Those who follow the erratic career of Jim Perrin may be aware of his apparently leisurely project to write a biography of the Victorian traveller and writer George Borrow, whose most well-known book is Wild Wales. Indeed Perrin has laid claim to the mantle of Borrow, at least as regards his shamelessly exculpatory association, by implication, of his own book West with Borrow’s (as Perrin calls it) ‘fictivized autobiography’, as if this justifies West‘s catalogue of offences to the dead and the living.
But we believe he can lay legitimate claim to many Borrovian characteristics. In his Introduction to the 1906 J M Dent edition of Wild Wales, Theodore Watts-Dunton wrote of its author:
A characteristic matter connected with Borrow’s translation [of a work of literature in Welsh] is that in the Quarterly Review for January 1861 he himself reviewed it anonymously, and not without appreciation of its merits—a method which may be recommended to those authors who are not in sympathy with their reviewers. The article showed a great deal of what may be called Borrovian knowledge of the Welsh language and Welsh literature, and perhaps it is not ungenerous to say a good deal of Borrovian ignorance too.
For never was Nature’s love of whim in the fashioning of individuals more delightfully exemplified than in the case of Borrow’s irresistible desire for scholarship. Nothing whatever had he of the temperament of the true scholar—nothing whatever of the philologist’s endowment, and yet to be recognized as a scholar was the great ambitious dream of his life.
I wish I had time to compare his disquisitions upon the Welsh language and literature in this article with a very rare little book on the same subject, the Sketch of the History of the Welsh Language and Literature, by a remarkable man as entirely forgotten now as Borrow is well remembered—Thomas Watts of the British Museum. In the one case we get nebulous speculation and fanciful induction based upon Borrovian knowledge; in the other, a solid mass of real learning accompanied by the smallest possible amount of speculation or fanciful induction.
followed shortly by:
Borrow had a certain something of Mezzofanti’s prodigious memory for words, accompanied by the great Italian’s lack of philological science.
and putting it all in a nutshell:
Besides being the very child of Nature’s fantasy, he was the prince of literary egotists. Everything in human life and everything in nature upon which he looked was enveloped in a coloured atmosphere shed by the eccentric ego.
That Jim Perrin believes “The best travel books I know are by George Borrow” (Daily Telegraph Travel website, 28 Jan 2003) is perhaps revealing.
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We are grateful for this fascinating contribution by one of our many vigilant well-wishers!