In her new book Representations of the Gypsy in the Romantic Period, Sarah Houghton-Walker provides a fascinating insight into writers’ and artists’ portrayals of wanderers. Her study focuses on a period when gypsies’ fragile place in the landscape, and on the margins of society, came increasingly under threat.  

The Romantic period marks the moment when, after a long stretch of being classed as outsiders, gypsies find a new place in the English rural landscape. They are shown to be deeply conservative while, at the same time, representing a brand of radicalism that’s both troubling and seductive.

Sarah Houghton-Walker

In 1780 a group of gypsies was hung in Northampton and their supporters threatened to set the town alight. Nothing is known about the crime for which the gypsies died or, indeed, if there was one. A law passed in 1562 had made it illegal even to be a gypsy (‘those calling themselves Egyptians’) and throughout history the poor with no fixed abode or occupation had been, at best, viewed with deep suspicion. However, the ‘Egyptians Act’ was finally repealed in 1783. Four years later, a German writer called Heinrich Grellmann published the first taxonomy of gypsies which documented “the Manner of Life, Economy, Customs and Conditions of these people in Europe, and their origin”. The book caused a surge of public interest in what a gypsy might be.

These three events, which marked the beginning of a shift in the narratives surrounding one of society’s most marginalised groups, provide a powerful backdrop to the topics explored in Representations of the Gypsy in the Romantic Period by Dr Sarah Houghton-Walker, a lecturer in English at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. The book, published today (30 October 2014) by Oxford University Press, treads new territory in its analysis of portrayals of travellers and wanderers in literature between 1783 and 1832. Its author touches on work by well-known poets and novelists – including John Clare, William Cowper, William Wordsworth, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Henry Fielding and Charlotte Bronte – as well as literature once popular but now largely forgotten.

Notable among the more obscure works is the wickedly titled The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew, the Noted Devonshire Stroler and Dog-Stealer, a biography of an adventurer and rogue thought to have been written by a Dorset printer. First published in 1749, and repeatedly republished when it became a best seller, the book tells the (highly improbable) story of a well-born young man who runs away from school to live with a band of vagabonds whose bounteous fun and freedom he is unable to resist.

The book describes Carew’s first encounter with these merry-makers: “…after a plentiful Meal upon Fowls, Ducks, and other dainty Dishes, the flowing Cups of October, Cyder, &c. went most chearfully round, and merry Songs and Country Dances crowned the jovial Banquet: In short, so great an Air of Freedom, Mirth and Pleasure, appeared in the Faces and Gestures of this Society, that our Youngster from that Time conceived a sudden Inclination to enlist into their Company; which, when they communicated to the Gypsies, they considering their Appearance, Behaviour and Education, regarded as spoken only in jest.” From these beginnings, Carew rose to be self-styled ‘King of the Gypsies’.

‘Gypsy’ is today a contested term with modern communities favouring alternatives such as Romani and Traveller. It is, however, the word used by the writers whose work Houghton-Walker discusses and one that she therefore adheres to. In her study, the word ‘gypsy’ refers to an idea or a phenomenon as much as it does to any figures who might have existed – and its connotations in the period that Houghton-Walker considers are both positive and negative, much as they are today.

In her examination of how writers represented gypsies, Houghton-Walker brings to light a number of literary interactions that confound expectations. The politically radical Wordsworth, whose love of the Lakes was profoundly influential on the literary production of the period, reveals a conflicted response to the gypsies he encounters. His poem ‘Gipsies’ depicts them as lazy whereas, as the wandering poet, he portrays himself as a more valuable kind of "traveller under an open sky". The poem, it has been argued, reflects Wordsworth’s own anxiety about being an idle wanderer with no ‘proper job’.

The conservative novelist Austen, on the other hand, constructs a much more sympathetic picture in a chance meeting between Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill and a group of gypsies that creates a moment of crisis and crux in the plot of Emma. The gypsies camped on a verge in Highbury are not straightforwardly nasty, dirty thieves and their threat is seen to lie only in the over-active imagination of silly young women. Perhaps counterintuitively, Austen seems to suggest that despite their reputation for criminality, the gypsies have a place in English society and must therefore be accommodated within it.

Perhaps Houghton-Walker’s most striking discovery in researching the book was the description of an encounter between Princess (later Queen) Victoria and a group of gypsies. The princess records in her diary for Christmas Day 1836 that her mother had ordered broth, fuel and blankets, as well as a worsted knit baby jacket, to be taken to the gypsy family. The diary reveals the Princess’s compassion for the “poor wanderers” who are “the chief ornament of the Portsmouth Road” – and “a nice set of Gipsies… not at all forward or importunate, and so grateful”.

It’s no coincidence that the gypsies Princess Victoria met in Epsom were half-starved. The half century covered by Houghton-Walker’s study was a time of rapid social and economic change in both town and country as the growing population put pressure on all kinds of resources. The open commons, wide verges and uncultivated heathlands that had long afforded space for encampments of gypsies and grazing for their animals, were increasingly being enclosed.

Growing industrialisation saw the loss of traditional and seasonal tasks that previously had provided an income for groups of travellers. Clare’s poems show gypsies interacting closely with the day-to-day life of the village, mending chairs and playing the fiddle. At the same time, the belief systems practised by the rural poor, including travellers, were changing, with the old customs pushed out by the sceptical empiricism of the enlightenment, just as reforming evangelical Christians brought their own pressures to bear on the gypsies’ way of life.  

Representations of the Gypsy stems from Houghton-Walker’s preoccupation with walking and verse, and her fascination with the way in which metrical feet seem to interact with human ones. Her work on Clare, in particular, prompted her to consider the broader theme of wandering and the ways in which the figure of the gypsy embodies anxieties about identity and questions about Englishness. As wanderers, whose presence is often not discovered until they have moved on, gypsies are repeatedly figured in the Romantic period as fascinating and feared, familiar yet exotic, known and unknown. They thus provide a lens through which questions about what is and isn’t understood can be focused.

“The Romantic period marks the moment when, after a long stretch of being classed as foreigners and outsiders, gypsies find a new place in the English rural landscape. They are shown to be deeply conservative in their loyalty to old-fashioned ways, and in their resistance to any change at all while, at the same time, representing a brand of radicalism that’s both troubling and seductive for writers,” said Houghton-Walker.

“We’re talking about a period that saw a significant change in attitudes to people who were wanderers. Unless you were a member of the local community, if you turned up on foot at an inn in the 18th century, you would be suspected of nefarious motives. No-one walked unless they had to. Towards the end of the century, however, walking became a fashionable pursuit. Wordsworth, who may have walked around 180,000 miles in his lifetime, contributed to this vogue for travel on foot. Walking was newly understood as a means of encountering and responding to landscapes.”

In a chapter devoted to representations of the gypsy by artists of the Romantic period, Houghton-Walker focuses on the painters Thomas Gainsborough and George Morland. The work of both artists can be seen to engage with subtle class differences within the context of the English landscape. “In Morland’s painting ‘Morning, or the Benevolent Sportsman’, we witness the stereotypes attached to gypsies – they sit on the cold earth, sheltered only by a rough structure, while the sportsman sits astride his horse - but also a particular kind of defence of gypsies on the part of the artist,” said Houghton-Walker.

“Morland’s gypsies challenge conventions. The young man boldly returns the rider’s gaze and there’s little deference evident in the group around the tent. What’s striking is the contrast between the gypsy and the bagman (the sportsman’s servant). The almost Messianic light emanating from the sportsman’s horse illuminates the gypsy camp while the bagman is cast into darkness. But, through the composition of the painting, Morland shows us that the gun the bagman holds still matters. The ‘benevolent sportsman’ is the temporary identity of a man who pays this same servant to shoot at gypsies.”

In Bronte’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847 but set earlier in the 19th century, Mr Rochester dresses as a gypsy to tell Jane’s fortune and therefore reveal truths that will move the plot onwards. Jane is taken in by his disguise and speeches. Yet by this point in literary history, a profound shift has taken place in the representation of gypsies.  Houghton-Walker said: “By the 1830s, the gypsy in literature has become merely a piece of theatre – a mask that can be picked up or put down on a whim. Tamed now, and owned by the cultural imagination in new ways, the figure of the gypsy abandons its sublimity and becomes instead the figure of cultural conservatism that the Victorian age was to draw on and delight in.”

Representations of the Gypsy in the Romantic Period by Sarah Houghton-Walker is published by Oxford University Press on 30 October 2014


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