Authors: George Henry Borrow

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English memoirist and linguist


The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies in Spain, 1841 (travel)

The Bible in Spain, 1843 (travel)

Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest, 1851 (autobiography)

The Romany Rye, 1857 (autobiography)

Wild Wales, 1862 (travel)

Romano Lavo-Lil: Word-Book of the Romany, 1874 (philology)


Romantic Ballads Translated from the Danish and Miscellaneous Pieces, 1826

Targum: Or, Metrical Translations from Thirty Languages and Dialects, 1835

Embéo e majaró Lucas: El Evangelio segun S. Lucas, 1837 (also known as the Gypsy Bible)

The Sleeping Bard: Or, Visions of the World, Death, and Hell, 1860 (of Elis Wyn’s Gweledigaethau y bardd cwsg)

Faustus, His Life, Death, and Doom: A Romance in Prose, 1864 (of F. M. Klinger)

The Turkish Jester: Or, The Pleasantries of Cogia Nasr Eddin Effendi, 1884

The Death of Balder, 1889 (of Johannes Ewald)


George Henry Borrow (BAHR-oh) was a rara avis of English letters, a man whose life was even more romantic and picaresque than any of his works. The son of an itinerant recruiting officer, he picked up a catch-as-catch-can education, mainly in Edinburgh, Scotland. William Taylor, Robert Southey’s friend, interested the boy in learning languages, in which he developed an extraordinary facility. His curious career as a traveler, autobiographer-novelist, and philologist began when, after a brief period as a solicitor’s apprentice in Norwich and a frustrating career as a publisher’s hack in the late 1830’s, he was sent to Spain as a distributing agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He recorded his adventures with colorful embellishments in The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies in Spain and The Bible in Spain. In St. Petersburg, he published Targum: Or, Metrical Translations from Thirty Languages and Dialects, a curious sort of anthology and literary tour de force. Widely hailed as a genius, Borrow became a literary lion and developed a vanity bordering on megalomania. With his royalties and money from Mary Clarke, whom he married in 1840, he bought an estate at Oulton Broad where he permitted gypsy encampments. Eventually, he published the first dictionary of the language of British gypsies, followed by two strange and fascinating narratives of gypsy life, Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest, and its sequel, The Romany Rye, which were reprinted in scholarly editions in the early years of the twentieth century. These accounts–actually autobiography in the form of a picaresque novel–are Borrow’s chief claim to the odd niche in English literary history that he holds, but they were not very popular in his own day. That fact led him to fulminate bitterly against the British reading public. Borrow protested the genteel novels of the Victorians, especially the “humbug and Philistinism” of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Benjamin Disraeli. He became even more a rebellious bohemian, lived a riotous life among the Welsh gypsies, and wrote Wild Wales and Romano Lavo-Lil. The immense range of his learning can be seen in his translations of the New Testament into Manchu, the Gospel of Luke into Gitanos, “Bluebeard” into Turkish, and, into English, the Danish Death of Balder, a German Faustus, the Cambrian Sleeping Bard, Russian folktales, and other works.{$I[AN]9810000352}{$I[A]Borrow, George Henry}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Borrow, George Henry}{$I[tim]1803;Borrow, George Henry}

He was a powerfully built, striking figure, given to dramatic stances and highly colored rhetoric that alternated with gradually increasing periods of gloomy depression. In his old age, he settled in Suffolk, where he died on July 26, 1881, at Oulton Broad. His five main works constitute a highly readable but very untrustworthy and loosely connected autobiography.

BibliographyArmstrong, Martin Donisthorpe. George Borrow. 1950. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1974.Collie, Michael. George Borrow, Eccentric. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.Jenkins, Herbert George. The Life of George Borrow. 1912. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970.Knapp, William Ireland. Life, Writings, and Correspondence of George Borrow, 1803-1881. 1899. Reprint. Detroit: Gale Research, 1967.McLynn, F. J. “Catholics and Celts in George Borrow’s Lavengro–Romany Rye.” Eire Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies 19, no. 1 (Spring, 1984).Meyers, Robert Rex. George Borrow. New York: Twayne, 1966.Vilarrubla, Montserrat. “George Henry Borrow: A Bibliographical Addenda of Secondary Sources.” Bulletin of Bibliography 47, no. 2 (June, 1990).Walling, R. A. J. George Borrow, the Man and His Work. 1908. Reprint. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977.Williams, David. A World of His Own: The Double Life of George Borrow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Categories: Authors