Portrait of George Borrow

The Romany Rye

On the 7 February 1851, the first part of George Borrow’s long-delayed semi-autobiographical, Lavengro, appeared.  Lavengro, however, “finished short”, not even finishing the story of the dingle, which occupied so many of the later chapters.  It was clear that something was to follow Lavengro, and George Borrow had already written a fair amount of what was to become The Romany RyeLavengro wasn’t the immediate success that George Borrow had expected, and received a number of negative reviews.  Just as importantly, the reading public, familiar with The Bible in Spain, weren’t expecting a book like Lavengro at all.  As Blackwood’s reviewer wrote:

We have read the book, and we are disappointed ... The performance bears no adequate relation to the promise ... Such are the contents of the book, which, most assuredly, will add but little to Mr. Borrow’s reputation [src: The Life of George Borrow, Volume 2, p. 31]

George Borrow was deeply hurt and very angry.  He later wrote (1855):

If ever a book experienced infamous and undeserved treatment, it was that book.  It was attacked in every form that envy and malice could suggest. [src: Life of George Borrow, Volume 2, p. 29]

John Murray, George Borrow’s publisher, hoped that a sequel to Lavengro, carrying George Borrow’s life upto the Spanish period, would redeem his author’s credibility.  On 8 November 1851 John Murray wrote to George Borrow:

Will your new volumes explain this and dissolve the mystery?  If so, pray make haste and get on with them.  I hope you have employed the summer in giving them the finishing touches [src: Life of George Borrow, Volume 2, p. 166]

George Borrow worked on the sequel sporadically during 1852 to 1854, without telling John Murray that the book would not “dissolve the mystery”, and that it barely carried events more than a year beyond Lavengro - nor would there be any colourful foreign adventures at all.  On 11 November 1852, George Borrow wrote to John Murray:

In answer to your inquiries about the Fourth Volume of Lavengro, I beg leave to say that I am occasionally occupied upon it.  I shall probably add some notes [src: Life of George Borrow, Voume 2, p. 167]

The phrase “add some notes” foreshadows the infamous Appendix to The Romany Rye.

The title (romany rye is gypsy for “gypsy gentleman”) first appeared in a letter from Mary Borrow to John Murray, 18 October 1853:

My husband hopes shortly to complete his work, which, if published, he proposes to call The Romany Ryea Sequel to Lavengro [src: Life of George Borrow , Volume 2, p. 167]

The manuscript for The Romany Rye was delivered to John Murray in November 1854.  John Murray was no doubt deeply disappointed and shocked.  He certainly wasn’t prepared to publish it.  On 5 April 1855 Mary Borrow wrote to John Murray asking for the return of the manuscript.  A long exchange followed, and George Borrow toned down some of the vitriolic parts of the Appendix, but insisted the book could not be published without the Appendix.

John Murray eventually published The Romany Rye on 30 April 1857 in two volumes, in an edition of 1000 copies.  By 10 July 1857, Borrow’s friend John Hasfelt was writing a prophetic letter to Borrow:

All the spare time I could get I have devoted to the perusal of your Romany Rye ... many men would have reflected long before venturing to give the lesson to fools and to hold up the lantern on one side and the mirror on the other to their venerable countenances.  Your book will meet with a dire reception by all persons who have got a piece of the roast, and there are many to whom you have served it [src: Life of George Borrow, Volume 2, p. 170]

There were few reviews, the critical press more or less ignoring George Borrow.  The Appendix lost George Borrow a number of acquaintances, many of whom had suffered in it.

852 copies of the first edition were sold by June 1857, and George Borrow was paid £149 4s. 6d. as his half share of the profits.  The first edition was reissued in 1858 and called the second edition, of 750 copies.  The first American edition (a piracy for which George Borrow and John Murray got nothing), appeared in 1857.

The book’s poor reception meant that it wasn’t until 1872 that John Murray issued a third edition of 2,000 copies.  By 1888, John Murray still had 940 unsold copies of the 1872 edition.

After George Borrow’s death the critical reception of the book changed, and it went on to go through numerous editions.  The infamous Appendix no longer revolved people, those targeted having passed away with the years.

source: George Borrow, A Bibliographic Study, p. 67.

source: The Life of George Borrow, Knapp (numerous references throughout both volumes)