Portrait of George Borrow

The Bible in Spain, or, the Journeys, Adventures, and Imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Penisula

George Borrow had been employed by the British and Foreign Bible Society to print and then circulate an edition of the scriptures (without notes) in Spain, during 1835–1840.  Spain was in the middle of a civil war at the time, and George Borrow did indeed have a lot of adventures, and was imprisoned (copies of the scriptures without notes being forbidden in Catholic Spain).  More importantly, George Borrow had been writing regular, detailed and dramatic letters back to the Bible Society during his time—these were later to form the basis of The Bible in Spain.

In April 1841 George Borrow had published The Zincali, or an account of the Gypsies of Spain, which enjoyed a good reception, but didn’t contain much of his adventures.  The publisher’s reviewer (Richard Ford), believed that George Borrow should write another book, telling of his adventures etc. in Spain.  He wrote to George Borrow on 24 April 1841:

How I wish you had given us [in the Gypsies] more about yourself. . . .

source: The Life, Writings and Correspondence  of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 3

and (going slightly out of date order), had encouraged George Borrow in writing a personal book, in a letter dated February 1841:

I am delighted to hear that you meditate giving us your travels in Spain.  The more odd personal adventures, the better, and still more so if dramatic; that is, giving the exact conversations

source: The Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 1, p. 382

George Borrow contacted the Bible Society and in June 1841 they returned his original letters from Spain (i.e. the letters he wrote to them as his employer).  The letters were copied more or less verbatim, with just the need to write bridging paragraphs between them.  The main work (i.e. the copying) was done by George Borrow’s wife, Mary, but George Borrow very ungraciously was later (13 January 1842) to blame all the mistakes on her(!):

I find that the m. s. was full of trifling mistakes the fault of my amanuensis

source: George Borrow, A Bibliographical Study, p. 38

When George Borrow submitted the manuscript to John Murray in January 1842, he also submitted the original letters to the Bible Society.  John Murray’s reader’s report noted that more material should be included in The Bible in Spain, (partly identifying the gaps in the narratives, but also seeing extra adventures in the letters).  George Borrow took up these hints and on 23 February 1843, the completed MS. was delivered to John Murray, with the book being published, in three volumes, in December 1843.

The first edition was 1,000 copies, sold for 27s. each.  A second edition, of 1,000 copies, followed in January 1843, a third edition in March 1843, and fourth edition of 750 copies appeared in June 1843.  As can be seen the book’s success was instantaneous and overwhelming.  The reviews heaped praise on the book and the author, e.g. The Examiner:

This is a most remarkable book.  Highly as we praised the Gypsies of Spain, much as we had reason to expect from any subsequent effort of the writer, we were certainly not prepared for anything so striking as this.  Apart from its adventurous interest, its literary merit is extraordinary.  Never was book more legibly impressed with the unmistakable mark of genius.”

source: The Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 396

Tens of thousands of American copies were published and sold (in the same year, 1843).  George Borrow had produced a runaway best-seller.  As William Knapp, George Borrow’s biographer put it:

Borrow woke up one morning and found himself suddenly grown famous

source: The Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 1, p. 398