Throughout the six volumes that comprise the canonical masterworks of Jane Austen, so much creative effort is devoted to the gentry classes that when we encounter something as out of place as a roving band of gypsies, it becomes quite the source for a moment of fascination. The scene comes to us from Emma, Book III, Chapter III, where the young Harriet Smith and her friend Miss Bickerton encounter a “party of gipsies,” and there was a child “who came towards them to beg.” Miss Bickerton reacts by screaming and running away, leaving Harriet to fend for herself. Harriet was approached by more children, a grown woman and a large boy, but after giving them money, the situation becomes terrifying considering that she was then “surrounded by the whole gang, [who are] demanding more.” By the time the text refers to these gypsies as “such a set of people in the neighbourhood,” the critical reader realizes that we are dealing with the “other” in ways that don’t get any more “other” than that.
As is standard for an Austen novel, people are divided into social strata; the plot itself is hinged on the notion that Harriet should not marry a lowly farmer. We’re to understand that Emma and her father are at the top of the novel’s hierarchy, with George Knightley considered an equal; the Eltons, the Westons, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are below them; mother and daughter Bates are situated down low. People below the Bates don’t even get a name; Emma pays a “charitable visit” to a “poor sick family” that lives in a “detached cottage.” At the very bottom, the gypsies are not only nameless, they’re barely human; they are “trampers…all clamorous, and impertinent in look…loud and insolent.” That Miss Bickerton screams at the sight of the gypsy child suggests that we’re dealing with some sort of monster species.
Emma’s charitable visit serves to foreshadow the gypsies as the “other.” When she is with Harriet during the visit, she mentions the act of giving from her “purse,” which sets a distinction to be made between the types of people who are eligible to receive donations. The gypsies are keenly aware of this in that the need to force money out of people to survive has become a required portion of their behavior. In real life, the gypsies of England are known as Romanichal (Romani), and as Austen describes, they are quite clearly the victims of xenophobia.
Encyclopedic sources have the Romanichal arriving in England around the 15th Century, much to the dismay of Henry VIII. His Egyptians Act (1530) “banned Romanies from entering the country and required those living in the country to leave within 16 days. Failure to do so could result in confiscation of property, imprisonment and deportation. During the reign of Mary I the act was amended with the Egyptians Act (1554), which removed the threat of punishment to Romanies if they abandoned their ‘naughty, idle and ungodly life and company’ and adopted a settled lifestyle, but on the other hand increased the penalty for noncompliance to death” (Source).
During Austen’s time, laws against the Romani had been eased, but as Susannah Fullerton points out, life was obviously still a struggle; people were simply not ready to accept the Romani as citizens of the country, to the extent that to be seen with them, or even conversing with them, meant consequences for an English subject. Miss Bickerton’s fear of the Romani child may very well be related to a fear of these consequences and not of the child or the group itself. Fullerton describes a situation in which, “In 1782 a fourteen-year-old girl, desperately protesting her innocence, was hanged for being found in the company of gypsies” (Source). This of course doesn’t change the fact that such consequences are based on a fundamental un-acceptance of the “other.” Non-Romani people such as Emma’s poor family are entitled to charitable acts, but the Romani are despised because of the difference that defines them.
As it turns out, scholarly research, as well as a basic hunch of humane thought, brings to light the nature of the Romani, which tends to make the people who look down on them look like the monsters. As David Cressy tells us, “Despite accusations of idleness and fecklessness, they [the Romani] were mostly busy. Far from being mindless wanderers, they were purposeful travellers who filled a niche in the economy of itinerancy. The men handled logistics, and dealt in animals and games of chance, while Gypsy women earned pennies from fortune-telling. Common folk were said to have flocked to them, when they arrived in their midst, though local authorities disapproved of their predations. Even in gaol, one Jacobean writer reported, certain Gypsies contrived to exploit ‘the simplicity of many of the townsmen’s wives, daughters and servants’ with fraudulent divinations. People allegedly ‘wondered at them, and gave them money, sent them meat every day to dinner and supper, saying it was pity such skillful people as they should not be provided for’ – a generosity not extended to common vagrants. Unlike other itinerants and the ordinary roving poor, the Gypsies owned horses, baggage, and supplies of goods and money, and were rarely associated with begging. If it is true that Gypsies sometimes picked pockets, then that was work too, as some modern Roma attest” (Source).
Of course, this knowledge has been gathered and presented to us in a modern sense, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Austen was out to thoroughly bash gypsies. They’re hardly the subject of focus. She knew of their existence and as a storyteller, she makes use of them both as a plot point — the means by which Emma contrives another scheme for match-making — and as a kind of meta-textual reference, such that the story of the gypsies becomes a source of exhilaration for Emma’s nephews, who continuously seek to be told of the tale of Harriet and the gypsies, “tenaciously setting her right if she varied in the slightest particular from the original recital.” Austen describes later on a state of peskiness in which some poultry-yards in Emma’s neighborhood were pilfered (hinted to be the work of gypsies), and so it adds to the character of her novel, such a valuable resource for what life was like during the late-18th-Century.
To be sure, the latest Hollywood rendition of Jane Austen’s Emma is in theaters now, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the beloved Emma herself.