The Life of George Borrow

Author: Herbert George Jenkins

Chapter IV: May-September 1825

Fourteen months in London had shown Borrow how hard was the road of authorship. He confessed that he was not "formed by nature to be a pallid indoor student." "The peculiar atmosphere of the big city" did not agree with him, and this fact, together with the anxiety and hard work of the past twelve months, caused him to flag, and his first thought was how to recover his health. He was disillusioned as to the busy world, and the opportunities it offered to a young man fired with ambition to make a stir in it. He determined to leave London, which he did towards the end of May, {60a} first despatching his trunk "containing a few clothes and books to the old town [Norwich]." He struck out in a south-westerly direction, musing on his achievements as an author, and finding that in having preserved his independence and health, he had "abundant cause to be grateful."

Throughout his life Borrow was hypnotised by independence. Like many other proud natures, he carried his theory of independence to such an extreme as to become a slave to it and render himself unsociable, sometimes churlish. It was this virtue carried to excess that drove Borrow from London. He must tell men what was in his mind, and his one patron, Sir Richard Phillips, he had mortally offended in this manner.

Finding that he was unequal to much fatigue, after a few hours’ walking he hailed a passing coach, which took him as far as Amesbury in Wiltshire. From here he walked to Stonehenge and on to Salisbury, "inspecting the curiosities of the place," and endeavouring by sleep and good food to make up the wastage of the last few months. The weather was fine and his health and spirits rapidly improved as he tramped on, his "daily journeys varying from twenty to twenty-five miles." He encountered the mysterious stranger who "touched" against the evil eye. F. H. Groome asserts, on the authority of W. B. Donne, that this was in reality William Beckford. Borrow must have met him at some other time and place, as he had already left Fonthill in 1825. It is, however, interesting to recall that Borrow himself "touched" against the evil eye. Mr Watts-Dunton has said:

"There was nothing that Borrow strove against with more energy than the curious impulse, which he seems to have shared with Dr Johnson, to touch the objects along his path in order to save himself from the evil chance. He never conquered the superstition. In walking through Richmond Park he would step out of his way constantly to touch a tree, and he was offended if the friend he was with seemed to observe it." {61a}

The chance meeting with Jack Slingsby (in fear of his life from the Flaming Tinman, and bound by oath not to continue on the same beat) gave Borrow the idea of buying out Slingsby, beat, plant, pony and all. "A tinker is his own master, a scholar is not," {61b} he remarks, and then proceeds to draw tears and moans from the dispirited Slingsby and his family by a description of the joys of tinkering, "the happiest life under heaven . . . pitching your tent under the pleasant hedge-row, listening to the song of the feathered tribes, collecting all the leaky kettles in the neighbourhood, soldering and joining, earning your honest bread by the wholesome sweat of your brow." {62a}

By the expenditure of five pounds ten shillings, plus the cost of a smock-frock and some provisions, George Borrow, linguist, editor and translator, became a travelling tinker. With his dauntless little pony, Ambrol, he set out, a tinkering Ulysses, indifferent to what direction he took, allowing the pony to go whither he felt inclined. At first he experienced some apprehension at passing the night with only a tent or the stars as a roof. Rain fell to mar the opening day of the adventure, but the pony, with unerring instinct, led his new master to one of Slingsby’s usual camping grounds.

In the morning Borrow fell to examining what it was beyond the pony and cart that his five pounds ten shillings had purchased. He found a tent, a straw mattress and a blanket, "quite clean and nearly new." There were also a frying-pan, a kettle, a teapot (broken in three pieces) and some cups and saucers. The stock-in-trade "consisted of various tools, an iron ladle, a chafing-pan, and small bellows, sundry pans and kettles, the latter being of tin, with the exception of one which was of copper, all in a state of considerable dilapidation." The pans and kettles were to be sold after being mended, for which purpose there was "a block of tin, sheet-tin, and solder." But most precious of all his possessions was "a small anvil and bellows of the kind which are used in forges, and two hammers such as smiths use, one great, and the other small." {62b} Borrow had learned the blacksmith’s art when in Ireland, and the anvil, bellows and smith’s hammers were to prove extremely useful.

A few days after pitching his tent, Borrow received from his old enemy Mrs Herne, Mr Petulengro’s mother-in-law, a poisoned cake, which came very near to ending his career. He then encountered the Welsh preacher ("the worthiest creature I ever knew") and his wife, who were largely instrumental in saving him from Mrs Herne’s poison. Having remained with his new friends for nine days, he accompanied them as far as the Welsh border, where he confessed himself the translator of Ab Gwilym, giving as an excuse for not accompanying them further that it was "neither fit nor proper that I cross into Wales at this time, and in this manner. When I go into Wales, I should wish to go in a new suit of superfine black, with hat and beaver, mounted on a powerful steed, black and glossy, like that which bore Greduv to the fight of Catraeth. I should wish, moreover," he continued, "to see the Welshmen assembled on the border ready to welcome me with pipe and fiddle, and much whooping and shouting, and to attend me to Wrexham, or even as far as Machynllaith, where I should wish to be invited to a dinner at which all the bards should be present, and to be seated at the right hand of the president, who, when the cloth was removed, should arise, and amidst cries of silence, exclaim—’Brethren and Welshmen, allow me to propose the health of my most respectable friend the translator of the odes of the great Ab Gwilym, the pride and glory of Wales.’" {63a}

He returned with Mr Petulengro, who directed him to Mumber Lane (Mumper’s Dingle), near Willenhall, in Staffordshire, "the little dingle by the side of the great north road." Here Borrow encamped and shod little Ambrol, who kicked him over as a reminder of his clumsiness.

He had refused an invitation from Mr Petulengro to become a Romany chal and take a Romany bride, the granddaughter of his would-be murderess, who "occasionally talked of" him. He yearned for solitude and the country’s quiet. He told Mr Petulengro that he desired only some peaceful spot where he might hold uninterrupted communion with his own thoughts, and practise, if so inclined, either tinkering or the blacksmith’s art, and he had been directed to Mumper’s Dingle, which was to become the setting of the most romantic episode in his life.

In the dingle Borrow experienced one of his worst attacks of the "Horrors"—the "Screaming Horrors." He raged like a madman, a prey to some indefinable, intangible fear; clinging to his "little horse as if for safety and protection." {64a} He had not recovered from the prostrating effects of that night of tragedy when he was called upon to fight Anselo Herne, "the Flaming Tinman," who somehow or other seemed to be part of the bargain he had made with Jack Slingsby, and encounter the queen of road-girls, Isopel Berners. The description of the fight has been proclaimed the finest in our language, and by some the finest in the world’s literature.

Isopel Berners is one of the great heroines of English Literature. As drawn by Borrow, with her strong arm, lion-like courage and tender tearfulness, she is unique. However true or false the account of her relations with Borrow may be, she is drawn by him as a living woman. He was incapable of conceiving her from his imagination. It may go unquestioned that he actually met an Isopel Berners, {64b} but whether or no his parting from her was as heart-rendingly tragic as he has depicted it, is open to very grave question.

With this queen of the roads he seems to have been less reticent and more himself than with any other of his vagabond acquaintance, not excepting even Mr Petulengro. To the handsome, tall girl with "the flaxen hair, which hung down over her shoulders unconfined," and the "determined but open expression," he showed a more amiable side of his character; yet he seems to have treated her with no little cruelty. He told her about himself, how he "had tamed savage mares, wrestled with Satan, and had dealings with ferocious publishers," bringing tears to her eyes, and when she grew too curious, he administered an antidote in the form of a few Armenian numerals. If his Autobiography is to be credited, Isopel loved him, and he was aware of it; but the knowledge did not hinder him from torturing the poor girl by insisting that she should decline the verb "to love" in Armenian.

Borrow’s attitude towards Isopel was curiously complex; he seemed to find pleasure in playing upon her emotions. At times he appeared as deliberately brutal to her, as to the gypsy girl Ursula when he talked with her beneath the hedge. He forced from Isopel a passionate rebuke that he sought only to vex and irritate "a poor ignorant girl . . . who can scarcely read or write." He asked her to marry him, but not until he had convinced her that he was mad. How much she had become part of his life in the dingle he did not seem to realise until after she had left him. Isopel Berners was a woman whose character was almost masculine in its strength; but she was prepared to subdue her spirit to his, wished to do so even. With her strength, however, there was wisdom, and she left Borrow and the dingle, sending him a letter of farewell that was certainly not the composition of "a poor girl" who could "scarcely read or write." The story itself is in all probability true; but the letter rings false. Isopel may have sent Borrow a letter of farewell, but not the one that appears in The Romany Rye.

Among Borrow’s papers Dr Knapp discovered a fragment of manuscript in which Mr Petulengro is shown deliberating upon the expediency of emulating King Pharaoh in the number of his wives. Mrs Petulengro desires "a little pleasant company," and urges her husband to take a second spouse. He proceeds:-

"Now I am thinking that this here Bess of yours would be just the kind of person both for my wife and myself. My wife wants something gorgiko, something genteel. Now Bess is of blood gorgious; if you doubt it, look at her face, all full of pawno ratter, white blood, brother; and as for gentility, nobody can make exceptions to Bess’s gentility, seeing she was born in the workhouse of Melford the Short."

Mr Petulengro sees in Bess another advantage. If "the Flaming Tinman" {66a} were to descend upon them, as he once did, with the offer to fight the best of them for nothing, and Tawno Chikno were absent, who was to fight him? Mr Petulengro could not do so for less than five pounds; but with Bess as a second wife the problem would be solved. She would fight "the Flaming Tinman."

This proves nothing, one way or the other, and can scarcely be said to "dispel any allusions," as Dr Knapp suggests, or confirm the story of Isopel. Why did Borrow omit it from Lavengro? Not from caprice surely. It has been stated that those who know the gypsies can vouch for the fact that no such suggestion could have been made by a gypsy woman.

It would appear that Isopel Berners existed, but the account of her given by Borrow in Lavengro and The Romany Rye is in all probability coloured, just as her stature was heightened by him. If she were taller than he, she must have appeared a giantess. Borrow was an impressionist, and he has probably succeeded far better in giving a faithful picture of Isopel Berners than if he had been photographically accurate in his measurements.

According to Borrow’s own account, he left Willenhall mounted upon a fine horse, purchased with money lent to him by Mr Petulengro, a small valise strapped to the saddle, and "some desire to meet with one of those adventures which upon the roads of England are generally as plentiful as blackberries." From this point, however, The Romany Rye becomes dangerous as autobiography. {66b}

For one thing, it was unlike Borrow to remain in debt, and it is incredible that he should have ridden away upon a horse purchased with another man’s money, without any set purpose in his mind. Therefore the story of his employment at the Swan Inn, Stafford, where he found his postilion friend, and the subsequent adventures must be reluctantly sacrificed. They do not ring true, nor do they fit in with the rest of the story. That he experienced such adventures is highly probable; but it is equally probable that he took some liberty with the dates.

Up to the point where he purchases the horse, Borrow’s story is convincing; but from there onwards it seems to go to pieces, that is as autobiography. The arrival of Ardry (Arden) at the inn, {67a} PASSING THROUGH STAFFORD ON HIS WAY TO WARWICK to be present at a dog and lion fight that had already taken place (26th July), is in itself enough to shake our confidence in the whole episode of the inn. In The Gypsies of Spain Mr Petulengro is made to say:

"I suppose you have not forgot how, fifteen years ago, when you made horseshoes in the little dingle by the side of the great north road, I lent you fifty cottors [guineas] to purchase the wonderful trotting cob of the innkeeper with the green Newmarket coat, which three days after you sold for two hundred. Well, brother, if you had wanted the two hundred instead of the fifty, I could have lent them to you, and would have done so, for I knew you would not be long pazorrhus [indebted] to me." {67b}

It seems more in accordance with Borrow’s character to repay the loan within three days than to continue in Mr Petulengro’s debt for weeks, at one time making no actual effort to realise upon the horse. The question as to whether Borrow received a hundred and fifty (as he himself states) or two hundred pounds is immaterial. It is quite likely that he sold the horse before he left the dingle, and that the adventures he narrates may be true in all else save the continued possession of his steed, that is, with the exception of the Francis Ardry episode, the encounter with the man in black, and the arrival at Horncastle during the fair. If Borrow left London on 24th May, and he could not have left earlier, as has been shown, he must have visited the Fair (Tamworth) with Mr Petulengro on 26th July, and set out from Willenhall about 2nd August.

It has been pointed out by that distinguished scholar and gentlemangypsy, Mr John Sampson, {68a} that as the Horse Fair at Horncastle was held 12th-21st August, if Borrow took the horse there it could not have been in the manner described in The Romany Rye, where he is shown as spending some considerable time at the inn, if we may judge by the handsome cheque (10 pounds) offered to him by the landlord as a bonus on account of his services. Then there was the accident and the consequent lying-up at the house of the man who knew Chinese, but could not tell what o’clock it was. To confirm Borrow’s itinerary all this must have been crowded into less than three weeks, fully a third of which Borrow spent in recovering from his fall. This would mean that for less than a fortnight’s work, the innkeeper offered him ten pounds as a gratuity, in addition to the bargain he had made, which included the horse’s keep.

Mr Sampson has supported his itinerary with several very important pieces of evidence. Borrow states in Lavengro that "a young moon gave a feeble light" as he mounted the coach that was to take him to Amesbury. The moon was in its first quarter on 24th May. There actually was a great thunderstorm in the Willenhall district about the time that Borrow describes (18th July). It is Mr Sampson also who has identified the fair to which Borrow went with the gypsies as that held at Tamworth on 26th July.

Whatever else Borrow may have been doing immediately after leaving the dingle, he appears to have been much occupied in speculating as to the future. Was he not "sadly misspending his time?" He was forced to the conclusion that he had done nothing else throughout his life but misspend his time. He was ambitious. He chafed at his narrow life. "Oh! what a vast deal may be done with intellect, courage, riches, accompanied by the desire of doing something great and good!" {69a} he exclaims, and his thoughts turned instinctively to the career of his old school-fellow, Rajah Brooke of Sarawak. {69b} He was now, by his own confession, "a moody man, bearing on my face, as I well knew, the marks of my strivings and my strugglings, of what I had learnt and unlearnt." {69c} He recognised the possibilities that lay in every man, only awaiting the hour when they should be called forth. He believed implicitly in the power of the will. {69d} He possessed ambition and a fine workable theory of how success was to be obtained; but he lacked initiative. He expected fortune to wait for him on the high-road, just as he knew adventures awaited him. He would not go "across the country," to use a phrase of the time common to postilions. He was too independent, perhaps too sensitive of being patronised, to seek employment. That he cared "for nothing in this world but old words and strange stories," was an error into which his friend Mr Petulengro might well fall. The mightiness of the man’s pride could be covered only by a cloak of assumed indifference. He must be independent of the world, not only in material things, but in those intangible qualities of the spirit. It was this that lost him Isopel Berners, whose love he awakened by a strong right arm and quenched with an Armenian noun. Again, his independence stood in the way of his happiness. A man is a king, he seemed to think, and the attribute of kings is their splendid isolation, their godlike solitude. If his Ego were lonely and crying out for sympathy, Borrow thought it a moment for solitude, in which to discipline his insurgent spirit. The "Horrors" were the result of this self-repression. When they became unbearable, his spirit broke down, the yearning for sympathy and affection overmastered him, and he stumbled to his little horse in the desolate dingle, and found comfort in the faithful creature’s whinny of sympathy and its affectionate licking of his hand. The strong man clung to his dumb brute friend as a protection against the unknown horror—the screaming horror that had gripped him.

One quality Borrow possessed in common with many other men of strange and taciturn personality. He could always make friends when he chose. Ostlers, scholars, farmers, gypsies; it mattered not one jot to him what, or who they were. He could earn their respect and obtain their good-will, if he wished to do so. He demanded of men that they should have done things, or be capable of doing things. They must know everything there was to be known about some one thing; and the ostler, than whom none could groom a horse better, was worthy of being ranked with the best man in the land. He demanded of every man that he should justify his existence, and was logical in his attitude, save in the insignificant particular that he applied the same rule to himself only in theory.

He was shrewd and a good judge of character, provided it were Protestant character, and could hold his own with a Jew or a Gypsy. He was fully justified in his boast of being able to take "precious good care of" himself, and "drive a precious hard bargain"; yet these qualities were not to find a market until he was thirty years of age.

Sometime during the autumn (1825) Borrow returned to Norwich, where he busied himself with literary affairs, among other things writing to the publishers of Faustus about the bill that was shortly to fall due. The fact of the book having been destroyed at both the Norwich libraries, gave him the idea that he might make some profit by selling copies of the suppressed volume. Hence his offer to Simpkin & Marshall to take copies in lieu of money.


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Chicago: Herbert George Jenkins, "Chapter IV: May-September 1825," The Life of George Borrow, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in The Life of George Borrow Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023,

MLA: Jenkins, Herbert George. "Chapter IV: May-September 1825." The Life of George Borrow, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in The Life of George Borrow, Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Jenkins, HG, 'Chapter IV: May-September 1825' in The Life of George Borrow, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Life of George Borrow. Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from