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- The Life of George Borrow - 5/90 -

honour. To his father's way of thinking, this accomplishment seemed to bar him from most things that were at one and the same time honourable and desirable.

The boy's own inclinations pointed to the army; but Captain Borrow had apparently seen too much of the army in war time, and the slowness of promotion, to think of it as offering a career suitable to his son, now that there was every prospect of a prolonged peace. He thought of the church as an alternative; but here again that fatal facility the boy had shown in learning Erse seemed to stand out as a barrier. "I have observed the poor lad attentively and really I do not see what to make of him," Captain Borrow is said to have remarked. What could be expected of a lad who would forsake Greek for Irish, or Latin for the barbarous tongue of homeless vagabonds? Certainly not a good churchman. At length it became obvious to the distressed parents that there was only one choice left them--the law.

About this period Borrow fell ill of some nameless and unclassified disease, which defied the wisdom of physicians, who shook their heads gravely by his bedside. An old woman, however, cured him by a decoction prepared from a bitter root. The convalescence was slow and laborious; for the boy's nerves were shattered, and that deep, haunting melancholy, which he first called the "Fear" and afterwards the "Horrors," descended upon him.

On the 30th of March 1819 Borrow was articled for five years to Simpson & Rackham, solicitors, of Tuck's Court, St Giles, Norwich. {26a} He consequently left home to take up his abode at the house of the senior partner in the Upper Close. {27a} Mr William Simpson was a man of considerable importance in the city; for besides being Treasurer of the County, he was Chamberlain and Town Clerk, whilst his wife was famed for her hospitality, in particular her expensive dinners.

With that unerring instinct of contrariety that never seemed to forsake him, Borrow proceeded to learn, not law but Welsh. When the eyes of authority were on him he transcribed Blackstone, but when they were turned away he read and translated the poems of Ab Gwilym. He performed his tasks "as well as could be expected in one who was occupied by so many and busy thoughts of his own."

At the end of Tuck's Court was a house at which was employed a Welsh groom, a queer fellow who soon attracted the notice of Simpson & Rackham's clerks, young gentlemen who were bent on "mis-spending the time which was not legally their own." {27b} They would make audible remarks about the unfortunate and inoffensive Welsh groom, calling out after him "Taffy"--in short, rendering the poor fellow's life a misery with their jibes, until at last, almost distracted, he had come to the determination either to give his master notice or to hang himself, that he might get away from that "nest of parcupines." Borrow saw in the predicament of the Welsh groom the hand of providence. He made a compact with him, that in exchange for lessons in Welsh, he, Borrow, should persuade his fellow clerks to cease their annoyance.

From that time, each Sunday afternoon, the Welsh groom would go to Captain Borrow's house to instruct his son in Welsh pronunciation; for in book Welsh Borrow was stronger than his preceptor. Borrow had learned the language of the bards "chiefly by going through Owen Pugh's version of 'Paradise Lost' twice" with the original by his side. After which "there was very little in Welsh poetry that I could not make out with a little pondering." {28a} This had occupied some three years. The studies with the groom lasted for about twelve months, until he left Norwich with his family. {28b}

Captain Borrow's thoughts were frequently occupied with the future of his younger son, a problem that had by no means been determined by signing the articles that bound him to Simpson & Rackham. The boy was frank and honest and did not scruple to give expression to ideas of his own, and it was these ideas that alarmed his father. Once at the house of Mr Simpson, and before the assembled guests, he told an archdeacon, worth 7000 pounds a year, that the classics were much overvalued, and compared Ab Gwilym with Ovid, to the detriment of the Roman. To Captain Borrow the possession of ideas upon any subject by one so young was in itself a thing to be deplored; but to venture an opinion contrary to that commonly held by men of weight and substance was an unforgivable act of insubordination.

The boy had been sent to Tuck's Court to learn law, and instead he persisted in acquiring languages, and such languages! Welsh, Danish, Arabic, Armenian, Saxon; for these were the tongues with which he occupied himself. None but a perfect mother such as Mrs Borrow could have found excuses for a son who pursued such studies, and her husband pointed out to her, it is "in the nature of women invariably to take the part of the second born."

In one of those curiously self-revelatory passages with which his writings abound, Borrow tells how he continued to act as door-keeper long after it had ceased to be part of his duty. As a student of men and a collector of strange characters, it was in keeping with his genius to do so, although he himself was unable to explain why he took pleasure in the task. No one was admitted to the presence of the senior partner who did not first pass the searching scrutiny of his articled clerk. Those who pleased him were admitted to Mr Simpson's private room; to those who did not he proved himself an almost insuperable obstacle. Unfortunately Borrow's standards were those of the physiognomist rather than the lawyer; he inverted the whole fabric of professional desirability by admitting the goats and refusing the sheep. He turned away a knight, or a baronet, and admitted a poet, until at last the distressed old gentleman in black, with the philanthropical head, his master, was forced to expostulate and adjure his clerk to judge, not by faces but by clothes, which in reality make the man. Borrow bowed to the ruling of "the prince of English solicitors," revised his standards and continued to act as keeper of the door.

Mr Simpson seems to have earned Borrow's thorough regard, no small achievement considering in how much he differed from his illustrious articled-clerk in everything, not excepting humour, of which the delightful, old-world gentleman seems to have had a generous share. He was doubtless puzzled to classify the strange being by whose instrumentality a stream of undesirable people was admitted to his presence, whilst distinguished clients were sternly and rigorously turned away. He probably smiled at the story of the old yeoman and his wife who, in return for some civility shown to them by Borrow, presented him with an old volume of Danish ballads, which inspired him to learn the language, aided by a Danish Bible. {30a} He was not only "the first solicitor in East Anglia," but "the prince of all English solicitors--for he was a gentleman!" {30b} In another place Borrow refers to him as "my old master . . . who would have died sooner than broken his word. God bless him!" {30c} And yet again as "my ancient master, the gentleman solicitor of East Anglia." {30d}

Borrow was always handsome in everything he did. If he hated a man he hated him, his kith and kin and all who bore his name. His friendship was similarly sweeping, and his regard for William Simpson prompted him to write subsequently of the law as "a profession which abounds with honourable men, and in which I believe there are fewer scamps than in any other. The most honourable men I have ever known have been lawyers; they were men whose word was their bond, and who would have preferred ruin to breaking it." {31a}

Fortunately for Borrow there was at the Norwich Guildhall a valuable library consisting of a large number of ancient folios written in many languages. "Amidst the dust and cobwebs of the Corporation Library" he studied earnestly and, with a fine disregard for a librarian's feelings, annotated some of the volumes, his marginalia existing to this day. One of his favourite works was the Danica Literatura Antiquissima of Olaus Wormius, 1636, which inspired him with the idea of adopting the name Olaus, his subsequent contributions to The New Magazine being signed George Olaus Borrow.

Whilst Borrow was striving to learn languages and avoid the law, {31b} the question of his brother's career was seriously occupying the mind of their father. Borrow loved and admired his brother. There is sincerity in all he writes concerning John, and there is something of nobility about the way in which he tells of his father's preference for him. "Who," he asks, "cannot excuse the honest pride of the old man--the stout old man?" {31c}

The Peace had closed to John Borrow the army as a profession, and he had devoted himself assiduously to his art. Under Crome the elder he had made considerable progress, and had exhibited a number of pictures at the yearly exhibitions of the Norwich Society of Artists. He continued to study with Crome until the artist's death (22nd April 1821), when a new master had to be sought. With his father's blessing and 150 pounds he proceeded to London, where he remained for more than a year studying with B. R. Haydon. {32a} Later he went to Paris to copy Old Masters.

About this time Borrow had an opportunity of seeing many of "the bruisers of England." In his veins flowed the blood of the man who had met Big Ben Bryan and survived the encounter undefeated. "Let no one sneer at the bruisers of England," Borrow wrote--"What were the gladiators of Rome, or the bull-fighters of Spain, in its palmiest days, compared to England's bruisers?" {32b} he asks. On 17th July 1820 Edward Painter of Norwich was to meet Thomas Oliver of London for a purse of a hundred guineas. On the Saturday previous (the 15th) the Norwich hotels began to fill with bruisers and their patrons, and men went their ways anxiously polite to the stranger, lest he turn out to be some champion whom it were dangerous to affront. Thomas Cribb, the champion of England, had come to see the fight, "Teucer Belcher, savage Shelton, . . . the terrible Randall, . . . Bulldog Hudson, . . . fearless Scroggins, . . . Black Richmond, . . . Tom of Bedford," and a host of lesser lights of the "Fancy."

On the Monday, upwards of 20,000 men swept out of the old city towards North Walsham, less than twenty miles distant, among them George Borrow, striding along among the varied stream of men and vehicles (some 2000 in number) to see the great fight, which was to end in the victory of the local man and a terrible storm, as if heaven were thundering its anger against a brutal spectacle. The sportsmen were left to find their way to shelter, Borrow and Mr Petulengro, whom he had encountered just after the fight, with them, talking of dukkeripens (fortunes).

Some time during the year 1820, a Jew named Levy (the Mousha of Lavengro), Borrow's instructor in Hebrew, introduced him to William Taylor, {33a} one of the most extraordinary men that Norwich ever produced. In the long-limbed young lawyer's clerk, whose hair was rapidly becoming grey, Taylor showed great interest, and, as an act of friendship, undertook to teach him German. He was gratified by the young man's astonishing progress, and much interested in his remarkable personality. As a result Borrow became a frequent visitor at 21 King Street, Norwich, where Taylor lived and many strange men assembled.

It is doubtful if William Taylor ever found another pupil so apt, or a disciple so enthusiastic among all the "harum-scarum young men" {33b} that he was so fond of taking up and introducing "into the best

The Life of George Borrow - 5/90

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