ESSAY Jem Poster

NWR Issue 116

Everywhere to Everywhere: Edward Thomas, George Borrow and the Open Road

Edward Thomas’ biography of George Borrow was by no means a labour of love, but it was perhaps a book he had to write. On the one hand, he was repelled by the well-attested brutishness of his subject (Borrow, he noted in the biography, was ‘opinionated and a bully’) and he was also challenged by Borrow’s cavalier attitude to the truth. On the other, the two writers shared an interest in Welsh life and literature and, above all, a passion for foot-travel, for the life of the open road. Summing up Borrow’s character in the biography’s concluding chapter, Thomas observed that ‘his ways and gestures, irresistible even when offensive, hold us while he is in our presence. In these repressed indoor days, we like a swaggering man who does justice to the size of the planet.’

‘In these repressed indoor days’: that phrase in particular helps us to understand Borrow’s appeal for Thomas, linking his influence directly with that of Richard Jefferies, arguably the most important of all Thomas’ literary models and the subject of his first full-length biography. There’s an echo here of the penultimate sentence of Jefferies’ The Amateur Poacher (‘Let us get out of these indoor narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow have become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind’), a sentence which had an extraordinary impact on the adolescent Thomas. What both Jefferies and Borrow offered was a sense of extraversion: each in his own way reflected a world of outdoor activities and phenomena, a world of expanded horizons.

Jem Poster’s edition of two biographies by Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies: His Life and Work and George Borrow: The Man and His Books, will be published in July 2018 as a volume in the Oxford University Press series, Edward Thomas: Prose Writings. This article is adapted from the introduction to that forthcoming volume, with acknowledgement to Oxford University Press.

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