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- The Life of George Borrow - 4/90 -


For the first time since his marriage, Captain Borrow found himself at liberty to settle down and educate his sons. He had spent much of his life in Norfolk, and he decided to remain there and make Norwich his home. It was a quiet and beautiful old-world city: healthy, picturesque, ancient, and, above all, possessed of a Grammar School, where George could try and gather together the stray threads of education that he had acquired at various times and in various dialects. It was an ideal city for a warrior to take his rest in; but probably what counted most with Captain Borrow was the Grammar School--more than the Norman Cathedral, the grim old Castle that stands guardian-like upon its mound, the fact of its being a garrison town, or even the traditions that surrounded the place. He had two sons who must be appropriately sent out into the world, and Norwich offered facilities for educating both. He accordingly took a small house in Willow Lane, to which access was obtained by a covered passage then called King's, but now Borrow's Court.

During the most nomadic portion of his life, when, with discouraging rapidity, he was moving from place to place, Captain Borrow never for one moment seems to have forgotten his obligations as a father. Whenever he had been quartered in a town for a few months, he had sought out a school to which to send John and George, notably at Huddersfield and Sheffield. Had he known it, these precautions were unnecessary; for he had two sons who were of what may be called the self-educating type: John, by virtue of the quickness of his parts; George, on account of the strangeness of his interests and his thirst for a knowledge of men and the tongues in which they communicate to each other their ideas. It would be impossible for an unconventional linguist, such as George Borrow was by instinct, to remain uneducated, and it was equally impossible to educate him.

Quite unaware of the trend of his younger son's genius, Captain Borrow obtained for him a free-scholarship at the Grammar School, then under the headmastership of the Rev. Edward Valpy, B.D., whose principal claims to fame are his severity, his having flogged the conqueror of the "Flaming Tinman," and his destruction of the School Records of Admission, which dated back to the Sixteenth Century. Among Borrow's contemporaries at the Grammar School were "Rajah" Brooke of Sarawak (for whose achievements he in after life expressed a profound admiration), Sir Archdale Wilson of Delhi, Colonel Charles Stoddart, Dr James Martineau, and Thomas Borrow Burcham, the London Magistrate.

Borrow was now thirteen, and, it would appear, as determined as ever to evade as much as possible academic learning. He was "far from an industrious boy, fond of idling, and discovered no symptoms by his progress either in Latin or Greek of that philology, so prominent a feature of his last work (Lavengro)." {20a} Borrow was an idler merely because his work was uncongenial to him. "Mere idleness is the most disagreeable state of existence, and both mind and body are continually making efforts to escape from it," he wrote in later years concerning this period. He wanted an object in life, an occupation that would prove not wholly uncongenial. That he should dislike the routine of school life was not unnatural; for he had lived quite free from those conventional restraints to which other boys of his age had always been accustomed. Occupation of some sort he must have, if only to keep at a distance that insistent melancholy that seems to have been for ever hovering about him, and the tempter whispered "Languages." {21a} One day chance led him to a bookstall whereon lay a polyglot dictionary, "which pretended to be an easy guide to the acquirement of French, Italian, Low Dutch, and English." He took the two first, and when he had gleaned from the old volume all it had to teach him, he longed for a master. Him he found in the person of an old French emigre priest, {21b} a study in snuff-colour and drab with a frill of dubious whiteness, who attended to the accents of a number of boarding-school young ladies. The progress of his pupil so much pleased the old priest that "after six months' tuition, the master would sometimes, on his occasional absences to teach in the country, request his so forward pupil to attend for him his home scholars." {21c} It was M. D'Eterville who uttered the second recorded prophecy concerning George Borrow: "Vous serez un jour un grand philologue, mon cher," he remarked, and heard that his pupil nourished aspirations towards other things than mere philology.

In the study of French, Spanish, and Italian, Borrow spent many hours that other boys would have devoted to pleasure; yet he was by no means a student only. He found time to fish and to shoot, using a condemned, honey-combed musket that bore the date of 1746. His fishing was done in the river Yare, which flowed through the estate of John Joseph Gurney, the Quaker-banker of Earlham Hall, two miles out of Norwich. It was here that he was reproached by the voice, "clear and sonorous as a bell," of the banker himself; not for trespassing, but "for pulling all those fish out of the water, and leaving them to gasp in the sun."

At Harford Bridge, some two miles along the Ipswich Road, lived "the terrible Thurtell," a patron and companion of "the bruisers of England," who taught Borrow to box, and who ultimately ended his own inglorious career by being hanged (9th January 1824) for the murder of Mr Weare, and incidentally figuring in De Quincey's "On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts." It was through "the king of flash-men" that Borrow saw his first prize-fight at Eaton, near Norwich.

The passion for horses that came suddenly to Borrow with his first ride upon the cob in Ireland had continued to grow. He had an opportunity of gratifying it at the Norwich Horse Fair, held each Easter under the shadow of the Castle, and famous throughout the country. {22a} It was here, in 1818, that Borrow encountered again Ambrose Petulengro, an event that was to exercise a considerable influence upon his life. Mr Petulengro had become the head of his tribe, his father and mother having been transported for passing bad money. He was now a man, with a wife, a child, and also a mother-in- law, who took a violent dislike to the tall, fair-haired gorgio. Borrow's life was much broadened by his intercourse with Mr Petulengro. He was often at the gypsy encampment on Mousehold, a heath just outside Norwich, where, under the tuition of his host, he learned the Romany tongue with such rapidity as to astonish his instructor and earn for him among the gypsies the name of "Lav- engro," word-fellow or word-master. He also boxed with the godlike Tawno Chikno, who in turn pronounced him worthy to bear the name "Cooro-mengro," fist-fellow or fist-master. He frequently accompanied Mr Petulengro to neighbouring fairs and markets, riding one of the gypsy's horses. At other times the two would roam over the gorse-covered Mousehold, discoursing largely about things Romany.

The departure of Mr Petulengro and his retinue from Norwich threw Borrow back once more upon his linguistic studies, his fishing, his shooting, and his smouldering discontent at the constraints of school life. It was probably an endeavour on Borrow's part to make himself more like his gypsy friends that prompted him to stain his face with walnut juice, drawing from the Rev. Edward Valpy the question: "Borrow, are you suffering from jaundice, or is it only dirt?" The gypsies were not the only vagabonds of Borrow's acquaintance at this period. There were the Italian peripatetic vendors of weather- glasses, who had their headquarters at Norwich. In after years he met again more than one of these merchants. They were always glad to see him and revive old memories of the Norwich days.

About this time he saved a boy from drowning in the Yare. {23a} It may be this act with which he generously credits his brother John when he says -

"I have known him dash from a steep bank into a stream in his full dress, and pull out a man who was drowning; yet there were twenty others bathing in the water, who might have saved him by putting out a hand, without inconvenience to themselves, which, however, they did not do, but stared with stupid surprise at the drowning one's struggles." {24a}

From the first Borrow had shown a strong distaste for the humdrum routine of school life. In a thousand ways he was different from his fellows. He had been accustomed to meet strange and, to him, deeply interesting people. Now he was bidden adopt a course of life against which his whole nature rebelled. It was impossible. He missed the atmosphere of vagabondage that had inspired and stimulated his early boyhood.

The crisis came at last. There was only one way to avoid the awkward and distasteful destiny that was being forced upon him. He entered into a conspiracy with three school-fellows, all younger than himself, to make a dash for a life that should offer wider opportunities to their adventurous natures. The plan was to tramp to Great Yarmouth and there excavate on the seashore caves for their habitation. From these headquarters they would make foraging expeditions, and live on what they could extract from the surrounding country, either by force or by the terror that they inspired. One morning the four started on their twenty-mile trudge to the sea; but, when only a few miles out, one of their number became fearful and turned back.

Encouraged by their leader, the others continued on their way. The father of the other two boys appears to have got wind of the project and posted after them in a chaise. He came up with them at Acle, about eleven miles from Norwich. When they were first seen, Borrow was striving to hearten his fellow buccaneers, who were tired and dispirited after their long walk. The three were unceremoniously bundled into the chaise and returned to their homes and, subsequently, to the wrath of the Rev. Edward Valpy. {25a}

The names of the three confederates were John Dalrymple (whose heart failed him) and Theodosius and Francis Purland, sons of a Norwich chemist. The Purlands are credited with robbing "the paternal till," while Dalrymple confined himself to the less compromising duty of "gathering horse-pistols and potatoes." If the boys robbed their father's till, why did they beg? In the ballad entitled The Wandering Children and the Benevolent Gentleman, Borrow depicts the "eldest child" as begging for charity for these hungry children, who have had "no breakfast, save the haws." This does not seem to suggest that the boys were in the possession of money. Again, it was the father of one of their schoolfellows who was responsible for their capture, according to Dr Knapp, by asking them to dinner whilst he despatched a messenger to the Rev. Edward Valpy. The story of Borrow's being "horsed" on Dr Martineau's back is apocryphal. Martineau himself denied it. {25b}

There is no record of how Captain Borrow received the news of his younger son's breach of discipline. It probably reminded him that the boy was now fifteen and it was time to think about his future. The old soldier was puzzled. Not only had his second son shown a great partiality for acquiring Continental tongues, but he had learned Irish, and Captain Borrow seemed to think that by learning the language of Papists and rebels, his son had sullied the family

The Life of George Borrow - 4/90

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