George Borrow revisited

GB

GEORGE BORROW REVISITED

George Borrow’s Second Tour of Wales in 1857
Edited by Ann M. Ridler, Wallingford, Oxon.: Lavengro Press, 2017, £15 paperback or as PDF from www.lavengropress.co.uk

George Borrow’s 1862 Wild Wales is a classic of a peculiar kind – the record of a bombastic, exhibitionist philologist’s 1854 cross-country peregrination to gratify a boundless curiosity about Welsh. The author of 1843’s hugely successful The Bible in Spain, which described his traipses across Spain during the Carlist Wars trying to wean Spaniards from Catholicism, was also trying to revive his writing career after the muted receptions given to his Gypsy books Lavengro and The Romany Rye.

He failed in this, although as with the Gypsy books later readers would prove highly receptive, grateful for Borrow’s powerful personality and entertained by his craggy humour, bathetic anecdotes, abrupt endings and self-aggrandisement. He also incidentally offers valuable vignettes of generally unrecorded and now largely vanished modes of life. We stride beside him (maybe under his large green umbrella) as he apostrophises the air, engages strangers in discourses about bards, monsters and psychic powers, execrates modernity, extols ale, provokes doctrinal disputes, makes ponderous jokes, brags about his linguistic skills, physical prowess and travels, or amazes all with (often mangled) attempts at Welsh – and when his odyssey comes to its end we feel bereft. But now the road-trip can resume, courtesy of specialists motivated solely by love of their subject, who have created something simultaneously augmentative and unique, a small but scintillating adornment to nineteenth century and Welsh studies.

In 1857, the man his old friend Theodore Watts-Dunton would later dub “prince of literary egotists” re-crossed Offa’s Dyke, his curiosity clearly unassuaged, as restlessly as any Romany to roam from Shrewsbury to St. David’s and back. The present volume is culled from Borrow’s notebooks, transcribed and annotated by the apparently indefatigable Ann Ridler. These have never been published in full before, although some observations were incorporated into Wild Wales and his Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings. It is a signal achievement to have consolidated them, considering that one notebook is held in Edinburgh and the other in New York, and both were written in pencil with whole sections almost illegible or obliterated. Much research was required to identify places mentioned but misspelled. Dr. Ridler suspects some locals deliberately misled Borrow, suspicious of this exotic and overly inquisitive outsider.

Unlike Wild Wales, literary references are almost absent, but he retains his energy and spirit of inquiry, his fascination with what is outmoded, his sturdiness and hatred of cant, including Dissenter cant. On Sabbaths, he keeps walking, more interested in river sources or druidic altars than rustic homilies. The text is frequently fragmentary, crazed and surreal as broken grave-slabs, but this does not impede understanding. If anything, it adds to the impression that this is a fugitive text about a fading culture, as fleetingly evocative as the “wind on the heath” eulogised by Lavengro’s Jasper Petulengro. Some extracts read like modern poetry –

…the dark miller

The kind offer — the

hill surmounted — the

dim vista

– while his sketches are amusingly abstract (“rarely enlightening”, Dr. Ridler opines kindly).

Notwithstanding all lacunae, and Borrow’s oddly limited landscape vocabulary, we are transported to his part pre-modern road, the “dusky russet moors”, “wild lanes” and “toilsome ascents”. We swat away the same flies, likewise endure “insufferable heat”, rain, torn clothes, sore feet, stomach pains, bad beer, loneliness and brusquerie, like that of the cowherd he asked for water who was “not civil till I had given her a penny”. Snatched from utter oblivion are the Shrewsbury nailmaker who had never crossed the border even though “he believed that Wales was a better place for nailmakers” – “the Bar girl with the Flemish face” – the chimney sweep “blind of one eye – long hair leather sleeves scarcely the look of a human being but very intelligent” – soldiers who’d stood at Waterloo – “railroad ruffians” – the black American butler in company with “English vagabonds” – farmers who spoke of enormous pike – reapers who knew Welsh but conversed in English – “handsome girls in singular dress milking cows in the street” – the mother at the river bank, with children “who were frightened but at last smiled”.

We share Borrow’s amusement at “the talking gentleman who proposed his own health” in Builth. We realise the Essex-born salesman who fulminated that the Welsh were “all liars and there was no getting money from them” was extrapolating ethnically from one bad client, and may have been further embittered by toothache he had “caught at Aberystwyth”. We will never know what had so incensed the Montgomery man that he “hoped the entire Sepoy force would be exterminated” (the Indian Mutiny was ongoing), but it is salutary to be reminded of the array of Welsh opinion, and Wales’s involvement in wider stories. With its myriad small meetings that evoke an age, and gritty texture, this is a brilliantly suggestive curio of a complex country as seen by an engaging and incomparable observer.

This article first appeared in the New Welsh Review in October 2017

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