Portrait of George Borrow

Alfred Egmont Hake

Alfred Egmont Hake’s father (Dr. Thomas Gordon Hake) was a friend of George Borrow’s and Alfred met Borrow at his father’s house on a number of occasions.  When Borrow died in 1881, Alfred was one of a number of people who wrote short pieces and remembrances of Borrow for the literary magazines of the day.

His two articles are given below, and would have contained a lot of “new” material when they were issued, although that material was later reproduced in Knapp’s biography and it’s successors, and so is well-known today.

Footnotes have been added (that are not in the originals).

Alfred was born in Guildhall Street, Bury St. Edmunds on the 12 October 1849.  Little is known of Alfred’s upbringing, but his first book, Paris Originals, 1878, indicates he spent time abroad.  Hake contributed many items to the literary magazines.  He married Philippa Mary Handley, eleven years his junior, at Kensington register office on 4 December 1879.  Hake’s Story of Chinese Gordon, 1884, a biography of General Gordon (Hake’s mother was Gordon’s aunt) was very popular.

Hake was involved in politics as well as writing, and interested in metaphysics (see below).

In the 1901 census he was living at 96 Archel Road, Fulham, as a lodger (what had happened to his wife?) and later lived in Kennington Park Road, Lambeth.  He died of peripheral neuritis in the City of London Lunatic Asylum, Stone, near Dartford, Kent on 8 December 1916. [1]

The Athenæum, August 13, 1881
No. 2807
Pages 209–10

Recollections of George Borrow

Those who have read the notices of George Borrow’s death which appeared last week in the daily papers will readily perceive that, good as some of them are, the writers were not personally acquainted with the man they describe.  This is not to be wondered at, for he always sought retirement, and only as a rare exception mixed in society.

Looking back on my own experience, which is comparatively recent, though he was a friend of my family before he wrote ‘Lavengro,’ [2] few men have ever made so deep an impression on me as George Borrow.  His tall, broad figure, his stately bearing, his fine brown eyes, so bright yet soft, his thick white hair, his oval, beardless face, his loud rich voice and bold heroic air were such as to impress the most indifferent of lookers-on.  Added to this there was something not easily forgotten in the man: in which he would unexpectedly come to our gates, singing some gipsy song, and as suddenly depart.  His conversation, too, was unlike that of any other man; whether he told a long story or only commented on some ordinary topic, he was always quaint, often humorous.  I was once much amused at hearing him say to my little brother, [3] whom he called the Antelope, “Do you know how to fight a man bigger than yourself?  Accept his challenge, and tell him to take off his coat, and while he is doing it knock him down and then run for your life!”  His individuality was so strong and is so fully manifested in his works that this alone would establish his claim to being remembered as men become more and more alike through the influences of civilization.  George Borrow, whimsical and eccentric as he appeared, was always honest, and presented a stern front to humbug and cant, but what he admired most of all things was pluck.  He was a choice companion on a walk, whether across country or in the slums of Houndsditch.  His enthusiasm for nature was peculiar; he could draw more poetry from a wide-spreading marsh with its straggling rushes than from the most beautiful scenery, and would stand and look at it with rapture.  But more attractive to him still was an old wayside inn.  The Bald-Faced Stag in Roehampton Valley was one of his favourite resting-places. [4] He would go in there, call for a pot of ale, and begin to dilate on Jerry Abershaw and his deeds performed in the neighbourhood, and would expatiate on his hanging in irons on the gallows not far off.  Mean time, he would drink the beer and insist on your drinking it too, making faces at it the while and calling it “swipes.” [5]  Though he loved old Burton and ’37 port, he would drink whatever he came across upon the road, as if, out of perversity, to insist on his iron constitution bearing whatever work he chose to impose upon it.  As another example, one day in March we were walking through Richmond Park in a bitter easterly wind, and came to the Fen Ponds, which had ice on them.  Borrow stripped and jumped into the water, diving for a long distance and reappearing at a far-off spot.  He was then seventy years of age. [6]

Men of real worth had no greater admirer than George Borrow, while men of pretension, who sought him for the opportunity of displaying their own merits, found him impenetrable and often rude.  He had a great facility of acquiring a sufficient knowledge of languages to make himself fully understood in the countries where they were spoken; but he never professed to be a linguist, and he heartily despised those who boasted of their ten or a dozen languages, as in the instance of the late Dr. D.  Borrow was the son, as is well known, of a recruiting officer who reached the rank of captain, but it is doubtful whether his father commenced his military career with a commission.

Borrow’s adventures abroad pretty well came to a conclusion with his marriage.  After this the only excursion he made, so far as I know, was into Albania, through which country he rode on horseback alone, at a time when a native would take another’s life to rob him of a ducat. [7]  Borrow was fortunate in his publishers; and among all the friends whom he attached to himself in life there were none whom he loved and respected so much as the elder Mr. Murray and his son, the present eminent publisher.  He had many pleasant anecdotes to tell of the late Mr. Murray.  One of these I remember, in which he related how that gentleman would double his fist and exclaim, “I want to meet with good writers, but there are none to be had; I want a man who can write like Ecclesiastes!”

The property on which Borrow lived at Oulton, which consists of a good farm and farmhouse, belonged to his wife’s family, a part interest in which fell to her; but the large sums of money that his early books produced him enabled him to purchase the remainder, and it was there that he wrote the greater number of his works.  His home consisted of a pleasant cottages with a lawn sloping down to Lake Lothing, a fine sheet of water stretching to Lowestoft, three miles off, and was flanked by a pine wood with a paddock in the rear for his “good horse, Sidi Habismilk.”  His mother lodged in the farmhouse, which was near at hand; and so important is the maternal blood in its influence that a word or two about her is not out of place.  She was a lady of striking figure and very graceful manners, perhaps more serious than vivacious, though, if report be true, she was of French origin, and in early life an actress. [8]  But the subject of his family was one on which Borrow never touched.  He would allude to Borrowdale as the country whence they came, and then would make mysterious allusions to his father’s pugilistic triumphs.  But this is certain, that he has not left a single relation behind him.

When he was in St. Petersburg he occupied himself with translating poetry from thirty languages and dialects, some specimens of which appeared there in a volume called ‘Targum.’  Of this I may speak on some other occasion, having a copy of this rare book, [9] which, after he became famous, the Russian Government was desirous of procuring for the Imperial Library, and sent an envoy to England for the purpose.  But the envoy was refused what he sought, and told that as the book was not worth notice when the author’s name was obscure and they had the opportunity of obtaining it themselves, they should not have it now.  Borrow has left behind him a vast pile of similar translations, which his publishers did not encourage him to bring out, and his impression was that this was owing to Lockhart’s influence, who, wishing to monopolize the field of Spanish ballads, insinuated that Borrow was no poet.

It was at Oulton that the author of the ‘Bible in Spain’ spent his happiest days.  The ménage in his Suffolk home was conducted with great simplicity, but he always had for his friends a bottle or two of wine of rare vintage, and no man was more hearty than he over the glass.  He passed his mornings in his summer-house, writing on small scraps of paper, and these he handed to his wife, who copied them on foolscap.  It was in this way and in this retreat that the MS. of ‘Lavengro’ as well as of the ‘Bible in Spain’ was prepared—the place of which he says, “And I hastened to my summer-house by the side of the lake, and there I thought and wrote, and every day I repaired to the same place and thought and wrote until I had finished the ‘Bible in Spain.’”

In this out-door studio, hung behind the door, were a soldier’s coat and a sword which belonged to his father; these were household gods on which he would often gaze while composing.  He read very little, and had few books except old ones in foreign tongues, and a Hebrew Bible which he studied through life.  Part of his day he gave to exercise, taking very long walks or rides, making friends with odd people on the road.  He used to say that the common folk talked Danish for some seventeen miles inland.  Sir Morton Peto was one of his neighbours; he was the owner of Somerleyton Hall, which he had bought of Lord Sydney Godolphin Osborne (the S. G. O. of the Times).  Peto had boasted that he had made more money by the gravel he had taken out of Borrow’s land, through which the railway passed, than he paid for the purchase.  Borrow often met the great contractor in his walks, and on one of these occasions Sir Morton said to him, “You never come and see me!” and Borrow, who had heard of his boast, greeted the invitation thus: “I call on you!  Do you think I don’t read my Shakepeare?  Do you think I don’t know all about those highwaymen Bardolph and Peto?”  Borrow was a very nervous man, and, like many who are so, when he had anything strong to say he did so in a menacing voice.

One of his delights was to show his friends the brasses in Oulton Church, one of which bears an effigy of Sir John Fastolf, a redoubtable knight whom he held to be the much be-libelled original of Falstaff in Shakspeare.  Borrow always gave the gipsies leave to encamp on his land; one of my family was staying with him when a party of these nomads was there.  After dinner it was proposed to go out and see the gipsies.  Borrow was received with great respect; after talking with these people for some time, he began to intone to them a song, written by him in Romany, which recounted all their tricks and evil deeds.  The gipsies soon became excited; then they began to kick their property about, such as barrels and tin cans; then the men began to fight and the women to part them; an uproar of shouts and recriminations set in, and the quarrel became so serious that it was thought prudent to quit the scene.  Borrow was very fond of walking over to Yarmouth, where every one knew him, and would bathe there in the sea even in the severest weather.  During the Lowestoft season he often received distinguished visitors.  Among these were Baron Alderson and his daughter, the present Marchioness of Salisbury.  At this time he was in his prime, and his reputation stood so high that every word which fell from his lips was repeated to others, while many ridiculous stories were circulated of his being of gipsy blood.  He was extremely courteous when visiting the county families, though if he met a “lion” at any of their houses such a one might easily incur the risk of a rebuff.  A distinguished novelist who was staying in one of the great houses met Borrow there, and, rubbing his hands, said to him, “Have you read my — in Punch this week?” and got for answer, “Punch! it’s a thing I never look at!” [10]  On a similar occasion a lady who sat by him at dinner said, “Oh, Mr. Borrow, I have been reading your books”; and his answer was, “Pray, what books, madam?  Do you mean my account books?  I am at a loss to know where you could have got a sight of them.” [11]  And a celebrated authoress to whom he was introduced said, “I am so pleased to meet you, Mr. Borrow.  May I send you my ‘Lives’? and he replied, “For God’s sake don’t, madam; I shouldn’t know where to put them or what to do with them.” [12]  These unsocial replies indicate the proud man which he was.  The fact is he would only talk of his works to intimate friends, and when he went into company it was as a gentleman, not because he was an author.

Comparing what I have heard of him in former times with what I have seen, I think his brusqueness must have softened a good deal with years and have given way to a more quiet humour.  At one time he felt almost resentment against the public when they refused to receive his fictions as actual truth; he fretted a good deal at finding that his works were less sought after as time went on.  On one of us saying that his appendix to the ‘Romany Rye’ was the strongest piece of invective since Swift, he said in a mocking manner, “Yes, I meant it to be; and what do you think the effect of it was?  No one took the least notice of it!”

At the time I am speaking of he was living in Hereford Square, [13] where he saw such literary friends as he cared to associate with.  It was here that he lost his wife, who was a most devoted and faithful partner, and seemed to have the power of taking all his cares off his hands.  In return his devotion to her was unbounded, and his loss of her was irreparable.  His step-daughter had married, and he, after lingering a year or two in London, went back to Oulton alone. [14]

If Borrow’s works are forgotten in England they are not neglected in America, which is a sort of posterity.  The English language has become so perfect now, and there are so many who can wield it, and there will be so many more, that every age will insist on producing its own literature.  But there are things in Borrow which are as much deserving the attention of any age as in any of his predecessors.  When people grow tired of neglecting such writers as he for the sake of their own often inane productions, the works of George Borrow will be read again.

A. Egmont Hake.

p. 56Macmillan’s Magazine vol. 45, issue 56
1st November 1881
Pages 56–63. [15]

George Borrow

Every age has its literary heroes, though these, after engrossing the attention of the world, appear to leave the arena, and to make way for new aspirants to fame.  The works of those who in past times have played their part in building up the literature of the nation have been preserved; but now a change seems to be setting in as if the world itself, like individuals, had become subject to loss of memory.  This circumstance may be looked at from more than one point of view.  It may be that great writers are becoming more numerous than great readers, and that there is an embarras de richesse; it may be that authors of a past generation fitly represented the thought of their own day and no more, or if they were in advance of it, the new age soon left them in the rear; or it may be that people, saturated with the classic productions of the few, have become blasés, and are content with the universal gossip of a press which is now equal to the task of supplying their most trivial wants.  George Borrow was unquestionably the hero of his time some thirty or forty years ago, that is, after appearing as the author of the Gipsies in Spain, which was published in 1841.

He had so few associates outside his family, and he so seldom wrote a letter, that the materials for a sketch of his inner life would have been scanty but that he embodied it thoroughly in his works; this fact to those who knew him well has a special value.  He was his own hero in what he wrote, and although, as in Goethe’s Wahrheit und Dichtung, he clothed truth in fiction, no one who knew him personally can fail to see his own character in all he wrote.  In his work, Wild Wales, where his personality is undisguised even by the romance in which it is framed, the same hero is discovered as figured in Lavengro and The Romany Rye.  Borrow, like Goethe, indulged in the love of mystery, but that love in the latter was extended to nature’s secret operations, while in the other it was strictly personal.  Borrow had a singular organisation, both bodily and mental; and ambitious as he was for intellectual distinction, his highest desire was to figure in his generation as a remarkable man.  Before Lavengro appeared this aspiration had been fully gratified, his name was in every mouth on account of his conquest of the unknown Gipsy language, and his adventures among an unknown people at the same time that he had braved the Government of a Catholic kingdom, and suffered imprisonments for his courageous defiance of authority in diffusing the Scriptures through Spain.  But when he exhibited his character in Lavengro, freed from its religious glamour, a shock of horror vibrated through the circles of society, and was followed by results which it is not difficult to show helped to revolutionise the habits of the young.  In Borrow’s earlier days, dandyism prevailed.  The youth of London who aimed at, or imitated aristocracy, dressed in the most gaudy attire.  Their evening coats were of the finest blue saxon, the buttons treble gilt, the vests were of crimson velvet hung over with rich Geneva chains; and in morning attire not less gorgeous they crept along the streets like superior beings who had condescended to pay a visit to this world.  All this, Borrow, with his manly character, to use a favourite expression of his own, loathed; whence it was that he enjoyed showing the fashionable, who had tried in vain to make a lion of him, that a better man than p. 57they had among them could fight with his fists and live as a tinman in a dingle among the lowest of mankind.  The influence of Borrow’s books was not ineffectual in producing the change from finery to convenient tweed apparel in which men could walk at a brisk pace, and in showing that athletic sports were nobler than a Bond Street lounge.  Nevertheless, at the time, Borrow was pronounced vulgar; the finery of a world was aggrieved at the blow he had struck, and an outburst of anger ran through the journals against Borrow and his Lavengro.  This episode in social history may be described as a trial of strength between the new blood and the old; it was Borrow versus Pelham.

It has been said that all Borrow’s books are more or less autobiographical, but they must be divided into two classes: those which are truly a life-size representation of himself as he was, and those which, taking the form and tone of romance, give us only glimpses of the man now in profile, now in the guise of some fantastic character so well portrayed that Lavengro is not to be recognised save by those who have seen him play many parts.  In fact, Borrow was a sort of Rembrandt in literature, caring for nothing more than to portray himself in a hundred different ways.  Thus we see him as a “bit of a philologer” interrogating all sorts of stray wayfarers on the meanings of odd words; as the friend of the gipsies; as the upholder of pugilism and English pluck; as the man afflicted with a habit of touch that he may baffle the evil chance; as the horse-tamer, the snake-charmer; then as the exponent of bygone and forgotten poets of Wales and Ancient Britain.

In all these portraits of himself, whether the pose be adapted to the costume or the costume to the pose, whether the grouping savours of the bizarre, or the colour is sometimes too deeply shaded or illuminated to follow up the intention of art, we have only to look closely into the fantastic masquerie by which each is surrounded, to discover George Borrow, the man whose individuality no art could hide, just as in the gallery of Rembrandt’s self-portrayals we have the master whose figure even his own transcendent art-cunning could not efface.

George Henry Borrow was born at East Dereham, Norfolk, in 1803, and from what we can gather he must have passed a happy childhood, the roving spirit having early seized him, and a curiosity about the gipsies and their ways being felt by him even at a tender age.  When camping out in the dingle with Peter Williams, taking no count of time in those romantic days, passed among tramps, ostlers, itinerant blacksmiths, Methodists, and gipsies, reminded only by his companion when the Sunday came round that it was Sunday, he looked back on the Sabbaths of his childhood at East Dereham, as he said:—

“I thought on the early Sabbaths of my life, and the manner in which I was wont to pass them.  How carefully I said my prayers when I got up on the Sabbath morn, and how carefully I combed my hair and brushed my clothes, in order that I might do credit to the Sabbath Day.  I thought of the old church at pretty D—, the dignified rector, and yet more dignified clerk.  I thought of England’s grand liturgy, and Tate and Brady’s sonorous minstrelsy.  I thought of the Holy Book, portions of which I was in the habit of reading between service.  I thought, too, of the evening walk which I sometimes took in fine weather like the present with my mother and brother—a quiet, sober walk, during which I would not break into a run, even to chase a butterfly, or yet more a honey-bee, being fully convinced of the dread importance of the day which God had hallowed.  And how glad I was when I got over the Sabbath day without having done anything to profane it.  And how soundly I slept on the Sabbath night, after the toil of being very good throughout the day.  And when I had mused on those times a long while, I sighed, and said to myself, I am much altered since then; am I altered for the better?  And then I looked at my hands and my apparel, and sighed again.  I was not wont of yore to appear thus on the Sabbath Day.”

From East Dereham, his father being a recruiting officer, he went p. 58from station to station, and while at Edinburgh was placed at the High School, his father having a fear that his two sons might acquire the Scotch accent, and there it was least practised.  The family stayed at Edinburgh Castle, and of this portion of his boyish experience he has given us his own account.

From Edinburgh he went to Ireland and then back to England, and was placed in a solicitor’s office at Norwich in 1819.  He however soon gave up the law, but during his stay at Norwich he would seem to have been very much engaged in his favourite pursuit of languages, for besides studying Welsh, German and Danish, he was occupied in translating a Life of Doctor Faustus and some Danish songs, both of which were published separately in 1826, but are almost, if not wholly, forgotten.  These two works, however, have an interest irrespective of their merits, as representing the labours of Lavengro when, coming up to London, he dreamed of gaining future renown through his translations of the Ancient Songs of Denmark and his knowledge of German lore, and was told that both were a drug.  The first of these little books bears the title, “Romantic Ballads translated from the Danish, and Miscellaneous Pieces,” by George Borrow.  London: John Taylor, Waterloo Place, 1826.”  The mass of the poems are from Oehlenschlaeger; and there is a dedicatory poem by Allan Cunningham, addressed to George Borrow on his proposing to translate Kiæmpe Viser.  The other work was brought out anonymously, and bears the title, “Faustus: His Life, Death, and Descent into Hell.  Translated from the German.  London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall.”  A preface to the work is dated Norwich, April, 1826, and has a highly illuminated frontispiece of “The Corporation Feast.” The author was Klinger, and the engraving was taken from the original book.

Of the solicitor’s office in which he worked while pursuing these philological studies, he himself gives some account.  “In my boyhood,” he says, “I had been something of a philologist; had picked up some Latin and Greek at school; some Irish in Ireland, where I had been with my father, who was in the army; and subsequently, whilst an articled clerk to the first solicitor in East Anglia—indeed I may say the prince of all English solicitors, for he was a gentleman—had learned some Welsh, partly from books, and partly from a Welsh groom, whose acquaintance I made.”

This groom, whom he describes in his admirable manner, was the butt of the solicitor’s clerks, who would stand at the office door and direct not very complimentary remarks towards him, till, having to pass that way many times daily, he began to hate their jeers so much—the more so as he was unable to retaliate—that he at last seriously contemplated returning to his own country.  This intention was, however, abandoned; for Borrow, who was working at Welsh and Welsh literature, conceiving the idea that the groom might assist him to perfect himself at least in the pronunciation of Cumraeg, dissuaded his colleagues from further molesting him.  So it was arranged that on Sundays the groom should give Borrow lessons, and these continued for about a year, until the Welsh groom, on inheriting a small property in Wales, returned to that country, and Borrow was left to pursue his studies alone.  In these he seems to have given his special attention to the writings of the Welsh bards, notably Dafydd ap Gwilym, Huw Morris, and many others.

At this time he was studying German with a tutor, who has recorded his high opinion of Borrow’s linguistic proclivities: “A Norwich young man is construing with me Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, with the view of translating it for the press,” writes Mr. Taylor, of Norwich, to Southey.  “His name is George Henry Borrow, and he has learnt German with extraordinary rapidity; indeed he has the gift of p. 59tongues, and, though not yet eighteen, understands twelve languages—English, Welsh, Erse, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.”

From Norwich, on making up his mind to quit the law for the pursuit of literature, he came to London, and the early pages of Lavengro furnish us with some idea of the struggles that he had to encounter.  That his hopes of success were built on his knowledge of ancient tongues, especially Danish, from which he had already translated not a little, there can be no doubt; and the scenes he describes with “Ritson,” [16] the merciless publisher—no other than Sir Richard Phillips—are so vivid and true to nature, that there is every reason to believe that many of Lavengro’s strange experiences are identical with those of Borrow’s own.  That he wrote no such book as the Life of Joseph Sell, which enabled Lavengro to set out on his own account and indulge in the freedom of a roving life, we are sure, on the authority of Mrs. Borrow herself, who would laughingly say that though it had never been penned, people were constantly asking how they could procure a copy.  It is, perhaps, less questionable whether he edited the Newgate Calendar, concerning the publication of which there is so much that is interesting in Lavengro.

That he suffered much disappointment when first embarking on so perilous a career as that of literature—perhaps privation—is likely enough, for in that he would have shared the common lot.  His position, however, must have rapidly improved, for we remember his saying that he had lodgings in Jermyn Street, in the same house with Benjamin Disraeli, and we vividly recall his description of a party that the young politician gave to a number of his admirers, to whom he rehearsed the now famous maiden speech in the House of Commons. [17]

At any rate, whatever he may have gone through during these years, he at length gratified the wish he had long cherished—of visiting some of those countries the languages of which he had so eagerly studied.  At the age of thirty he was appointed agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society, in which capacity he proceeded to St. Petersburg, and edited the New Testament in Manchu.  While sojourning in the Imperial city, he returned once more to his pet studies—the translation of poems from the poets of ancient and modern literature; and out of a mass of manuscript, some of which has not yet seen the light, he published a volume unknown to the present generation, and little heeded by a past age.  This work, of which we possess a copy, is called Targum.

In connection with his life at St. Petersburg, an anecdote is told by a writer in the New Monthly Magazine and Humourist of 1851, which, like the story of Lavengro making horseshoes, shows Borrow’s resources, and redounds greatly to his credit.  It was known that a fount of types in the Manchu Tartar character existed at a certain house in St. Petersburg, but no one could be found to set them up.  In this emergency he demanded to inspect the types.  They were brought forth in a rusty state from a cellar, on which, resolved to see his editorial talents complete, he cleaned the types himself, and set them up with his own hands.

From Russia he went to Spain.  Of his adventures during the five years he passed in that country he has given a very full and vivid account both in the Zincali and in the Bible in Spain.

In the year 1850, a book was published at Christiania, entitled Beretniag om Fante eller Landstriggerfolhet i Norge, which is a very interesting account of the Fant or Wandering people of Norway, by Ellert Sundt.  In this work the author says:—

“This Borrow is a remarkable man.  As agent for the British and Foreign Bible Society, he has undertaken journeys into remote lands, and, acquainted from his early youth not only with many European languages, but likewise with the Romany of the English gipsies, he sought up with zest the gipsies everywhere, and became their faithful missionary.  He has made himself so p. 60thoroughly master of their ways and customs that he soon passed for ‘one of their blood.’  He slept in their tents in the forests of Russia and Hungary, visited them in their robber caves in the mountainous pass-regions of Italy, lived with them five entire years in Spain, where he, for his endeavours to distribute the Gospel in that Catholic country, was imprisoned with the very worst of them for a time in the dungeons of Madrid.  He at last went over to North Africa, and sought after his Tartars even there.  It is true no one has taken equal pains with Borrow to introduce himself amongst this rude and barbarous people, but on that account he has been enabled better than any other to depict their many mysteries, and the frequent impressions which his book has passed through within a short period show with what interest the English public have received his graphic descriptions.”

In the interval between his leaving Spain in 1839, and publishing the Gipsies in Spain, we find him married and settled at Oulton, on a property which had belonged to his wife’s family.  This place was well suited to his pursuits, and was in the neighbourhood of the county with which his early life was so much associated, and within easy distance of Norwich, where he frequently visited his early friends, among whom he found his successes warmly welcomed.  During this time he produced the Bible in Spain, of which he says, in a preface to the second edition of Zincali:—

“At first I proceeded slowly.  Sickness was in the land, and the face of nature was overcast; heavy rain-clouds swam in the heavens, the blast howled amid the pines which nearly surrounded my lonely dwelling, and the waters of the lake which lies before it, so quiet in general and tranquil, were fearfully agitated.  ‘Bring lights hither, O Hayin Ben Attar, son of the Miracle!’  And the Jew of Fez brought in the lights, for though it was midday I could scarcely see in the little room where I was writing. . . . A dreary summer and autumn passed by, and were succeeded by as gloomy a winter.  I still proceeded with the Bible in Spain.  The winter passed, and spring came with cold, dry winds and occasional sunshine, whereupon I arose, shouted, and mounting my horse, even Sidi Habismilk, I scoured all the surrounding district, and thought but little of the Bible in Spain.  So I rode about the country, over the heaths and through the green lanes of my native land, occasionally visiting friends at a distance; and sometimes, for variety’s sake, I stayed at home, and amused myself by catching huge pike, which lie perdus in certain deep ponds, skirted with lofty reeds, upon my land, and to which there is a communication from the lagoon by a deep and narrow watercourse.  I had almost forgotten the Bible in Spain.  Then came the summer with much heat and sunshine, and then I would he for hours in the sun and recall the sunny days I had spent in Andalusia, and my thoughts were continually reverting to Spain, and at last I remembered the Bible in Spain was still unfinished; whereupon I arose and said, This loitering profiteth nothing.  And I hastened to my summer-house by the side of the lake, and there I thought and wrote, and every day I repaired to the same place, and thought and wrote until I had finished the Bible in Spain.”

His position was now fully established.  The leading reviews, each in its own way, were full of the new author, and the names of the most graphic writers at home and abroad were brought forward, and Borrow was compared both favourably and unfavourably with them in turn.  These criticisms were received by the author with complacent humour.  He remarks, in the preface above quoted:—

“At the proper season the Bible in Spain was given to the world; and the world, both learned and unlearned, was delighted with the Bible in Spain, and the highest authority said, ‘This is a much better book than the Gipsies;’ and the next great authority said, ‘Something betwixt Le Sage and Bunyan.’  ‘A far more entertaining work than Don Quixote,’ exclaimed a literary lady; ‘Another Gil Blas,’ said the cleverest writer in Europe.  ‘Yes,’ exclaimed the cool, sensible Spectator, ‘A Gil Blas in water colours.’  And when I heard the last sentence, I laughed, and shouted ‘Kosko pennese pal!’  It pleased me better than all the rest.  Is there not a text in a certain old book which says ‘Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you!’?”

Sir Robert Peel, in the House of Commons, pronounced a striking eulogy on the work, which was received by the public with immense éclat, and ran through many editions, and, like the Gipsies in Spain, was translated into several foreign languages.

In 1844 Borrow went into Albania, Wallachia, Hungary, and Turkey, mixing among the gipsies, and collecting many of their songs, after which he resumed his quiet mode of life at Oulton.  He had brought a beautiful Arab horse from the East, and at times indulged in long rides through the adjacent country, the scenery of which he preferred to any other; but though he admired horses he had not a passion for them, and preferred walking to any other mode of exercise.  When, however, he entered a distant town, he liked doing so as if he were conscious of the magnificent figure that he displayed when on a fine horse, and which indeed never failed to create a sensation before he reached the inn where he put up.  He was, perhaps, the handsomest man of his day, and had an autocratic air and unbending manner which can only be realised now by a sight of his portrait by the late Henry W. Phillips, which is in Mr. Murray’s possession, and was engraved for the first edition of Lavengro.  The common modes of courtesy were foreign to him.  When introduced to others, he would rather throw his head back than bow, and look superciliously at them, but with a rapid glance, as if to take note of what they were good for.  But he was never at home in the company of strangers, and where it was necessary to address them he would do so with a forced manner, failing often, through a shyness which he tried thus to hide, in saying the right thing at the right moment.  On one occasion, when presented to a lady whose family was known to every one on account of the high distinction that her brothers had attained to during the Peninsular War and afterwards, he opened the conversation by saying, “I believe your ladyship is a Scotchwoman?”  She replied in the affirmative, in a pleased and amused manner; on which he continued, “Are you any relation to your countryman, Captain Barkley, the greatest pedestrian in England, who walked a thousand miles in a thousand hours?”  This address appeared the more ludicrous from the lady herself being lame, and having her crutch by her side.  The singular nature of Borrow’s shyness has been dwelt on and well explained by Mr. Theodore Watts.

Among his acquaintances in East Anglia was Hales, the Norfolk giant, the mention of whose name to him was always welcome and productive of anecdotes of that redoubtable man, whose height he vividly described in saying that when Hales talked to you he would often do so on one side of the door with his head and arms hanging over the other.  Another was Gipsy H—, a splendid old Norfolk woman, whom he used to describe as a magnificent girl in her early days, and an old friend of his; it is probable she was the original of his Isopel Berners.  This heroine of romance in her letter to Lavengro told him that she thought him, at the root, mad, an idea that had no foundation in fact, though Borrow in his love of Scandinavian heroes would sometimes get up from his studies and declare that he was Wodin, which gave not a little unnecessary alarm to those about him.  Borrow’s mind was as sound as any man’s, but he suffered from what he called “the horrors,” which was nothing more than the nervousness which accompanies an overwrought mind brought on by too much metaphysics, which led him into the origin of nature and of his own being, but when he found himself approaching the vanishing point of reason his remedy was at hand.  “What do you think I do?” he said, “when I get bewildered after this fashion?  I go out to the stye and listen to the grunting of the pigs till I get back to myself.”  Though Lowestoft was within three miles, he made Yarmouth his daily bathing-place, preferring the old town to the new, perhaps because it was famous for its ale, as is well known to the disenfranchised voters of the place.  Those who knew Borrow will not for a moment doubt his sincerity in that praise of ale which pervades all his writings.  “Oh! genial and gladdening is the power of good ale, the true and proper drink of Englishmen!” says Lavengro.—Borrow bathed daily.  Some years ago Mr. Theodore Watts chanced to see him in his great sea bath, and has lately given a truly picturesque account of the scene.  It is unnecessary to give any further description of his life at Oulton, as we have dwelt on it elsewhere, p. 62but it may be observed that Lavengro and the Romany Rye were written there as one work, the great length of which led to its division.  The publication of the last part was postponed for some years.  Borrow was wont to dwell in conversation on the habit of touch as practised by many to baffle the evil chance, and it is doubtless one of the physical superstitions which affect men.  One might pretty well trace what was due to reality and what to fiction in all that he wrote from his willingness to discuss what was true when questioned and from his evasive replies regarding stories which might or might not have been fictitious.  To the latter class probably the curious story of the Chinese tea-pots belongs.  Talking to him about snake-charming and horse-taming, he said that any child that was unaware of the danger might handle a viper; that the instinct of the reptile detected fear, which to it was the accompaniment of intended mischief; and he thus explained his having played with all sorts of snakes in his childish days without receiving any injury.  The taming of horses by whispering he described as a very simple business.  The tamer would approach the animal with his mouth full of water, which, while pretending to whisper, he would blow into its ear.

In the summer of 1854 Borrow, in company with his wife and step-daughter, went on a tour through Wales, the ladies being sent on to hotels at certain points while he walked for days across country to meet them.  There is no need to dwell at length on the subject of the excursion they made, for he has given us every detail of the journey in Wild Wales; but it may be said that in no other book that he wrote does his whole character stand out so clearly and well defined.  There is no attempt at colouring or mystification as in Lavengro and the Romany Rye; there is no desire to present himself in any other light than the true one; his weakness, his strength, his philological hobbies, his little vanities and prejudices, his love of a good dinner, his enjoyment of a cup of sparkling ale, his contempt of cant, his delight in gossip, his never-ceasing curiosity—all lend a charm to the work rarely met with, a charm which only a Boswell or a Rousseau could have given it had they transcribed the scenes to the page as they occurred.

During these peregrinations we often find his actions so directed as to be an intentional irony on the ways of the world.  For example, while striding across country near Llangollen, he meets a waggoner who had fought and beaten his man, on which, calling him a noble fellow, he gives him a shilling; while later in the day he encounters a poor, sickly woman, who asked him for charity, and gave her a halfpenny, which she repaid with a blessing.

Afterwards we find Borrow residing in London, his favourite walks being to Shepherd’s Bush and to Wandsworth Common, which were gipsy haunts; and he would frequently visit us at Roehampton on his way to the remoter neighbourhoods of Brentford and Richmond, accompanied by some of our family.  This awakens many pleasant recollections too numerous to recount.  Grasping his gamp umbrella at the middle with his powerful hand, and projecting it forward, he would start at a pace difficult to accompany, past the Bald Faced Stag, and into the park, always saying something remarkable in his loud self-asserting voice; sometimes stopping suddenly, drawing his huge stature erect, and, changing the keen and haughty expression of his face into the rapt and half-fatuous look of an oracle, would, without preface, recite some long fragment from Welsh or Scandinavian bards, his hands hanging from his chest and flapping in symphony.  Then he would push on again, and as suddenly stop, arrested by the beautiful scenery, and exclaim, “Ah! this is England, as the Pretender said when he again looked on his Fatherland.”  Then, on reaching any town, he would be sure to spy out some lurking gipsy, p. 63whom no one but himself would have known from a common horse-dealer.  A conversation in Romany would ensue, a shilling would change hands, two fingers would be pointed at the gipsy, and the interview was at an end.

He would then enter some tavern and call for old ale, a draught of which he never missed on his walks.  He never ate anything between breakfast and dinner, and when he returned and sat down with us to that repast, he showed himself in his most genial moods.  It was rarely that we could prevail on him to meet any strangers on these occasions, though many who knew that he was our frequent visitor were eager to enjoy his company.  He had the reputation of being a “three-bottle man,” which was, however, not so; but on one occasion a neighbour of ours, eminent in literature, who was fully persuaded of its truth, questioned him during the greater part of dinner time on the subject.  Now if there was anything which Borrow most disliked it was being cross-questioned, though so much in the habit himself of interrogating others.  The questioner on this occasion could get nothing out of Borrow beyond the words, “I once knew a Spanish priest who could drink his three bottles.”  “But,” said the other, “I want to know how many bottles you can drink,” which elicited the same answer, good naturedly given, and with as much simplicity as if his words had conveyed a full reply.  The conversation would sometimes turn on modern literature, with which his acquaintance was very slight.  He seemed to avoid reading the products of modern thought lest his own strong opinions should undergo dilution.  We were once talking of Keats, whose fame had been constantly increasing, but of whose poetry Borrow’s knowledge was of a shadowy kind, when suddenly he put a stop to the conversation by ludicrously asking, in his strong voice, “Have they not been trying to resuscitate him?”

But we are here reminded of one of Borrow’s sayings, that the greatest art in an author is to know when to stop, and we feel that for the present we have said enough.  We cannot, however, refrain from giving expression to our sense of Borrow’s worth, not less as a man than as a writer.  It is easy to understand how one who so valued words as symbols of thought as to spend his life in interpreting them from so many tongues, should become a perfect master of his own language: not only was Borrow such a master, but he made bold and unsparing use of his power, and by its means put on record the actions of a life unique in its sustained individuality from “the flash and triumph and glorious sweat” of his first ride, till the cloud, which overhangs all, approached him.  Humour, which is given us to neutralise the worst forebodings, he largely possessed; and his, while it resembled Sterne’s more than any other man’s, was peculiarly his own, but mingled with a sounder sentiment of pathos than is to be found in Yorick.  The following words written while he was in the full enjoyment of health, during his tour in Wales, may now be cited as containing his own epitaph:—

“He led us down an avenue just below the eastern side of the castle; noble oaks and other trees composed it, some of them probably near a hundred feet high.  John Jones, observing me looking at them with admiration, said—

“‘They would make fine chests for the dead, sir.’

“What an observation!  How calculated, amidst the most bounding joy and bliss, to remind man of his doom!  A moment before I had felt quite happy, but now I felt sad and mournful.  I looked at my wife and daughter, who were gazing admiringly on the beauteous scenes around them, and remembered that in a few short years at most we should all three be laid in the cold narrow house formed of four elm or oaken boards, our only garment the flannel shroud, the cold, damp earth above us instead of the bright, glorious sky.  O how sad and mournful I became!  I soon comforted myself, however, by reflecting that such is the will of Heaven, and that Heaven is good.”

A. Egmont Hake.



A considerable amount of mis-information has been published about George Borrow over the years, and although much has been and continues to be identified and corrected in the George Borrow Bulletin those reading original material such as Hake’s might not be aware of what turned out to be wrong.  These few footnotes have been added with that in mind, but refer to the George Borrow Bulletin articles on the subjects for a much more detailed explanation.

[1]  See the Dictionary of National Biography for a proper biography of Hake: this is just a sketch to give background to the two articles.

[2]  Given that Alfred was born 1849, when the Borrows were great friends of the Hakes (Alfred’s sister, Henrietta, born 1853, was named after Borrow’s step-daughter) Alfred would have heard a lot about Borrow from his father.  The Hake’s moved to America and then settled in Coombe End, Roehampton around 1853, with the Borrows still living mainly at Great Yarmouth, so until 1860, when the Borrows moved to Brompton, there would have been little regular contact.

[3]  The “younger brother called the Antelope” would have been Henry Wilson Hake, born 1853, so the incident here probably dates from the 1860’s when Borrow was living in Brompton, and the younger brother would have been just reaching his teens.

[4]  Theodore Watts-Dunton, in his introduction to Borrow’s Lavengro, says that after meeting George Borrow at Dr. Hake’s, they went to the Bald-Faced Stag and Borrow pointed out Jerry Abershaw’s sword.

[5]  In the recently discovered account of William Mackay’s meeting with George Borrow (see Bohemian Days in Fleet Street) Mackay and Borrow walk from Dr. Hake’s to beerhouse where Borrow “called for two half-pints of ‘swipes.’  Thus in such places they call their thinnest, sourest, and cheapest ale. Borrow drank his as one enjoying a rare vintage.”

[6]  If Hake is correct in Borrow’s age, this would have taken place in 1873.  Dr. Thomas Gordon Hake left Coombe End around 1872.

[7]  George Borrow was in Albania in 1844 according to Knapp, before Alfred was born, so it’s not really a “recollection”.  Alfred may have heard it from Borrow or his father.

[8]  Ann Borrow died on 16 August 1858 at Oulton, when Alfred would have been around eight, so unless this is again from his father’s recollections, it’s a very early memory.

[9]  According to Collie and Fraser, only 100 copies of Targum were printed at St. Petersburg, and given that Alfred’s father (the poet Dr. Hake) was still living when this appeared, it’s unlikely that Alfred had inherited his father’s personal copy, and he was quite right about the scarcity.

[10]  This story comes from Alfred’s father’s Memoirs of Eighty years, page 166, where more details are given: “Have you read my Snob Papers in Punch?” Thackeray asked him.  “In Punch?” Borrow replied.  “It is a periodical I never look at.”  This took place at Hardwick Hall, Suffolk, where Borrow accompanied Dr. Hake.

[11]  Again, this story is given in Dr. Hake’s Memoirs of Eighty Years, page 167, where it’s Mrs. Bevan (local banker’s wife) who made the comment, at a dinner where Dr. Hake was present.

[12]  Again, this story is given in Dr. Hake’s Memoirs of Eighty Years, page 168, where the authoress is Agnes Strickland and the book is Queens of England.  In this case it was Donne who told Dr. Hake the story.

[13]  George and Mary Borrow moved into 22 Hereford Square on the 25 September 1860, although they were having alteration made when the 1861 census was taken and had temporarily moved out.  Mary died at 22 Hereford Square on 30 January 1869.

[14]  Knapp and other have Borrow leaving London in 1874, whereas Hake would put it around 1871/2.

[15]  This article is more of an obituary than a recollection.  No biographies of Borrow were published in his life-time and until his death most people would only have known of the life through Lavengro, Bible in Spain, Wild Wales etc.  A good deal of the biography took place before Hake was born and so his sources would have been his father and Borrow himself.

[16]  “Ritson,” the merciless publisher—no other than Sir Richard Phillips.  The publisher who appeared in Lavengro was indeed Sir Richard Phillips but is never named as “Ritson”, so was Hake not checking here, or did Borrow in conversation call Phillips “Ritson”?

[17]  Benjamin Disraeli made his maiden speech as M.P. for Maidstone in December 1837.  He was shouted down but ended with the prophetic words “I sit down now but the time will come when you will hear me.”  In December 1837 Borrow was in Toledo, Spain.  As far as we know Borrow didn’t use the 58 Jermyn Street lodgings until November 1840 (see Knapp, Volume 2, page 299).