Gentlemen Travellers

D.A.N. Jones

  • George Borrow: Eccentric by Michael Collie
    Cambridge, 275 pp, £19.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 521 24615 6
  • A World of his Own: The Double Life of George Borrow by David Williams
    Oxford, 178 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 211762 9
  • Eothen: Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East by Alexander Kinglake and Jan Morris
    Oxford, 279 pp, £2.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 19 281361 7
  • Eothen by Alexander Kinglake and Jonathan Raban
    Century, 226 pp, £6.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7126 0031 0

The cool, courteous Alexander Kinglake and the hot, contentious George Borrow are two of the best-liked and most influential travel writers of the 19th century. They were contemporaries for much of their long lives (Borrow died in 1881, aged 78, Kinglake in 1891, aged 82) but play very different roles in the 20th-century imagination.

Michael Collie, the more severe of Borrow’s new biographers, notes the instructions Borrow’s publisher gave him when he was writing The Bible in Spain: he was told to report his remarkable achievements, experiences and skills ‘in a natural manner, as if there was nothing in it. I am sure it will tell.’ With grim satisfaction, Michael Collie notes how bad Borrow was at pretending to be modest. After all, Borrow did do things that few others could do. In 1835, aged 32, he was in St Petersburg, arranging the printing of a translation of the English Bible into Chinese. (‘He boned up feverishly on Manchu,’ enthuses his other biographer, David Williams, in his schoolboyish way.) Borrow had to argue in Russian with the Tsar’s board of censors, hire and supervise ill-educated Estonian compositors to set up Mongolian print (which, he said, ‘differs little from the Mandchou’) and prepare to distribute his Bibles at Kiachta, a caravan town on the Russian-Chinese borders. He had a heavy social life, involving his Danish friend Hasfeld (a drinks-and-brothels fancier), and the world of Russian gypsies, while he was getting on with a few translations from the Turkish.

That same year, the 24-year-old Kinglake was ambling through the Near East, with faithful, armed servants, good connections, horses, camels – and an interpreter. Many healthy, wealthy, plucky young men could have done as much. It is not surprising that he found it easier to be modest about his travels than Borrow did. Kinglake published his elegant account of his little trip nine years later, in 1844, and lived on its reputation, as ‘Eothen’ Kinglake, for the rest of his life. Borrow had already brought out The Bible in Spain, in 1843, for he had spent four or five dangerous years in that country, after leaving Russia, pushing Spanish Bibles aggressively in hostile, war-torn Roman Catholic territory: the priests and politicians wanted him to take his ‘Jewish books’ away.

The Bible in Spain was a great hit with the militant churchgoers of Britain. But then Borrow’s publisher persuaded the Protestant hero to attempt straight autobiography. Lavengro and The Romany Rye came out in the 1850s but were not nearly so successful. They were largely about one summer in Britain, back in 1825, when Borrow claimed to have been living with gypsies – in particular, with a splendid woman, six foot tall like himself, whom he called ‘Isopel Berners’: he had been working as a tinker and speaking the gypsy language. The ‘autobiographies’ were obviously a mixture of fact and fiction – and suspicious readers wondered whether the same might be true of The Bible in Spain, which they had taken literally. They wondered why Borrow had omitted so many months and years from his autobiographies. What had he got to hide? Then, his obsessive anti-Catholicism was not to the civilised taste of the 1850s: he found he had to protest about ‘the vile calumny that Lavengro was a book got up against the Popish agitation of ’51. It was written years previous to that period ... ’

Not until the end of the century did Borrow’s gypsy books come into fashion. For the Pre-Raphaelite set, especially Theodore Watts-Dunton, his picture of the Romany life meant liberation. Moreover, he was a survivor from the beginning of the century, ‘a contemporary of Hazlitt and Byron’ (as Michael Collie puts it), and the Pre-Raphaelites particularly liked that period. Also, he was still big and strong and handsome. Watts-Dunton boasted of his acquaintance: ‘Those East Anglians who have bathed with him on the east coast, or others who have done the same in the Thames or the Ouse, can vouch for his having been an almost faultless model of masculine symmetry, even as an old man.’ Borrow was a literary hero again – not for Bible-smuggling, that was old-hat – but for being the Romany Rye. He became the patron saint of campers and hikers; fortune-tellers and astrologers called themselves Petulengro or anything-engro; the BBC Children’s Hour nature programme was called Out with Romany; ‘There’s a wind on the heath, brother’ became almost a boring cliché. By the 1940s he was in all boys’-school libraries, recommended by schoolmasters, inspiring to Boy Scout troop-leaders. David Williams remembers reading him as a set book for the Higher School Certificate, along with George Eliot’s boring Silas Marner. ‘Asked to choose between the two Georges, the form selection fell one hundred per cent on George B. We all enjoyed him.’ Now an ex-headmaster, that schoolboy fan laments:

Not many people studying English literature in the sixth forms of today will so much as have heard of Borrow ... George Eliot, blown heavenward by the trumpets of Leavisite praise, is reverentially read by all. Borrow of the mighty stride – he could cover more than 30 miles a day and always counted on doing the last lap to the pub at six miles an hour – Borrow the mysterious, the adventurous, the polyglot, the pugilist, the dodgy lover has been thrown into an unregarded corner. Up in Valhalla with his favourite old Norsemen, he will not be taking much account of this neglect.

Like many a fan, David Williams is inclined to patronise his hero, assuming an instinctive, intuitive understanding of his true nature, and encouraging inquisitive questions about the unknowable. ‘How was he on sex?’ asks Williams. ‘The present generation, hot for certainties on this subject above all others, will press him on this but will never get answers better described than fluid.’ (Williams’s choice of words is sometimes unintentionally saucy.) The answer is pretty obvious to Williams: he is persuaded that his ‘dodgy lover’ needed little sexual intercourse and was perhaps even impotent, but he has no evidence for this, only the conjectures of older fans.

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