[David Chandler is an Associate Professor of English literature at Doshisha University, Kyoto. This article was first published in the George Borrow Bulletin 25 (Spring 2003), pp. 12-25. It was based on the first Sir Angus Fraser Memorial lecture, given in London at the George Borrow Society Meeting of 27 July 2002.]
‘He’, Borrow wrote of himself in the appendix to The Romany Rye
(1857), ‘has written against Rome with all his heart, with all his mind, with all his soul, and with all his strength...’ (VI, 213; M315).
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 1).
All references are to the Norwich Edition of The Works of George Borrow, ed. Clement Shorter, 16 vols (London and New York, 1923-4), followed by the corresponding reference, prefixed by M, to individual volumes of the ‘definitive’ edition published by Murray (except in the case of Borrow’s Faustus, which has only been reprinted in the Norwich Edition).
This is strong language. It could hardly be stronger, with Borrow adapting nothing less than Christ’s ‘first and great commandment’ (Matthew 22; 38): ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind…’ (Luke 10: 27)). Borrow’s claim that he was waging literary ‘war against Rome’ is, in The Romany Rye
, mixed up with assertions that he was, first, an expert on all things Papist, and, second, a life-long, anti-Catholic crusader:
... to the very last moment of his life he [Borrow] will do and say all that in his power may be to hold up to contempt and execration the priestcraft and practices of Rome; there is, perhaps, no person better acquainted than himself, not even among the choicest spirits of the priesthood, with the origin and history of Popery. From what he saw and heard of Popery in England, at a very early period of his life, his curiosity was aroused, and he spared himself no trouble, either by travel or study, to make himself well acquainted with it in all its phases, the result being a hatred of it which he hopes and trusts he shall retain till the moment when his spirit quits the body. Popery is the great lie of the world; a source from which more misery and social degradation have flowed upon the human race than from all the other sources from which those evils come. (VI, 206; M310-11)
Borrow’s colourful self-portrayals usually need to be read with some caution. He may, certainly, have always had more or less anti-Catholic views. So have a great many British writers. However it is one thing to have anti-Catholic views and quite another to consciously write ‘against Rome’ with all one’s energy and with the sort of information Borrow claims he possessed. This article attempts a history of Borrow’s writing ‘against Rome’ as well as an evaluation of how, and with what success, he used his work as a vehicle for anti-Catholic sentiment.
Borrow’s early publications suggest no desire on his part to war on Rome; his anti-Catholic feelings may, at that time, have been softened by the influence of William Taylor, indeed. The only relevant work from his first London period is the translation of Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger’s Faustus: His Life, Death, and Descent into Hell
(1825), which actually appeared with a preface boasting of the novel’s even-handedness on religious matters:
... The Catholic priest is not praised for burning his fellow-creature at an auto-da-fé, and for wallowing in licentiousness; nor is the Calvinist commended for his unrelenting malignity to all those whose tenets are different from his own, and for crying down the most innocent pleasures and relaxations, which a bountiful and just God has been pleased to place within the reach of His earthly children. (XV, 295)
Although Angus Fraser thought that Borrow might have been attracted to Klinger’s book because of its satirical view of the Catholic church,
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 2).
‘Borrow’s Political Views (Part 3): Ireland’, Bulletin 18 (1999), 14.
, written under the influence of Voltaire, actually represents Catholicism as, if anything, a considerably lesser evil than Protestantism.
The later 1820s and 1830s can be skipped over here, for it is not until the very
end of the latter decade, and the end of Borrow’s Spanish years, that (on the basis of the surviving evidence) he expressed sentiments comparable to those which inform the creedal Romany Rye
statement. On 24 December 1839 Borrow wrote from Madrid to Andrew Brandram, secretary of the Bible Society, describing his ‘intention’ on his imminent return to England:
... It is ... my intention to attempt to obtain an interview with some of the members of the House of Lords. I have important disclosures to make respecting the system of persecution which still exists in this country with respect to Protestants ... so much for the tolerance of Popery. Yet there are journals of talent and learning in England who, observing that British Protestants, alarmed at the progress which the Papal doctrine is making in the British Islands, are concerting measures for their own defence, accuse them of raising once more the senseless bray against Popery
; as if every unprejudiced person was not aware that Popery is an unrelenting fiend which never spares when it has the power to crush – and that power I am afraid it will soon possess in Britain, unless the poor down-trodden Protestants stand back to back and combat the monster to the death. This is no vain alarm, I assure you; therefore I beg that you will not smile. Few people know more of the secrets of Popery than myself, or the stand which she intends to take when time and place serve.
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 3).
‘Borrow’s Political Views (Part 3): Ireland’, Bulletin 18 (1999), 14.
This letter is important in that it establishes the main elements of Borrow’s later anti-Catholic position and suggests how his Spanish experiences shaped his attitude to Catholicism in England. Popery was, to use Borrow’s later expression, ‘raising its head’ in England for a number of reasons, two of the most important being the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829 (emancipating Catholics), and the influence of the ‘Oxford Movement’ in the following decade. On his own testimony, the Oxford Movement first impacted on Borrow’s consciousness in 1838, when he was briefly back in England. In The Romany Rye
he recalls seeing newspaper extracts from a ‘sermon which was the first manifestation of Oxford feeling, preached at Oxford some time in the year ’38 by a divine of a weak and confused intellect, in which Popery was mixed up with Jacobitism!’ (VI, 256; M340). Borrow actually appears to err a little here, as the most sensational ‘Oxford’ event of 1838 was, by a long way, the publication of the posthumous Remains
of Richard Hurrell Froude, edited by John Henry Newman and John Keble, in March (a work which was extensively quarried by newspapers and periodicals). Froude’s Remains
, in the words of Piers Brendon, ‘undoubtedly pushed the Oxford movement towards a new Anglo-Catholic radicalism’ and fulfilled its author’s ‘ambition to be an “ecclesiastical agitator”’.
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 4).
4‘Newman, Keble and Froude’s Remains’, English Historical Review 87 (1972), 697, 698. For the impact of the Remains, see also the final chapter of Piers Brendon’s book, Hurrell Froude and the Oxford Movement (London, 1974).
It contained such provocative statements as: ‘It appears to me plain that in all matters that seem to us indifferent or even doubtful, we should conform our practices to those of the Church which has preserved its traditionary practices unbroken.’
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 5).
Remains of the Late Reverend Richard Hurrell Froude, 2 vols (London, 1838), 1:336. In regard to Borrow’s memory of reading extracts from a ‘sermon’ it is worth noting that the second volume of the Remains is mainly taken up with Froude’s sermons from the years 1828-33; these, however, were much less controversial than the letters and journal in the first volume.
proved extremely controversial, and it is the most likely candidate for the work that jolted Borrow into awareness of the ‘monster’ arisen in England.
What is finally most interesting about Borrow’s 1839 letter to Brandram is that the crusading spirit it manifests took some time to express itself in his writing. This is the more striking in that Borrow would later assert that it was Walter Scott’s novels which had provoked the revival of Catholicism in England: the poison had been dispersed through literature
. However, it apparently took a while for Borrow to grasp the possibilities of literature as an antidote, and in 1839 he clearly saw the problem mainly as a political one, hence his fanciful plan for ‘an interview with some of the members of the House of Lords’. His first substantial publication subsequent to the Brandram letter, The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies of Spain
(1841), is so lightly seasoned with anti-Catholic sentiment that it would be easy to miss it altogether. In discussing the Inquisition’s interest in Father Manso, resulting from his ‘passion for Gitános’, Borrow remarks that ‘it is probable that the Holy Office dealt mildly with him’, before adding, sarcastically:
... Had he been accused of liberalism, or searching into the Scriptures, instead of connection with the Gitános, we should, doubtless, have heard either of his execution or imprisonment for life in the cells of the cathedral of Seville. (X, 318; M301)
And that is as strong as Borrow’s ‘writing against Rome’ gets at this date; the only other clearly anti-Catholic passage in The Zincali
refers to the ‘perfect indifference’ the church had shown the Gitános (X, 142-3; M134). Surprisingly enough, comparing The Zincali
with a great deal of English writing on Catholic Europe, it probably would have appeared to contemporary readers that Borrow was broadly tolerant of Popery rather than otherwise. The Zincali
could, obviously, have incorporated a much stronger anti-Catholic message.
The preface to The Bible in Spain
(1843), signed 26 November 1842, does start to strike the notes one would expect from the writer of the 1839 letter to Brandram. Borrow now writes in unsparing language that the greatest wrong Spain had suffered was ‘the spiritual tyranny of the court of Rome’ (I, xx; Mviii). He mentions the ‘atrocious projects’, ‘the vengeance and cruelty’, ‘the grasping cupidity’ et cetera
of this same ‘malignant Rome’ (I, xxi-xxii; Mviii-ix). Borrow also adopts a strategy employed with considerable effect in the body of the work, that is, addressing the Pope directly. The burden of his address is that the Pope is wrong to suppose that the Spanish people still love him, and Borrow adds a taunting refrain: ‘Undeceive yourself, Batuschca!’ (I, xxiii, xxv; Mx, xi ). Despite these opening shots (or closing shots, given that the preface was written last) The Bible in Spain
, taken as a whole, is much less anti-Catholic than the preface. This is surely a good thing artistically. Anti-Catholic sentiments sometimes ripple to the surface of the narrative, but they do not impede its brisk, onward flow, and are seldom present for very long. The reader is naturally always aware that the Catholic Church is
the enemy, and this awareness contributes to the book’s excitement, but for the most part Borrow is rather inclined to lament the ignorance of Catholics than to point an accusing finger at Rome (the preface is exceptional in this respect). Borrow does not confuse Catholics and Catholicism; he describes many Catholics, even priests, in affectionate and endearing terms. And at times he strikes us as capable of surprising concession, such as when he praises the ‘moral system and discipline’ of the Jesuits in Chapter 5 (I, 72; M66). Sometimes anti-Catholic sentiments emerge in Borrow’s account of his missionary activities, such as when he teaches that ‘the Pope ... was an arch deceiver, and the head minister of Satan here on earth’ in Chapter 3 (I, 39; M37). Sometimes they emerge as a seemingly inevitable conclusion from the narrative, as when Borrow concludes his account of the deplorable state of Leon in Chapter 22 with the sentence: ‘Such are the results of Popery, a delusion which, more than any other, has tended to debase and brutalize the human mind’ (I, 337; M317). Most characteristically, perhaps, anti-Catholic sentiments take the form of an emphasis that Catholicism is an essentially priestly religion, as when Borrow argues in Chapter 12 that the ‘grand aim’ of ‘the Popish system’ ‘has ever been to keep people’s minds as far as possible from God, and to centre their hopes and fears in the priesthood’ (I, 186; M172). They emerge most dramatically in Borrow’s direct and taunting addresses to the Pope, already mentioned: ‘Pope of Rome! I believe you to be as malicious as ever, but you are sadly deficient in power. You are become paralytic, Batuschca, and your club has degenerated to a crutch’ (II, 146; M544). But while statements such as these are scattered through the narrative, they are largely incidental to it.
The preface to The Bible in Spain
is, then, much more strongly worded than the body of the work. It is also more coercive, appealing to the reader’s prejudice, whereas the bulk of the book is more ‘open’ in the sense that Borrow is more concerned with providing evidence on which judgements might be made than imposing judgements on the reader – a kind of openness sometimes thought of as ‘Shakespearean’. Although Borrow was already strongly anti-Catholic – as the letter to Brandram and the preface make clear – he was not yet letting anti-Catholicism affect the literary form of his work, nor even letting it become a dominant theme. But this would change significantly with Lavengro
and The Romany Rye.
Intriguingly, The Bible in Spain
contains just one substantial reference to Catholicism in modern England, in Borrow’s conversation with the corregidor
in Chapter 47. Here Borrow brushes off any sense of a Catholic threat to England lightly. Having been asked what he would say ‘if the Spaniards were to go to England and attempt to overturn the Lutheranism established there?’ Borrow replies:
... ‘They would be most heartily welcome... your excellency is not perhaps aware that the Pope has a fair field and fair play in England, and is permitted to make as many converts from Lutheranism every day in the week as are disposed to go over to him. He cannot boast, however, of much success; the people are too fond of light to embrace darkness, and would smile at the idea of exchanging their gospel privileges for the superstitious ceremonies and observances of the Church of Rome.’ (II, 261; M649)
This is, retrospectively, one of the most arresting passages in The Bible in Spain
simply because it is somewhat at odds with the spirit of Lavengro
and The Romany Rye.
There is no way of knowing whether Borrow really said something like this, or whether it is a piece of imaginary bravado shaped for the occasion of writing. But Borrow’s choosing to publish a statement so much at odds with the fears he expressed to Brandram suggests that his initial tactic, as an anti-Catholic commentator on the English scene, was to treat the Catholic ‘monster’ with defiance and contempt – including the contempt of saying little about it. Contempt, in fact, continued to be one of Borrow’s main weapons against the ‘unrelenting fiend’, one that would later, arguably, get in the way of other aspects of his attack.
By the time Borrow was penning the anti-Catholic preface to The Bible in Spain
he had already planned Lavengro
. The surviving evidence suggests that he did not originally conceive of this as an anti-Catholic work.
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 6).
William I. Knapp, Life, Writings, and Correspondence of George Borrow, 2 vols (London, 1899), II, 3-24 (hereafter Knapp).
The ‘Man in Black’, on whom the anti-Catholic plot is centred, although elevated to major narrative significance when Borrow eventually adopted as his subtitle The Scholar, The Gypsy, The Priest
, and although made a good deal of in the 1851 preface, may actually have been a comparatively late addition. The structure of the published work supports this, for the narrator only encounters the Man in Black over five-sixths of the way through the book (in the original three volume edition over halfway through the final volume). The Man in Black has, however, been obliquely and briefly introduced on several previous occasions. He is first mentioned by Francis Ardry, the narrator’s Irish friend, in Chapter 42 as ‘A strange fellow – a half-Italian, half-English priest’ who likes to drink ‘a glass of gin and water cold, with a lump of sugar in it’ (III, 419; M252). He is mentioned again in Chapter 49, when the narrator’s Armenian merchant friend laughs at how he kept him ‘in play’ for a month before dismissing him with the words ‘The roots of Ararat are deeper
than those of Rome’ (IV, 4; M280). He is mentioned a third time in Chapter 67, as an occasional companion of the Romanist churchman Platitude (IV, 132; M356), and a fourth time in Chapter 79, at the end of the Peter Williams sequence (IV, 253-5; M429-30). Obviously these passages could have been (and in at least some cases probably were) retrospectively worked into the narrative. When the narrator finally meets the Man in Black in Chapter 88, one of the best in the book, Lavengro
briefly appears to be structured as a sort of suspense plot, strikingly similar to some later ‘detective’ fictions. The Man in Black’s relation to the preceding stories is revealed in four stages: first he asks for ‘gin and water cold, with a lump of sugar in it’ (IV, 322; M471), words which the narrator repeats, striking the table with his fist, and which were obviously intended to send the reader’s mind racing back to try and remember when that distinctive tipple had been mentioned before. A few minutes later the narrator deliberately refers to Platitude and ‘Methodist preachers’, references which clearly affect the Man in Black and keep the reader’s mind busy (325; M473). Finally, the Man in Black mentions the progress of the Catholic church in Armenia, and this leads the narrator to repeat the Armenian merchant’s ‘The roots of Ararat are deeper
than those of Rome’ – words which so confound the Man in Black that he drops his glass (331; M476). The chapter ends here, with the reader equipped to connect the four previous appearances of Lavengro
’s major villain. The briefly assumed form of a detective story is quickly sacrificed, though, and for most readers the narrative interest of the book dwindles from this point. At the end of the following chapter the Man in Black appears in the narrator’s dingle for the first time, and in the long Chapter 94 they discuss Catholic matters: this discussion, along with the succeeding postillion’s tale, again involving the Man in Black, proved the most unpopular parts of the book with reviewers, not surprisingly. It is tempting to think that the postillion’s tale, like other characters’ stories involving the priest, was originally intended to precede the narrator’s encounter with the Man in Black, and if it was so placed it could have been more effective. Indeed one way to explain the notoriously lame ending of Lavengro
is to speculate that Borrow at one stage intended to end the book with some version of Chapter 88, which would have served to tie various threads of his plot together. However, having decided to introduce some lengthy conversations with the priest, perhaps (as reviewers suspected) in response to the ‘Papal Aggression’ concerns of 1850, he realised that his ending had become very
weak, with an obviously ‘tacked on’ appearance. He therefore moved a modified version of the postillion’s tale to the end of the book, in an attempt to round off the narrative more decisively.
fell from critical favour with the rise of the ‘New Criticism’ in the 1930s. It is not obviously a very ‘well wrought urn’, or carefully structured work of art, though modest claims have been made for its formal artistry.
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 7).
See John E. Tilford, Jr., ‘The Formal Artistry of Lavengro-Romany Rye’, PMLA 64 (1949), 369-84. Tilford treats Lavengro and The Romany Rye as a single work and defends it as ‘a novel of ideas ... mov[ing] on two complex thematic levels. The first of these concerns ideas pertinent to the development of the hero; the second concerns Borrow’s didactic and satiric comment on society and religion’ (374). His argument develops Borrow’s own defence of his work in the appendix to The Romany Rye. Although I admire much of Tilford’s analysis it should be obvious that I differ from some of his conclusions, partly because I think Lavengro has to be judged as an independent work. His most surprising verdict, in my view, is that until the narrator leaves the dingle ‘the didactic elements, though evident, are not so intrusive as to impair the integrity of the form very seriously; after that, the preacher gets the better of the artist’ (383). This obviously means that Tilford considered the long conversations with the Man in Black an artistic success.
The materials for Lavengro
, unlike the materials for The Bible in Spain
, had no kind of ‘natural’, organic shape. At some point in the seven or eight years of composition Borrow decided that the book could be held together by an anti-Catholic plot, but that plot was never altogether satisfactorily grafted onto the existing structure, and retains an obviously ‘patched on’ appearance. This is a shame, because Borrow’s underlying idea is a rather fascinating one: to introduce a number of characters, connected by their relationship to the narrator and also
by their relationship to the Man in Black, his shadowy antagonist (a sort of ‘two degrees of separation’ plot). Of course Borrow’s later readers were comfortable with the genre of the autobiography and tended to read Lavengro
as one, happy to accept it as an episodic work with a ‘basic unity deriving from the presence of a hero-narrator’.
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 8).
But Borrow was writing with very few precedents and seems to have felt that his book needed more novelistic ‘shape’ of some kind.
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 9).
The first substantial autobiography of childhood and early life in English is Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude, completed in 1805, but not published until 1850, after Wordsworth’s death (and therefore no influence on Lavengro). In 1805 Wordsworth remarked that it was ‘a thing unprecedented in Literary history that a man should talk so much about himself’ (The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years 1787-1805, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, rev. Chester L. Shaver [Oxford, 1967], 586). Such a statement, by a writer just one generation older than Borrow, helps explain the latter’s doubts about presenting Lavengro as a straightforward autobiography in the modern sense. It is worth adding that the word ‘autobiography’ was only introduced into English in 1797.
Unfortunately the awkwardly assimilated anti-Catholic plot had the opposite effect of making Lavengro
shaped, and this was the main complaint of critics when the work was finally published in 1851.
Several early critics of Lavengro
considered that Borrow had spoilt his work by a crude, inartistic attempt to make it relevant to the contemporary political situation. Typical of this view is a comment in the influential Blackwood’s
... We strongly suspect that, in the course of the composition of this book, which, unless our memory strangely deceives us, was announced more than two years ago, considerable changes have taken place in its plan and disposition. We cannot read the preface in connection with the latter part of the third volume, without thinking that much has been added and interpolated to suit the occasion of the recent Papal aggression; and that we are indebted to that circumstance for the introduction of the Jesuit, and the rhetorical postillion’s story, so strangely dragged in as an episode to conclude the narrative. If we are right in this conjecture, a great deal of the incongruity which is apparent throughout the work is explained.(10)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 10).
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 69 (1851), 337. It is of interest to note that a contemporary newspaper described this review of Lavengro as ‘a somewhat severe, though, at the same time, a very judicious castigation’ (The Sun, 3 March 1851).
Punch welcomed 1851 with this pointed comment on the ‘Papal Aggression.’ A few weeks later Lavengro was published.
The ‘recent Papal aggression’ referred to by this and other reviewers was the Pope’s issuance of a Brief on 29 September 1850 creating a Catholic hierarchy in England. A controversy had erupted which was still dominating parliamentary discussion and newspaper columns in February 1851 when Lavengro
was published. Although Borrow always denied that Lavengro
was ‘got up’ for the occasion of this controversy, and although it is impossible that the entire Man in Black plot was added after 29 September 1850, it does seem likely that the preface and some parts of the end of the book were written in response to this ‘crisis’. John Murray, Borrow’s publisher, presciently feared that the preface looked ‘too much as though got up for the present time and what is called Papal aggression.’(11)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 11).
Knapp, II, 23.
And if Borrow was prepared to alter, or at least package Lavengro
so as to make it a response to the ‘Papal Aggression’ worries, one naturally wonders if the entire Man in Black plot was inspired by contemporary concerns. The major focus of anti-Catholic feeling in the 1840s was the ‘Maynooth Question’ of 1845 – the question being whether a Catholic seminary in Ireland should receive an increased monetary grant from the British government. ‘It was’, according to E. R. Norman, ‘perhaps with the exception of the “Papal Aggression” episode in 1850, the clearest nineteenth-century demonstration of the abiding popularity of the “No-Popery” cry.’(12)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 12).
Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England (New York, 1968), 23.
A date of around 1845 for the conception of the Man in Black, when Lavengro
was already planned and substantially written, would in fact explain some of the structural problems of the work. In the ‘Advertisement’ to The Romany Rye
Borrow claimed that ‘the principal part of that book [Lavengro
] was written in the year ’43, [and] that the whole of it was completed before the termination of the year ’46’ (V, ix; Mvii).
Whatever belatedly inspired the Man in Black plot, it is clear that in Lavengro
, unlike The Bible in Spain
, Borrow decided to make anti-Catholicism a major structural and plot element. The early critics had good reasons to doubt the success of this, for not only is the anti-Catholic plot awkwardly incorporated and its ‘suspense’ element rather anti-climactic, but the Man in Black is surely the most unsatisfactory of Lavengro
’s villains, despite being the one most loaded with narrative significance. And it is obvious why: Borrow had far too much contempt for his antagonist to make him in anyway attractive, interesting, even threatening – indeed anything but smug, nasty and (worst of all) dull. Before the narrator encounters the Man in Black, Francis Ardry, the Armenian merchant, and Peter Williams have all derisively triumphed over him. ‘The Priest’ may be ubiquitous and sinister, but he is clearly not dangerous, nor even a successful agitator. The narrator, whom we might as well call Borrow, crushes his adversary with such ease that the dramatic potential in their encounter(s) is largely sacrificed. In the recognition scene Borrow puts himself at an immediate advantage in one of his most characteristic ploys, representing himself as having certain secret information which his interlocutor does not know the extent of. And in the dingle scene there is not even the semblance of an argument, as Borrow performs another of his standard moves, leading his interlocutor to damn himself with almost every breath he utters – which in the case of the Man in Black is singularly easy to do. Borrow had already explored this strategy for deriding Catholicism in the figure of the old priest of Cordova, who appears in both The Zincali
and The Bible in Spain
, and can be read as a prototype for the Man in Black, though the Spanish priest has the redemptive merit of being very entertaining, which (in this writer’s opinion) the Man in Black is not (see The Bible in Spain
, Chapter 17). In Lavengro
there is not the slightest hint that the narrator is tempted or temptable by his adversary. The prominence given the Man in Black in the narrative, and in the preface and subtitle, encourages the reader to think him a serious antagonist, and probably few readers escape a sense of disappointed expectation. Borrow was consistent, though: the preface, which is dominated by the Catholic question, has a similar shape. Borrow here seems to be on the verge of saying, as he had to Brandram, that Catholicism is an ‘unrelenting fiend’ which must be fought against. However he manages to conclude that Catholicism is so foolish and despicable as to have defeated its own projects: ‘Popery’ ‘went on enlisting, plundering, and uttering its terrible threats till ... till it became, as it always does when left to itself, a fool, a very fool’ (III, xii; Mx). The overall message of Lavengro
seems to be, then, that Rome is no threat to England. The Bible in Spain
had made that point briefly, and in passing; Lavengro
illustrates it with an elaborate, if awkward, narrative apparatus which seems lacking in justification if Catholicism is, after all, just a ‘fool’.
Borrow liked to represent Lavengro
as unfairly attacked by the critics and therefore, comparatively speaking, a failure. Moreover, he consistently maintained that it was attacked because of its anti-Catholic passages by a critical establishment that was High Church and pro-Catholic. The first (public) hints of this view are found in the ‘Advertisement’ to The Romany Rye
, it is elaborated at length in the appendix to the same work, and then distilled in the preface to the second (1872) edition of Lavengro
... ‘LAVENGRO’ made its first appearance more than one-and-twenty years ago. It was treated in anything but a courteous manner. Indeed, abuse ran riot, and many said that the book was killed. ... The chief assailants of the book were the friends of Popery in England. They were enraged because the author stood up for the religion of his fathers, his country, and the Bible against the mythology of a foreign priest. (III, xiii; Mxi)
Punch published many anti-Popery cartoons in 1851: this is one of the most memorable.
The idea that Lavengro
was a comparative failure on its first appearance is part of the Borrow myth, needless to say, taken up by Knapp and his successors in the field of Borrovian biography. In 1944 John E. Tilford challenged this view in an important article looking at the early reviews.(13)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Chandler: Writing against Rome, footnote 13).
‘Contemporary Criticism of Lavengro: A Re-Examination’, Studies in Philology 41 (1944), 442-56.
Of eighteen periodical reviews that he located, Tilford maintained that the majority were positive. He perhaps slightly overstated his case in an attempt to make it stick, but his conclusions are a useful antidote to the conventionally repeated story. However, it is more interesting, given Borrow’s explanation of why
it was that Lavengro
provoked so much hostility, to look at the reviews from the anti-Catholic point of view. Only two or three reviews (one of them French) actually contested or condemned Borrow’s anti-Catholic opinions as opinions
. What a larger number of the reviewers were concerned about, as suggested already, was the manner in which the anti-Catholic passages had been woven into the work. Few things say more about Borrow’s limitations as man and writer than his sturdy refusal to accept that the criticism he received concerned artistic form. As far as he was concerned it was all about his opinions and the reviewers were simply pro-Catholic.
The Romany Rye
, in so far as it can be considered distinct from Lavengro
, is unique among Borrow’s books in that it was, from the moment of conception, clearly going to be an anti-Catholic work. This was the more the case in that Borrow’s response to his supposedly pro-Catholic critics was, as might be expected, one of defiance. Anti-Catholicism is again a major structural component, but in The Romany Rye
Borrow made no attempt to shape an anti-Catholic plot as he had in Lavengro.
It is rather the case that large amounts of anti-Catholic debris from the earlier work are roughly laid into the narrative. Almost as soon as the book begins there are three more tedious chapters of conversation between the narrator and the Man in Black, on the model of the equivalent chapters in Lavengro
which reviewers had complained about. So much for critics! The climax of these chapters is a very Borrovian one and in a sense epitomises the problems of the Man in Black plot: the narrator appears to know the name of his antagonist, which so confounds the latter that he brings their conversation to an end and says he will visit the dingle no more. The priest has again been defeated, this time by a chance word, and shown himself a ‘a fool, a very fool’. The Man in Black’s larger projects are not defeated, however, and he reappears later.
He is next heard of in the context of another easy defeat at the hands of the landlord. Borrow seems to treat this (reported) scene with deliberate anti-climax. The landlord’s customers want to toss the Man in Black in a blanket, then duck him in the fishpond, and the reader, no doubt, relishes the prospect. The landlord, however, feels ‘pity for the poor devil’ and prevents it (V, 191; M117). The landlord’s pity, though admirable in itself, frustrates the reader’s desire for poetic justice; Borrow appears to think his antagonist too shabby a villain to be honoured even by a comic martyrdom. This feeling is confirmed by the final sequence involving the Man in Black and the ‘popish rendezvous’ (V, 278; M169). The postillion, having witnessed something of the latter, and reported it to the narrator, concludes with a statement of contempt and indifference:
... ‘I... conceive that the Government are justified in allowing the gang the free exercise of their calling. Anybody is welcome to stoop and pick up nothing, or worse than nothing, and if Mumbo Jumbo’s people, after their expeditions, return to their haunts with no better plunder in the shape of converts than what I saw going into yonder place of call, I should say they are welcome to what they get; for if that’s the kind of rubbish they steal out of the Church of England, or any other Church, who in his senses but would say a good riddance, and many thanks for your trouble?’ (V, 278-9; M169)
The significance of this acknowledgement, as the postillion himself recognises, is that he had previously criticised the Government’s leniency and encouraged it to take strong and decisive action against Catholic agitators (V, 235-6; M143-44). Borrow himself dismisses the Man in Black here, so the postillion appears to be his spokesman. In 1839 Borrow had been for political action and an interview with ‘some of the members of the House of Lords’. That had never happened, and he had gone on to mount a literary ‘war against Rome’. But here he pulls back his heavy artillery, contemptuously defying the Catholics to do their worst. It is a turning point in his writing. Although the rest of The Romany Rye
, and Borrow’s next book, Wild Wales
, keep up a sniping campaign against the Catholics, anti-Catholicism is no longer a major theme or structural element in his literary work.
Borrow’s later anti-Catholic forays are incidental and more purely satirical. They sometimes open up a rich vein of comedy. This is certainly true of his final ‘hit’ at Catholicism in the purely narrative part of The Romany Rye
: Murtagh’s story of card playing in the Catholic seminary, with the audacious claim that the Pope himself likes a serious gaming session when given the chance (VI, 161-72; M284-91). There is a strong, absurd comedy here, very different from the sarcasms of the Man in Black. In a sense it shows Borrow’s writing on Catholic issues coming full circle, for it recalls nothing in his work so much as certain scenes in his translation of Klinger’s Faustus
, with its acidic, Voltairean humour.
Of course The Romany Rye
does not end with narrative, but with an extraordinarily long appendix which must be almost unique in professedly ‘literary’ works. In terms of literary form, this should probably be read, in part, as an act of defiance aimed at those critics who had maintained that the end of Lavengro
was spoilt by the introduction of topical, polemical material. But Borrow’s series of angry sermons, several of them directly, or indirectly concerned with Catholicism, may also represent a sort of concession that an episodic, autobiographical narrative was not
an altogether adequate vehicle for the expression of fierce views on the decline of modern society (partly through the influence of Catholicism). In any case, having vented his feelings in this way, Borrow relaxed, and in Wild Wales
produced a masterpiece in the safer mould of The Bible in Spain
is thus unique in Borrow’s work as an attempt at an anti-Catholic plot/structure. The Romany Rye
inherited certain elements of that plot, but also contains something of a rejection of it: the Man in Black is left to his schemes with a ‘good riddance’, and the strongest attack on Catholicism is reserved for the non-narrative prose of the appendix.
For modern readers, largely unable to sympathise with the strength of mid-nineteenth century anti-Catholic feeling, the limited impact of anti-Catholicism on the literary form of Borrow’s work is probably welcome. Nevertheless, the argument advanced here is that it is impossible to properly understand Borrow’s literary career in the 1840s and 50s unless serious attention is paid to his anti-Catholicism, and his various attempts to incorporate anti-Catholic sentiment into his writing.