Lavengro: Scholar, Gypsy, Priest by George Borrow, first published in 1851, is a sort of autobiography, with sections that cross over into the domain of the novel and others that reek of polemic or lyric. As autobiographies go, it is as non-standard as Tristram Shandy, in its own way, isWe could not affix to it the subtitle Wordsworth gave his Prelude,“The Growth of a Poet’s Mind.” Nor could we see in it, as in Augustine’s Confessions,the steady underhanded working of Providence. Nor even the working-out of the destiny that matches a character, as with Rousseau. The narrative proceeds by chance events, coincidences, and one long-term addiction. Borrow’s first-person narrator is born into a military family in Norfolk and relocates again and again through the British Isles with the reassignments of his father’s regiment. The father is a conventional Englishman who honors King and Country and hopes that his son will find secure employment, perhaps in the army, perhaps in the Church, or as a clerk to a lawyer (Lavengro133). But the son is useless in any useful employ. His passion is for language. Posted to Ireland, his father’s regiment passes a couple of drovers who say something that makes a young officer ask, “Strange language that! What can it be?”

“Irish!” said my father with a loud voice, “and a bad language it is, I have known it of old, that is, I have often heard it spoken when I was a guardsman in London. There’s one part of London where all the Irish live — at least all the worst of them — and there they hatch their villainies and speak this tongue; it is that which keeps them together and makes them dangerous. … Irish—I liked the Irish worst of all, it sounded so horrid, especially as I did not understand it. It’s a bad language.”

“A queer tongue!” said I. “I wonder if I could learn it.”

“Learn it!” said my father; “what should you learn it for?” (Lavengro [London: Foulis, 1914], p. 71)

There were no schools for learning Irish around 1810, so the narrator bribes a fellow student to teach him for a pack of cards. “It was not a school language, to acquire which was considered an imperative duty … but a speech spoken in out-of-the-way desolate places, and in cut-throat kens, where thirty ruffians, at the sight of the king’s minions, would spring up with brandished sticks and an ‘ubbubboo, like the blowing up of a powder-magazine.’ Such were the points connected with the Irish, which first awakened in my mind the desire of acquiring it; and by acquiring it I became, as I have already said, enamored of languages” (82). This chance encounter and the perfume of criminality seal the narrator’s fate. His father is worried.

“It is strange that he has conceived such a zest for the study of languages; no sooner did he come home than he persuaded me to send him to that old priest to learn French and Italian… Well, there is no harm in learning French and Italian, perhaps much good in his case, as they may drive the other tongue out of his head. Irish! why, he might go to the university but for that; but how would he look when, on being examined with respect to his attainments, it was discovered that he understood Irish? How did you learn it? they would ask him; how did you become acquainted with the language of Papists and rebels? The boy would be sent away in disgrace” (107-108).

Similar warnings emanate from the teacher of Italian. The student expresses admiration for Dante.

“Quoi, Monsieur Dante? He was a vagabond, my dear, forced to fly from his country. No, my dear, if you would be like one poet, be like Monsieur Boileau; he is the poet.”

“I don’t think so.”

“How, not think so! He wrote very respectable verses; lived and died much respected by everybody. T’other, one bad dog, forced to fly from his country — died with not enough to pay his undertaker.” (111)

None of these well-intentioned people understand that Borrow, like many another Victorian scholar and explorer, has an absolute allergy to respectability and wants the society of outlaws. Irish is his gateway drug, followed by Welsh, Danish, Old Norse, Armenian, Russian, Spanish, and so forth. “Such an erratic course was certainly by no means in consonance with the sober and unvarying routine of college study.” (134) “Erratic course” describes his narrative well enough too: always going off on a tangent, the narrator is lured off the straight path and into a new language study by the chance overhearing of a foreign word or the chance meeting with a foreign book (in one episode, a Danish ballad collection washed up from a shipwreck). Every word of an unknown language is like the footprint of Man Friday on the sands, and a trigger to the replay of Defoe’s Crusoe story (159-160). Imagine, if you will, the picaresque structure of narrative, but used as the framework of an autobiography. Rather than focusing and centering a story that develops from incident to incident, the picaresque is a series of adventures connected only by the main character’s pursuit of free food. The food for which this character hungers is words—specifically, the word as yet unknown.

By Chapter 18 he has “forsaken Greek for Irish… and of late, though I kept it a strict secret, I had abandoned in a great measure the study of the beautiful Italian, and the recitation of the sonorous terzets of the Divine Comedy… in order to become acquainted with the broken speech, and yet more broken songs, of certain houseless wanderers whom I had met at a horse fair”—Gypsies. “This strange broken tongue, spoken by people who dwelt amongst thickets and furze bushes, in tents as tawny as their faces, and whom the generality of mankind designated, and with much semblance of justice, as thieves and vagabonds” (130), gives the narrator his definitive name: “Lav-engro, which in the language of the gorgios meaneth Word-master” (131).

The narrator really is a Lavengro: someone who lives in, by, and for language, specifically foreign language, language that does not belong to him (if we can even speak of languages as belonging to anyone: Jacques Derrida, you might remember, claimed that it’s eminently true of languages that they never belong to anyone or any group). He has the ethnographer’s talent for collecting and transcribing stories. (The book came out just as the study of “folklore” was being invented; the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography were some years in the offing.) Here the Lavengro is eliciting a narrative from his friend Jasper:

When my father and mother were bitchadey pawdel, which, to tell you the truth, they were, for chiving wafodo dloovu, they left me all they had, which was not a little, and I became the head of our family, which was not a small one. I was not older than you when that happened; yet our people said they had never a better krallis to contrive and plan for them and to keep them in order. And this is so well known, that many Rommany Chals, not of our family, come and join themselves to us…”

“And you are what is called a Gypsy King?”

“Ay, ay; a Rommany Kral.”

“Are there other kings?”

“Those who call themselves so; but the true Pharaoh is Petulengro.”

“Did Pharaoh make horse-shoes?”

“The first who ever did, brother.”

“Pharaoh lived in Egypt.”

“So did we once, brother.”

“And you left it?”

“My fathers did, brother.”

“And why did they come here?”

“They had their reasons, brother.”

“And you are not English?”

“We are not Gorgios.”

“And you have a language of your own?”


“This is wonderful.”

“Ha, ha!” cried [Jasper’s mother-in-law]… “Ha, ha!” she screamed, fixing upon me two eyes, which shone like burning coals, and which were filled with an expression both of scorn and malignity, “It is wonderful, is it, that we should have a language of our own? What, you grudge the poor people the speech they talk among themselves? That’s just like you Gorgios, you would have everybody stupid, single-tongued idiots, like yourselves.” (126-127).

Borrow asks Jasper to teach him the Gypsy language, and the mother-in-law fulminates: “Not while I am here shall this gorgio learn Rommany!” She explains what she means:

“We are taken before the Poknees of the gav, myself and sister, to give an account of ourselves. So I says to my sister’s little boy, speaking Rommany, I says to the little boy who is with us, ‘Run to my son Jasper, and the rest, and tell them to be off, there are hawks abroad.’ So the Poknees questions us, and lets us go, not being able to make anything of us; but, as we are going, he calls us back. ‘Good woman,’ says the Poknees, ‘what was that I heard you say just now to the little boy ?’ ‘I was telling him, your worship, to go and see the time of day, and, to save trouble, I said it in our own language.’ ‘Where did you get that language?’ says the Poknees. ‘Tis our own language, sir,’ I tells him, ‘we did not steal it.’ ‘Shall I tell you what it is, my good woman?’ says the Poknees.’ ‘I would thank you, sir,’ says I, ‘for ’tis often we are asked about it.’ ‘Well, then,’ says the Poknees, ‘it is no language at all, merely a made-up gibberish.’ ‘Oh, bless your wisdom,’ says I, with a curtsey, ‘you can tell us what our language is without understanding it!’ Another time we meet a parson. ‘Good woman,’ says he, ‘what’s that you are talking? Is it broken language?’ ‘Of course, your reverence,’ says I, ‘we are broken people; give a shilling, your reverence, to the poor broken woman.’ Oh, these Gorgios! they grudge us our very language!”

Lavengro is himself a kind of gypsy, and not the pastoral dress-up of the Gypsy Scholar in Matthew Arnold’s poem of a few years later: adaptable, always on the move, often blamed for theft—for “stealing the language out of the mouths” of their speakers. While the focus of our gathering today is on international contagions of language and culture, and I’ve been polemically contrasting these to the nation-centered narratives that bear on their face, like banknotes, the symbols of centralized authority, it bears pointing out that in Lavengrothe scene is in the British Isles throughout, and the narrator manages to collect samples of linguistic and cultural otherness as profound as what other Victorian travelers needed to go to the Sahara or up the Amazon to find. Lavengrodiscovers margins everywhere. And its only center is in the person of the narrator, who is himself almost without qualities, borne hither and thither by linguistic desire, helplessly picking up the turns of phrase of his interlocutors. I take Lavengro as a particularly vivid illustration of a cultural personality-type, the person who finds himself on the outermost edge of the inside as well as on the innermost edge of the outside: the mediator.

(From a talk, “Eccentric Subjects–Permeable Frontiers,” at the conference “Japan’s Russia,” University of Chicago, May 2018.)