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- The Life of George Borrow - 2/90 -


revocation of the Edict of Nantes, their ancestors had fled from their native town of Caen and taken refuge in East Anglia, there to enjoy the liberty of conscience denied them in their beloved Normandy. Thomas Borrow made the acquaintance of the young probationer, and promptly settled any aspirations that she may have had towards the stage by marrying her. The wedding took place on 11th February 1793 at East Dereham church, best known as the resting- place of the poet Cowper, Ann being twenty-one and Thomas thirty-four years of age.

For the next seven years Thomas and Ann Borrow moved about with the West Norfolk Militia, which now marched off into Essex, a few months later doubling back again into Norfolk. Then it dived into Kent and for a time hovered about the Cinque Ports, Thomas Borrow in the meantime being promoted to the rank of quarter-master (27th May 1795). It was not until he had completed fourteen years of service that he received a commission. On 27th February 1798 he became Adjutant in the same regiment, a promotion that carried with it a captain's rank.

Whilst at Sandgate Mrs Borrow became acquainted with John Murray, the son of the founder of the publishing house from which, forty-four years later, were to be published the books of her second son, then unborn. The widow of John Murray the First had married in 1795 Lieutenant Henry Paget of the West Norfolk Militia. Years later (27th March 1843) George Borrow wrote to John Murray, Junr., third of the line:

"I am at present in Norwich with my mother, who has been ill, but is now, thank God, recovering fast. She begs leave to send her kind remembrances to Mr Murray. She knew him at Sandgate in Kent FORTY- SIX years ago, when he came to see his mother, Mrs P[aget]. She was also acquainted with his sister, Miss Jane Murray, {5a} who used to ride on horseback with her on the Downs. She says Captain [sic] Paget once cooked a dinner for Mrs P. and herself; and sat down to table with his cook's apron on. Is not this funny? Does it not 'beat the Union,' as the Yankees say?"

The first child of the marriage was born in 1800, it is not known exactly when or where. This was John, "the brother some three years older than myself," whose beauty in infancy was so great "that people, especially those of the poorer classes, would follow the nurse who carried him about in order to look at and bless his lovely face," {6a} with its rosy cheeks and smiling, blue-eyed innocence. On one occasion even, an attempt was made to snatch him from the arms of his nurse as she was about to enter a coach. The parents became a prey to anxiety; for the child seems to have possessed many endearing qualities as well as good looks. He was quick and clever, and when the time came for instruction, "he mastered his letters in a few hours, and in a day or two could decipher the names of people on the doors of houses and over the shop windows." {6b} His cleverness increased as he grew up, and later he seems to have become, in the mind of Captain Borrow at least, a standard by which to measure the shortcomings of his younger son George, whom he never was able to understand.

For the next three years, 1800-3, the regiment continued to hover about the home counties. The Peace of Amiens released many of the untried warriors, who had enlisted "until the peace," their adjutant having to find new recruits to fill up the gaps. War broke out again the following year (18th May 1803), and the Great Terror assumed a phase so critical as to subdue almost entirely all thought of party strife. On 5th July Ann Borrow gave birth to a second son, in the house of her father. At the time Captain Borrow was hunting for recruits in other parts of Norfolk, in order to send them to Colchester, where the regiment was stationed. In due course the child was christened George Henry {7a} at the church of East Dereham, and, within a few weeks of his birth, he received his first experience of the vicissitudes of a soldier's life, by accompanying his father, mother, and brother to Colchester to rejoin the regiment. The whole infancy of George Borrow was spent in the same trailing restlessness. Napoleon was alive and at large, and the West Norfolks seemed doomed eternally to march and countermarch in the threatened area, Sussex, Kent, Essex.

No efforts appear to have been made to steal the younger brother, although "people were in the habit of standing still to look at me, ay, more than at my brother." {7b} Unlike John in about everything that one child could be unlike another, George was a gloomy, introspective creature who considerably puzzled his parents. He compares himself to "a deep, dark lagoon, shaded by black pines, cypresses and yews," {7c} beside which he once paused to contemplate "a beautiful stream . . . sparkling in the sunshine, and . . . tumbling merrily into cascades," {7d} which he likened to his brother.

Slow of comprehension, almost dull-witted, shy of society, sometimes bursting into tears when spoken to, George became "a lover of nooks and retired corners," {7e} where he would sit for hours at a time a prey to "a peculiar heaviness . . . and at times . . . a strange sensation of fear, which occasionally amounted to horror," {7f} for which there was no apparent cause. In time he grew to be as much disliked as his brother was admired. On one occasion an old Jew pedlar, attracted by the latent intelligence in the smouldering eyes of the silent child, who ignored his questions and continued tracing in the dust with his fingers curious lines, pronounced him "a prophet's child." This carried to the mother's heart a quiet comfort; and reawakened in her hope for the future of her second son.

The early childhood of George Borrow was spent in stirring times. Without, there was the menace of Napoleon's invasion; within, every effort was being made to meet and repel it. Dumouriez was preparing his great scheme of defence; Captain Thomas Borrow was doing his utmost to collect and drill men to help in carrying it into effect. Sometimes the family were in lodgings; but more frequently in barracks, for reasons of economy. Once, at least, they lived under canvas.

The strange and puzzling child continued to impress his parents in a manner well-calculated to alarm them. One day, with a cry of delight, he seized a viper that, "like a line of golden light," was moving across the lane in which he was playing. Whilst making no effort to harm the child, who held and regarded it with awe and admiration, the reptile showed its displeasure towards John, his brother, by hissing and raising its head as if to strike. This happened when George was between two and three years of age. At about the same period he ate largely of some poisonous berries, which resulted in "strong convulsions," lasting for several hours. He seems to have been a source of constant anxiety to his parents, who were utterly unable to understand the strange and gloomy child who had been vouchsafed to them by the inscrutable decree of providence.

In the middle of the year 1809 the regiment returned from Essex to Norfolk, marching first to Norwich and thence to other towns in the county. Captain Borrow and his family took up their quarters once more at Dereham. George was now six years old, acutely observant of the things that interested him, but reluctant to proceed with studies which, in his eyes, seemed to have nothing to recommend them. Books possessed no attraction for him, although he knew his alphabet and could even read imperfectly. The acquirement of book-learning he found a dull and dolorous business, to which he was driven only by the threats or entreaties of his parents, who showed some concern lest he should become an "arrant dunce."

The intelligence that the old Jew pedlar had discovered still lay dormant, as if unwilling to manifest itself. The boy loved best "to look upon the heavens, and to bask in the rays of the sun, or to sit beneath hedgerows and listen to the chirping of the birds, indulging the while in musing and meditation." {9a} Meanwhile John was earning golden opinions for the astonishing progress he continued to make at school, unconsciously throwing into bolder relief the apparent dullness of his younger brother. George, however, was as active mentally as the elder. The one was studying men, the other books. George was absorbing impressions of the things around him: of the quaint old Norfolk town, its "clean but narrow streets branching out from thy modest market-place, with thine old-fashioned houses, with here and there a roof of venerable thatch"; of that exquisite old gentlewoman Lady Fenn, {9b} as she passed to and from her mansion upon some errand of bounty or of mercy, "leaning on her gold-headed cane, whilst the sleek old footman walked at a respectful distance behind." {9c) On Sundays, from the black leather-covered seat in the church-pew, he would contemplate with large-eyed wonder the rector and James Philo his clerk, "as they read their respective portions of the venerable liturgy," sometimes being lulled to sleep by the monotonous drone of their voices.

On fine Sundays there was the evening walk "with my mother and brother--a quiet, sober walk, during which I would not break into a run, even to chase a butterfly, or yet more a honey-bee, being fully convinced of the dread importance of the day which God had hallowed. And how glad I was when I had got over the Sabbath day without having done anything to profane it. And how soundly I slept on the Sabbath night after the toil of being very good throughout the day." {10a}

During these early years there was being photographed upon the brain of George Borrow a series of impressions which, to the end of his life, remained as vivid as at the moment they were absorbed. What appeared to those around him as dull-witted stupidity was, in reality, mental surfeit. His mind was occupied with other things than books, things that it eagerly took cognisance of, strove to understand and was never to forget. {10b} Hitherto he had taken "no pleasure in books . . . and bade fair to be as arrant a dunce as ever brought the blush of shame into the cheeks of anxious and affectionate parents." {10c} His mind was not ready for them. When the time came there was no question of dullness: he proved an eager and earnest student.

One day an intimate friend of Mrs Borrow's, who was also godmother to John, brought with her a present of a book for each of the two boys, a history of England for the elder and for the younger Robinson Crusoe. Instantly George became absorbed.

"The true chord had now been touched . . . Weeks succeeded weeks, months followed months, and the wondrous volume was my only study and principal source of amusement. For hours together I would sit poring over a page till I had become acquainted with the import of every line. My progress, slow enough at first, became by degrees more rapid, till at last, under a 'shoulder of mutton sail,' I found myself cantering before a steady breeze over an ocean of enchantment, so well pleased with my voyage that I cared not how long it might be ere it reached its termination. And it was in this manner that I first took to the paths of knowledge." {11a}

In the spring of 1810 the regiment was ordered to Norman Cross, in Huntingdonshire, situated at the junction of the Peterborough and Great North Roads. At this spot the Government had caused to be erected in 1796 an extensive prison, covering forty acres of ground, in which to confine some of the prisoners made during the Napoleonic


The Life of George Borrow - 2/90

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