Academic journal article Romani Studies

Back Where They Belong: Gypsies, Kidnapping and Assimilation in Victorian Children's Literature

Academic journal article Romani Studies

Back Where They Belong: Gypsies, Kidnapping and Assimilation in Victorian Children's Literature

Article excerpt

Examples of Victorian children's literature are examined to consider the recycling of the 'Gypsy' child-stealing myth, with attention drawn to common features of the stories as an indicator of the narratives' cultural function. Fictions about the adoption and conversion of Gypsy children are read not as texts that tell opposite stories about where Gypsy and non-Gypsy children should reside - with their own or adoptive parents - but as narratives that perform the same ostensible task: demonstrating the subject's proper place in a social order. The article suggests that rather than offer reassurance about where children belong, however, both genres betray anxieties about the legitimacy and naturalness of that social order; they trouble the forms and meaning of 'family', an institution supposed to act as a pillar of Victorian society and its divisions. The compulsive repetition of familial disorder results in the powerful association between Gypsies and kidnapping, an arbitrary connection made to seem obvious and natural through ubiquity.

Keywords: Gypsies, kidnapping, Victorian children's literature, nineteenth century, children, family, Derrida

1. Won't somebody think of the children?

In a text that was to have a troublingly lasting influence on the representation of people known as Gypsies in Britain throughout the nineteenth century, Heinrich Grellmann asks, 'as children, have we not, at some time or other, run affrighted from a Gipsey?' (1787: n). This question acts as a starting point for thinking about why the myth of Gypsies as a particular threat to children was so often recycled in literature and lore, especially as the phenomenon has not yet been examined in detail in relation to the genre of children's literature in Britain. Grellmann, in this eighteenth-century text, treats the childish fear of Gypsies as universal, obvious and long-established. By 1861, the observations of the English made by Alphonse Esquiros identify how Gypsies are 'looked askant at and feared'; it is a widespread and noticeable reaction. Young readers of mid- to late -nineteenth-century books for children, then, would have been familiar with this shared alarm. But why might it have appeared quite so frequently and powerfully in the form of Gypsies kidnapping children in juvenile literature in this period, and what does it tell the twenty-first-century critic about the notion of the family affected by this threat?

The construction of the figure of the Gypsy in literature and other cultural forms and its political effects has recently become the subject of sustained scholarly scrutiny. Lou Char non -Deutsch has written a comprehensive historical survey of the figure of the Spanish Gypsy in European culture, for example, proposing that that the otherness of the Gypsy is manifested 'in the discursive practices of emerging capitalist states where Gypsies were always imagined in permanent exile from some other place beyond national borders' (2004: n). Deborah Epstein Nord's Gypsies and the British imagination, 1807-1930 marked a significant development in scholarship on Gypsies in the nineteenth century and beyond, as the first published monograph entirely devoted to an in-depth study of the construction of the Gypsy in this period from a literary-critical perspective. There have been shorter pieces and collections that conduct sharp analyses of particular Gypsy tropes. For example, Katie Trumpener's "The Time of the Gypsies: A "People Without History" in the Narratives of the West' traces the compact, transportable, self-perpetuating' tropes of racism (1992: 861). Alicia Carroll includes a chapter on the subject in her masterful Dark smiles: race and desire in George Eliot. The centrality of the Gypsy in Carroll's reading is made clear by the fact that she takes her title from Eliot's 'Brother and Sister Sonnets' where a young girl comes face to face with a Gypsy (2003: 29) . Abigail Bardi's 2007 work on the Gypsy as a literary trope in Victorian and Modern British literature suggests that it 'becomes a marker for the traits traditionally associated with Gypsies and the perceived threats they constitute to property, to gender, to sexuality, and to national identity' (2007: 6). …

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