Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews

Literature and Life:  A Booklover’s Corner
[IV.  George Borrow / Sir Thomas Browne]


Why is an event that occurs unexpectedly so much more exhilarating than one which has been planned in advance and dated?  Why is the thing casually found more treasurable than that sought for diligently?  I would hazard an explanation.  There is something treacherous in anticipation; it is made up of many strands and imagination is one of them.  If you trust yourself to that fairy guide she will not always conduct you to reality.  But if you stumble upon a pleasure or pick up a jewel, either a book, a print, or a picture (for gold and precious stones are out of line with this way of life), both sensation and object assume at once a value beyond anything planned or searched for.
     And the pleasure of recollection also comes from the memory of the surprise and the belief that fate had always had this or that in store for you; and why not again you ask?  This is a personal point of view—not many may share it—and when we found ourselves enjoying the hospitality of Wood Norton Hall, in the County of Norfolk, and when I realized that it was surrounded by literary landmarks, I had another instance of the charm of the unexpected.  The associations were all stored in memory only waiting to be localized, and one bright morning they fell into place.
     Norfolk has a distinctive charm which every traveller should acknowledge; it must share the charm with Suffolk, with the whole of old East Anglia, in fact.  There is no mere prettiness, there is nothing romantic, nothing sublime; the charm is in the distances; from the coast inland to the expanses of downs clothed with fir and heather.  There is peaceful beauty in this landscape, sometimes pensive, in shadow, but for the most part cheerful.  If you have not read Earlham, by Percy Lubbock, you have missed a record of life in Norfolk [page 452] which holds the spell distilled in a family history, in character and landscape.
     But charm of the unexpected; what of that?  Why, we were in the country of George Borrow, Lavengro, the word-mater; the home of the worthy Sir Thomas Browne and of the gentle William Cowper.  Who with any interest in English painting can forget the Norwich school, the glories of Crome, Cotman and the moderns?  Our business is not with painters, but a memory of the Norwich Gallery is insistent, a treasury of typical works, from Crome to Arnesby Brown; and this reference enables me to say that we have fine examples of these two painters in our National Gallery.

•     •     •

     Borrow was born at Dereham, a town that seems to have changed so little single his day that we will let him describe it himself.

I love to think on thee, pretty, quiet Dereham, thou pattern of an English country town, with thy clean but narrow streets branching out from thy modest market-place with thine old-fashioned houses with here and there a roof of venerable thatch.

     That is not a good example of Borrow’s distinctive style.  If he had always written like that he would not have had many devoted admirers.  To my  mind there is a quotation by which one may test the true Borrovian—if a writer or talker begins and ends with Mr. Petulengro’s disquisition on death he is suspect.  You will remember, “The wind on the heath, brother” —I will not repeat all the phrases.  I wonder what percentage of the many who know that quotation are familiar with the other countless highlights of Lavengro and the Romany Rye.  I cannot even imagine, and I was never proficient in mathematics.
     Borrow is not an acquired taste, he is a natural instinct; unless you appreciate the flavour at the first taste you are not likely to acquire it.  Only by natural charity can you forgive and forget the dull regions of his domain.  He is one of the most masculine of our prose writers, downright in opinion and expression, and with some of the defects of these qualities.  He is often prejudiced and gives vent to it, but he is never insincere.  His sense of romance lies in the freedom and independence of the individual and not in the relation [page 453] of the sexes.  On the rare occasions when he touches that province there is a hardness, a bitterness.
     The episode of Isopel Berners is the nearest approach to what is called “love interest,” and it displays all Borrow’s qualities at their highest.  Isopel is a magnificent creature from the moment when she stands as Lavengro’s second in his battle with the Flaming Tinman and advises him to use his right (Long Melford she calls it), until she deserts him, goes to America, sends him a lock of her hair and the advice, “Fear God and take your own part.”  Lavengro vacillates, shall he follow her?  “I took her lock of hair and looked at it, then put it in her letter, which I folded up and carefully stowed away, resolved to keep both forever, but determined not to follow her.”  And Mr. Petulengro’s verdict, “‘I always knew that you two were never intended for each other,’ he said.  ‘How did you know that?’ I inquired.  ‘The dook (spirit) told me so, brother, you are born to be a great traveller.’”  Will not this reference induce the reader to explore the wilderness of Lavengro and The Romany Rye, or if he has been free of that realm to revisit it?
     There is not a mean soul in it except “the man in black,” and he is as tedious as a tired horse.  The folk are all genuine; incidents and adventure arise naturally from character.  Much of the matter is autobiographical, much invented.  With a lessened harshness we can apply Lavengro’s dialogue with his gypsy friend, Jasper:

     “‘Tis an old saying, Jasper, that listeners hear no good of themselves; perhaps you heard the epithets that Ursula bestowed upon you.”
     “If by epitaph you mean that she called me a liar, I did, brother, and she was not much wrong, for I certainly do not always stick exactly to truth.”

     The fact in this case may be possibly better than the fiction.  Nothing invented could be quite so good as Lavengro’s fight with Mr. Petulengro, the gypsy, over the suicide of the latter’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Herne.

Mr. Petulengro said “Brother, there is much blood on your face:  you had better wipe it off.  I find you, as I thought, less apt with the naked morleys than the stuffed gloves; nay, brother, put your hands down; I’m satisfied; blood has been shed which is all that can be reasonably [page 454] expected for an old woman who carried so much brimstone about with her as Mrs. Herne.”

“You are born to be a great traveller,” said Mr. Petulengro, truthfully, for Borrow travelled far and always with his eyes open.  The Bible in Spain is said to have been the refuge of youth from boredom on puritanical Sabbath afternoons; a successful disguise for a book packed with picturesque incidents, having nothing to do with Bibles but the effort to sell them.  His Spanish scenes are as rich in color as Goya’s paintings, and his sketches of personalities, from Bishop to vagrant, have something of that artist’s mordant, graphic power.  But, wherever he wandered, I imagine Borrow felt his true setting to be the Eastern Counties; in the dingles and on the heath, and under the hedges, where he fought the Flaming Tinman, forged horseshoes and taught Armenian to Isopel Berners.
     In a sympathetic passage in Lavengro, Borrow sketches William Cowper, “England’s sweetest and most pious bard,” and he mentions the sorrows of that afflicted poet which I do not intend to dwell upon.  He is buried in the chancel of Dereham Church.  Let anyone who wishes to follow the joys and trials of that soul read one of the best biographies of this generation, The Stricken Deer, by David Cecil.  The title is from a line in Cowper’s “The Task.” “I was a stricken deer, that left the herd long since.”
     I do not wish to recall Cowper as a subject for commiseration, but in the happier mood as the author of “John Gilpin.”  I commend this classic to the tribe of scenario writers; a perfect subject for a Moving Picture Comedy.  The private life of The Gilpins before and after his great ride; the episode with the calendar at Ware and the return journey.  Of course a “love interest” would have to be invented for one or two of the three Gilpin daughters, but what an opportunity for a race and chase.  I have seen but a few “movies” in which the characters did not start a scamper, and here is a chance, with the comic element thrown in.

“Stop, stop, John Gilpin!  Here’s the house,”
    They all at once did cry;
“The dinner waits, and we are tired;”
    Said Gilpin, “So am I.”

•     •     •  [page 455]

     It is a far journey both in time and style between George Borrow and Sir Thomas Browne; in the present their nearest contact in space is that the Borrow museum on Swallow Street in Norwich is not far from St. Peter’s Mancroft, “a good civic church, standing very stately above the market-place,” where Browne lies.  The contrast is marked between the museum which cannot conjure up Borrow’s open-air spirit, and the beauty of the church which is appropriate to the richness of Browne’s fancy.  His dates are 1605-1682.  In Religio Medici he wrote that it is indeed a remarkable coincidence for the tail of the snake to return into its mouth precisely at the day of a man’s nativity, and that happened in his own case, for he died on Oct 19th, his seventy-seventh birthday.  To admire Sir Thomas Browne with peculiar affection must not be accounted eccentricity, and no one who feels thus should think of himself as consecrated.  Charles Lamb remarks, “You cannot make a pet book of an author whom everybody reads.”  You cannot say that Browne is an author whom everybody reads, and he has that negative property for a “pet book,” but he has many positive properties.  His was one of Sir William Osler’s bed-side books; it is great-hearted beings like Osler who have kept this author alive.  He is the companion of those who “are happy in a dream, and as content to enjoy a happiness in a fancy, as others in a more apparent truth and reality.”
    These words seem to imply an altogether inactive and imaginative person, but Sir Thomas was not that.  After graduating from Pembroke College, Oxford, he travelled on the Continent and took his degree at the London College of Physicians in 1635.  He settled in Norwich in 1637 and for 45 years he practised medicine there and actively shared the civic life.  A contemporary record says that his wife, Dorothy, was “a lady of symmetrical proportion to her worthy husband, both in the graces of her body and mind.”  During the Civil Wars he was consistently Royalist.  The only overt act to prove his adherence was a refusal to contribute to the fund raised by Parliament to recapture Newcastle.  When King Charles II visited Norwich in 1671 he wished to knight a prominent citizen and had chosen the Mayor, when that dignitary begged that the honour might be given the most eminent inhabitant of the city, Thomas Browne.  Even this passing reference should give the name of this singular official, Thomas Thacker.
     There is only one episode in Browne’s life that one would like to forget; his share in two fatal prosecutions for witchcraft.  We can [page 456] plead, in extenuation, the prevalent errors of the time and even suggest that, in this case, his peculiar studies perverted his good heart, but these excuses do not remove the stain.
     He was singularly separate and aloof in a time of national strife and literary activity.  There is but one contemporary who is even remotely akin in play of mind, Andrew Marvell; and that, maybe, only in Marvell’s address “To his Coy Mistress”:

                                                I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

     That has Browne’s fancy; but his vein is richer and seems inexhaustible.  He felt himself the servant of beauty and turned each of his prose cadences with brooding care and plundered all the stores of the language for strange compounds and all learning for farfetched comparisons.  I have seen the word “quaint” applied to Browne’s style.  This word is annoying in almost every context; it is properly chosen for an antiquated bonnet or an outmoded silk-hat, but as an adjective appropriate to Browne’s style, it is profane.  See him at midnight drowsily finishing The Garden of Cyrus.  “To keep our eyes open longer were but to act our antipodes.  The huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia.”
     Browne’s speculations range from the Garden of Eden to the final destinies of the body.  He asseverates that Adam was the only man without a navel.

Whether Eve was framed out of the left side of Adam I dispute not; because I stand not yet assured which is the right side of a man, or whether there be any such distinction in Nature: that she was edified out of the rib of Adam I believe, but raise no question who shall arise with that rib at the Resurrection.

     In Urn Burial, where his style lives in all its splendor, he examines the beliefs of antiquity, transmigration and rebirth, and the skill of the Egyptians;—“contriving their bodies in sweet consistencies to attend the return of their souls.  But all was vanity, feeding the wind, and folly.  The Egyptian mummies, which Cambyses or time [page 457] hath spared, avarice now consumeth.  Mummy has become merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams.”
     The years were not numbered by many hundreds before Sir Thomas Browne’s tomb was plundered and his skull taken to be a show for the vulgar.  If he could have foreseen that he would have remained fixed in his faith that “there is nothing strictly immortal but Immortality.”  The wonderful east window of St. Peter Mancroft may be thought of as a crystal counterpart of Browne’s work.  Preserved, like it, through those centuries, and exposed in its fragility, to greater dangers, it glows there, a transparency rich with color transmuted from a glory far beyond this world. [page 458]


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