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?