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George Borrow


George Borrow (1803 – 1881) was an English author whose best-selling early 19th century travelogues provided insights into a host of exciting countries, as well as seldom-reported peoples. A fabled adept at acquiring new languages, Borrow’s knowledge of Spanish, Welsh and Russian, just to name a few of the many tongues he spoke fluently, allowed him to travel with ease through societies that normally kept outsiders at bay. His most famous cultural observations resulted from his lifelong fascination with the Gypsy nomads of Europe and North Africa. Having a command of their language allowed Borrow to become the first outsider to infiltrate, and report on, their closed society. In addition to being a noted author, Borrow was a devoted equestrian traveller. Two of his books, “The Romany Rye” and “The Bible in Spain” contain some of the most important equestrian travel observations recorded by a Long Rider during this period. For more information, visit the website of The George Borrow Society or the George Borrow Studies website.

Click on any image below to read an excellent article about Borrow in The Scots magazine. 


The Bible in Spain

ISBN 159048231X

First published by John Murray in 1843

 Once upon a time, The Bible in Spain was as famous as The Da Vinci Code is today. Within weeks of its publication, it became one of the greatest bestsellers of the 19th century. England bought thousands of copies. American pirate editions alone ran into 20,000 copies each. It was translated into every important European tongue and was read avidly by men like William Thackeray, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin and everybody who was anybody in that age of taste and sophistication.
Despite its outmoded title, The Bible in Spain is not a religious book but a tale of pure adventure. It tells the exploits of the brilliant polyglot George Borrow, who was sent to Madrid in 1835 to sell Spanish language Bibles. The country was at civil war; the Church objected strongly to translated scripture; the roads were infested by bandits, beggars and outcasts. Yet Borrow would not be stopped by any of it. To the consternation of the gentle English parsons who employed him, he soon turned his sleepy mission into a veritable crusade against ignorance, corruption, sabotage and the fervent opposition of priests and prelates. Several times it landed him in jail. He was nearly killed, by accident, assault or execution, as he rode on horseback all over the Peninsula to peddle his forbidden books. He hid with peasants, travelled with smugglers, found a hospitable shelter in the caves of Spanish Gypsies. At the same time Borrow was dealing with Prime Ministers, Ambassadors, high aristocrats and famous academics.
Out of this unlikely mixture of incidents, he later welded The Bible in Spain – a book packed with raw emotion, great adventure and unique insight, which reveals the heart of Spain as it was during the political perils of the 1830s.

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ISBN 1590482328

First published by John Murray in 1851

In the Gypsy language, Lavengro means Master of Words. It was the pet name bestowed on George Borrow by his Gypsy friends for being such an outstanding linguist. Even so, this remarkable book is not about a teacher, but about a pupil. It describes the coming of age of an authentic genius, George Borrow himself, who by the end of his life mastered 60 languages, the mythology of a dozen nations and the literature of two thousand years.

“Lavengro”, George Borrow himself maintained, “is a dream”. And so it is. Step by step it guides us through the enchanted landscapes of his childhood in the early 19th century. As a boy he wanders to every corner of the British Isles in the wake of his father’s regiment and roams freely over the windswept heath with his Gypsy friend Jasper Petulengro. We see him fail as an apprentice lawyer for being too restless and too kind-hearted. We see his stunning success as a budding linguist when taken in hand by the brilliant William Taylor. He goes to London to seek his fortune as a poet, but falls into the claws of an unscrupulous publisher, who squeezes him dry for every drop of talent. At last he escapes, and joins the road people, travelling with a cart and pony through the pristine land, living in the wilderness with Gypsies, pugilists, tinkers and postillions, horse thieves and horse dealers, and with one formidable young woman who can knock down a bull with one blow of her fist.

By the time he reached manhood, George Borrow had become a dazzling Master of Words, not only as a linguist, but also as a writer. Lavengro itself proves the point. Woven from the strands of memory on a flawless loom of art, embroidered with the silken yarns of poetry, it possesses all the grace and beauty of a masterpiece. His descriptions of people and scenery are often unparalleled. The strength of the dialogues and the elegance of the thoughts expressed have few equals in the literature of the Victorian Age. It is, in fact, more than a dream. It is a revelation. 

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The Romany Rye

ISBN 1590482336

First published by John Murray in 1857

There was really nothing strange in being a Romany Rye back in the Victorian Age. First coined by George Borrow in the title of this book, the term means, in the Gypsy language, a “Gypsy Gentleman”, an outsider of some means and education accepted and adopted by the vagrant road people of the 19th century English countryside. Between the Napoleonic Era and the First World War, there were many such men, artists, intellectuals and romantic adventurers, who joined Gypsy wagon trains and lived in their encampments out in the wild. But George Borrow, the unparalleled polyglot and author of extravagant bestsellers, was the first and foremost of them all.

Sequel to Lavengro, his childhood memoirs, The Romany Rye tells the story of Borrow’s own  vagabond years in the 1820s, when he trekked along with the free spirits of the open roads. These were the pristine days before the railroads wiped out the travelling habits of ages; before harsher laws and constables put a stop to all vagrancy; before the repeal of the Corn Laws, the advent of the Empire and the machinery of the Industrial Revolution turned England into a wealthier but much bleaker place. Borrow’s world was still scenic, peopled by proud Gypsy families in their carts and tents, by itinerant artisans settling on the outskirts of villages only as long as there was work; by horse dealers and horse-thieves; pugilists, hedge preachers, con men, circus artists, robust postillions and bizarre undercover Catholic missionaries.

With all of these George Borrow rubbed shoulders and shared daily life. He learned how they journeyed, how they spoke and thought, loved and fought, struck up friendships and settled enmities, how they faced the law and were a law unto themselves. Only vaguely dramatised, Borrow’s Romany Rye is an eyewitness report to a vanished world. It is therefore a unique document which does not have its equal in Victorian letters.

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Wild Wales

ISBN 1590482344

First published by John Murray in 1862

A much loved and frequently reissued classic, Wild Wales first appeared in 1862. It is George Borrow’s account of a family holiday spent in Llangollen, North Wales, to which are attached two strenuous walking tours in search of the homes and haunts and last resting places of the bards whom he loved. The first tour encompasses much of Snowdonia and Anglesey, and the second takes him the length of the country from Llangollen to Swansea and thence through South Wales to Chepstow.

Traveller, linguist and author of The Bible in Spain, Lavengro,  and Romany Rye, Borrow explores the often dramatic scenery of Wales, delving into its literary past, its history, myths and legends, and meeting its people along the way, conveying as he does so his enthusiasm for all things Celtic.

Wild Wales is much more than a straightforward travel account. It is a book rich with characters, complete with princes, heroes, villains and rogues. In its pages we meet the delightful John Jones and the comical Tom Jenkins, we are introduced to Owain Glyndwr and his struggles against the English Crown. Great poets like Dafydd ap Gwilym share space with robbers like the Plant de Bat and the Robin Hood like Twm Shone Catti. Forbidding monsters, in imagination at least, inhabit the lakes, and the church cat slumbers peacefully in a cottage by the River Dee.

Frequently biased and argumentative, Borrow is at all times energetic and readable and remains among the liveliest writers on Wales. His book is still one of the best introductions to the country.

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