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Deborah Epstein Nord’s Gypsies and the British Imagination, 1807 – 1930 has been long-awaited by those researching the representation of Gypsies in Britain and, of course, by appreciators of her 1995 work, Walking the Streets: Women, Representation and the Victorian City. This new text marks a significant development in scholarship on Gypsies in the nineteenth century and beyond, as the first monograph entirely devoted to an in-depth study of the construction of this strangely ubiquitous yet enigmatic figure in the literature and non-fiction of the period from a literary-critical perspective.  Nord’s breadth of study is ambitious, particularly in a work of just over two hundred pages. Starting with, in the first chapter, “A ‘Mingled Race’: Walter Scott’s Gypsies”, a reading of his memorable character, Meg Merrilies, in Guy Mannering (1815) as a culturally inscribed “genderless primal ancestor”, she nonetheless emphasises the importance of history and the narrative of empire in this early figuring of the Gypsy (41). The two most impressive chapters are those dealing with “‘Marks of Race’: The Impossible Gypsy in George Eliot” (Chapter Four) and, by way of a conclusion, “The Phantom Gypsy: Invisibility, Writing, and History”(Chapter Six). In dealing with Eliot, Nord makes intelligent connections between her narrative poem, The Spanish Gypsy (1868) and her final novel, Daniel Deronda (1874 – 1876). These are, she notes, “the two end points […] of Eliot’s long meditation on the outsider”, and the differences between them reveal much about not only the narrative of race, but also, fascinatingly, gender as well (101). Chapter Six contains crucial, if brief, readings of the novella that marks the chronological boundary of Nord’s perspective, D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy (1930) and the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1891). However, following brilliant assertions about the visibility of the Gypsy in British fiction and the deliberately mythologized origins of the Gypsy diaspora, it is troubling to find speculations about the transparency of the Gypsies’ past, had a written record existed. This seems to be rather a betrayal of the rigorously textual approach taken throughout the book, a last-minute mourning for some lost, authentic Gypsy that gorgio writings have somehow displaced. The point, one might argue, is that the fruitless search for the authentic Gypsy is precisely what has led to so many of the problematic images analysed in this work.
Included in this study is the concept of the Gypsy as a rural anachronism, looking to the poetry of Matthew Arnold, John Clare and William Wordsworth for pertinent and easily recognisable examples in “Vagrant and Poet: The Gypsy and the ‘Strange Disease of Modern Life’” (Chapter Two). It is refreshing to find a reading of Arnold’s “transcendent” Gypsy that goes beyond the oft-quoted poem, “The Scholar-Gipsy” (1853), using “Resignation” (1849) and “Thyrsis” (1866) to broaden the scope and deepen the analysis (45). Nord’s interpretation of Wordsworth’s attitude to vagrancy is debatable, however. Basing much of her conclusion about the poet’s relationship with Gypsies on her own close reading of “Gypsies” (1807), where the poet finds a group around a campfire sitting apparently motionless, she notes that “he could only imagine himself as the detached witness of change and walker ‘to and fro,’ failing to see that vagrancy could involve peripatetic and perhaps contemplative, not just sedentary, phases of life” (68). On the contrary, several of Wordsworth’s poems demonstrate him embracing characters engaged in precisely this kind of peripatetic contemplation. For example, in “The Pedlar” (1798), a young man’s poetic obsession with “the shades of difference / As they lie hid in all exterior forms” leads him to take up a nomadic existence (“Pedlar” 347-8). The poet and pedlar wander the hills together in close companionship. One could also counter that, quite aside from whether the poet has the right to criticise an indolent Gypsy life in “Gypsies”, his criticism is not as straightforward as his contemporaries would have had us believe. According to Nord, when he “refers to himself as a ‘Traveller,’ he seems to separate himself from rather than ally himself with the Gypsies” (54). She goes on to demonstrate how incomplete this separation is, attributing Wordsworth’s complaint about inertia to a need to soothe his poetic ego. In lines 5 to 7 of the poem, however, he describes changes in the brightness of the fire in the darkness, “the colouring of the night” (2: 6). What appears to be a change in the tableau is, in fact, a change in the setting in which it is viewed. Twelve hours ago, the fire was dulled by the surrounding daylight, now it is seen differently. This might be seen, creatively, as a call to re-examine Wordsworth’s attitude in a different light, rather than adopting, as Nord does, Coleridge and Hazlitt’s dim view of the poem (53-4). I would argue for a reading of the 1820 version of “Gypsies”, with its softened ending, whether or not the 1807 poem is “better” (185 n.34). Even without the disclaimer, “In scorn I speak not” (2: 26), the remark that the Gypsies are “wild outcasts of society” is hugely important in the wider context of Wordsworth’s oeuvre that criticises this society and its exclusive definitions (2: 28), such as the 1849 version of “Descriptive Sketches” that sympathetically and without prejudice renders the difficulties of Gypsy life (1: 170-5). Tempting as it may be to frame Wordsworth’s apparently negative views of the Gypsy in these lines as a projection of his ambivalent self-construction as wanderer, it is worth resisting in order to contemplate quite how much of interest the poet had to say about these and other socially marginalised characters.
No work on the Gypsy in the nineteenth century would be complete without a chapter on the eccentric George Borrow, whose writings have been loved, despised and puzzled over in equal measure since their first publication. He appears here in Chapter Three, “In the Beginning Was the Word: George Borrow’s Romany Picaresque”. Nord is eloquent on his reconstructions as a literary figure later in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries and reminds her readers why the inclusion of his idiosyncratic texts here and in further studies in this area remain essential. Many of the members of the organisation discussed in Nord’s fifth chapter, “‘The Last Romance’: Scholarship and Nostalgia in the Gypsy Lore Society”, saw themselves as the spiritual heirs of Borrow’s work, albeit with an increased degree of serious scholarship. Their personalities are as fascinating as their work, and the scandal of their alternative lifestyles may be glimpsed between the lines of Nord’s critical approach to their work and its politics.
Nord’s book is a welcome piece of careful research and an insightful analysis of the representation of Gypsies in the British texts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I was still not entirely sure that, by the end of it, I fully understood what the ‘British imagination’ constitutes, the medium through which the Gypsy is, according to Nord’s title, constructed. Is the use of this term merely an attempt to gather together a corpus, or does it also seek to unify the images uncovered by Nord’s study? The concept of ‘imagination’ certainly indicates the scope of the work, extending as it does beyond purely literary examples, but it also hints at a certain reluctance to admit that the “myths of identity and conventions of representation” under scrutiny are contained within a historical, textual archive that does not offer the possibility of access to some extra-textual realm (19). There is also the danger that the title, in referring to something as abstract, poetic and unelaborated as a national “imagination”, romanticises the entire field of study all over again. Having said this, Nord’s writing successfully weaves between the broad historical overview that is, at times, needed in a specific area of interest with which some readers may not be familiar, and the close critical analysis of texts demanded by an exploration of racialised images and cultural stereotypes. The claim that Gypsies have been neglected in the slew of postcolonial rereadings of the canon of English Literature can no longer be made, with this publication’s appearance, quite as vehemently.
- There have been shorter pieces that conduct sharp analyses of particular Gypsy tropes. See, for example, Trumpener, Carroll’s chapter on this subject and Gagnier, all of which Nord makes use of in her own study. She departs from the style of historical survey that has, until recently, defined the longer works in this field of study, though she makes her debts to George Behlmer and David Mayall explicit.
- Carroll, Alicia. Dark Smiles: Race and Desire in George Eliot. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.
- Gagnier, Regenia. “Cultural Philanthropy, Gypsies, and Interdisciplinary Scholars: Dream of a Common Language.” 19. 1 (2005) http://www.19.bbk.ac.uk/Issue1articles/RegeniaGagnierarticle.pdf [accessed 8 August 2007].
- Trumpener, Katie. “The Time of the Gypsies: A ‘People Without History’ in the Narratives of the West.” Identities. Ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 338-80
- Wordsworth, William. ‘The Pedlar.’ The Pedlar, Tintern Abbey, The Two-Part Prelude. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 19-32.
- Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works. Ed. E. de Selincourt. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1940-49.