Portrait of George Borrow

The Zincali, or, An Account of the Gypsies of Spain

George Borrow’s book on the Spanish Gypsies.

As Lavengro shows, during his early life George Borrow had become acquainted with various English Gypsies, and had become fluent in Romany (the Gypsy language).

When he obtained a job with the Bible Society in Russia (1833–1835), he built on his Gypsy knowledge by mixing with the Hungarian and Russian Gypsies.

On 13 November 1835, George Borrow arrived at Lisborn, Portugal, for what would turn out to be five years work in Portugal and Spain, during which time worked with many Spanish Gypsies.  During this period George Borrow translated the Gospel of St. Luke into Caló (Spanish Gypsy variant of Romany), and published it in Madrid in 1838.  George Borrow had originally wanted to publish a Gypsy vocabulary as part of the St. Luke, but the Bible Society refused:

“Resolved that Mr. Borrow be authorized to print 250 copies of the Gospel according to St. Luke in the Rommanee Dialect, without the vocabulary; ...”—Proposed March 13th; confirmed March 20, 1837 [src: Life of George Borrow, Volume 1, p. 272]

The Gypsy vocabulary was to re-appear (reworked) in The Zincali.

By 25 September 1839, George Borrow, nearing the end of his employment with the Bible Society, was in Saville and working on the various Gypsy knowledge he had come across during his life, arranging it for publication.  Since the book was mainly to be about the Spanish Gypsies (zincali being the Spanish term for gypsy), it was important that George Borrow used his last few months in the country to research and write.  He was never to return to Spain.  After a break he resumed the work again (in Seville), in early January 1840, and worked on it steadily until March.

In April 1840 George Borrow returned to England in April, married Mary Clarke, and resumed work on The Zincali at his new home on Oulton Broad, Suffolk.  Mary Borrow was co-opted to assist, copying out George Borrow’s manuscript in a fair hand.

In November 1840, George Borrow got his old co-translator to recommend The Zincali to John Murray, the famous London publisher.  When George Borrow appeared visited John Murray to hand over the manuscript, he impressed John Murray.  As Samuel Smiles, in Memoir and Correspondence of the later John Murray, put it:

Mr. Murray could not fail to be taken at first sight with this extraordinary man.  He had a splendid physique, standing six feet two in his stockings, and he had brains as well as muscles, as his works sufficiently show [src: Memoir and Correspondence of the late John Murray, Volume 2, p. 485]

John Murray sent the manuscript to Spanish expert Richard Ford.  On Ford’s recommendation the book was accepted, and the acceptance letter was sent to George Borrow on 23 December 1840:

Mr. Murray, having considered what appears to be your wish respecting the publication of your MS on the Gipsies of Spain, begs through me to make you the following proposal.  He will print at his own cost and sole risk, an edition of 750 copies of your work, & will divide with you the profits when they are sold.  After which the copyright remains yours, to do what you like with it.” [src: George Borrow, A Bibliographic Study, p. 20]

(750 copies was not a very large print run for John Murray and clearly shows caution as to likely sales.)

George Borrow accepted the terms and the book was published by John Murray in 1841.  Sales were brisk, 600 copies selling the first week.  A second edition of 750 copies appeared in March 1843.  A third edition of 750 copies was published in September 1843 and two-thirds of that edition were sold by Christmas 1843.  The remaining copies were not exhausted until 1879.

George Borrow received £127 8d. as his share of the profits of the first edition, £121 1s. 6. in profits for the second edition.  During George Borrow’s lifetime he received just over £570 in profits on the book.