(The representation of Borrow’s gypsies in Lavengro and the Romany Rye)
By Jessica Von Kaenel-Flatt
Occasional paper nbr 10 Published by The Lavengro Press. by the Lavengro press. 978 0 9955714 2 Several b&w plates and two in colour
I visited this recent little publication, or rather ‘occasional paper’ from the position of not having read anything by George Borrow but being aware of his Lavengro and Romany Rye in a fleeting way. Picking it up was mostly influenced by my interest in John Clare and the challenging lives and age in which he lived. Gypsies were important in many respects to Clare for their company, their knowledge and their music as well as being seasonal visitors with a ‘freedom’ he may have envied.
This press specialises in papers on all aspects of George Borrows eventful life, travels and interests. Look to their website for additional published papers.
borrowsgypsies.wordpress.com is a site also worth visiting for more depth on the subject of the two men who were born ten years apart and had interest in the life and style of the gypsy.
This short book, 60 pages, is clearly and interestingly written by Jessica Von Kaenel-Flatt. Her brief biography reports her long-term interest in Borrow and gypsies including various web and blog sites on the subject. More importantly, perhaps she has worked for support groups of Roma which has added to her knowledge of current and more recent history of their culture.
This wide ranging enthusiasm shows in her obvious in-depth knowledge of the books Lavengro and Romany Rye and her ability to compare storylines and description in the books and make them credible. Credible in as much as she highlights the prejudice and lack of knowledge of the books’ critics of the day and explains the reality of gypsies’ position and practical ability to access all levels of society.
She explains clearly how the characters in the book may appear at odds with regular society but at the same time able to work with and live with (in temporary, seasonal periods) all strata of society of the day. Hence their sometime unexpected turn of phrase or knowledge . Their need to live and survive in precarious times may have put them outside the law at times but always within their own strict community rules.
In one section she makes comment on Borrow’s small amount of ‘literal’ spelling for pronunciation of language of the gypsy; using this as a positive in that using ‘most established’ written language in common usage of his day helps to clarify the gypsy as able to be part of society at any level. And makes those (at times) odd use of words that are there, more emphatic. Clare only gets a brief footnote, but a worthy one where he is one of only three writers she considers successful in writing, large-scale in dialect (including William Barnes and Thomas Hardy).
see page 51 for note on Clare and his ability to write in dialect. Other useful footnotes throughout.
The two books were written 150-odd years ago and his language in them a world away from today’s style. Despite this and his own vagaries in telling stories, fiction, that is,…….as Lavengro and Romany Rye really seem to be, Jessica Von Kaenel-Flatt is firmly of the opinion that within all those storylines the essence of the characters, lives, events too, community and morals are closely and correctly drawn from life of characters he met. Jessica unveils this with her taking examples from the text, reporting the soundly wrong criticism of the day and then putting the actual fact of the matter clearly. With details of reasons why. We might classify Lavengro and Romany Rye as fiction today but Jessica points us to the accuracy of his research and the rich social information he gives us.
To quote from the last page of the book:
‘George Borrow, remarkably and almost uniquely for the time, has created Gypsy characters endowed with the dignity of full humanity in all its difficult, radiant, perverse glory, and we should in turn accord him the dignity of recognising his considerable achievement.’