and then — and then — and a sigh rose from the depth of my breast; for I began to think, “Supposing I had accomplished all this, what would have been the profit of it? and in what would all this wild gypsy dream have terminated?”’

It is one of the ironies of fate that Borrow, neither then nor thirty years later, when he made his pedestrian tour through Wales, should have known that there was still in that country a gypsy tribe who had preserved the language of two or three hundred years ago. He might have met gypsies who had spoken to that Romani patriarch Abram Wood; he might have told us the origin of the mysterious Ingrams, for one of whom he was himself mistaken; 31 he might have learned from Black Ellen some of the three hundred folk-tales with which she is credited; he might have sat at the feet of that fairy witch Alabina the Meleni, or have described ‘Taw’ as a girl in her teens. We may sigh for the pictures which the word-master would have given us of this people, but the sigh is almost one of relief when we think of the escape of the exquisite tongue which Borrow would have tortured and defaced, and I, for one, cannot pretend to regret that the discovery of Welsh Romani should have fallen instead to the lot of that perfect scholar-gypsy and gypsy-scholar, FRANCIS HINDES GROOME.

NOTE. — The page references to ‘Lavengro’ in the foot-notes are to F. H. Groome’s edition published in this series; references to ‘Romano Lavo–Lil’ and ‘Wild Wales’ are to the original editions. Borrow’s own foot-notes are marked (G. B.), and facts quoted on Professor Knapp’s authority (Kn.).

1 ‘Lavengro,’ i. 265.

2 Ibid., i. 340.

3 His ‘Celebrated Trials’ was published March 19, 1825.

4 Accounts of this fight, extracted from the Times and Morning Herald, are given in Hone’s ‘Every Day Book,’ vol. i., 1826.

5 References to the attempts of the authorities to suppress this fair will be found in the Times of Tuesday, May 24, 1825, and a description of the fair of 1825 is given in Hone’s ‘Every Day Book’ of the following year (1826).

6 Borrow says ‘two or three days passed by in much the same manner as the first.’ Since one of these days was Sunday, the latter seems the more probable; but if only two days passed, then Borrow must have left London one day later — i.e., Wednesday, May 25, 1825.

7 The fair-town lay, therefore, to the east of Willenhall.

8 For these astronomical calculations I am indebted to my colleague, Mr. W. E. Plummer, of the Liverpool Observatory.

9 ‘Life of Borrow,’ i. 104.

10 His calculation, for instance, gives one day too many at Salisbury, and places the poison episode and the Sunday with the preacher, which were two consecutive days, on the 8th and 12th respectively!

11 This is the date given in Knapp’s ‘Life of Borrow,’ and also as a page heading in his edition of ‘Lavengro,’ p. 289. But in a note to his edition of ‘The Romany Rye,’ p. 385, he says that the fair was ‘on Easter–Monday’ (April 3).

12 Thorpe’s ‘Environs of London,’ p. 48.

13 See chapter xxiv.

14 ‘Life of Borrow,’ i. 103. ‘There were Sells at Norwich; their great artist was John Sell Cotman.’ And there have been Sells elsewhere — nomen omen! to borrow one of Mr. Groome’s favourite quotations.

15 ‘The Romany Rye,’ Appendix, chapter ix.

16 Ibid., Appendix, chapter ii. ‘He eats his own bread, and is one of the very few men in England who are independent in every sense of the word.’

17 It looks as if he met Jasper by appointment at the Welsh border. But extraordinary rencontres are commonplace in Borrow’s career. He meets the Apple-woman’s Armenian customer and restores his purse, he meets Ardrey as he is leaving London, and later at the inn on the Great North Road, where he also meets the Man in Black, Mr. Platitude, and the Postillion. He meets the Apple-woman’s son after leaving Salisbury, and six days later meets Slingsby, whom he had met as a boy at Tamworth. He meets Mrs. Herne — or, rather, she meets him — in the Shropshire dingle; he meets his Irish friend Murtagh at Horncastle, at the same fair; and in the person of Jack Dale, he meets the pseudo-Quaker’s son, who many years ago had robbed the old Chinese scholar from whom Borrow had just parted.

18 Christmas Day.

19 Irishman.

20 Guineas.

21 Borrow had accompanied the preacher and his wife to the Welsh border, where he meets Mr. Petulengro and turns back.

22 ‘Lavengro,’ ii. 262.

23 Ibid., ii. 263.

24 Ibid., ii. 264.

25 Ibid., chapter x.

26 ‘The Romany Rye,’ chapter xii.

27 Lavengro, ii. 281.

28 ‘Lavengro,’ ed. Knapp, notes, p. 567. ‘“Mumpers’ Dingle,” near Willenhall, Staffordshire. The place is properly Momber or Monmer Lane, and is now occupied by the “Monmer Lane Ironworks,” hence totally obliterated.’

29 ‘Lavengro,’ ii. 249.

30 See the ‘Gypsy List’ appended to Knapp’s ed. of ‘The Romany Rye.’

31 ‘Wild Wales,’ iii. 352.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51