Beyond the Romantic Gypsy: Narrative Disruptions and Ironies in Austen's Emma

By White, Laura Mooneyham | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Romantic Gypsy: Narrative Disruptions and Ironies in Austen's Emma


White, Laura Mooneyham, Papers on Language & Literature


  I was stolen by the gypsies.
  My parents stole me right back. Then
  the gypsies stole me again.
  This went on for a long time.
  --Charles Simic, "I Was Stolen by the Gypsies"

As this epigraph from Simic suggests, stories about gypsies have a very long and murky history. The history of the actual Romany people is almost as obscure. It seems that they entered France in the early fifteenth century and Great Britain gradually in the sixteenth century following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Thereafter, in both French and British literature, the gypsies, as they became known, became transfigured by the literary imagination into a collective trope (conjoining freedom and escape from the everyday, licentiousness, thievery, exoticness, foreignness, and the ability to read the future) and a narrative device (the child stolen by gypsies or the adult who runs away with them, as in Arnold's "The Scholar-Gypsy" [1853] or Borrow's The Romany Rye of the same year). Gypsies by the nineteenth century were firmly established archetypes of the romantic imagination and the Gothic tale as much as they were actual people roaming the byways of the English and French countryside. As David Mayall notes,

the Gypsies have [...] held especial appeal for the bohemian imagination of artists, poets, dramatists and fiction writers [...]. In fine art and "high-brow" literature, in the less "respectable" penny dreadfuls and railway literature, and in both light and serious operas, the Gypsies regularly appear in the familiar guise of exotic, dark-skinned, nomadic and romantically alluring rural nomads. (139)

As we know, Jane Eyre has a famous gypsy interlude when Rochester assumes the guise of a gypsy fortuneteller to interrogate Jane, and in The Mill on the Floss, Maggie as a little girl runs away briefly to join the gypsies. (1)

Throughout the nineteenth century, novelists and poets drew on gypsies to represent a complex of meanings. Balzac, for instance, makes brief mention of them as figures of escape, exotica, and fortune-telling in eleven of his novels, Louisa May Alcott in eight novels deploys the gypsies as a trope for outdoor pleasure and sexual licentiousness, and Edward Bulwer Lytton in countless volumes invokes the gypsies as the dark ancestors of possibly dangerous characters. To characterize someone as a gypsy in the nineteenth-century novel is to bring in a host of negative connotations ranging from criminality to miscegenation. Estella's terrifying convict mother has gypsy blood in Great Expectations, Heathcliff's mysterious darkness and dangerousness stem from possible gypsy blood in Wuthering Heights, and Will Ladislaw's bohemian recklessness is explained by the inhabitants of Middlemarch as a product of gypsy parentage.

Real gypsies were shunned during this period for allied reasons. As Celia Espuglas has set out, these reasons were underlaid by racism; eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European accounts stressed the absolute racial apartness of gypsies as well as their status as a "degenerate" breed of humankind. (2) Gypsies were also disliked because they refused to fit into the prevailing economic system, relying instead on "fortune-telling, hawking secondhand goods, and clearing discarded waste" to make money (Espuglas 148). Grellmann's 1783 account of the gypsies, for instance, focused on the gypsies as indolent; Leo Lucassen notes that even when they worked as, for instance, musicians or hawkers, such activities were often a form of indirect intimidation and thievery (75). (3) Moreover, their standards of hygiene and cleanliness were far less stringent than those held by the typical British citizen--gypsies often left bodily waste in open trenches near their encampments and were renowned for their dirtiness and aversion to baths. Gypsies also had a reputation, probably merited to some degree, for unrestrained licentiousness and prostitution; certainly the figure of the female gypsy as an enticing alien (her descent from Cleopatra was legendary (4)) marked depictions such as that by George Crabbe: in his "The Lovers' Journey," Crabbe described a gypsy woman whose "light laugh and roguish leer express'd / The vice implanted in her youthful breast" (158-59). …

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