The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

III. Critical and Miscellaneous Prose

§ 9. Borrow

In a loose sense, Borrow might be called a scholar, since he knew many languages, and spoke and wrote them freely. He was a traveller, and has told the story of his travels with extraordinary verve. He has written books that read wonderfully like picaresque stories; but, in these, Wahrheit is so mingled with Dichtung that they stand in a class by themselves. On the whole, it seems best to regard him as one of the most remarkable of autobiographers. “What is autobiography?” he asked. “Is it a mere record of the incidents of a man’s life, or is it a picture of the man himself—his character, his soul?” If, as seems reasonable, we take this to be applicable to Lavengro and The Romany Rye, it links together the works of Borrow that really matter—these two and The Bible in Spain. In the last, no doubt, there is more precise truth of fact, but it is at least possible that there is more perfect sincerity in the less literally true books. The correspondence between Borrow and the Bible society, for which he worked, gives evidence that, sometimes, there was friction between that society and its extraordinary colporteur. In The Bible in Spain, the adventures ring true; but, though there can be no doubt as to Borrow’s hatred of popery and his consequent zeal, of a sort, for protestantism, the piety is, by no means, so convincing. Alike in this book and in the two gypsy tales, Borrow is unsurpassed for graphic power. In Wild Wales, he shows the same gift, though not quite in the same degree. Essentially, he is a man of the open air; and few have equalled him in the art of transporting the reader’s spirit into the wilderness, while his body sits by the fireplace. His books are planless, as picaresque books are apt to be. Events succeed one another; they are not consequent upon one another. But, nevertheless, the books are held together by the personality of the author; and it is the sense of his personality, in addition to that sense of the open air already mentioned, which makes Borrow eminently readable. By reason of these gifts, Borrow, in the literary sense, is far superior to Hindes Groome. Yet the latter was a very skilful literary craftsman. His sketch of Edward FitzGerald throws a pleasant light on an interesting character, and his paper on his own father, A Suffolk Parson, is rich with racy local anecdotes. What neither Kriegspiel nor In Gypsy Tents could impart was that sense of abounding vitality which sparkles in every page of Borrow.