Portrait of George Borrow

Mrs. Herne

[This is still being researched, and will be rewritten / completed once the archives re-open after Covid.]

Mrs. Herne the Gypsy who hated George Borrow, first makes her appearance in Borrow’s Lavengro, Chapter 17:

We went to the farthest of the tents . . . there was no one else in the tent but a tall tawny woman of middle age, who was busily knitting.

. . .

“Ha, ha!” cried the woman, who had hitherto sat knitting at the farther end of the tent, without saying a word, though not inattentive to our conversation, as I could perceive by certain glances which she occasionally cast upon us both.  “Ha, ha!” she screamed, fixing upon me two eyes, which shone like burning coals, and which were filled with an expression both of scorn and malignity, “It is wonderful, is it, that we should have a language of our own?  What, you grudge the poor people the speech they talk among themselves?  That’s just like you Gorgios, you would have everybody stupid, single-tongued idiots, like yourselves . . .

What’s occasioned this is that Borrow’s Gypsy friend, Jasper Petelengro, has just told Borrow, the keen learner of languages, that the Gypsy people have a language.  As Mrs. Herne goes on, she makes it clear this language is never to be shared with non-gypsy people (the Gorgios), and to see her “son”, Jasper, doing it in front of her, is more than she can stand.

“You had better be jawing,” said the woman, raising her voice to a terrible scream; “you had better be moving off, my Gorgio; hang you for a keen one, sitting there by the fire, and stealing my language before my face.  Do you know whom you have to deal with?  Do you know that I am dangerous?  My name is Herne, and I comes of the hairy ones!”

And a hairy one she looked!  She wore her hair clubbed upon her head, fastened with many strings and ligatures; but now, tearing these off, her locks, originally jet black, but now partially grizzled with age, fell down on every side of her, covering her face and back as far down as her knees.  No she-bear of Lapland ever looked more fierce and hairy than did that woman, as, standing in the open part of the tent, with her head bent down, and her shoulders drawn up, seemingly about to precipitate herself upon me, she repeated, again and again,—

“My name is Herne, and I comes of the hairy ones!—”

By the end of the chapter, Mrs. Herne has heard enough, and walks out on her daughter (Jasper’s wife, her Jasper is her son-in-law):

“I am going to my people,” said Mrs. Herne, placing a bundle upon a donkey, which was her own peculiar property; “I am going to Yorkshire, for I can stand this no longer.  You say you like him; in that we differs: I hates the gorgio, and would like, speaking Romanly, to mix a little poison with his waters. . . .”

In Chapter 25 Jasper mentions that Mrs. Herne is still alive and living in Yorkshire.

Now Mrs. Herne of course re-appears later in Lavengro, after Borrow has eaten a poisoned cake brought by the young Gypsy girl Leonora, and lies in agony and possibly dying:

Thereupon a face peered into the door of the tent, at the farther extremity of which I was stretched.  It was that of a woman, but owing to the posture in which she stood, with her back to the light, and partly owing to a large straw bonnet, I could distinguish but very little of the features of her countenance.  I had, however, recognised her voice; it was that of my old acquaintance, Mrs. Herne.

As Borrow lies dying, Leonora and Mrs. Herne talk over him:

“Yes, child, the gentleman in the house.  God grant that I may preserve my temper.  Do you know, sir, my name?  My name is Herne, which signifies a hairy individual, though neither grey-haired nor wrinkled.  It is not the nature of the Hernes to be grey or wrinkled, even when they are old, and I am not old.”

“How old are you, bebee?”

“Sixty-five years, child—an inconsiderable number.  My mother was a hundred and one—a considerable age—when she died, yet she had not one grey hair, and not more than six wrinkles—an inconsiderable number.”

Mrs. Herne tells Leonora of her first meeting with Borrow:

Well, things went on in this way for some time, when one day my son-in-law brings home a young gorgio of singular and outrageous ugliness, and without much preamble, says to me and mine, ‘This is my pal, a’n’t he a beauty? fall down and worship him’.  ‘Hold,’ said I, ‘I for one will never consent to such foolishness.’

We then get a little of what happened after Mrs. Herne left Jasper:

“Time flows on, I engage in many matters, in most miscarry.  Am sent to prison; says I to myself, I am become foolish.  Am turned out of prison, and go back to the hairy ones, who receive me not over courteously; says I, for their unkindness, and my own foolishness, all the thanks to that gorgio.

Leonora and Mrs. Herne then gloat of the dying Borrow:

“Ha, ha! bebee, and here he lies, poisoned like a hog.”

“You have taken drows, sir,” said Mrs. Herne; “do you hear, sir? drows; tip him a stave, child, of the song of poison.”

After a bit she tells Borrow’s fortune, saying he’ll have fortune in the end, which upsets Leonora as it means Borrow won’t die.  Mrs. Herne recounts a mystical experience she had:

I had a dream.  I thought I was at York, standing amidst a crowd to see a man hung, and the crowd shouted, ‘There he comes!’ and I looked, and lo! it was the tinker; before I could cry with joy I was whisked away, and I found myself in Ely’s big church, which was chock full of people to hear the dean preach, and all eyes were turned to the big pulpit; and presently I heard them say, ‘There he mounts!’ and I looked up to the big pulpit, and, lo! the tinker was in the pulpit, and he raised his arm and began to preach.  Anon, I found myself at York again, just as the drop fell, and I looked up, and I saw, not the tinker, but my own self hanging in the air.

[This was no doubt the partial inspiration for Edmund Sullivan’s illustration of Mrs. Herne in Lavengro:]

Mrs. Herne hanging, whilst the Gypsy girl Leonora looks on

Mrs. Herne then attempts to thrust a stick in Borrow’s eye to blind him, but is thwarted as the tent collapses on them all.  Mrs. Herne and Leonora flee as the Welsh preacher Peter Williams and his wife Winifred pass by, hear Borrow’s cries, and rescue and heal him.

The last we hear of Mrs. Herne, whose name Borrow changes to Hearne, is in Chapter 81:

“You have been in Wales, Mr. Petulengro?”

“Ay, truly, brother.”

“What have you been doing there?”

“Assisting at a funeral.”

“At whose funeral?”

“Mrs. Hearne’s, brother.”

“Is she dead, then?”

“As a nail, brother.”

“How did she die?”

“By hanging, brother.”

Jasper tells Borrow Mrs. Herne hung herself, and that after she had hung herself the Hearnes took the body to their camp (in Wales, near the Welsh border).  Leonora was there and eventually told Jasper that what had happened in the poisoning, and that Mrs. Herne thought the rescue by Peter Williams was a fulfilment of her dream, and completed it herself.  Jasper also says a few things to Borrow about Mrs. Herne:

“This is not the first poisoning affair she has been engaged in . . . both Gorgios and Romans have tasted of them, and died. . . . Six years ago, a few months after she had quitted us—she had gone first among her own people, . . . three or four of them were taken and lodged in — Castle . . . she [Mrs. Herne] made a pudding, a very nice one, no doubt—for, besides plums, she put in drows and all the Roman condiments that she knew of; and she gave it to the principal man, and the principal man put it into a basket . . . ” etc.

The Real Mrs. Herne

In January 1910 the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (No. 3) published the genealogy of Borrow’s Gypsies (written by Thomas William Thompson).  Hopefully the editor will be able to locate a copy and get the following details enhanced and corrected, but . . .

Whilst it’s impossible to prove Borrow is giving a true account in the above, many assume it’s made up.  However, we know that the characters were real people.

Jasper Petulengro was in real life Ambrose Smith (Borrow has made a play upon his name) who was born around 1804.  When civil registration was brought in, Ambrose Smith recorded on 21 April 1837 that he had a son Alfred, born Capel St. Mary, Suffolk and a wife Sansparel Smith, formerly Hearn.  The following day Alfred was baptised (with Mrs. Smith’s name there appearing as Sanspareil).  An Internet site says Sanspareil Heron [another variant spelling!] was born around 1800, but see below.

If Borrow is relating events chronologically, when Mrs. Herne says she’s 65, it would be around 1824, so Mrs. Herne would be born c1759: and would have had her daughter Sanspareil when she was around 40 years old: possible.

As David Nuttall explained at the George Borrow Peterborough weekend (2014), Sanspirella Heron (keep with it, it’s another name variation), was the daughter of Reynold and Peggy Herne, and that her brother, Fabridge Heron was baptised at St. Mary’s Church, Stanground, Huntingdonshire, 24 February 1811.  If Borrow is relating real life, Borrow’s Mrs. Herne was Peggy Herne, wife of Reynold.  David also says that Sanspirella was Fabridge’s younger sister, so it was a very late baptism, otherwise Sanspirella would be too young to marry Ambrose etc.

All of which seems to imply that Mrs. Herne wasn’t 65 when she said so, and given that 6 years before Borrow describes her of “middle age”, she’s more likely to be in her 40’s than 60’s, but going gray because of George Borrow(!)

The editor has seen written that the real Mrs. Herne didn’t hang herself, and didn’t die in Wales either.  However, at the time of writing he cannot locate any more information.