Gypsies in Nineteenth-Century England


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Gypsies in Nineteenth-Century England
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Despite the important role Gypsies played in the nineteenth-century, they were not automatically accepted as equals in society. In fact, from the moment they set foot on European soil, the Gyspies were misunderstood and even feared. These feelings became manifest in prejudices, which led to discriminatory actions. At the same time, however, Victorian society found itself fascinated with these strange Gypsies. The gypsy motif in Jane Eyre reflects the ambiguous attitude of Victorian society toward Gypsies. The depiction of "the Gypsy" at Thornfield Hall and the characters' reactions to her are reflections of prejudices based on the Gypsies' skin color, way of life, and traditions, and are also reflections of discriminatory treatment the Gypsies suffered. Simultaneously, many of the descriptions of the Gypsy are also the product of a romanticized view of Gypsies, which manifests itself works of fiction by many other authors throughout the Victorian Era.

The Victorians' initial impression of the Gypsies was not a favorable one. At first, the prejudices against Gypsies had obvious sources. Settled society has always had a fear of foreigners, so naturally, "the earliest response to the 'Egyptian' immigrants was rooted, generally, in a xenophobic fear and mistrust of aliens" (Mayall, "British Gypsies" 8). Besides being mistrusted as foreigners, the Gypsies fell victim to racial prejudice because of the color of their skin. Even long before the nineteenth-century, "the conviction that blackness denotes inferiority was already well-rooted in the Western mind. The nearly black skins of many Gypsies marked them out to be victims of this prejudice" (Kenrick and Puxon 19). Even if Charlotte Bronte never saw a Gypsy, she reflects these perceptions of them in her description of "the Gypsy" that visits Thornfield Hall. The Gypsy's most noticeable feature in Sam's mind as he describes her to the assembled guests is that she is "'almost as black as a crock'" (217, ch. 18). Later, when Jane goes for her interview with the Gypsy, she notes that her face "looked all brown and black" (221, ch. 19). Since the Gypsy turns out to be Mr. Rochester, and there is no indication that he actually blackened his face for his disguise, it may be that the Gypsy's black skin is an imagined product of the characters' preconceived notions about what Gypsies look like. Whatever the case, the fact that Bronte makes the Gypsy's skin color prominent in the characters' description of her reflects the racial prejudice that existed toward Gypsies in Victorian England.

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The Gypsies also faced prejudices about their way of life. The Gypsies' travelling lifestyle aroused suspicion because of the common belief that "itinerancy served merely as a cloak for a deviant range of predatory, parasitic, and criminal activities" (Mayall, "British Gypsies" 8). People were distrustful of Gypsies simply because they moved around a lot. Accompanying this mistrust was "a belief in the superiority of the settled over the nomadic culture and the incompatibility between the two" (Mayall, "British Gypsies" 8). Nineteenth-century England was the perfect breeding-ground for this notion. As society became more industrialized, the population moved out of the untamed countryside and into the cities. While the rest of society settled down in permanent residences in the cities, the Gypsies continued their nomadic existence in what was now viewed as the wilderness. Thus, "In contrast to the new ways of civilised, industrial society [the Gypsies'] culture was seen as backward and primitive" (Mayall, "Gypsy-Travellers" 7). As people became more settled, they began to feel that their way of life was normal. The presence of the wandering Gypsies challenged this, and caused many people to view them negatively because they were different. These prejudices are reflected in the guests' reactions to the Gypsy. Lady Ingram calls her "'a low imposter'" (217, ch. 18). Sam observes that she is "'quite troublesome'" and that "'she looks such a rough one'" and "'such a tinkler'" (216-8, ch. 18). Through the unfavorable reaction of her characters towards the Gypsies, Bronte articulates the prejudices of her society against the Gypsies.

The fortune-telling issue was also a source for suspicions about the Gypsies. Fortune-telling has always been associated with pagan ideas, so the presence of Gypsy fortune-tellers in a Victorian society dominated by the Church obviously caused a commotion. Added to the problem was the fact that the Gypsies "failed to practise with any conviction one or the other of the prevalent religions" (Kenrick and Puxon 21). Due to this apparent lack of religion, much of society in general thought Gypsies "to be inflicting their magical and devilish practices on an innocent, Christian society" (Mayall, "British Gypsies" 8). Lady Ingram obviously feels this Gypsy will corrupt her innocent daughters as she "wrings her hands" and begs Blanche to "'pause--reflect!'" (218, ch. 18). Some of the guests at Thornfield are certainly skeptical of the Gypsy's powers. The Misses Eshton are not sure, demanding, "'is she a real fortune-teller?'" (219, ch. 18). Blanche Ingram, after hearing an unfavorable fortune, is ready to dismiss the Gypsy as an imposter all together. She condescends to her fellow guests with her observation that their "'organs of wonder and credulity are easily excited'" at the prospect of "'a genuine witch'" (219, ch. 18). She concludes that the Gypsy told her fortune "'in hackneyed fashion'" and told her "'what such people usually tell'" (219, ch. 18). Here, Bronte actually pokes more fun at Blanche than she does at the Gypsy because, unbeknownst to Blanche, what the Gypsy has told her is an exaggerated version of the truth about Mr. Rochester's fortune. But at the time, Blanche views the Gypsy as a complete fraud, thus supporting the prejudiced view of Gypsies.

The prejudices against Gypsies become manifest in scores of discriminatory legislation against Gypsies. The first anti-Gypsy Act in England was passed in 1530, just twenty-five years after the Gypsies' arrival there. The Act's intention was to rid the country of all Gypsies by banning further immigration and requiring the Gypsies already living in England to leave or suffer confiscation of their goods, imprisonment, and execution as felons (Mayall, "British Gypsies" 7). There are reports of deportations throughout the sixteenth century and of executions as late as the seventeenth century (Mayall, "British Gypsies" 7). In 1783, all existing laws directed specifically at Gypsies were repealed, but the discriminatory treatment continued in the form of new laws. Throughout the nineteenth century the various Poor Law, Vagrancy, Hawkers, Highways, Health, Housing and Education Acts resulted in Gypsies, and other nomads, being prosecuted (or threatened with prosecution) for such offenses as setting fires, damaging grass by camping, possessing a dog without a license or collar, fortune-telling, taking sticks and ferns without permission, damaging crops, and begging (Mayall, "British Gypsies" 8). Mr. Eshton, a member of the party assembled at Thornfield, feels it within his duty as a magistrate to threaten the Gypsy with prosecution. He declares, "'Tell her she shall be put in the stocks if she does not take herself off'" (216, ch. 18). Stocks were common instruments of punishment in Victorian England. Mr. Eshton's reaction reflects the discriminatory treatments that the Gypsies were receiving in real life at this time.

Victorian society was very hypocritical towards the Gypsies. As George K. Behlmer says, "precisely because the Gypsies stood apart from the mainstream of urban-industrial life, they held a special fascination for the critics of that life. What appeared to be a characteristic restlessness among Gypsies therefore evoked both romantic praise and systematic harassment during the last third of the nineteenth century" (232). At the same time that the Gypsies were being discriminated against, they were also being romanticized. Behlmer cites as one reason for this the fact that Gypsies "could serve as representatives of the hardy competence associated with 'true' country folk" because they were "monuments to the Victorian ideal of mens sana in corpre sano (a sound mind in a sound body)" (239). Some people in the crowded cities of the newly-industrialized society missed the simplicity of life in the country and were attracted to the free lifestyle of the Gypsies. Society's fascination with Gypsies manifested itself in the literature of the time. Beside the romanticized descriptions of the Gypsy by the characters of Jane Eyre, romantic images of the Gypsy also appeared in works of fiction by many other authors throughout the Victorian Era.

Romanticized notions of Gypsy life are first evident in the reactions of the ladies at Thornfield to the Gypsy. Prior to the Gypsy's appearance at Thornfield, they had "'talked of going to Hay Common to visit the gipsy camp'" (217, ch. 18). They treat the Gypsies' homes as if they are museum exhibits, revealing their attitude of blind fascination towards a group of people that they obviously do not understand. One thing the young ladies may have been shocked to realize, however, is that they are acting like Gypsies themselves. The activities of the group of aristocrats, who travel around, spending a week or two at each friend's home, are really quite similar to the nomadic existence of the Gypsies. Charlotte Bronte uses this motif as a way to satirize the aristocrats.

Enticed by the magical and mysterious aspects of fortune telling, the young men proceed to romanticize the Gypsy even further. Frederick Lynn declares that the Gypsy is "'a real sorceress'," and his brother feels that "'it would be a thousand pities to throw away such a chance of fun'" (217, ch. 18). The whole group considers the idea of having their fortunes told "'excellent sport'" (217, ch. 18). When Sam leaves to summon the Gypsy, the "mystery, animation, expectation rose to full flow" (218, ch. 18). These young people obviously share the romanticized notion their society has about Gypsies.

Jane's description of the Gypsy is also romanticized. The Gypsy wears "a red cloak" and " a broad-brimmed gipsy hat, tied down with a striped handkerchief under the chin" (221, ch. 19). Real Gypsy women used this very image to promote the superstitious beliefs about their powers and to lure customers. The "impression [that Gypsy women had magical powers] was further enhanced if the Gypsy, dressed for the part by wearing colorful headscarves and droopy earrings, was old, ugly, and with the appearance of a 'wild-eyed hag'" (Mayall, Gypsy-Travellers 49-50). Mr. Rochester obviously picks the perfect disguise for making Jane think he is really a Gypsy. Jane, despite her practical, no-nonsense nature, finds herself caught up in romantic ideas about the Gypsy as well. She describes how the Gypsy's "strange talk, voice, manner, had by this time wrapped me in a kind of dream. One unexpected sentence came from her lips after another, till I got involved in a web of mystification" (225, ch. 19).

Jane Eyre is not the only novel that mirrors this romanticized view of Gypsies. Inspired by the works of leading Gypsy scholar George Borrow, author of several fictional and semi-fictional works about Gypsy life, many prominent authors of the time began to include Gypsy characters in their works (Harrison 375). Borrow and other Gypsy scholars enjoyed warm relations with Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, Bulwer Lytton, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Theodore Watts-Dunton. As a result of this friendly relationship, "the [Gypsy scholars] and their literary friends generated 'a very craze for the Gypsy' that had no European equivalent" (Behlmer 243). This Gypsy craze was manifested in the formation of the Gyspy Lore Society in 1888. Society's fascination with Gypsies had its parallels in the literary community. As David Mayall notes, "the use of romantic notions of a separate, mysterious race of Gypsies was a device frequently adopted in poetry and fictions of all descriptions, from the 'highbrow' works of Sir Walter Scott. . .Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence to the anonymous 'penny dreadfuls' and railway literature" (Gypsy-Travellers 71). Works by contemporaries of Bronte that involve Gypsy characters include George Eliot's poem "The Spanish Gypsy;" Matthew Arnold's poems "To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore," "Resignation," "The Scholar-Gipsy," and "Thyrsis;" J.M. Barrie's "The Little Minister;" and, a later work, D.H. Lawrence's "The Virgin and the Gypsy." Bronte's inclusion of this Gypsy character, even though a somewhat minor one, reflects on a small scale a society's reaction to a race that was both misunderstood and loved.


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