An Astonishing Correspondent
George Borrow and the Bible Society

By Kathleen Cann

[Kathleen Cann is the former archivist of The Bible Society. This article was given as a lecture at London Bible House 22 july 1981.]
George Borrow's fame rests chiefly on four books: two autobiographical novels, Lavengro and The Romany Rye, and two travel books, Wild Wales and The Bible in Spain. The last-mentioned, which has been described as “one of the finest travel books ever written” (1)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 1).
F.A. Kirkpatrick in vol.XIV of The Cambridge History of English Literature, Cambridge 1907-27.
was based on his experiences as a Foreign Agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society, a position he held for seven years, from 1833 to 1840.

His letters to the Society were published in 1911, and in the Preface the editor wrote: “Certainly, no other society ever possessed such an astonishing correspondent.” (2)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 2).
T.H. Darlow, ed.: Letters of George Borrow to the British and Foreign Bible Society, London 1911. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Borrow’s letters are taken from this publication. The original letters remain as a separate collection in the BFBS archives (reference BSA/D2/5).

Just how astonishing can perhaps be gauged by setting a letter in the context for which it was intended, a Bible Society Committee meeting. The Committee was composed of City merchants, bankers, lawyers and other professional men, and meetings were conducted in a very businesslike fashion. On 20 August 1838 they approved arrangements for re-stocking the Athens Depot, and ordered the printing of 5,000 Greek Psalters; they made grants of Bibles for the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, for emigrants going to Australia, and for workhouses and institutions for the blind. (3)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 3).
BFBS Minutes of the Committee, volume 27, pp.314-325.

 The Secretary read out letters from the Society's Foreign Agents: from Mr Tiddy in Brussels, ordering a supply of printing ink; from Mr de Pressensé in Paris, reporting issues of 8,000 volumes of scripture in July; from Dr Pinkerton in Frankfort, reporting on a recent tour:

In Mainz I made the acquaintance of the Chaplain to the Prussian troops ... who is an able and pious man and well-disposed to our cause. He informed me that the soldiers are supplied with Testaments from Berlin; but he wished for a grant of Testaments in large print for the Military Hospital, in which there are always above 100 sick. For the use of these I have sent to him 50 Testaments, one half for Catholics and the other half for Protestants, to be placed in the different wards. (4)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 4).
Robert Pinkerton 31 July 1838, BFBS Foreign Correspondence Inwards.

A letter from Mr Borrow in Madrid, 3 August 1838, also reported on a recent tour:

I started with my servant about six in the evening, having early in the morning sent forward Lopez with between two and three hundred Testaments. We left the high road and proceeded by a shorter way, through wild hills and over very broken and precipitous ground. Being well-mounted we found ourselves just after sunset opposite Ocaña, which stands on a steep hill. A deep valley lay between us and the town; we descended and came to a small bridge which traverses a rivulet at the bottom of the valley, at a very small distance from a kind of suburb; we crossed the bridge, and were passing by a deserted house on our left hand when a man appeared from under the porch.

What I am about to state will seem incomprehensible to you, but a singular history and a singular people are connected with it. The man placed himself before my horse so as to bar the way, and said Schophon, which in the Hebrew tongue signifies a rabbit. I knew this word to be one of the Jewish counter-signs, and asked the man if he had anything to communicate. He said: ‘You must not enter the town, for a net is prepared for you. The Corregidor of Toledo, on whom may all evil light, in order to give pleasure to the priests of Maria, in whose face I spit, has ordered all the Alcaldes of these parts and the Escribanos and the Corchetes to lay hands on you wherever they may find you, and to send you and your books and all that pertains to you to Toledo. Your servant was seized this morning in the town above as he was selling the writings in the streets, and they are now awaiting your arrival in the posada; but I knew you from the accounts of my brethren, and I have been waiting here four hours to give you warning, in order that your horse may turn his tail to your enemies and neigh in derision of them. Fear nothing for your servant, for he is known to the Alcalde and will be set at liberty, but do you flee, and may God attend you.’ Having said this, he hurried towards the town.

I hesitated not a moment to take his advice, knowing full well that, as my books had been taken possession of, I could do no more in that direction. We turned back in the direction of Aranjuez, the horses notwithstanding the nature of the ground galloping at full speed, and like the true Moorish breed bearing their tails erect and stiff ...


Silhouette of Andrew Brandram (Bible Society Library, Cambridge University Library)
After describing a narrow escape from robbers on the way back, he concluded “Such is my life in Spain” - not the sort of life that the Bible Society expected its Agents to lead, and in fact a letter had gone out a fortnight earlier, recalling Mr Borrow to England. To go back to the beginning of the story: Borrow was recommended to the Society at the end of 1832 for the post of Editorial Superintendent, his main qualification being that he was said to have read the Bible in thirteen languages. But that job was not to be his because, by the time the recommendation came in, the vacancy had already been filled by the appointment of the Revd Joseph Jowett (1784-1856), of whom a colleague was later to write: “He is one of the best advisers. His judgment is sound, and he has admirable tact in expressing himself clearly on difficult subjects. (5)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 5).
Andrew Brandram to Henry Leeves 28 December 1843, on Jowett’s impending retirement, BFBS Foreign Correspondence Outwards.


That colleague was one of the Secretaries, the Revd Andrew Brandram (1790-1850), educated at Winchester and Oxford, a man with a first-class degree and a first-class physique, in whom tact was sometimes marred by what he himself admitted was “a disposition to precipitancy in my conduct.”

(6)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 6).
Brandram to BFBS 3 May 1823, explaining why he felt unfitted for the post of Secretary; another reason was his lack of “self-possession or coolness under critical circumstances” BFBS Home Correspondence Inwards. He filled the post for 27 years, until his death in 1850.
It is clear that Borrow came to admire Brandram. Much later he referred to “the stalwart Andrew Brandram” as the Bible Society's greatest man, (7)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 7).
Borrow, Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings, ed. H.G. Wright, London 1928, chapter 29.
and he made a character in The Romany Rye describe him as “a big burly parson, with the face of a lion, the voice of a buffalo, and a fist like a sledgehammer.” (8)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 8).
Chapter 4, an evident reference to the Bible Society by ‘the man in black’.
The Society did however have a job for a linguist: it had a manuscript of the New Testament in Manchu, of which only St Matthew’s Gospel had been published (9)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 9).
In St Petersburg in 1822. It was hoped that a Manchu Bible would be an important means of evangelising China under the Manchu dynasty, but the language proved to have been largely superseded by Chinese, except for official use, and among the Tartar tribes in the north.
. Borrow was asked to teach himself enough Manchu to edit the rest, and oversee its printing. He went home to Norwich with some Manchu books, and only four weeks later was assuring Jowett that he could already “translate Mandchou with no great difficulty, and am perfectly qualified to write a critique on the version of St. Matthew’s Gospel, which I brought with me into the country” (letter of 10 February 1833). After five months he announced that he had mastered the language. The Bible Society meanwhile had received news from Russia that it might be possible to print the Manchu New Testament in St. Petersburg, where the translator, S.V. Lipovtsev (10)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 10).
Stepan Vasil’evich Lipovtsev (1773-1841), formerly of the Russian ecclesiastical mission to Peking.
, was still living. So Jowett wrote to ask Borrow if he was willing to go to Russia. Back came the reply by return of post (letter of 3 July 1833):

Revd and Dear Sir, - Owing to the culpable tardiness of the post-office people, I have received your letter so late that I have little more than a quarter of an hour to answer it in, and be in time to despatch it by this day’s mail. What you have written has given me great pleasure, as it holds out hope that I may be employed usefully to the Deity, to man, and myself. I shall be very happy to visit St. Petersburg and to become the coadjutor of Mr. Lipoftsoff, and to avail myself of his acquirements in what you very happily designate a most singular language, towards obtaining a still greater proficiency in it. I flatter myself that I am for one to two reasons tolerably well adapted for the contemplated expedition, for besides a competent knowledge of French and German, I possess some acquaintance with Russian, being able to read without much difficulty any printed Russian book, and I have little doubt that after a few months' intercourse with the natives I should be able to speak it fluently. It would ill become me to bargain like a Jew or a Gypsy as to terms; all I wish to say on that point is, that I have nothing of my own, having been too long dependent on an excellent mother, who is not herself in very easy circumstances.


This jaunty letter did not go down too well with some of the Committee, to whose minds came Bible texts like “Can a man be profitable to God?” (Job. 22.2). Jowett administered a tactful rebuke:

Excuse me if, as a clergyman, and your senior in years though not in talent, I venture, with the kindest of motives, to throw out a hint which may not be without its use. I am sure you will not be offended if I suggest that there is occasionally a tone of confidence in speaking of yourself, which has alarmed some of the excellent members of our Committee. It may have been this feeling, more than once displayed before, which prepared one or two of them to stumble at an expression in your letter of yesterday, in which, till pointed out, I confess I was not struck with anything objectionable, but at which, nevertheless, a humble Christian might not unreasonably take umbrage. It is where you speak of the prospect of becoming “useful to the Deity, to man and to yourself”. Doubtless you meant, “the prospect of glorifying God” ... (11)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 11).
Jowett, 5 July 1833, printed in Darlow p.16.


Portrait of Joseph Jowett (Bible Society Library, Cambridge University Library)
Although by constitution it was theologically neutral, in practice the Bible Society was largely composed of Evangelicals, who were very influential at that period, as Borrow had discovered when he tried to make a living as an author and was told that what was wanted was an Evangelical novel. (12)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 12).
See Lavengro chapter 30, describing Borrow's interview with a London publisher, who turned down his translations of Danish and Welsh poetry, and asked for something in the style of the Dairyman's Daughter, a popular tract by the Revd Legh Richmond.
There was what one might almost call an Evangelical sub-culture, with its own distinctive outlook and language. Evangelicals were ‘serious’ or ‘truly pious’ Christians, who laid great emphasis on the leading of Providence, the need for conversion, and on man's inability to please God by his own efforts. Borrow’s ‘tone of confidence’ was to get him into trouble with the Society more than once. It may well have concealed an inner insecurity caused by an unsettled childhood and an uneasy relationship with his father, but the Bible Society was not given to psychoanalysis and interpreted his more bombastic utterances simply as arrogance and, in Mr Brandram's words, as “savouring a little of the praise of a personage called number one.” (13)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 13).
Brandram to Borrow, 22 May 1839, printed in Darlow p.414.
In this instance Borrow took his rebuke in good part and did what he could to acquire the Evangelical language - in which, having a good ear for languages, he was reasonably successful. (14)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 14).
But not entirely: his religious phraseology does not always ring true, and some writers have thought that his piety was assumed for the Society's benefit. It is equally likely that he was trying to express genuine religious feeling in a language that was not natural to him. In later life he considered himself an old-fashioned High Churchman, and described what was probably a piece of effusive Evangelical literature as being “stuffed with religious and anti-slavery cant, and merely wanted a little of the teetotal nonsense to be a perfect specimen of humbug” (Wild Wales, chapter 42).


On 31 July 1833 Borrow sailed for Russia, where he spent two happy years and succeeded brilliantly in the task assigned to him, overcoming bureaucratic delays to get the necessary permission, and grappling with all the technicalities of the printing process. He needed all his energy, initiative, and the quality which, as he said “through life has ever been of incalculable utility to me ... iron perseverance, without which all the advantages of time and circumstance are of very little avail in any undertaking.” (15)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 15).
Lavengro chapter 83, describing his efforts to make horseshoes.
By May 1834 the Society was able to authorise him to go ahead with the printing on the terms that he had arranged. Then - silence for five months - what was happening? In October Jowett summoned up his tact again and wrote:

Now, you are sufficiently aware that the publication of the Mandchou Scriptures is a work in which our Committee have taken a very lively interest. You may, therefore, readily conceive of their disappointment at receiving so very few notices of your progress in accelerating that work ...you ought to reflect that the Committee, who stand between you and the public, should be enabled to give an answer to the question, What is Mr. Borrow doing? (16)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 16).
Jowett, 7 October 1834, printed in Darlow p.54.

The answer was not long in coming (letter of 8 October O.S./20 October N.S. 1834) (17)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 17).

Borrow dated his letter 8 October Old Style, using the Russian calendar, which was twelve days behind western Europe at that period.
:

The nature of my occupations during the last two months and a half has been such as would have entirely unfitted me for correspondence, had I been aware that it was necessary, which, on my sacred word, I was not. Now, and only now, when by the blessing of God I have surmounted all my troubles and difficulties, I will tell, and were I not a Christian I should be proud to tell, what I have been engaged upon and accomplished during the last ten weeks. I have been working in the printing-office, as a common compositor, between ten and thirteen hours every day during that period ...

and he went on to describe the difficulties with the paper, the printers, and the copy, which between them had “almost reduced me to a skeleton”

My dearest Sir, do me the favour to ask our excellent Committee, Would it have answered any useful purpose if, instead of continuing to struggle with difficulties and using my utmost to overcome them, I had written in the following strain - and what else could I have written if I had written at all? - ‘I was sent out to St. Petersburg to assist Mr Lipoftsoff in the editing of the Mandchou Testament. That gentleman, who holds three important situations under the Russian Government, and who is far advanced in years, has neither time, inclination, or eyesight for the task, and I am apprehensive that my strength and powers unassisted are incompetent to it’ (praised be the Lord, they were not!), ‘therefore I should be glad to return home. Moreover the compositors say that they are unaccustomed to compose in an unknown tongue from such scribbled and illegible copy, and they will scarcely assist me to compose. Moreover the working printers say (several went away in disgust) that the paper on which they have to print is too thin to be wetted, and that to print on dry requires a twofold exertion of strength, and that they will not do such work for double wages, for it ruptures them.’ Would that have been a welcome communication to the Committee? Would that have been a communication suited to the public? I was resolved ‘to do or die,’ and, instead of distressing and perplexing the Committee with complaints, to write nothing until I could write something perfectly satisfactory, as I now can; and to bring about that result I have spared neither myself nor my own money. I have toiled in a close printing-office the whole day, during 90 degrees of heat, for the purpose of setting an example, and have bribed people to work whom nothing but bribes would induce so to do.


Within a week another long letter arrived, discussing the eventual distribution of the Testaments among “the masters of Pekin and the fierce hordes of desert Tartary“. The town of Kiachta, on the Russian/Chinese border, seemed to offer the best possibilities for a Bible Society Agent, if a passport could be obtained from the Russian Government:

I am a person of few words, and will therefore state without circumlocution that I am willing to become that agent. I speak Russ, Mandchou, and the Tartar or broken Turkish of the Russian steppes, and have also some knowledge of Chinese, which I might easily improve at Kiachta, half of the inhabitants of which town are Chinamen. I am therefore not altogether unqualified for such an adventure (13 October O.S./25 October N.S. 1834). (18)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 18).
Borrow had picked up the Tartar language by conversing with his Tartar servant Mahmoud; he also attended the Armenian church so as to perfect himself in the language, and visited the Gypsies near Moscow, whom he addressed in Romany.

The Society was ready to be convinced, but from past experience was pessimistic about the prospects of success - rightly so, as the Russian Government refused Borrow a passport, and he had to return to England with the books in September 1835. The New Testaments were distributed many years later by missionaries among the Tartar tribes in north China, and the text was reprinted as late as 1929.

Borrow and the Society were thoroughly pleased with each other: Borrow's exploits in Russia had been narrated at local meetings, and Andrew Brandram considered that he possessed “an order of talent remarkably suited to the purposes of our Society”. (19)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 19).
Brandram to the Revd E. Whitely of Oporto, 4 November 1835, printed in Darlow p.102.
Borrow himself envisaged a long-term career with the Society, editing Armenian, learning Chinese “from some unemployed Lascar or stray Cantonman whom I may pick up on the wharfs: and then - to China” (letter of 27 October 1835). In the meantime, however, a short trip to Portugal and perhaps Spain was decided on, “to learn what ways and opportunities present themselves for conveying the Gospel into those benighted countries“. He did make a short trip to Portugal, exploring the country and distributing a few New Testaments, and also a few tracts, which of course as a Bible Society Agent he had no business to do. (20)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 20).
The Society’s fundamental law restricted it to the circulation of the Holy Scriptures ‘without note or comment’. Borrow may have been given the tracts by John Wilby, a merchant and the Society’s correspondent in Lisbon.
Within two months he pushed on into Spain, where a civil war was raging, and where he was to spend the next four years, the most well-known, colourful, and controversial period of his service with the Bible Society.

As soon as he entered Spain, early in 1836, he encountered Gypsies at Badajoz, and began a translation of St. Luke’s Gospel into their language. He sent home one chapter and the Lord’s Prayer as a specimen, together with ‘Specimens of the horrid curses in use amongst the Spanish Gypsies’. The Committee preserved a discreet silence on the subject of the curses, but authorised him to print specimen chapters of the Gospel “for distribution among these wandering tribes as a trial of his success in endeavouring to communicate to them a knowledge of the Scriptures.” (21)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 21).
BFBS Editorial Sub-Committee 1 March 1836, vol.2, p.87.
He also wrote a short essay on the Gypsies which he offered - unsuccessfully - for insertion in the Society's monthly magazine.

It is paradoxical that Borrow, who wrote what must have been the best letters, from a literary point of view, that the Society ever received, was probably the only Agent whose letters were never published, in spite of several hints from their writer. This was not necessarily due to philistinism on the Society’s part. The magazine was designed to inform and encourage supporters, and like all such publications it needed to be edifying and success-oriented. The sort of thing that went down well, for example, was: “We have most cheering accounts from several Armenians at Constantinople, many of whom have become decidedly pious, and are seriously thinking of the salvation of their souls” or “the ... City of Wells has at length become the seat of a Ladies’ Bible Association. The public meeting at which it was established was very numerously and respectably attended, the spacious Town Hall being completely filled.” (22)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 22).
Monthly Extracts from the correspondence of the BFBS, June and August 1836.
The serious Christian reader might perhaps have found Borrow's style lacking in Evangelical fervour, and his report of the Gypsies’ response to the Scriptures was not very encouraging (letter of 19 July 1836):

I translated certain portions of Scripture into their dialect, which I frequently read to them, especially the parables of Lazarus and the Prodigal Son, and told them that the latter had been as wicked as themselves, and both had suffered as much or more ... They listened with admiration, but alas! not of the truths, the eternal truths I was telling them, but at finding that their broken jargon could be written and read. The only words of assent to the heavenly doctrine which I ever obtained, and which were rather of the negative kind, were the following, from a woman: ‘Brother, you tell us strange things, though perhaps you do not lie; a month since I would sooner have believed these tales, than that I should this day have seen one who could write Rommany.’

The translation of Luke was finished in Madrid and printed in 1837, the first book of the Bible in a Gypsy language, and the very first book in Caló. (23)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 23).
For a detailed discussion on the making of this translation, see A.M. Ridler: ‘Sidelights on George Borrow’s Gypsy Luke’ in The Bible Translator, vol. 32 no.3, United Bible Societies July 1981.


Apart from his contacts with the Gypsies, Borrow’s first six months in Spain were spent trying to get permission to print the New Testament in Spanish. Since it was illegal to import books in the Spanish language, the Society’s success depended on its ability to print in Spain, which in turn depended on the political situation. At this period the press was relatively free, but religious books needed the approval of the Church, which meant that Bibles had to be the authorised Catholic translations, and include notes giving the approved interpretation. The Society did publish an authorised Catholic translation, that of Felipe Scio, first published in 1793, but it was prevented by its fundamental principles as a non-denominational body from including interpretive notes. But in 1836 the Government in Madrid was willing at least to turn a blind eye to these requirements: the Church tended to favour the Carlist faction in the civil war, and so the Government cultivated the support of liberals and anti-clericals, who were sympathetic to the Bible Society. Borrow eventually got verbal permission to print, provided it was “done in a private manner” as the Spanish Prime Minister told him, adding that “in the present state of affairs he would not answer for the consequences if it were noised abroad” (letter of 17 July 1836).

So an edition of 5,000 Spanish New Testaments was printed and was ready for despatch by the spring of 1837. Borrow submitted his proposals for their distribution (letter of 14 January 1837):

As soon as the work is printed and bound, I will ride forth from Madrid into the wildest parts of Spain, where the Word is most wanted, and where it seems next to an impossibility to introduce it. I will go through the whole of the Asturias and Galicia, and along the entire line of the Pyrenees, not forgetting to visit every part of Biscay ...

I will take with me 1200 copies, which I will engage to dispose of, for little or much, to the wild people of the wild regions which I intend to visit. As for the rest of the edition it must be disposed of, if possible, in a different way - I may say the usual way; part must be entrusted to booksellers, part to colporteurs, and a depot must be established at Madrid. Such work is every person’s work, and to any one may be confided the execution of it; it is a mere affair of trade. What I wish to be employed in is what, I am well aware, no other individual will undertake to do: namely, to scatter the Word upon the mountains, amongst the valleys and the inmost recesses of the worst and most dangerous parts of Spain, where the people are more fierce, fanatic, and, in a word, Carlist, - parts where bookshops are unknown, and where none of those means can be resorted to for the spread of the Bible, which can be used in the more civilised portions of the kingdom.

This is the plan which I most humbly offer to the consideration of the Committee and yourself. I shall not feel at all surprised should it be disapproved of altogether; but I wish it to be understood that in that event I could do nothing further than see the work through the press, as I am confident that whatever ardour and zeal I at present feel in the cause would desert me immediately, and that I should neither be able or willing to execute anything which might be suggested. I wish to engage in nothing which would not allow me to depend entirely on myself.

This letter is typical of Borrow and very revealing of his basic attitudes. Perhaps ‘Romanticism’ is the best word to express the quality that most sets him apart from the average Bible Society Agent. Borrow is here presenting himself as the romantic hero, embarking on a solitary and dangerous mission into the unknown, “to scatter the Word upon the mountains.” Undoubtedly he was fully ready and able to live up to this image: there was no question of his courage and enterprise, and his eagerness to visit the “wild people of the wild regions“. ‘Wild’ was one of his favourite adjectives; one of the Society’s favourites was ‘respectable’.

The Committee was not entirely convinced by Borrow’s marketing strategy, as Mr Brandram reported: “You will see we do not quite enter into your plans. On hearing them, a general and simultaneous question was asked. Can the people in these wilds read?” and he forwarded a resolution instructing Mr Borrow “to enter into correspondence with the principal booksellers and with other persons favourable to the dissemination of the Scriptures in the different towns of the northern and middle provinces of Spain.” (24)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 24).
Brandram 28 April 1837, with minute of General Purposes Sub-Committee 27 April, both printed in Darlow, p.201.
In fact Borrow was more practical than his words sometimes suggested, and he did establish a network of contacts with booksellers in the towns he visited. It was nevertheless a romantic and very dangerous journey of epic proportions, and the Committee might not have appreciated his symbolic gesture of taking one New Testament to Cape Finisterre - a detour of some 50 miles - in order to carry the Gospel “to the extreme point of the old world” especially as the gesture nearly cost him his life when the local fishermen took him for a Carlist spy and threatened to shoot him. (25)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 25).
See The Bible in Spain, chapter 30.


When he returned to Madrid, and had recovered from the dysentery and ophthalmia he had contracted on the return journey, he decided to do something to improve sales there; so he opened a shop in the Society’s name and plastered the walls of Madrid with brightly coloured posters to advertise it. This was a foolish thing to do, as the Government now in power was trying to conciliate the Church and was therefore less ready to overlook irregularities. In fact the Government over-reacted and clapped Borrow in prison; with the help of the British Ambassador he made a diplomatic incident of it, and was released with an official apology, having in the meantime taken the opportunity to improve his acquaintance with the Spanish criminal classes.

The recriminations that followed harmed Borrow’s relations with the Society, not least because he insisted on blaming all his misfortunes on the Society’s other representative in Spain, Lieutenant James Graydon R.N., an Irish Protestant of great zeal and earnestness. (26)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 26).
Graydon has had a bad press from Borrow’s biographers, most of whom have accepted Borrow’s judgement uncritically. For a more favourable assessment of his character and work, see Tine Barrass: The Catalan New Testament and the British and Foreign Bible Society 1820-1868, Cambridge University doctoral thesis 1968. Cf. Brandram to Borrow 3 July 1838: “Graydon has a vast deal more prudence with all his eccentricities than you give him credit for” BFBS Foreign Correspondence Outwards.
Graydon had gone to Spain for the Society a year before Borrow, and had successfully distributed large numbers of Spanish and Catalan Scriptures in Barcelona and the cities along the coast. He too was in trouble with the authorities in the spring of 1838, because of the way he advertised his books, and the Committee’s anxieties for both its Agents were only increased by intemperate letters from Borrow: “In the name of the Most Highest take steps for preventing that miserable creature Graydon from ruining us all” (letter of 23 May 1838). They became really alarmed when Borrow, with the backing of the British Ambassador, declared, in a newspaper advertisement, that he was the sole authorised Agent of the Bible Society in Spain - in effect throwing Graydon to the wolves. Urgent letters went out to recall Graydon, and Mr Brandram confided to another correspondent: “I am not in a condition to write about Spain just at present.” (27)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 27).
Brandram to William Tiddy, 25 June 1838, BFBS Foreign Correspondence Outwards.
His letters to Borrow at this period reveal a certain amount of exasperation.

Sample of a letter from Borrow to Brandram (Madrid, 23 May 1838) (Bible Society Library, Cambridge University Library)
On 25 May 1838 a Royal Order was issued in Madrid, prohibiting the sale of Bibles without notes, and ordering the removal of all such copies from Spain. Borrow of course took no notice, and effected some of his most rapid and successful distribution in the villages around Madrid, playing cat and mouse with the authorities. “I will not conceal from you” he wrote, “that I am playing a daring game, and it is very possible that when I least expect it I may be seized, tied to the tail of a mule and dragged either to the prison of Toledo or Madrid” (letter of 14 July 1838). The Society was torn between pleasure that the Testaments were being distributed, and alarm at the methods employed. In the end political realism prevailed, and Mr Brandram wrote recalling him:
I have further to add that I was somewhat mistaken as to what would be the feelings of our Committee about your continuing in Spain. They do not see it right, after the confidential communication in which you have been with the Government, that you should be acting now in such open defiance of it, and putting yourself in such extreme jeopardy. (28)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 28).
Brandram 6 August 1838, printed in Darlow p.349.

This makes it the more extraordinary that the Society should allow Borrow to return to Spain at the end of the year “in order to dispose of the copies of the Scriptures remaining on hand in Madrid, and in the other Depôts established by him in various parts of that Country.” (29)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 29).
BFBS General Purposes Sub-Committee 14 December 1838, printed in Darlow p.379. Cf. Brandram to Borrow 7 July 1838, Foreign Correspondence Outwards: “I think it very possible that you may not return to Madrid, and you had better make arrangements for selling your horses, as well as for the safe custody of our books. You may indeed throw so much light upon points at present covered with darkness that we may see it our duty to request you to resume your labours at Madrid, but present impressions are that our work is done“.
Presumably his eloquence overcame the Committee’s scruples, or perhaps they were swayed by the thought of 2,000 New Testaments remaining undistributed, or even by a rather naíve optimism that the Lord would overrule political circumstances in their favour.

Borrow’s final year in Spain included further Bible distribution in and around Madrid and Seville, several brushes with the authorities, including a brief imprisonment in Seville, and an unauthorised trip to Tangiers, from where he wrote a long letter containing six pages of fascinating description, and two pages on his Bible work.

His genius for getting on with ordinary people served him well, as he reported from Madrid (letter of 26 March 1839):
Having an extensive acquaintance amongst the lower orders, I instantly selected eight of the most intelligent to co-operate with me, amongst whom were five women. All these I supplied with Testaments, and then sent them forth to all the parishes in Madrid. I will at once state the result which, I confess, has more than answered my expectations. Since my return from Naval Carnero nearly six hundred copies of the life and words of Him of Nazareth have been sold in the streets and alleys of Madrid, a fact which I hope I may be permitted to mention with gladness and with decent triumph in the Lord.

It is difficult to assess the value of Borrow’s work in Spain. He and Graydon together distributed nearly 14,000 copies of the Scriptures in five years, (30)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 30).
See BFBS Thirty-Sixth Report 1840, pp.xliv-xlv. Borrow published 5,000 Spanish New Testaments and 500 each of St Luke’s Gospel in Romany and Basque, and acquired 500 or more Spanish Bibles. Graydon published 3,000 Spanish Bibles, 2,000 Spanish Testaments, and 3,000 Catalan Testaments, and managed to import 1,000 Spanish Bibles.
many to people who were too poor to buy the official editions - peasants, artisans, country priests and schoolmasters; but this was done at the cost of antagonising the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, which inevitably had long-term repercussions on the Society’s prospects. The situation was summed up by James Thomson, a very experienced Bible Society Agent, who went to Spain in 1847 and found he could do nothing, because “the ground was not in a neutral but in a hostile state. Had Mr. Borrow and Mr Graydon hastened slowly, rather than rapidly, and perhaps rudely, it is probable that our real progress at this day would have been much greater, and we might still have had a sort of tolerance to go on slowly with our work“. (31)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 31).
Thomson 14 February 1848, BFBS Foreign Correspondence Inwards. He thought Graydon’s advertisement a direct provocation to the Catholic Church: “to say the least of that document it was I conceive an effort to enter the wedge by the blunt end”. He also noted that Graydon “seemed to court, like some other Bible in Spain man, a jail residence, a taste for which I confess I have none”.


Borrow came home for good in April 1840, still talking of China, though at the same time engaged to marry an old friend, Mary Clarke. In fact China was no longer an option, as the Society had already sent an Agent there in 1836-8, who had concluded that there were no openings for the present. So Borrow retired to his wife's small estate at Oulton, Suffolk, and began to write up his adventures. The Society lent him his letters, after he had reassured them that he would not introduce “the affairs of the Bible Society into my book, they would be dry and uninteresting to the public, who care only for personal narrative“. (32)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 32).
Borrow, 21 June 1841, original letter, BSA/D2/5, in answer to Brandram 7 June, questioning “whether it will be at all advantageous to publish our proceedings in connexion with Spain” BFBS Home Correspondence Outwards.


The Bible in Spain was published in December 1842 and was a tremendous success, making Borrow a celebrity overnight. It created quite a stir in Bible Society circles too, and one hard-pressed District Secretary, faced with the perennial problem of finding speakers for local meetings, wrote:

Can you tell me of any good man and true who will help me at the Durham, Newcastle, Shields, Wearmouth and Sunderland meetings in August? George Borrow is asked for. Can he speak marvels as well as write them? From all I have heard pro and con I do long to see his wonder-working book. (33)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 33).
T.J. Bourne, 19 May 1843, BFBS Home Correspondence Inwards.

That it should be a controversial book in Bible Society circles is not surprising. No doubt to many people it came as a breath of fresh air by comparison with some of the ‘Biblical Researches’ and ‘Missionary Travels’ then current, but the truly pious reader would surely have found it strange that an Agent of the Bible Society should travel for a week with a Gypsy who was a self-confessed thief and murderer, without, apparently, trying to convert him, offering him a Bible, or even passing any moral judgement on him.

The book's fame reached Switzerland, where Graydon was now living. He read a review of it and was shocked to the core: “what melancholy proof, in the several extracts there given of his misconception of the importance and spirit of the work he was engaged to further! ... the ‘Gitanos’ and ‘Spanish Jews’ appear to have quite turned his brains!” When he read the book itself his worst suspicions were confirmed:

...that such fearful levity, and such strange things and ideas should have been published to the world by any one professing the Name of Christ and occupied in publishing the glad tidings of Salvation! What a strange and afflicting exhibition!! Yet, what earthen vessels we All are!! (34)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 34).
Graydon, 26 January and 6 November 1843, BFBS Foreign Correspondence Inwards.


The attitude at headquarters seems to have been more relaxed. John Jackson, the Assistant Foreign Secretary, wrote to Graydon with news of his old associates in Spain:
As to Mr. Borrow, I presume he is basking in the sunshine of fame, obtained from the “Bible in Spain” which, to the surprise of some of us, has been cried up in several journals. I imagine he is enjoying his Otium cum dig. at his château in Norfolk. (35)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 35).
Jackson, 5 April 1843, BFBS Foreign Correspondence Outwards. Otium cum dignitate, dignified leisure.

Six weeks later he wrote again: “Your other friend, Señor Dn. George B. was here yesterday and reported that his ‘Bible in Spain’ was undergoing a fourth Edition!” (36)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 36).
Jackson, 20 May 1843, BFBS Foreign Correspondence Outwards.


If the Bible Society found the famous Mr Borrow rather amusing, it is clear that Borrow’s feelings for the Society were entirely cordial. When he sent a copy of The Bible in Spain he wrote: “Should you think it worth while to send me a line, pray inform me how you are getting on; the Society will always have my best wishes; I can’t forget that I passed the best and happiest years of my life in its service: long may it flourish, in spite of enemies and evil times.” (37)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 37).
Borrow, 6 May 1843, original letter, BSA/D2/5.


He always looked back with pride on his years with the Society, and it seems fitting to take leave of him in nostalgic mood, standing on a headland in Wales and being reminded of Cape Finisterre:

... the Gallegan promontory which I had ascended some seventeen years before, whilst engaged in battling the Pope with sword of the Gospel in his favourite territory ... For a time all my thoughts were of Spain. It was not long, however, before I bethought me that my lot was now in a different region, that I had done with Spain for ever, after doing for her all that lay in the power of a lone man, who had never in this world anything to depend upon, but God and his own slight strength. (38)
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(Kathleen Cann: An Astonishing Correspondent, footnote 38).
Wild Wales, chapter 42.

- and a little help from the Bible Society, perhaps.