"Life is sweet, brother . . . There's night and day, brother,
sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise the wind on the heath.
Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?"
Ambrose Smith (Jasper Petulengro) quoted by George Borrow in Lavengro
Romantic writer, traveller and linguist of the Victorian Age, Borrow still arouses passions and arguments today. He also continues to inspire an interest in the world of the Romany, and for that at least he can be thanked.
George Henry Borrow was born in 1803 in Norfolk. He was the son of a captain in the militia, and his childhood was spent moving around with his father's regiment between England, Scotland and Ireland. But it was as a child on Mousehold Heath in the hills above Norwich that Borrow first met up with the Smith (Petulengro) Gypsies. Borrow's friendship with the Smiths and the boy Ambrose began his love affair with Gypsies and introduced him to the Romani language.
Initially, Borrow studied to be a solicitor, but he had a flair for words, speaking twelve languages by the age of 18, so when his father died he took off for London to try his luck as an author. Not being successful, in 1825 he swopped city-life for the dusty country roads. He worked his way as a tinker and ostler throughout England and then carried on to France and Germany.
From 1832 to '39 Borrow was employed by the British and Foreign Bible Society and worked in Russia, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. During that time, he continued to meet and mix with Gypsies and extended his knowledge of Romani.
In 1840 Borrow returned to England and settled down in Suffolk with a wealthy widow. Now he had time to write up his travels, and The Zincali, or an Account of the Gypsies in Spain was soon published, followed by The Bible in Spain. Apart from one trip to Turkey, he spent the rest of his life exploring all corners of the UK, loping along at 20 miles each day. In between travelling, he brought out Lavengro, The Romany Rye, Wild Wales, and finally Romano Lavo-Lil (a brief dictionary of English Romani).
George Borrow died in 1881. His reputation as a linguist has been tarnished by other philologists, who maintain that he enthusiastically mixed up the Romani dialects of Spain, Hungary and Britain in his books, for example, and that he also invented his own words. But as a lover of the open road and the travelling way of life, he was and will always remain an inspiration to other Romany scholars. His books and his memory will continue to bring delight.
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