In Gypsies and the British Imagination, Deborah Epstein Nord aims most broadly to demonstrate the “ubiquity of the idea of the Gypsy in British literature and culture” (1). An early chapter focuses on Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering and the Gypsy episode from Jane Austen’s Emma. Other chapters consider poems about wandering figures and “scholar-gypsies” by Wordsworth, Clare, and Arnold; George Borrow’s prose narratives Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857); George Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy (1868) and Daniel Deronda (1874-6); and the Gypsy Lore Society (1888-1930). A final chapter pairs stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and D. H. Lawrence with The Book of Boswell (1970), an autobiographical memoir written by the descendent of a Gypsy family frequently discussed by nineteenth-century folklorists. Throughout her discussion of these works she interlaces many incidental references to other writers and, to some extent, graphic artists. Although scholars interested in this topic will find a much more expansive catalogue of journalistic and political sources in David Mayall’s Gypsy-Travellers in Nineteenth-Century Society (1988), Nord admirably fulfills her objective in relation to imaginative writers.
Nord deftly unpacks the paradoxical complexity of the widespread fascination with Gypsies in the long nineteenth century. Assuming that Gypsies had emigrated to Europe from India, many writers emphasize their status as outsiders, accentuating signs of ethnic and racial difference and perpetuating long-standing associations of criminal deviance. “Like the ‘Oriental’ or the colonized, racially marked subject,” Nord observes, “the Gypsy was associated with ... primitive desires, lawlessness, mystery, cunning, sexual excess, godlessness, and savagery” (3). Such stereotypes were complicated, however, by the sense that Gypsies had inhabited the British isles for hundreds of years and that their presumably pastoral lifestyle reflected a heroic defiance of the socio-economic transformations wrought by industrial modernity. In a strange way, then, Gypsies came to be associated with an authentic, pre-industrial Britishness.
To develop this irony, Nord makes effective use of ideas drawn from Orientalism (1979). Many of those who have engaged the argument developed by Edward Said have followed his effort to demonstrate how imperial culture produces and enforces distinctions between imperial selves and colonial others. Nord takes a more convincing and more interesting path, pursuing his relatively undeveloped comment that Europe discovered in the Orient a “sort of surrogate and even underground self” (Orientalism 3). This notion undergirds her approach to nineteenth-century representations of Gypsies as an intriguing “mix of foreignness and familiarity, exoticism and homeliness” (5).
Recognizing that the uncanny familiarity of Gypsies, no less than their foreignness, reflects a deep-seated fantasy, Nord turns to Freud, adapting his conception of the family romance to explain the desire to discover a lost heritage in the Gypsy tribe. Nineteenth-century writers and their protagonists sometimes indulge the feeling that they have been wrongfully placed in the respectable middle class, tragically estranged from their true community among the despised outcasts. As Nord indicates, this dream represents an ironic reversal of the conventional belief that Gypsies were in the habit of stealing white European children. The inverted family romance manifests itself on the individual level in narratives of downward mobility as characters such as Arnold’s scholar-gypsy, Borrow’s Lavengro, and the young Maggie Tulliver strive to escape the constraints of propriety and social convention by embracing the Gypsy life.
This fantasy also operates on a broader cultural and historical level, arising in the suspicion that the Gypsies were, secretly, the aboriginal parents of us all. The work of nineteenth-century philologists and folklorists, Nord shows, promoted an understanding of the Gypsy as “ur-ancestor to humankind” (9). The representation of the Gypsies as primitive thus taps into the central paradox of this discourse, yoking together similarity and difference, serving both to differentiate them from the modern and civilized British and, at the same time, “to suggest that they occupy a primal spot in the history of civilizations and contain in the culture clues to the essential humanity that might otherwise be lost” (9).
Nord emphasizes that 19th-century British culture projected a range of desires and fears onto the Gypsies. This aspect of the text surfaces with special clarity in relation to its recurring concern with gender. British culture discovered in the Gypsies a convenient screen on which to display misgivings or, more frequently, curiosity about “heterodox gender identit[ies]” (64). The languid and directionless heroes imagined by Arnold and Borrow discover in the Gypsy life an escape from Victorian codes of masculinity, especially the expectation of socio-economic progress won through earnest determination. For others, Gypsy identity supplied intriguing alternatives to the pattern of Victorian domestic femininity. Fedalma, the protagonist of George Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy, acquires the public and political agency that Dorothea Brooke must renounce. The sensual and unrestrained Gypsy women fashioned by the Victorian male imagination represents another (more predictable) sort of divergence from acceptable modes of demure femininity.
In general, Gypsies and the British Imagination offers a compelling level of detail in its reading of the various myths that cluster around the “idea of the Gypsy” in the long nineteenth century. Even as she traces parallels among the many texts she interprets, Nord never loses sight of the unique shape that a recurring idea takes in the work at hand or how a writer’s representation of Gypsies fits into the specific context of his or her other writings. The chapter on George Eliot is notable for the subtlety with which Nord explores the figure of the Gypsy in relation to adjacent concerns involving gender and ethnicity.
As she turns from one Gypsy fantasy to another, Nord frequently notes the difficulty of perceiving the “real” figures who have been variously obscured by the narratives in which they figure. Arnold, like most of the other writers that she considers, “removed Gypsies from the context of certain political and historical realities and transformed them into creatures of myth” (45). Nord encourages readers to contemplate the ethical consequences of this transformation. Gypsies provide “redemption and solace” to British culture, she claims, “at the cost of their identity as both victims of law and agents of history” (69). She takes some steps to reverse this problematic trend. She refers in passing to legislation and other forms of social discipline faced by the Romany people, a terribly ironic backdrop to their transformation by sympathetic artists into idealized free-spirited wanderers. Attempting to give a voice to those largely silenced by the stories told about them, Nord concludes with a brief but interesting discussion of Silvester Boswell’s The Book of Boswell: Autobiography of a Gypsy (1970), a text that partly shares the broad tendency to render Gypsy life through the lens of nostalgic yearning for pre-mechanized wandering but that departs from this romantic stereotype in its practical commitment to assimilative institutions such as education and capitalist enterprise.
Perhaps because Nord frequently reminds readers of the “real” Gypsies and the complexity of their lives, I leave her book dissatisfied with the few glimpses of history and biography that she uses to counterbalance the literary representations that are, quite properly, her primary object of study. Boswell’s autobiography to some extent offsets “the phantom Gypsy, who has no voice and no history and whose silence and invisibility are often required” (173). Readers would better appreciate the function of this silent and invisible phantom, however, with a clearer view of the histories and biographies largely eclipsed by it. I would have liked to see Nord examine earlier autobiographies such as The Life Story of Gipsy Cornelius Smith (1890) or George Smith’s Incidents in a Gipsy’s Life (1886), both of which have recently been republished by the Romany and Traveller Family History Society. In footnotes, Nord does point readers to recently published historical texts that help to demystify the experience of nineteenth-century British Gypsies. Still, I would have admired her book even more than I do if she had provided a chapter offering a fuller discussion of their lives in the context of the social, legal, and economic forces that shaped them and that they shaped in turn.
Nord might have taken notice of “Gypsy Women in English Life and Literature” (The Foreign Woman in British Literature, Greenwood, 1999), in which Celia Esplugas touches on several of the same literary works and anticipates some of her conclusions. In her essay, Esplugas offers a compressed and generally less sophisticated discussion than Nord, but nonetheless her work deserves consideration. The absence of this essay represents an atypical gap in an otherwise scrupulous bibliography of critical sources. The few flaws of Gypsies and the British Imagination are slight in comparison to its many strengths. Nord’s subtle analysis of the representation of Gypsies in 19th-century British literature will stand as a crucial resource on the topic.
Timothy L. Carens is Associate Professor of English at the College of Charleston. He is the author of Outlandish English Subjects in the Victorian Domestic Novel (Palgrave Macmillan 2005).