Harriet, the Gypsies, and Me, by Rebecca Jamison

Harriet, the Gypsies, and Me, by Rebecca Jamison

Do you remember the scene in Emma where a party of Gypsies attack Harriet and her friend? It’s just a tiny episode in chapter 39,and may seem almost comical to the modern audience. After all, this party of Gypsies consists of “half a dozen children, headed by a stout woman and a great boy.” At the sight of them, Miss Bickerton screams and runs away. Harriet attempts to get away but can’t because she is too tired from dancing. She decides to give them a shilling, but that is not enough for them. Just as they are demanding more from her, Frank Churchill arrives to drive off the Gypsies.

Harriet may come across as a bit wimpy here, especially to us Americans, who have very little experience with such a thing, but read on. There’s much more to this story than I first thought.

Gypsies have long fascinated me. Growing up, I loved to dress up as a Gypsy for Halloween. This was partly because it was a great excuse to wear all my jewelry at once, but also because I loved the idea of fortune-telling and wearing long skirts.


As an American child, I had never seen what I would have described as an actual Gypsy. I thought of them as fictional characters who existed only in books and movies.

Fast forward to my early twenties when I lived in Portugal. It didn’t take long after I arrived until I was surprised to see a camp of Gypsies. Yes, fellow Americans, they actually exist! They had pulled their trailers off the road and were cooking over a campfire in a clearing, their trailers lined up in a row. Just like the stereotypes of my youth, the women wore long, breezy skirts with blousy tops.

Later, I learned that these Gypsies’ main business in Portugal was setting up temporary markets, where customers could buy shoes, clothes, and other goods at very economical prices. Their skin tended to be a little darker than the typical European’s, but not so much that it was very noticeable, and some of them were quite fair.

I heard many different warnings about Gypsies, the most common of which was, “Don’t give money to Gypsy beggars. The Gypsies are wealthy. It’s all a scam.” Other rumors circulated about their treatment of women and their strange religious practices. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to believe.

After I returned home from Europe, I took the time to study up on Gypsies, and what I learned opened my eyes. Gypsies, who prefer to be called the Romani, Romany or Roma, are an ancient race that probably came from India about 1500 years ago. They settled in Southeastern Europe and then spread toward the West. Being nomads, they often travel through Europe in house trailers. Years ago, people gave them the name of Gypsies because they believed they must have come from Egypt.

They have long been discriminated against, so much so, that during the holocaust, the Nazis rounded up Gypsies and exterminated them along with the Jews.Contrary to what I’d heard, the Roma do not have one unified religion. Some follow Islam, others Hindu, while others are Christians, mostly Roman Ca

tholic. They do, however, have strict codes of cleanliness and maintain a close-knit community.

Bad feelings toward Gypsies were very prevalent during Jane Austen’s time. The history is a bit muddled here too because not only were the Roma referred to as Gypsies in England, but the English also used the term Gypsy to refer to Irish Travellers, another nomadic group.I suppose it was a vicious cycle for Gypsies. They had a reputation for stealing and begging, so they weren’t able to get regular jobs or conduct business with English townspeople. Because they weren’t able to conduct business, they likely resorted to more stealing and begging. In her blog post on the subject, Susannah Fullerton writes:

Gypsies were seen as a major problem in England in Austen’s time. There had been an attempt in 1563 to expel every gypsy from the country, but that failed and for the next centuries gypsies eked out an existence on the margins of society—pilfering and moving on, raiding hen-houses and moving on, avoiding the authorities as much as possible. In Jane Austen’s juvenile work Evelyn, the not very heroic hero Mr. Gower is terrified as he rides home at night and closes his eyes “to prevent his seeing either Gypsies or Ghosts.” Such was society’s hatred of gypsies that it actually became a hanging offence to be found “conversing with gypsies.”

Yes, gentle readers, Harriet could have been hung for conversing with Gypsies! No wonder she freaked out.

Doing a quick google search, I found that so-called Gypsies are still a problem in England. Though they may have a better reputation now, caravans of Gypsies are becoming more and more common, and politicians are struggling to know how to deal with their growing numbers.

Many of the Roma have also immigrated to America, but here, most have assimilated to the culture, generally finding regular jobs and staying in one place. Only a few still live a nomadic lifestyle. You might also be interested to know that Bill Clinton, Elvis Presley, and Cher all supposedly have Gypsy ancestry. Who knows? I might have a little Gypsy in me. That would explain a lot.

How about you? What are your feelings about the Gypsy attack in Emma? Did you ever dress up as a Gypsy for Halloween? Have you ever come across a camp of Gypsies?




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Rebecca H Jamison
Rebecca H Jamison
June 30, 2017 8:24 PM

That’s interesting about the fortune tellers, Chelsea. I have never been to a fortune teller. They are not very common where I’ve lived.

July 1, 2017 12:20 AM

I had a fortune teller give me a very brief fortune at a Harry Potter party I went to but it wasn’t much, I waited in line a lot longer than the minute or two I spoke with them and then the fortune was a bit vague and not very good. My niece that was with me got a much better fortune told.

Diana J Oaks
June 30, 2017 6:17 PM

I have very little personal knowledge of gypsies – only what I have encountered in literature and media – and no personal experiences. I wanted to dress as a gypsy once for Halloween too, but my mother was not keen on the idea.

That said, I am quite enamored of the Gypsy Vanner breed of horses.

July 1, 2017 10:52 AM
Reply to  Diana J Oaks

Gypsy Vanner horses are really pretty.

Rebecca H Jamison
Rebecca H Jamison
June 30, 2017 8:13 PM
Reply to  Diana J Oaks

Thanks for commenting, Diana. It sounds like your experience was much like mine, only my mom was all for me dressing up as a Gypsy.

June 30, 2017 12:43 PM

Gypsies (they are a discrete people and should be capitalized) are originally from India. They came to Europe in the 14th century and were responsible for introducing bubonic plague to Europe. I sympathized very much with Harriet as I have on more than one occasion been surrounded by a large group of Gypsy children demanding money and grabbing at my purse, camera, etc. Gypsies are quite common in Eastern Europe. Most of the time they mind their own business, selling flowers and handcrafted wood items in the marketplaces, and the lautari Gypsies are musicians often in bars and restaurants. They are also well-known as pickpockets and thieves, grabbing necklaces right off a woman’s neck (yes, I saw this more than once in Eastern Europe). Having traveled frequently to Romania I have come across them many times and been targeted because of my American appearance and manner. Gypsies have co-opted the name Rroma and Romany from Romania to cause confusion; not all Gypsies are from Romania. My grandfather was a Romanian Gypsy as is my brother-in-law; the Gypsies I have known have always identified as Gypsies, not Rroma or Romany, which is largely a term used by political activists. Yes, some Gypsies are discriminated against, but others have committed serious crimes and do not deserve our sympathy. Gypsies in Eastern Europe generally do not tell fortunes; that is a bit of theatre they use in Western countries. And before you give them too much sympathy, I must tell you the most appalling thing about Gypsies: They send their small children out to beg. In the streets or subways late at night, barefoot Gypsy children dressed in rags aggressively beg, while an adult armed with a knife watches nearby for any sign of trouble. In the countryside twice I have been targeted by a Gypsy child beggar; one time I even heard his grandmother telling him to “go jump on her.” I ignore them whenever I can and give some money to old Gypsy beggar women. Oh I forgot, mothers will hold their babies begging for money, and then pinch or prick the baby to make it cry. Lovely folks. There are areas and towns that you can’t even walk in because of threats from Gypsies. They are not all innocents.

Rebecca H Jamison
Rebecca H Jamison
June 30, 2017 8:18 PM
Reply to  JanisB

Thanks for your comment, Janis. Those are the types of experiences people warned me about, but they sound even worse. I’m now wondering if I may have had some experiences with Gypsy children in Russia and the Ukraine when I traveled there, as there were many children begging there. I’ll have to fix my capitalization in this article.

June 30, 2017 12:37 PM

I hadnt known you could be hanged just for conversing with them. Certainly explains why Harriet was so scared. Thanks for this informative post as I didn’t know a lot about gypsies.

Rebecca H Jamison
Rebecca H Jamison
June 30, 2017 8:20 PM
Reply to  DarcyBennett

Yes, it definitely sheds light on the story, doesn’t it? I had no idea either.

June 30, 2017 10:43 AM

Your post was really interesting and informative. I never thought too much about the gypsy attack in Emma but I don’t think I ever thought of Harriet as being wimpy during the scene because she was outnumbered.

I have never dressed as a gypsy or come across a group of gypsies however my mother used to work next to a group of fortune telling gypsies. The costumers used to sometimes come in right after having their fortunes read and be freaked out about needing charms to protect them from misfortune.

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