12 March 2022

The Romany Rye

George Borrow (1803-1881) was an English author who was contemporary with novelists such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Well-known in his day, and celebrated for several decades after his death, he is now somewhat neglected.

Borrow is best known for two semi-autobiographical novels (Lavengro and its sequel The Romany Rye) which feature, among many encounters with colourful characters, his relationships with members of the Romany folk, whose language he learnt. I read these two books when I was eight and was very struck by them.

The passage below, taken from the Appendix to The Romany Rye and written by Borrow, may convey some of the flavour of the books.
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 [the hero’s] earliest dreams and feelings [...] 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 chat 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. [...]

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.
Illustration from Lavengro
(by E.J. Sullivan)
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 [... The book] 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.