Places: Lavengro

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1851

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Autobiographical

Time of work: 1805-1825

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Great Britain

*Great LavengroBritain. Borrow’s native country. Born in Norfolk, he grew up the son of a professional soldier from Cornwall and has his first-person narrator, Lavengro, travel constantly throughout England. Lavengro is educated at one army encampment after another. Near the squalid training camp at Norman Cross in Lincolnshire, he first encounters Gypsies, who recognize his unusual qualities and give him his Gypsy name, “Lavengro”–from a Gypsy term for “word-master.” The novel’s subtitle alludes to his three identities: a student of languages, an honorary Gypsy, and an evangelical Protestant.

Wherever military life takes his family, Lavengro learns the local language and customs. In Scotland, he studies under a master of Norse extraction, while his father’s regiment is stationed at Edinburgh Castle. In Ireland, where he visits the Castle of Cashel, he trades a deck of playing cards for language lessons and begins a lifelong fascination with racing horses. In Wales, he is entranced by the ancient culture and astounds adults by learning to speak Welsh as quickly as he learned to ride horseback. By the time he returns to England, he is proficient in all the languages of the British Isles.


*Norfolk. Region in eastern England, along the North Sea, where Lavengro’s family settles after the Napoleonic Wars, There, in East Anglia, Lavengro receives a modest amount of formal schooling. On rambles through the countryside, he meets Gypsy horse traders whose values he prefers to those of his Anglo-Saxon neighbors. One Gypsy youth, Jasper, becomes his lifelong friend. He briefly contemplates a career in the law, then opts for a literary life and looks for work as a translator of literature.


*London. Capital of Great Britain where, after arriving by coach, Lavengro stays in the hostels of Cheapside and wanders among bookshops. He meets a publisher who commissions him to write about the urban poor. He writes the stories of debtors and criminals in the notorious Newgate Prison. He also writes about the shopkeepers and peddlers on London Bridge. On long walks outside the metropolis, he discovers such remnants of “Old England” as the fair at Greenwich, south of London on the River Thames.


*Stonehenge. Neolithic stone circle dominating the Sarum Plain north of Salisbury that Lavengro travels to on foot. There, he talks to a shepherd about such matters as the meaning of life, where Stonehenge’s great stones came from, where the stars are from, and where the local people originated.


*Chester. English town near the Welsh border where Lavengro interviews both officials and peasants. Half of his adventure is always mental. As he arrives at new destinations, he reflects on local legends and literature and especially on the words that people use.

Mumper’s Dingle

Mumper’s Dingle. “Beggar’s valley” on the Welsh border where Lavengro builds a makeshift forge and supports himself briefly by shoeing horses. There he meets more traveling Gypsies, including a beautiful young woman who shares his passion for languages, and a widely traveled postman who tells of his travels overseas. There, Lavengro’s episodic story ends. Borrow continued the story in Romany Rye (1857).

BibliographyHollingsworth, Keith. The Newgate Novel, 1830-1847: Bulwer, Ainsworth, Dickens, and Thackeray. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963. The best study of the English tradition of stories about criminals. Discusses the references in Lavengro to John Thurtell, a childhood acquaintance of Borrow, whose sensational murder trial and execution in 1823 left many traces in literature.Knapp, William I. Life, Writings, and Correspondence of George Borrow, Based on Official and Other Authentic Sources. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1899. The best study of Borrow’s life. Relates the narrative of Lavengro to verifiable events in Borrow’s early life.Meyers, Robert R. George Borrow. New York: Twayne, 1966. Provides an objective and realistic assessment of Lavengro as an account of Gypsy culture, description of the Gypsy language, and autobiography. It emphasizes Borrow’s indebtedness to the Bible, to Robin-son Crusoe, and to the eighteenth century picaresque tradition of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Laurence Sterne.Shorter, Clement. The Life of George Borrow. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1928. Uses unpublished documents to form this enthusiastic account of Borrow’s work. Emphasizes the way that the novel reflects Borrow’s linguistic abilities. A good starting point.Stonyk, Margaret. Nineteenth-Century English Literature. New York: Schocken Books, 1984. Includes an excellent discussion of the novel. Shows how Lavengro uses dialogue to reveal hypocrisy, describes its outrageous characters, and comments on how its seemingly random organization repelled its audience.
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