Narrative Summary of George Borrow and His Circle


I’m going to take you on a journey through the life of George Borrow, an extraordinary and complex man. We’ll explore his wandering childhood, his time spent among the gypsies and prizefighters, and his work for the Bible Society, which took him to Russia and Spain. We’ll delve into his relationships with influential figures like Sir John Bowring and Richard Ford and witness his struggles and triumphs as a writer. I’ll also share insights into his personality, his views on life, and the profound influence of his experiences on his most famous works.

Main Parts:

  • Early Life and Family: We’ll begin with Borrow’s birth in Dumpling Green, Norfolk, and follow his nomadic childhood as his father, Captain Borrow, served in the West Norfolk Militia. We’ll meet his brother, John, who was destined for a tragic fate, and learn about his mother, Ann, who remained a constant source of support throughout his life.
  • Norwich Years: This section will explore Borrow’s time in Norwich, where he attended the Grammar School, worked as a lawyer’s clerk, and formed a connection with William Taylor, the “Anglo-Germanist,” who introduced him to literature and languages.
  • Vagabondage and Early Literary Efforts: We’ll witness Borrow’s struggles as a young writer in London, his failed attempts to publish his translations and ballads, and his eventual success in securing a position with the Bible Society.
  • Russia and the Manchu Bible: We’ll follow Borrow to St. Petersburg, where he learns the Manchu language and edits the New Testament in that language for the Bible Society.
  • Three Visits to Spain: This will be a detailed account of Borrow’s journeys through Spain, his work for the Bible Society, his encounters with Spanish officials and the gypsies, and his imprisonment for his efforts. This section will highlight the writing of “The Bible in Spain” and “The Zincali.”
  • Oulton Broad and Yarmouth: We’ll explore Borrow’s life as a country squire at Oulton, his love for the Norfolk coast, and his travels to Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Scotland, which led to the writing of “Wild Wales.”
  • London Years: This section will cover Borrow’s time spent in London, his friendships with Thomas Gordon Hake and Theodore Watts-Dunton, and the writing of “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye.”
  • Unpublished Writings: We’ll discuss Borrow’s vast collection of unpublished manuscripts, including his translations of poetry from numerous languages, his drafts of other books, and his diaries.
  • His Stepdaughter, Henrietta Clarke: This part will explore Borrow’s close relationship with his stepdaughter, Henrietta, and examine the myths surrounding her alleged neglect of him in his final years.
  • Legacy and Aftermath: We’ll discuss Borrow’s lasting legacy, the resurgence of interest in his work, and his status as a literary icon.

View on Life:

  • The Power of Language: Borrow possessed a passion for languages and saw them as keys to understanding different cultures and peoples. He believed that language could unlock the mysteries of the past and bridge cultural divides.
  • The Romantic Appeal of Vagabondage: Borrow celebrated the life of the wanderer, embracing the freedom of the road and the connection with nature and the unconventional. He viewed “the children of the open air” – the gypsies – as living symbols of this freedom.
  • A Complex Faith: Borrow embraced his religious faith while often challenging its more rigid interpretations. He sought to find the truth in scripture but held a distrust of organized religion and its institutional authority.
  • Individualism and Self-Reliance: Borrow valued independence of thought and action and advocated for living life on one’s own terms. He scorned those who sought to conform to social expectations and praised those who dared to be different.


  • The Prizefight: Borrow witnessed a dramatic prizefight near his hometown and was fascinated by the world of boxing and the characters involved. This experience shaped his views on physical prowess and masculinity and became an important element in his writing.
  • The Gypsy Encampment: Borrow frequently encountered gypsies on Mousehold Heath and developed a fascination with their culture, their language, and their unconventional way of life. His encounters with gypsies were a major influence on his writing, particularly in “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye.”
  • The Meeting with William Taylor: Borrow’s encounter with the learned “Anglo-Germanist” William Taylor ignited his passion for languages and literature and introduced him to a world of intellectual and philosophical discourse.
  • The Manchu Bible Project: Borrow’s time in Russia was dominated by his work on the Manchu Bible for the Bible Society. This task required him to learn the language, work closely with printers and compositors, and navigate complex bureaucratic and cultural barriers.
  • Borrow’s Imprisonments: During his time in Spain, Borrow faced multiple imprisonments for his efforts to distribute the Bible. He used these experiences as a springboard for adventure and as a means of testing his own strength and resilience.
  • The Search for Manx Literature: Borrow embarked on a quest to learn about the Manx language and its literature, fascinated by the Celtic heritage of the Isle of Man. He documented his journey in a diary that provides intimate glimpses into his personality and motivations.
  • The Meeting with Richard Ford: Borrow’s relationship with Richard Ford, the expert on Spain, was a dynamic blend of admiration, collaboration, and disagreement. They shared a passion for travel, Spain, and the study of language, but their different approaches to writing and their views on life created friction.


  • Financial Struggles: Borrow’s early life was marked by a series of financial setbacks, including the death of his father and his own failure to find success as a writer. He often struggled with poverty and had to rely on his mother’s support.
  • Literary Rejection: Borrow’s early efforts to publish his works were met with rejection, which damaged his ego and left him feeling like a failure.
  • The Bible Society’s Discipline: Borrow found himself constrained by the rules and conventions of the Bible Society, which sometimes clashed with his own free spirit and his unconventional methods.
  • The Death of his Brother, John: The loss of his brother in Mexico was a significant tragedy for Borrow, leaving him an only child and a more solitary figure.
  • The Death of his Mother, Ann: The death of his mother, a woman who had always offered him unconditional support, was a profound loss for Borrow. It contributed to his growing sense of loneliness and isolation.
  • The Loss of his Wife, Mary: The death of his wife was a devastating blow to Borrow, leaving him profoundly saddened and further isolating him.


  • Borrow’s Clash with Traditional Religion: Borrow’s strong personal faith often clashed with the more rigid and often hypocritical practices of organized religion. He challenged clerical authority and expressed skepticism towards certain doctrines and rituals.
  • Borrow’s Opposition to Social Conventions: Borrow’s love for the unconventional and his rejection of societal norms put him at odds with many of his contemporaries, particularly those who adhered to Victorian respectability and propriety.
  • Borrow’s Quarrel with the Bible Society: Borrow’s methods for promoting the Bible sometimes conflicted with the Society’s policies and led to disagreements with its officials, including his rival, Lieutenant Graydon.


  • The Romany Rye: Borrow’s life as a young man is presented in a dramatic and often fantastical narrative in which he encounters gypsies, prizefighters, and eccentric characters, all of whom shape his understanding of the world and his own identity.
  • The Bible in Spain: Borrow’s journey through Spain is narrated as a series of thrilling and often perilous adventures, including his interactions with the gypsies, his imprisonment for distributing Bibles, and his encounters with powerful figures. This narrative emphasizes Borrow’s courage, his resilience, and his complex relationship with his faith.
  • Wild Wales: Borrow’s tour of Wales is presented as a celebration of its people, language, and landscape. It is infused with a romanticism and a sense of wonder that reflects Borrow’s love for the natural world and his fascination with the Celtic culture.

Point of View:

  • First Person Narrative: Borrow uses the first-person point of view in all his major works, allowing the reader to directly experience his thoughts, feelings, and encounters. This intimate and often unreliable perspective adds to the authenticity and the captivating nature of his writing.
  • An Unconventional Viewpoint: Borrow’s perspective is often unorthodox and challenges conventional views on religion, society, and morality. His strong individualism and his love for the unconventional inform his narrative and contribute to its unique voice.

How it’s Written:

Borrow’s writing style is characterized by its vivid descriptions, its dramatic storytelling, and its blend of realism and fantasy. His prose is often rough and unpolished, reflecting his own rugged personality and his disdain for literary conventions. Here is an example from “Lavengro” that demonstrates his style:

“I had never seen a place like this before—so desolate and wild—and yet there was a singular beauty in it—a beauty of desolation. There was a long, low ridge of hills, with a few stunted pines, and here and there a clump of gorse; and then, stretching away to the horizon, a vast expanse of moorland, with here and there a patch of bog. And the wind! It seemed to sweep over the moorland like a wild beast, howling and roaring, and tearing up the heather and the gorse. And the rain! It fell in torrents, and the moorland seemed to drink it in like a sponge. And yet there was something in this wild desolate beauty that made me feel at home. It was a scene of nature in its wildest state—a scene that had never been touched by the hand of man. And I felt as if I had found a place where I could be myself—where I could be free.”


The tone of Borrow’s writing is often a mix of humor, seriousness, and defiance. He writes with an earnestness and passion that can be both captivating and frustrating. His tone can shift from philosophical contemplation to a boisterous and sometimes confrontational style, reflecting the complexity of his personality.

Life Choices:

  • Embracing the Life of a Wanderer: Borrow made a deliberate choice to reject a conventional path in favor of a life on the road, driven by a desire for freedom, adventure, and self-discovery.
  • Joining the Bible Society: Borrow’s decision to work for the Bible Society was motivated by a need for stability and purpose and a longing for greater adventure. However, he often felt confined by the Society’s rules and challenged its methods.
  • Focusing on Writing: Borrow’s later years were largely dedicated to writing, although he struggled with procrastination and self-doubt.


  • The Power of Language: Borrow’s life demonstrates the importance of language as a tool for understanding different cultures, connecting with people, and exploring the world.
  • Embracing the Unconventional: Borrow’s life is a testament to the value of individuality and the courage to break away from societal norms in pursuit of one’s passions and dreams.
  • The Importance of Self-Reliance: Borrow’s journey highlights the strength and resilience that can be found in self-reliance and in the pursuit of knowledge and adventure.


  • George Borrow: A complex and contradictory figure, a lover of nature, language, and freedom, but also a proud, stubborn, and often judgmental man.
  • Ann Borrow: A strong, resilient woman, a loving mother, and a constant source of support for her son.
  • John Thomas Borrow: A talented but troubled young man whose life was cut short by tragedy.
  • Jasper Petulengro: A charismatic and enigmatic gypsy, a representation of Borrow’s romantic ideal of the wanderer.
  • William Taylor: A learned and eccentric scholar who introduced Borrow to literature and languages and played a key role in shaping his early life.
  • Sir John Bowring: A highly accomplished linguist and politician, a friend to Borrow during his early years, but later a source of conflict.
  • Richard Ford: An erudite and passionate expert on Spain, a friend to Borrow, but also a source of occasional frustration and disagreement.
  • Mary Borrow: A loving and supportive wife, a businesswoman, and an essential partner in Borrow’s life.
  • Henrietta Clarke: Borrow’s devoted stepdaughter who cared for him throughout his later years.
  • Thomas Gordon Hake: A physician and writer, a long-time friend to Borrow, but one who sometimes misunderstood him.
  • Theodore Watts-Dunton: A writer and critic, a friend to Borrow, and one of the most important voices in celebrating his literary achievement.


  • The Quest for Identity: Borrow’s life is a continuous journey of self-discovery, as he navigates the complexities of his own personality, his passions, and his relationship with the world.
  • The Power of Nature: Borrow found inspiration and solace in nature, particularly in the wild landscapes of East Anglia, Wales, and Spain. He valued the freedom of the open road and the connection with the natural world.
  • The Allure of the Unconventional: Borrow was drawn to the marginalized and the unconventional, particularly the gypsies, who embodied a freedom that he longed for. His writings celebrate the individual spirit and challenge societal norms.
  • The Complexities of Faith: Borrow’s relationship with religion was a complex one. He held a deep faith while also challenging the authority of organized religion and questioning its interpretations of scripture.
  • The Importance of Language: Borrow believed that language held the key to understanding different cultures and peoples, and he pursued its study with a passion that defined his life.


  • The Value of Individualism: Borrow believed in the right of individuals to live life on their own terms, rejecting social conventions and seeking their own truth.
  • The Beauty of Nature: Borrow found immense beauty and inspiration in the natural world, particularly in the wild landscapes he traveled through.
  • The Pursuit of Knowledge: Borrow possessed a thirst for knowledge, especially of language, which he saw as a gateway to understanding and connection.

Intentions of the Characters:

  • Borrow: To live an adventurous and independent life, to explore the world, to uncover the truths of language and culture, and to leave a lasting mark on the world through his writing.
  • Ann Borrow: To provide love and support for her son, to guide him through his challenges, and to see him achieve success and happiness.
  • John Thomas Borrow: To find his place in the world, to achieve success as an artist, and to escape the constraints of a life in the army.
  • Mary Borrow: To build a happy home and support her husband in his endeavors, both personal and professional.
  • Henrietta Clarke: To care for her stepfather and to find fulfillment in her own pursuits.
  • Sir John Bowring: To advance his career in politics and scholarship, to gain recognition for his work, and to promote social reform.
  • Richard Ford: To explore the world, to study Spain and its culture, and to share his knowledge with others.
  • Thomas Gordon Hake: To serve others as a physician and writer, to foster intellectual and artistic connections, and to find meaning in his own creative pursuits.
  • Theodore Watts-Dunton: To live a life of passionate devotion to literature and art, to make a mark on the world through his writing, and to build deep and lasting friendships.

Unique Vocabulary:

  • Lav-Engro: “word-master” in the Romani language, reflecting Borrow’s mastery of languages.
  • Dukkering: Borrow’s Romani word for “fate.”
  • Romany: Borrow’s term for the Romani language (though the correct spelling is Romani).
  • Gorgio: Borrow’s term for “non-gypsy” in Romani.


  • The Story of David Haggart: Borrow’s account of the Scottish jailbreaker, David Haggart, highlights the dark side of human nature and provides a glimpse into Borrow’s fascination with criminal tales.
  • The Gypsy Girl of Italica: This story from Colonel Napier’s “Excursions along the Shores of the Mediterranean” is a captivating encounter between Borrow and a gypsy girl, showcasing his knowledge of Romani and his interest in the “Children of the Open Air.”
  • The Blind Girl of Manzanares: Borrow’s description of a blind Spanish girl who speaks Latin reveals his appreciation for the unexpected and his fascination with those who challenge societal norms.
  • The Comet of 1811: Borrow vividly recalls watching the comet from the marketplace of Dereham as a child. This memory demonstrates his early interest in the wonders of the universe and his tendency towards poetic observation.
  • The Horse Fair at Norwich: Borrow’s description of the famous horse fair at Norwich showcases his passion for horses and his love of the energy and spectacle of a traditional fair.
  • The Rescue at Yarmouth: Borrow’s courageous rescue of a man from a stormy sea at Yarmouth highlights his bravery and his commitment to helping others in need.
  • The Gift of the Shekel: Borrow’s friend, John Hasfeld, gifted him a shekel as a talisman. This detail underscores the importance of symbolism and superstition in Borrow’s life and his connection with the unconventional.


  • The Power of the Outsider: Borrow’s writings challenge conventional views on society and morality and celebrate the individual spirit, particularly the outsider who rejects conformity.
  • The Truth in Myth and Legend: Borrow embraced folk tales and legends as valuable sources of cultural understanding, often incorporating them into his stories.
  • The Value of Individual Experience: Borrow believed that personal experience was essential for acquiring knowledge and shaping one’s identity. He valued the authenticity of individual stories and the uniqueness of personal journeys.

Facts and Findings:

  • The Bible Society’s Work in Russia and Spain: Borrow’s letters provide a detailed account of the Bible Society’s efforts to translate and distribute the Bible in Russia and Spain, highlighting the difficulties and challenges of religious outreach in these countries.
  • Borrow’s Linguistic Achievements: Borrow’s manuscripts and letters demonstrate his extensive knowledge of languages, including the Romani, Manchu, Basque, Persian, Turkish, and many others.
  • The Significance of the Runic Stone in the Isle of Man: Borrow’s discovery and translation of the Runic stone in the Isle of Man provide insight into the history and language of the island and highlight his dedication to the study of ancient languages.
  • The Rise of Prizefighting in England: Borrow’s writings provide a vivid portrait of the world of prizefighting in England, showcasing its popularity, its participants, and its influence on society.


  • The Bible Society’s Production of Bibles in Spain: Borrow oversaw the printing and distribution of 5,000 copies of the Spanish New Testament, which, in the early 1830s, was a significant endeavor.
  • Borrow’s Journeys on Foot: Borrow walked hundreds, even thousands, of miles during his travels in England, Europe, and the Middle East. He embraced the physical exertion and the freedom of traveling on foot.
  • The Sale of Borrow’s Books: Although Borrow’s works achieved a degree of success, his greatest books, “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye,” were initially met with limited sales, reflecting the Victorian era’s preference for more conventional literature.

Points of View:

  • The Perspective of the Wanderer: Borrow’s writings are infused with the perspective of a wanderer who rejects a conventional life and embraces the freedom of the road.
  • The Outsider’s View: Borrow often challenged the views of the establishment, particularly regarding religion and societal norms. His writings express a strong individualism and a love for the unconventional.
  • The Scholar’s Approach: Borrow’s fascination with languages and his dedication to their study inform his writing, enriching his narratives with historical and cultural insights.


Borrow’s life and writings offer a unique perspective on 19th-century England and the wider world. They are a testament to the enduring power of individuality, the beauty of the natural world, and the importance of language as a tool for understanding and connection. His journey as a writer, a traveler, and a seeker of truth is both inspiring and cautionary, reminding us of the complexities of human nature and the challenges of navigating a world filled with both wonder and hardship.

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