- 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.
Borrow has had a strong influence on his readers’ lives and ambitions but his technique has not found many followers. That perverse blend of hard-won facts with imaginative fiction is not one to emulate. His most admiring readers must treat every paragraph with friendly scepticism. The brief preface to my 1909 edition of Lavengro advises: ‘The separation of the actually true from the fictionally true in this strange romance forms one of the most interesting studies in the byways of literature ... The book deals with his experiences so freshly and vivaciously that the reader is carried swiftly along and has hardly time to ask himself, “Is this fact or fiction or both?” till he may be led to search, as not a few have searched before him, for The Life and Adventures of Joseph Sell.’
The point of the Joseph Sell hint is that Borrow claimed to have written a novel of that name. In fact, a whole chapter of his ‘autobiography’, Lavengro, is devoted to a most plausible account of his struggle in writing it, so that any reader would assume he was telling the truth. But no such book exists: it is an imaginary novel, like Amis’s Blinkie Heaven and Teach Him a Lesson. Borrow’s favourite writer was Daniel Defoe, of whom also it may be asked: ‘Is this man writing fiction or just telling lies?’ Michael Collie has found a manuscript fragment in which Borrow wonders how Defoe managed to get his facts right in narrating a fictitious journey across Africa, well before the geographical features Defoe described had been officially ‘discovered’. Borrow’s guess is that Defoe struck lucky through meeting some sailors in a pub: all he needed were some plausible details for his deceitful narrative and, by some lucky chance, they turned out to be true. Borrow’s attitude to truth and ‘known facts’ is one of the things (next to his religious expressions) that most irritate Michael Collie, a careful researcher.
Michael Collie believes that there is some truth in the Joseph Sell chapter, that Borrow really did publish a book at that period and that Michael Collie has discovered it. It is called The Life and Adventures of the Famous Colonel Blood. (The only quibble we might raise against this well-argued theory is that the 24-page Blood would seem a rather short, rather easy work, considering the trouble Borrow claims it gave him.) Collie was led to his discovery by examining the manuscripts of Lavengro, the pinholes and the very pins he used when fixing old bits of paper together, for his wife to make the fair copy. It is worth observing that Borrow’s collaboration with his wife while compiling The Bible in Spain and Lavengro might explain a good deal. David Williams wonders why the books tell nothing about his sex-life; he wonders why Borrow’s idyllic summer with Isopel Berners was spent in teaching her Armenian and reciting his translation of Dafydd ap Gwilym. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? It would be very odd to pass exciting descriptions of his old flame over to his wife for copying. It was through the Bible Society that he first met his future wife, Mary Clarke. He married her in 1840, when he was 36 and she (a prosperous widow with a grown-up daughter) was 43. She was soon eagerly at work, helping him with The Bible in Spain, based on the long, lively letters he had sent home to the Bible Society in London. This method of work would account for discretion about his sex-life, as well as the apparent ‘ambivalence’ and ‘ambiguity’which the sceptical Michael Collie finds in his religious expressions.
Borrow’s letters to the Bible Society were read aloud at their London meetings. The Society would write back, rebuking their agent gently when he infringed their precise rules of religious decorum. When he suggested that his work was useful to the Deity, to man and to himself, they reminded him that man must glorify God but is not ‘useful’ to Him at all – and gave the backslider a list of texts to read, from Job and the Psalms. Borrow wrote once to them about his ‘usual wonderful good fortune’. This was superstitious, almost profane. A Bible Society spokesman wrote back: ‘You must remember that our committee room is public to a great extent.’ He had to read Borrow’s letters aloud, and he complained: ‘I cannot omit expressions as I go reading on. Pious sentiments may be thrust into letters ad nauseam,’ he conceded, ‘and it is not for that I plead. But is there not a via media?’
Borrow, it seems to me, never quite found that middle way. He tried very hard to fit his self-expression to the strict party-line of his religious superiors, but then he found he had disciplined himself so firmly that he was no longer free to write from the heart. The letters were as close as he could get to the party-line and he obviously did not want to contradict them or water them down as he worked with his pious wife, making a book out of them. In his later books, like Lavengro, he was stuck with the role he had fashioned for himself – the hard-line Protestant evangelist of the Church of England and nothing else, obedient to his pastors, certain that Popery was unmixed evil. If his ideas ever developed and deviated from that over-strict norm, he would be contradicting himself, destroying his literary persona. Michael Collie seems to be impatient with all forms of religious belief, especially Borrow’s, and he bluntly calls him a hypocrite. But religious people – and ‘true believers’ in certain political groups – will recognise Borrow’s problems with religious discussion and self-expression.
To appreciate Borrow’s difficulty in maintaining a consistent literary role, we may contrast Kinglake’s success, as discussed in the new forewords to Eothen. ‘Kinglake’s effect upon the art of travel-writing has been profound,’ writes Jan Morris, for the Oxford edition. ‘His influence may be traced down the generations from Robert Curzon’s Monasteries of the Levant (1849) to Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana (1937) or Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar (1975).’ For the Century edition, Jonathan Raban likewise sees a link with Theroux and Robert Byron (‘Byron comes close to plagiarism,’ he suggests) and he adds Evelyn Waugh’s Labels and Graham Greene’s Journey without Maps to the list of Eothen’s presumed descendants. It might be said that Kinglake made a contribution to the art of posing, of role-playing.
Both Morris and Raban are interested in the truthfulness of Kinglake and (a different thing) how much truth he told. Kinglake’s parentheses on this very subject offer scope for informed speculation, and Morris and Raban are well-informed – by experience. As travel-writers and byline journalists, they must be aware of the hurdles, the barriers that keep back ‘the whole truth and nothing but’. Readers do not like boasters, so the traveller must be modest about his exploits, play them down; he should be reasonably patriotic, not too xenophilic, nor too racist; he must not be too sexist or too sexy–just moderately sensual, so that the reader cannot accuse him of excessive fornication or impotence. In the last century, the hurdle of religious decorum was very important, but that does not matter so much to the general reader and publisher nowadays. The feeling is that Kinglake played fair. He managed all the hurdles, sailing over them gracefully, setting an example to his 20th-century successors. But Borrow knocked them all down.
Take, for instance, the obvious necessity for an English gentleman to hire a really tough, low-class foreigner to help him get his own way on his travels. Borrow positively boasted of his Spanish thug: ‘A more atrocious fellow never existed. He is inordinately given to drink, and of so quarrelsome a disposition that he is almost constantly involved in some broil. He carries an exceedingly long knife, which he frequently unsheathes and brandishes in the faces of those who are unfortunate enough to awaken his choler.’ This is not the tone for a 19th-century English gentleman, let alone a Bible Society agent.
When Kinglake hires a bully he is properly diffident, almost apologetic in his whimsical way. His man, Dthemetri, was a Christian from Zante (which was then part of the British Empire) and he had seen so much bullyng by the Muslims that it was hardly surprising that he should want to get his own back, with Kinglake’s authority behind him. Dthemetri was ‘in his sphere a true Crusader’ – and he ‘struck terror’ into anyone who tried to thwart Kinglake, who could hardly bear to think of the terrible things Dthemetri threatened to troublesome people, while Kinglake just sat there, not understanding the dialogue. ‘I was only the death’s head and white sheet with which he scared the enemy,’ Kinglake smiles, ‘I think that I played this spectral part exceedingly well.’ Dthemetri advised Kinglake to kill a guide who led them to the wrong bank of the Jordan. ‘There was something fascinating in this suggestion,’ mused the young master. ‘The slaying of the guide was, of course, easy enough and would look like an act of what politicians call “vigour”. If it were only to become known to my friends in England that I had calmly killed a fellow-creature for taking me out of my way, I might ever after live upon my reputation.’ There is a bizarre truth in Kinglake’s joke: he really could have become an exciting High Society monster, lionised by London hostesses as a man who did savage things in exotic lands, like Sir Richard Burton, later in the century. But that would be too absurd. ‘The proposed victim looked so thoroughly capable of enjoying life (if he could only get to the other side of the river) that I thought it would be hard for him to die, merely in order to give me a character for energy.’
Kinglake seems to have had a clear idea of the sort of behaviour his friends expected from him. He also had a pretty fair idea of what foreigners expected from an Anglican gentleman. The Christians of Damascus expected him to walk, for their sake, on the upper path in the street, a path strictly reserved for Muslims. The Jews of Safet expected him to protect them from the persecution of Mohammed Damoor – and Kinglake admits: ‘I was flattered in the point of my national vanity at the notion that a Jew in Syria, because he had been born on the rock of Gibraltar, was able to claim me as his fellow-countryman. If I hesitated at all between the “impropriety” of interfering in a matter which was no business of mine, and the “infernal shame” of refusing my aid at such a conjuncture, I soon came to a very ungentlemanly decision – namely that I would be guilty of the “impropriety”, and not of the “infernal shame”.’ Such are the dainty ironies with which Kinglake dissembles his high pride and enforces his own persuasive definition of ‘gentleman’, mocking the conventions of others. The candid Borrow, child of much poorer family, was always grumbling that fools confused the idea of a gentleman with mere ‘gentility’, the conventions of the wealthy, but his bluntness was less effective than Kinglake’s stealth.
If Defoe was Borrow’s favourite writer, Kinglake’s was Homer. His sense of honour derived from the Homeric heroes, but without their weeping, their boasting, their punitive rage. He made a distinction between the military tragedy of the Iliad, which he thought the more ‘serious’ book, and the more feminine Odyssey which he had read (in English) as a child, ‘hoping and fearing for the hero whom yet I partly scorned’. The many-minded Odysseus, wheedling his way home, is not so grand as the single-minded Achilles, ‘never remitting his fierceness’ until he feels a ‘new and generous sorrow when the noblest of all his foes lies sadly dying at the Scaean gate’. Not, of course, that Kinglake claims to be a scholar. All that boring school grammar. ‘I suppose it’s all right in the end, yet, at first sight, it does seem a sad intellectual fall from your mother’s dressing-room to a buzzing school.’ Kinglake had wanted to join the Army, but he had weak eyesight. His own Iliad, perhaps, is his little-read eight-volume history, The Invasion of the Crimea (1863-87), in which he describes, as an eye-witness, the Battle of the Alma: he represents the Russians’ loss of morale in terms of their belief in angels of light and angels of darkness, comparable with ‘the old Immortals’ of the Iliad. But in Eothen he is surely posing as wily Odysseus, the hero partly scorned.
Jan Morris holds that Kinglake derived a ‘cheerful paganism’ from Homer, If so, it is not the paganism of confirmed disbelief: it is the sort of paganism that is prepared to believe in all sorts of supernatural forces, spiritual experiences, ‘gods’ and their symbols – from the Blessed Virgin Mary to the Sphinx. He is less sceptical about strange gods than he is about the economic theories of ‘the Great Capitalist’ or the scientific theories which he saw so many Europeans believing during the ravages of the Plague in Egypt. Kinglake was not convinced that the disease was caused by contagion and did not bother to avoid touching people. ‘The contagionist,’ he observed, was ‘filled with the dread of final causes, having no faith in Destiny, nor in the fixed will of God, and with none of the devil-may-care indifference which might stand him instead of creeds.’ He notices, very coolly, the number of plague deaths that occur among his acquaintances in Cairo. This chapter, ‘Cairo and the Plague’, might be considered cold-blooded. Jonathan Raban thinks so, and rather admires Kinglake for his ‘heartlessness’ – in a paradoxical, Wildean sort of way. ‘He is ideally ruthless,’ says Raban. His description of the Plague is ‘pitiless, monstrously comic’: it makes Eothen ‘one of the most deliciously nasty books in English literature’. A critic in 1903 had quite different faults to find: he felt Kinglake was too unspiritual in his response to the Biblical lands. ‘Tiberias suggests only a disquisition on the fleas of all countries; Cairo only the aspects of a plague-ridden town.’ Kinglake himself was dissatisfied with the tone of his Cairo chapter. He feared readers might think he was boasting of his courage: ‘There is some semblance of bravado in my manner of talking about the Plague.’ He assures us that he was really frightened, ‘but Fear does not necessarily damp the spirits.’ He begs us to believe that his ‘sense of danger during the whole period was lively and continuous’. One thing is certain. Kinglake really cared what his readers thought of him.
Borrow, perhaps, did not care quite so much. Or, if he did, he put too little thought into promoting the desired idea of himself. He thrust his opinions at the reader and was indignant when they were rejected. The stern Michael Collie holds that he ‘significantly lacked a moral centre’, that he ‘was literally “eccentric”, away from the centre’. But then Collie cannot abide Borrow’s preference for lower-class life (he quite wrongly calls this preference ‘democratic’) and his disregard for the more prosperous and better-educated classes, when spreading the Gospel. Moreover, Collie is inclined to confuse both religion and morality with convention. ‘Borrow did not describe his mental state in terms of an alienation from God because he believed in God but because that was the only language available for describing his emotions at all.’ There is scarcely a reference to Borrow’s religion without some such patronising rationalisation. When Borrow suffers ‘the horror’, being visited by ‘the Evil One’, Collie is pretty sure he is describing an epileptic fit.
David Williams, on the other hand, thinks this passage ‘the finest description of hysteric mania ever set down by a writer of English’. The doctors disagree. Williams is keen to defend Borrow from an imagined prosecutor, but is often inept. For instance, Borrow was not politically left-wing. ‘This should not be held against him,’ asserts Williams. ‘In the 1930s when Orwell and Priestley made their English journeys it was the rule to be socially committed. In the 1820s it was not so. Then it was Cobbett, and not Borrow, who was the man out of line.’ (My italics.) It seems odd to defend a man against the charge that he is ‘out of line’, as if to be eccentric was to be immoral. But then, I suppose Michael Collie does, as prosecuting counsel, make this logical error. He attempts, however, to argue logically, whereas David Williams relies on intuition. ‘Did Borrow sleep with Mary? The answer must be a confident No.’ Williams guesses that Borrow met William Beckford – and within a few pages he is treating this conjecture as a known fact. Williams has a theory that Borrow saw himself as a 19th-century St Paul: he supports this with a passage from The Bible in Spain, where Borrow is patronisingly protecting a frightened friar in brigand country and, on leave-taking, ‘telling him that I hoped to meet him again at Philippi.’ Most of us would take this as a reference to Shakespeare: ‘Why, I will see thee at Philippi then,’ says Brutus to Caesar’s ghost. But if we turn up the passage in Borrow, we find that the incompetent friar is off to preach to Indians in the Philippine Islands and that Borrow is on his way to meet a British vice-consul whom he calls Mr Phillipi ... The word-associations are so many that David Williams’s intuition begins to convince. Maybe Borrow did have in his head, while writing, a powerful impression of Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. Jan Morris quotes Kinglake saying: ‘If I had my way I would write in every church, chapel and cathedral only one line – Important if true.’ This would seem a fairer response to Borrow’s protestations of his faith than Michael Collie’s ‘False – and therefore unimportant.’