Academic journal article Romani Studies

The Gypsy as Trope in Victorian and Modern British Literature

Academic journal article Romani Studies

The Gypsy as Trope in Victorian and Modern British Literature

Article excerpt

The Gypsy is a ubiquitous figure in British literature, often functioning as a symbol of escape from the dominant social mores governing sex and gender roles and the ownership of capital. While in such nineteenth-century works as Jane Austen's Emma and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre these associations are implicit, in the early twentieth century in the works of D. H. Lawrence (The Virgin and the Gypsy) and Virginia Woolf (Orlando), the functions of the Gypsy figures are comparatively overt and give considerable insight into British constructions of Romani identity. This paper examines the contrast between Victorian and Modernist representations of the Gypsy and the transformation in the way Gypsy identity is represented by non-Romani writers in the twentieth century.

Keywords: Gypsy, Roma, Modern novel, Victorian novel, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, gender, lesbian desire, abjection.

1. Introduction

From their arrival in the early sixteenth century, the presence of the Romani people in the British isles was marked by oppressive legislation that arose in an attempt to regulate and contain their community. According to David Mayall (1995: 20), early laws, the first of which was enacted in 1530 during the reign of Henry VIII, threatened 'Egyptians' with punishments including imprisonment, pillorying, enslavement, and deportation. Although the 1554 'Egyptians Act' allowed them to remain if they abandoned their 'naughty, idle and ungodly life and company' (Mayall 1995: 20-1), the language of the statute suggests that from the beginning, Gypsies were subject to racist representations which led them to be victims of a vicious circle: they were stereotyped, and then viewed as undesirable as a result of these stereotypes.

While over the course of the centuries the nature of anti-Roma legislation varied, Mayall points out that persecution was unceasing: 'Gypsies were under attack in the period after 1783 just as before, and the early laws intended to control the migrants, vagrants, and nomads continued into the nineteenth century and were further supplemented by a range of other measures which impinged on the traveling way of life' (Mayall 1995: 28). At the same time, the dearth of information about Gypsies in the Gadze community, evidenced by the common misconception that they had originated in Egypt, opened them up to interpretation: from the beginning, the Gypsy figure functioned as an empty signifier that could be infused with the projections of the dominant, non-Gypsy culture. As David Mayall points out in Gypsy Identities: 1500-2000, 'It is apparent that our knowledge of Gypsies and the Gypsy way of life in the early modern period is reliant on a narrow source base provided entirely by outsiders to the group' (75). I would argue that it is precisely this informational vacuum that has not only given rise to uninformed speculation and inaccurate testimony about Gypsy society over centuries but has rendered Gypsies peculiarly suited to being the targets of projection, or 'abjection', in Julia Kristeva's term. In Powers of Horror (1982), Kristeva describes abjection as the attempted rejection of what appear to be 'other' but are in reality parts of the self, much as various countries have attempted to control, reject, and expel Gypsies as 'foreign' despite the fact that these Gypsies are citizens of these countries and therefore not foreign at all. Abjection, according to Kristeva, is a response to the disturbance of 'identity, system, and order,' and '[w]hat does not respect borders, positions, rules' (4). This is an apt description of the struggle of the Romani people in the British isles, who have over the centuries managed to maintain their own culture, often at cross-purposes with British identity, system, and order/law. Functioning as mysterious 'others' within their own countries, they have served as a repository for projections of various kinds of fantasies about their identity that become legible in the cultural artifacts of these countries. …

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