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- The Life of George Borrow - 10/90 -


his trunk "containing a few clothes and books to the old town [Norwich]." He struck out in a south-westerly direction, musing on his achievements as an author, and finding that in having preserved his independence and health, he had "abundant cause to be grateful."

Throughout his life Borrow was hypnotised by independence. Like many other proud natures, he carried his theory of independence to such an extreme as to become a slave to it and render himself unsociable, sometimes churlish. It was this virtue carried to excess that drove Borrow from London. He must tell men what was in his mind, and his one patron, Sir Richard Phillips, he had mortally offended in this manner.

Finding that he was unequal to much fatigue, after a few hours' walking he hailed a passing coach, which took him as far as Amesbury in Wiltshire. From here he walked to Stonehenge and on to Salisbury, "inspecting the curiosities of the place," and endeavouring by sleep and good food to make up the wastage of the last few months. The weather was fine and his health and spirits rapidly improved as he tramped on, his "daily journeys varying from twenty to twenty-five miles." He encountered the mysterious stranger who "touched" against the evil eye. F. H. Groome asserts, on the authority of W. B. Donne, that this was in reality William Beckford. Borrow must have met him at some other time and place, as he had already left Fonthill in 1825. It is, however, interesting to recall that Borrow himself "touched" against the evil eye. Mr Watts-Dunton has said:

"There was nothing that Borrow strove against with more energy than the curious impulse, which he seems to have shared with Dr Johnson, to touch the objects along his path in order to save himself from the evil chance. He never conquered the superstition. In walking through Richmond Park he would step out of his way constantly to touch a tree, and he was offended if the friend he was with seemed to observe it." {61a}

The chance meeting with Jack Slingsby (in fear of his life from the Flaming Tinman, and bound by oath not to continue on the same beat) gave Borrow the idea of buying out Slingsby, beat, plant, pony and all. "A tinker is his own master, a scholar is not," {61b} he remarks, and then proceeds to draw tears and moans from the dispirited Slingsby and his family by a description of the joys of tinkering, "the happiest life under heaven . . . pitching your tent under the pleasant hedge-row, listening to the song of the feathered tribes, collecting all the leaky kettles in the neighbourhood, soldering and joining, earning your honest bread by the wholesome sweat of your brow." {62a}

By the expenditure of five pounds ten shillings, plus the cost of a smock-frock and some provisions, George Borrow, linguist, editor and translator, became a travelling tinker. With his dauntless little pony, Ambrol, he set out, a tinkering Ulysses, indifferent to what direction he took, allowing the pony to go whither he felt inclined. At first he experienced some apprehension at passing the night with only a tent or the stars as a roof. Rain fell to mar the opening day of the adventure, but the pony, with unerring instinct, led his new master to one of Slingsby's usual camping grounds.

In the morning Borrow fell to examining what it was beyond the pony and cart that his five pounds ten shillings had purchased. He found a tent, a straw mattress and a blanket, "quite clean and nearly new." There were also a frying-pan, a kettle, a teapot (broken in three pieces) and some cups and saucers. The stock-in-trade "consisted of various tools, an iron ladle, a chafing-pan, and small bellows, sundry pans and kettles, the latter being of tin, with the exception of one which was of copper, all in a state of considerable dilapidation." The pans and kettles were to be sold after being mended, for which purpose there was "a block of tin, sheet-tin, and solder." But most precious of all his possessions was "a small anvil and bellows of the kind which are used in forges, and two hammers such as smiths use, one great, and the other small." {62b} Borrow had learned the blacksmith's art when in Ireland, and the anvil, bellows and smith's hammers were to prove extremely useful.

A few days after pitching his tent, Borrow received from his old enemy Mrs Herne, Mr Petulengro's mother-in-law, a poisoned cake, which came very near to ending his career. He then encountered the Welsh preacher ("the worthiest creature I ever knew") and his wife, who were largely instrumental in saving him from Mrs Herne's poison. Having remained with his new friends for nine days, he accompanied them as far as the Welsh border, where he confessed himself the translator of Ab Gwilym, giving as an excuse for not accompanying them further that it was "neither fit nor proper that I cross into Wales at this time, and in this manner. When I go into Wales, I should wish to go in a new suit of superfine black, with hat and beaver, mounted on a powerful steed, black and glossy, like that which bore Greduv to the fight of Catraeth. I should wish, moreover," he continued, "to see the Welshmen assembled on the border ready to welcome me with pipe and fiddle, and much whooping and shouting, and to attend me to Wrexham, or even as far as Machynllaith, where I should wish to be invited to a dinner at which all the bards should be present, and to be seated at the right hand of the president, who, when the cloth was removed, should arise, and amidst cries of silence, exclaim--'Brethren and Welshmen, allow me to propose the health of my most respectable friend the translator of the odes of the great Ab Gwilym, the pride and glory of Wales.'" {63a}

He returned with Mr Petulengro, who directed him to Mumber Lane (Mumper's Dingle), near Willenhall, in Staffordshire, "the little dingle by the side of the great north road." Here Borrow encamped and shod little Ambrol, who kicked him over as a reminder of his clumsiness.

He had refused an invitation from Mr Petulengro to become a Romany chal and take a Romany bride, the granddaughter of his would-be murderess, who "occasionally talked of" him. He yearned for solitude and the country's quiet. He told Mr Petulengro that he desired only some peaceful spot where he might hold uninterrupted communion with his own thoughts, and practise, if so inclined, either tinkering or the blacksmith's art, and he had been directed to Mumper's Dingle, which was to become the setting of the most romantic episode in his life.

In the dingle Borrow experienced one of his worst attacks of the "Horrors"--the "Screaming Horrors." He raged like a madman, a prey to some indefinable, intangible fear; clinging to his "little horse as if for safety and protection." {64a} He had not recovered from the prostrating effects of that night of tragedy when he was called upon to fight Anselo Herne, "the Flaming Tinman," who somehow or other seemed to be part of the bargain he had made with Jack Slingsby, and encounter the queen of road-girls, Isopel Berners. The description of the fight has been proclaimed the finest in our language, and by some the finest in the world's literature.

Isopel Berners is one of the great heroines of English Literature. As drawn by Borrow, with her strong arm, lion-like courage and tender tearfulness, she is unique. However true or false the account of her relations with Borrow may be, she is drawn by him as a living woman. He was incapable of conceiving her from his imagination. It may go unquestioned that he actually met an Isopel Berners, {64b} but whether or no his parting from her was as heart-rendingly tragic as he has depicted it, is open to very grave question.

With this queen of the roads he seems to have been less reticent and more himself than with any other of his vagabond acquaintance, not excepting even Mr Petulengro. To the handsome, tall girl with "the flaxen hair, which hung down over her shoulders unconfined," and the "determined but open expression," he showed a more amiable side of his character; yet he seems to have treated her with no little cruelty. He told her about himself, how he "had tamed savage mares, wrestled with Satan, and had dealings with ferocious publishers," bringing tears to her eyes, and when she grew too curious, he administered an antidote in the form of a few Armenian numerals. If his Autobiography is to be credited, Isopel loved him, and he was aware of it; but the knowledge did not hinder him from torturing the poor girl by insisting that she should decline the verb "to love" in Armenian.

Borrow's attitude towards Isopel was curiously complex; he seemed to find pleasure in playing upon her emotions. At times he appeared as deliberately brutal to her, as to the gypsy girl Ursula when he talked with her beneath the hedge. He forced from Isopel a passionate rebuke that he sought only to vex and irritate "a poor ignorant girl . . . who can scarcely read or write." He asked her to marry him, but not until he had convinced her that he was mad. How much she had become part of his life in the dingle he did not seem to realise until after she had left him. Isopel Berners was a woman whose character was almost masculine in its strength; but she was prepared to subdue her spirit to his, wished to do so even. With her strength, however, there was wisdom, and she left Borrow and the dingle, sending him a letter of farewell that was certainly not the composition of "a poor girl" who could "scarcely read or write." The story itself is in all probability true; but the letter rings false. Isopel may have sent Borrow a letter of farewell, but not the one that appears in The Romany Rye.

Among Borrow's papers Dr Knapp discovered a fragment of manuscript in which Mr Petulengro is shown deliberating upon the expediency of emulating King Pharaoh in the number of his wives. Mrs Petulengro desires "a little pleasant company," and urges her husband to take a second spouse. He proceeds:-

"Now I am thinking that this here Bess of yours would be just the kind of person both for my wife and myself. My wife wants something gorgiko, something genteel. Now Bess is of blood gorgious; if you doubt it, look at her face, all full of pawno ratter, white blood, brother; and as for gentility, nobody can make exceptions to Bess's gentility, seeing she was born in the workhouse of Melford the Short."

Mr Petulengro sees in Bess another advantage. If "the Flaming Tinman" {66a} were to descend upon them, as he once did, with the offer to fight the best of them for nothing, and Tawno Chikno were absent, who was to fight him? Mr Petulengro could not do so for less than five pounds; but with Bess as a second wife the problem would be solved. She would fight "the Flaming Tinman."

This proves nothing, one way or the other, and can scarcely be said to "dispel any allusions," as Dr Knapp suggests, or confirm the story of Isopel. Why did Borrow omit it from Lavengro? Not from caprice surely. It has been stated that those who know the gypsies can vouch for the fact that no such suggestion could have been made by a gypsy woman.

It would appear that Isopel Berners existed, but the account of her given by Borrow in Lavengro and The Romany Rye is in all probability


The Life of George Borrow - 10/90

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