A Lying Tale: Fact and Fiction in the Stories of Borrow’s Gypsies 

‘We know very little about ourselves; and you know nothing, save what we have told you; and we have now and then told you things about us which are not exactly true, simply to make a fool of you, brother.  You will say that was wrong; perhaps it was.  Well, Sunday will be here in a day or two, when we will go to church, where possibly we shall hear a sermon on the disastrous consequences of lying.’ Jasper Petulengro’s parting words to the narrator of The Romany Rye (1857), full of humour, truth and irony, reflect not only the Gypsy’s pleasure in a joke, but also the limits of contemporaneous knowledge regarding these wandering people.

     During the eighteenth century the Romani had proved intriguing to cultural anthropologists, not least because of their language, which was principally based on Sanskrit, but also shown to contain a vocabulary that demonstrated the geographical areas of their wanderings, before some of them reached Britain in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.  In 1782 Johann Christian Rudiger was to publish his ground-breaking research confirming the relationship between the Romani language and Hindustani.  The roots of the Romani diaspora can now be traced to Northern India, and it is believed that these people left their homeland sometime around the tenth or eleventh century.  Their arrival in Britain appears to have been at the end of the fifteenth century, when a reference is recorded to the ‘Egyptians’  as entertainers at the court of the Scottish King, James IV, in the book of the Lord High Treasurer. During the sixteenth century their presence throughout the British Isles became a matter of grave concern and the Egyptians Act of 1530 ordered their expulsion from the country.  A subsequent Act, dated 1554, made being a Gypsy a capital offence, such was the anxiety caused by these wandering strangers.  It isn’t surprising, perhaps, that the Romani tribes remained outside society, marrying within their own close family groups and maintaining a language and cultural traditions very different from those of the settled population.  Unsurprising, too, that this resulted in the preservation of these traditions that were to prove absolutely fascinating for linguists and anthropologists alike.

     By the eighteenth century the punishment of Gypsies for being wanderers was more likely to be one of imprisonment for a week or so, and then they would be sent back to the place in which they claimed settlement, through birth or baptism.  Whilst Gypsies had originally been seen as a threat and cause for anxiety, as the eighteenth century progressed into the nineteenth the Romani were to prove essential to the rural economy, working at pea-picking, hop-picking, fruit-picking, apple harvests, brick-making and lime-burning.  They also supplied the music at village feasts and fairs, ran pitches at fairgrounds, mended kettles, made baskets or travelled with grinding barrows to sharpen scissors and knives.  They began, too, to be romanticised and sometimes celebrated as an example of Primitivism.  Artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted them, Augustus John and his extended family sometimes travelled with them, and the Gypsy Lore Society, founded in 1888, started to publish the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society which recorded the family trees of major tribes, old folk-tales and songs and the language of a people who had only an oral culture, and no written one.  

     After a lapse of 15 years the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society began publication once more in 1907, and David MacRitchie wrote the Preface, comparing the hiatus the Society had experienced to that of the six years between Borrow’s stories of the English Gypsies. ‘In the year 1851, under the title Lavengro, George Borrow published the first section of his remarkable autobiography, for such it is to a great extent, although interwoven with much that is fanciful and often inaccurate.  In 1857 the second portion, The Romany Rye, made its appearance.’  He then quotes Gypsiologist Dr John Sampson, who had written rather colourfully:

After a slumber of six years the dingle re-awakens to life, Lavengro’s hammer shatters the stillness, and the blaze of his forge again lights up its shadows, while all the strange persons of the drama take up their parts at the point where the curtain had been so abruptly rung down. 

     Not everybody felt that way, at least not at first. When George Borrow’s publisher, John Murray, finally received the long-awaited MS of Lavengro he had been alarmed to discover that it was not the autobiography he had been led to expect, and indeed had advertised as such. The narrative so long in the writing was, instead, what the author himself described as a ‘dream’ or a ‘drama.’ Perhaps it was what the Romani would have called a ‘Lying Tale.’  Equally disappointed, the reviewers were often negative, and the reading public did not care to make Lavengro: the Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest a popular success. The sequel to Lavengro, The Romany Rye, was no more successful and its appendix, in which the author, bitter at the lack of success of Lavengro, criticised its reviewers, did nothing to help remedy the situation. Murray could hardly have expected that Borrow’s Gypsies were to prove not only extremely successful, but inspirational; readers were to find, as Borrow had predicted, that the Gypsy was ‘decidedly the most entertaining character.’   Lavengro and The Romany Rye inspired subsequent generations of scholars, academics and linguists to further explore the language, customs and tribal connections of the Romani and to reveal their unique cultural and social world.   

     T.W. Thompson was an undergraduate at Cambridge when he became fascinated by the Romani; his writings and research over the next several decades were to be informed and influenced by the work of members of the Gypsy Lore Society. These included Francis Hindes Groome, Sampson (who traced his passion for Gypsies to the occasion on which he first read George Borrow), MacRitchie, E.O. Winstedt and the Reverend George Hall.  In February 1912, when he was just 23 years of age, Thompson reviewed a new biography of Borrow by Herbert Jenkins for The New Age: a weekly review of politics, literature and art.  His review is a somewhat scathing attack and he was particularly indignant that Jenkins had concentrated his efforts on the years Borrow spent abroad, and said little of his connection with the Gypsies he encountered when a young man:

If one period of Borrow’s life ought to be treated more fully than another, then, surely, it was those early years . . . when he was wandering about and forming the acquaintance of Gypsies and “bruisers” and all kinds of odd people met by the wayside; when he was acquiring his knowledge of horseflesh and strange tongues.  When, with the bitter agony of a proud spirit, he was struggling unsuccessfully “to adapt, not himself to the universe, but the universe to himself,” and to earn his daily bread at the same time.  These were the years that, rather than any other, made Borrow into the strange, unlovely, fascinating man that we know.

It seemed clear to Thompson, and perhaps to us too, that Jenkins also misunderstood the Romani nature, love of jokes and ‘Lying Tales,’ for as Thompson complained:

Whenever he does venture to tell us anything about such matters he generally makes himself ludicrous.  Take, for instance, the scrap of the MS in which Mrs Petulengro, desirous of a “little pleasant company,” urges her husband to take another wife, to which Jasper adds that Bess (Isopel Berners) would do excellently . . . this characteristic specimen of Gypsy ironical banter Mr Jenkins takes particularly seriously, adding that such a remark could not have ever been made by a Gypsy woman.

     This was exactly the sort of wit, and exactly the sort of joke, that was common amongst the Romani.  Found amongst the George Hall and E.O. Winstedt papers in the Bodleian library in Oxford is a story recounted by Nelson Loveridge about his brother, Harry, and Ceterus (Septimus) Boswell, alias Jack Lewis, the son of the Gypsy fiddler Tommy Boswell, and their wives, Britannia and Vertina, that bears some resemblance to this kind of humour :

Ceterus had been quarrelling with Vertie, and Ginger Harry Loveridge . . . and his wife, Britty Smith, agreed to have some fun with Ceterus.  Harry got Ceterus drunk and agreed to swap wives with him.  Then Britty and Vertie (by prior arrangement) walked in and Harry told Britty she now belonged to Ceterus.  So Britty hugged Ceterus, saying “what a man you are, my Cetey.”  Then Ceterus said, “go on, Harry, take my wife, she’s yours!”  But Vertie was having none of it – they all got very drunk and went home with their own wives.

A sense of humour was an essential part of a Gypsy’s nature, and, as Tommy Boswell once told Winstedt, when he enquired after a cousin of Tommy’s, he had not seen him for a while and thought perhaps he had gone to Egypt!   However, Tommy’s assertion that his father, Lewis Boswell, a renowned fiddle player, had played with Paganini and that ‘the honours were fairly divided,’ may be fact, rather than fiction.  In the early 1830s Paganini did indeed travel around England giving public performances, and invited members of the audience to join him on stage to play along with him.  Is this a ‘Lying Tale’ . . .  or is it true? The Romani were misunderstood by Jenkins, perhaps, but not misunderstood by Borrow, or the Gypsiologists.  In the end, Thompson suggests, this very limitation made Jenkins’ work on Borrow a failure.  

     Two years before Jenkins published his biography of Borrow, the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society had printed a detailed discussion regarding Borrow’s Jasper Petulengro, in reality Ambrose Smith, and his family tree, as well as photographs of Sanspirella, Ambrose’s wife, and some of their family, taken at Dunbar, Scotland in August 1878, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s visiting the camp at Knockenhair Park (p 16).  The pictures are clearly posed, but, nevertheless, fascinating.  The first one shows Sanspirella, then about 65 years of age, holding her grand-daughter, Dona Mace, together with her daughter, Bidi (Obedience), and son, Tommy.  The second photograph shows Sanspirella and Dona once more, together with Sanspirella’s daughter, Delaia, holding a child, and Delaia’s husband Poley Mace, in a silk top hat, as well as Sanspirella’s son, Tommy.  Ambrose is absent from the photographs, perhaps he was already ill, since he died just two months later, in October 1878 and was interred at Dunbar, aged 74 years.  The following year, in May 1879, his son, Tommy, who appears in both scenes, also died, at 43 years of age, and was buried with his father.    

      Thompson, in his review, directed Jenkins to the new series of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society for greater detail regarding this portion of Borrow’s life.  This was certainly less than tactful, but it does appear to confirm that Jenkins did not care to address or research this area, in spite of the material available.  Why does he omit such investigations, Thompson ponders, and finds the answer in Jenkins declaring that ‘perhaps his [Borrow’s] greatest misfortune was his disinclination to make friends with anybody save vagabonds.’    

     Inspired by Borrow’s tales of Jasper Petulengro, Thompson recognised that Borrow’s ‘imagination was fertile only when he had facts to go upon,’ and that Borrow ‘from internal and external evidence . . . not only modified the character and characteristics and histories of his Gypsy friends, but that he frequently combined in one person those of two or three individuals.’ Therefore one of Thompson’s several articles for the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society demonstrates him wrestling with the characters of Borrow’s tales, as he attempts to identify them as closely as possible, with the aid of the papers of George Hall, in particular.

     Jasper Petulengro, that ‘singular being,’ had long been identified as Ambrose Smith.  the son of Faden or Ferdinand Smith, who had ‘died in prison when Ambrose was a young man,’ although ‘Borrow tells us that Jasper Petulengro’s parents were transported for coining.’   Thompson argues, quite reasonably, that this is an invention, since ‘the author of Lavengro and The Romany Rye did not scruple in these works to modify the histories, relationships and circumstances of his Gypsy friends when it pleased him to do so.’ Ambrose’s mother, Amaryllis/Mirelli Smith, was not only not transported, but lived into old age. On this point, Thompson tells us, her descendants had no doubts at all. ‘They gave her age at death as over 70, and said she was buried at Grundisburgh, near Woodbridge.’ He was able to confirm this later, finding her burial registered on 28th May 1854, ‘Amaryllis Smith, a travelling Gypsy, aged 72.’

     The character of Tawno Chikno Thompson believes, as a result of George Hall’s research, to be Ambrose’s brother, Ferdinand, whose nickname was Tarno Tikno (little one). Borrow does not present him as Ambrose’s brother, however, and although he captures his known nature, ‘big, simple, kindly, handsome,’ he rewrites his history, so that instead of remaining a bachelor until quite old, and then marrying a Gorgio, or non-Romani, Borrow saddles him, when young, with a middle-aged, ugly, deformed, barren and bitterly jealous wife, Mikaila Herne.  Her character, Thompson suggests, actually resembles more closely that of Ambrose’s sister, Prudence (who was lame), whilst another sister, Caroline or Laini, is the basis for the Borrow character Ursula Herne, whom Jasper claims as his sister-in-law.       

     Thompson also draws attention to the way in which Borrow is creative in terms of dates and ages.  Meeting Jasper when both he and the narrator are boys, in Lavengro in 1810, is a case in point.  Ambrose was not born until 1804, if the age given on his gravestone is correct, and when the narrator and Jasper meet again, at Tombland Fair in 1818, the Gypsy is already married to Pakomovna and they have a child.  In reality, Thompson says, Ambrose Smith had one or two partners before his union with Sanspirella Heron, the Pakomovna of the story, and they did not form a relationship until 1825 at the earliest, when Ambrose would have been 21 years of age.  He believes the first such union to have been with Amelia/Milly Lee, known as ‘Milly the Cat,’ recording in his research notes that ‘young Ambrose Smith found a wife among the Epping Forest . . . Lees.  She was a daughter of William Lee, a fighting man of some repute.’ A subsequent partner, Tralia Smith, had a daughter with Ambrose named Lavinia, who was baptised at Brandiston, Suffolk on 22nd September 1833.  Tralia, born in 1812, the daughter of Robert and Margaret Smith, may well have been a cousin of Ambrose’s.  Robert Smith was the same generation as the elder Ferdinand, Ambrose’s father and the elder Ambrose Smith, and travelled the same beat; it is possible, even probable, that they were brothers.  We now know, too, that Ambrose’s marriage to Sanspirella took place about a decade later than Thompson guessed.  

     It is in the year of 1825 that Borrow describes the marriage feast of Ursula and Sylvester, who Thompson believes to be based on Laini Smith, Ambrose’s sister, and Laini’s husband, Tom Cooper.  Laini and Tom baptised their eldest daughter as ‘Trennit, daughter of Thomas and Caroline Cooper, knife grinder, at Horton, Bucks., on 18th June 1826,’ so this date seems entirely accurate. However, Borrow also gives his Jasper Petulengro and Pakomovna four children by this time, the eldest being ten years of age, so he is clearly playing fast and loose with the history of the family. Ambrose’s union with Sanspirella post-dates the liaison with Tralia, and their eldest child, Tommy, was born in about 1836, a second son, Alfred, was baptised in Suffolk on 18th April 1838, a daughter, Delaia/Dillyer, was baptised in the same county on 3rd January 1847, ‘aged 6 years,’ so probably born in 1840, and another daughter, Obedience, was baptised in Norwich on 31st January 1842. All this confirms that Ambrose and Sanspirella (who was born in 1813, daughter of Reynolds Hearn, son of the famous Dick Heron, and Margaret Boss/Boswell), did have the four children Borrow gives them in his story, but very much later than he chose to relate.

     Ursula’s tale of her first husband’s escape from prison, to which Borrow devotes a considerable number of pages, contains references typical of such a story.  She contrives to hide a little saw in some gingerbread, which she brings to the gaol, and pretends to faint to distract the turnkey.  After several incidents, however, she goes to meet up with her husband, following his Gypsy trail or patteran.  And this word, she confides to the narrator, has more than one meaning, since ‘the name for the leaf is [also] patteran.’  She says it is a secret learned from her mother, Mrs Herne, explaining that, ‘she told me the word for leaf was patteran, which our people use now for trail, having forgotten the true meaning.’   Thompson points out that this assertion by Borrow was quite untrue, and that both meanings were well known amongst the Gypsy fraternity.  Is the author, Thompson wonders, wishing to emphasise the word to indicate the acquisition of special and secret knowledge, or is he simply weaving a ‘Lying Tale’ in which the boundaries of fact and fiction blur?  Thompson believes it to be the former, since he asserts that there is little doubt that Borrow was keen to draw attention to his linguistic knowledge.  Instead, he argues, Borrow should be more properly valued, not so much as an authority on Romani, but ‘as a writer without whom English prose literature would have been the poorer, lacking among other things any convincing portrayal of Gypsy life and character.’

     Perhaps one of Borrow’s most fascinating characters is Ursula’s mother, Mrs Herne, Jasper Petulengro’s mother-in-law.  She was, Thompson states, very probably Peggy Boss, daughter of Edmund, and married to Reynolds Herne/Hearn.  Borrow makes her a widow, since her husband ‘came to his end untimeously,’ sometime before 1818, but Thompson quotes an entry from Goddard Johnson’s notebook of Romani vocabulary, found amongst George Hall’s papers, that proves Reynolds to have been alive as late as 1823. ‘Reynolds Hearn travelling at East Dereham in 1823 fasted on Good Friday and the four Fridays next after from flesh, in consideration of the five wounds of Christ.’   Peggy Boss, if she was the prototype for Mrs Herne, was also probably about 55 years of age when she informs the child Leonora that she is 65; Leonora, Thompson insists, can be identified with considerable certainty as Joni Boss, an elder sister of Jane Eldorai Boswell (the chief informant of George Hall), and born in 1818 or 1819, adding that ‘from early childhood, Mr Hall discovered, Joni always travelled with her aunt Peggy, except when, at rare intervals, Ambrose and Sanspirella took charge of her; and Peggy, he was assured, never had any other child to live with her after her own [children] were grown up.’  Mrs Herne’s suicide is considered surprising, if true, as Thompson believes it a ‘phenomenal thing for a Gypsy to do.’  Maybe Thompson is influenced by the exchange between Jasper Petulengro and the narrator in Lavengro, in which the Gypsy insists that life is sweet, for ‘there’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath.  Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?’

     The idea that the suicide of a Gypsy is ‘phenomenal’ in Thompson’s opinion is not true, of course; the Gypsy fraternity were as likely as anyone else to suffer from severe depression, and with very little research I have come across four such cases reported in nineteenth century newspapers.  In spite of the fact that such a death does not chime with Jasper’s celebration of the Romani life, it is quite possible that Borrow wished to give this enemy of the narrator an ignominious end, and his Gypsy hero, Jasper Petulengro, confirms that she died ‘by hanging.’ In fact, if Peggy is the Mrs Herne of the narrative, she was alive in the 1830s and, Thompson argues, ‘probably in the forties,’ although he concedes that George Hall’s informant on this matter, Jane Eldorai, Peggy’s niece, would never say how her aunt had met her end, and he felt that unusual circumstances, perhaps not very creditable, made the memory of it unpleasant.

     The truth was perhaps a little less dramatic than may be imagined, as Jane Eldorai’s son, Lias, (Lame Lias Boswell, the Derby fiddler, born on Mickleover Common on the outskirts of Derby in 1851, son of Nelson Boswell and Jane Eldorai), was to later confide in Thompson. ‘Peggy, he said, quarrelled with her people whilst staying with them somewhere on the western fringe of the Black Country, and after declaring she would travel alone in future she left them in high dudgeon.  Two or three days later some of the party took the same road . . . and as they went along they made inquiries, hearing of her now and again in villages through which they passed.  A week elapsed, perhaps more, then they caught sight of her tent and donkey.  But there was no fire, and no sign of Peggy; so they entered her tent, and found her lying there – dead.’ Whilst there is no doubt that Borrow intended that Mrs Herne be seen as an evil old crone, attempting to murder the narrator by poisoning, it does seem a very melodramatic scene, although it is plausible.  Thompson argues that the narrator’s symptoms were not inconsistent with his having swallowed ‘witherite, a source of which, known to Gypsies and utilised by them . . . existed near Minsterly, a place conveniently close to the Shropshire dell where the child Leonora persuaded the narrator to eat of the poisoned cake.’  Borrow certainly claimed it to be true, and, in addition, that his ill-health ever after was the result of this experience.

     When William Ireland Knapp prepared his biography of Borrow, which had been published by John Murray in 1899, he wrote to friends and acquaintances whom, he hoped, could shed some light on events in Borrow’s life.  During a trip to Cornwall Borrow had met the Reverend Berkeley and his wife, and the letter Berkeley sent to Knapp was published in the biography, headed ‘Mr Berkeley’s Reminiscences of Borrow in 1854’ :

In Lavengro . . . he tells of an attempt made by a Gypsy crone to poison him.  The effect of that poison followed him through life, producing attacks of the deepest depression; so that he would sit silent and melancholy for hours, refusing food and not answering if spoken to . . . my wife and I went to Penquite one evening (30th January 1854).  When we went in we found him sitting in the kitchen before a huge fire shivering, as with the ague, and looking hopelessly sad . . . my wife sat down to the piano . . . after a while we could see that he began to listen . . . at length he suddenly sprang to his feet, clapped his hands several times; danced about the room and struck up some joyous melody . . . he told me afterwards that he was subject to these attacks ever since he was so nearly killed by the old Gypsy’s poison.

     The scene of the narrator’s poisoning is effective when he briefly describes his own physical reactions, but it is hard to imagine a person as sick as he is being able to hear and comprehend the long conversation between Mrs Herne and Leonora that then ensues.  This exchange takes up several pages, even before Mrs Herne begins to recount her dream, one that foreshadows her own end, and indicates a surprisingly omniscient narrator.  Finally, in attempting to make sure of the narrator’s death, and lunging at him with her stick, the pole of the tent gives way, in a manner that renders the scene both dramatic and darkly comic. Did Borrow, perhaps, create the story of his poisoning not only for effect, but to explain his mood swings to others, and also to himself?

     Surely Borrow learnt much more from the Gypsies he encountered than their language, or family connections. It is likely, for example, that in his close contact with the Romani, he would know about witherite and the manner in which they used it.  Perhaps, too, he was actually celebrating what the Romani would have recognised as a ‘Lying Tale,’ when he wrote the semi-autobiographical Lavengro, and its sequel, the more obviously fictional, The Romany Rye.  Tale-telling seems preferable, in these texts, to truth telling; after all, it was Ursula Herne, in her conversation with the narrator, ‘under the hedge,’ who revealed of his friend Jasper’s nature that ‘there [was] not in the whole world a greater liar,’   and Jasper Petulengro admits quite cheerfully that he does ‘not always stick exactly to the truth,’ being ‘somewhat given to lying.’  

     In his article on ‘The Gypsy Grays as Tale-Tellers’ for the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society Thompson declared that ‘the lively play of a Gypsy’s imagination is a thing of delight.’  He was to advise, too, that an effective method of engaging a Gypsy in conversation was to tell them a ‘Droll or Lying Tale.’  Tell them, he wrote, ‘how Billy Lovell . . . lit his pipe with a £5 note, a thing he had never seen or heard of till then, and how Billy’s brother, Sandi, sat at his tent door the greater part of a winter’s day without coat or waistcoat, to show passers-by his new shirt, which had a whole pack of cards printed on it, in the right colours too.  Then he will count you good company, even if he knows your tales backwards; and will entertain you in turn.’   Thompson himself thoroughly enjoyed the art of telling a tale, observing that it was a favourite pastime of the Gypsy fraternity and that Absolom (Appy) Boswell, a probable half-brother of Jane Eldorai’s, was famous all over the north Midlands and the northern counties for his ‘Lying Tales,’  which other Romani learnt, adapted and recounted in turn.  Stories of Appy’s own life tended to be rather marvellous, and involved a shipwreck, which he survived, after this he recalled that he ‘lived for a week at the bottom of the sea,’ and that it was, he declared, a beautiful place, although ‘it took you all your time to get a bit of fire going.’  

     Amongst the tale-tellers in the Gray family Thompson was particularly friendly with Eva and Gus/Augustus Gray, two grandchildren of Borrow’s ‘chal of the name of Piramus [who] besides being a good shot, was celebrated for his skill in playing on the fiddle.’  Jasper Petulengro tells the narrator of an evening when ‘Piramus was playing on the fiddle a tune of his own composing to which he has given his own name, Piramus of Rome, and which is much celebrated amongst his people,’ and Thompson confirms, in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, that ‘John, Piramus and Oseri Gray . . . associated and ranked with Jasper Petulengro and the Boswells and Herons.’   

   The majority of the tales Thompson published in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society came from either Eva Gray or her brother, Gus.  Eva, Thompson recalls, was ‘the best tale-teller among the Grays,’ adding that ‘she sweeps you along without pause from beginning to end of her story, words pouring from her lips, her hands, her eyes, her face, her whole body reinforcing their meaning and significance.  She does not merely tell you the tale; she lives it before your eyes, and with such intensity that you live it yourself.’   He added, too, that ‘when Gus Gray, striving to achieve the gravity of an owl, began to descant on the original of Gypsy families, and chose as his starting point a certain King Pharaoh who lived in Egypt a great many years ago, I lay back among the straw and blankets of his comfortable tent, anticipating entertainment.  Nor was I disappointed.’

     Surely this art of tale-telling, more often spoken of as a ‘Lying Tale,’ is celebrated in Borrow’s stories of the English Gypsies.  He weaves fact and fiction together so efficiently partly because, I suggest, it perfectly reflects the nature of the people he is writing about.  Thompson in his notes records that he was told, by descendants of those who were present and who had known both Borrow and Ambrose Smith, that Borrow had asked Ambrose if he should like to be in a book Borrow intended to write.  Ambrose was said to have thought about it, puffing on his pipe, then asked if Borrow would be in this book too.  When he replied in the affirmative, Ambrose responded, after further rumination, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll go shares with you.  . . .’  

     Although Thompson declared that Borrow had offered a convincing portrayal of Gypsy life and characters this was only partly true.  His Gypsy stories were not examples of social realism, so much as a semi-romanticised view of the Other.  But Borrow’s timing, even allowing for the frequent delays in publication (or perhaps because of them), was perfect.  Michael Collie and Angus Fraser recognised this in their introduction to George Borrow: A Biographical Study:

As the English countryside became more and more industrialised, and the Victorian atmosphere more claustrophobic, readers found new charm in a book which led them to the fast-disappearing world of Gypsies, grooms and horse-dealers.

Borrow’s fascination with language and his interest in the people referred to by Jenkins as vagabonds, meant that he was to inspire many to explore the social and cultural world of the Romani at the very moment that it was beginning to disappear.