Why Do I Write About Regency Roma?
It's partially reactionary. In Chapter 39 of Austen’s Emma, her bff Miss Harriet Smith (the ‘natural daughter’ of no-one-quite-knows), is out walking and is accosted by a ‘group of gypsies’. The image below is an illustration of the incident by by C.E. Brock (Source: Mollands.net).
For modern readers who may not understand the danger of such an episode, it's worth remembering that merely associating with “such a set of people” was judged to be a crime in Regency England. From the 1500s onwards the Crown attempted to rid their green and pleasant land of these ‘other’ residents, including deporting them to the colonies and attempting to legislate them out of all existence. By Austen’s time, any ‘consorting’ with ‘gypsies’ was considered a criminal act for which one could be incarcerated — or worse. A case in 1782 saw a fourteen year old girl hanged for such acquaintance, on the orders of the local magistrate.
In Austen's novel, Harriet Smith speaks to the ‘gypsies’, offers them money, and then pleads with them. Any or all of these actions would be enough to see her in trouble with the law. While Highbury's local magistrate (our hero, Mr Knightley) would be unlikely to order Harriet hanged (I doubt even Austen could redeem a hero who sentences his heroine’s friend to the gallows), Miss Smith technically commits a Regency-era crime in this scene. This moment offers a rare glimpse into a Regency England that isn't well-represented in contemporary works.
Austen’s England is a very specific place. A place inhabited only by the English themselves. It's very interesting that one of the few glimpses her readers ever receive of the scaffolding behind this construct, is in the novel where her heroine is labelled by the author herself as ‘an imaginist’ – because the ideal of a homogenous England is pure imagination: Especially given the breadth of the empire at the time, both culturally and commercially.
There are hints of a similar façade – and Austen’s awareness that this is a façade – in Mansfield Park as well. Sir Thomas Bertram’s references to the slave trade in Jamaica, and its importance as the mainstay of his wealth, is touched upon. He even suggests introducing some of his ‘stock’ at Mansfield Park, but this is not taken seriously. What happens in Jamaica must stay in Jamaica. England is only for the English, Sir Thomas!
The British Empire once spanned a quarter of the known world, but at no point were the native-born colonised people truly deemed to be ‘English’. After all, they didn't actually live in England. At least, not most of them. What if the ‘non-English’ people were not ‘out there’ in the colonies? What if they did, in fact, live in England right alongside the Bertrams, the Woodhouses, the Dashwoods – and even the Bennets?
Which brings me to the Romany of England: Their position in these narratives is as unusual as their place in Regency England – because of course they had one. They lived, loved, and mattered in the same geographic spaces as Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith.
The fact is, this ‘England-only-for-the-English’ was peopled by another culture entirely. England was, and is, a shared land. Two cultures, vastly different in so many ways, coexisted for centuries (albeit, rarely peacefully). The Regency Romany were as present and alive and wonderfully romantic as the Regency English. Coming from a mostly oral tradition, Romany stories from that time are rarely found in print but they were there, and experienced this period, and undoubtedly have stories to tell about it.
Austen’s England has the backing of every powerful institution of her day. In terms of crafting the dominant narrative, the English are able to draw on the Crown, the Military, the Law, and of course the Church, which played such a vital part in the lives and lovers of Regency England. Even Heaven sides with the English in Austen’s world view. Her father, let’s not forget, was a clergyman.
In the incident ascribed above, Austen does not specifically accuse the ‘gypsies’ of being heathens, but they are clearly depicted as ‘other’; outside the town limits of Highbury itself and dark, terrifying, criminal, and dangerous. They do not ‘fit’ in Austen’s England, and are quite unsatisfyingly removed from Emma’s tale as soon as they serve their rather meagre narrative purpose:
“The Gypsies did not wait for the operations of justice: they took themselves off in a hurry.”
Or rather, the author moved them quickly off her bleached white pages and out of ‘her’ England – despite the truth that there were non-English people present in Austen’s England; other voices with their own perspectives and their own stories worth telling, and worth writing.
It's difficult to be born into a place that never allows you to become a part of it without a fight, a plea, an effort to assimilate and cut away the parts of you that discomfit the powerful dominant culture all around you. It's more than difficult; it's painful and damaging. The very term ‘marginalisation’ is an admission of the lack of narrative ‘space’ allotted to the voices fiction has chosen to leave unloved, and unnoticed.
The term ‘marginal’ itself bothers me. It's almost (but not quite) pejorative, which is why I place it in single quotes. I have here done the same with the term ‘gypsy’. I am aware that neither term is universally regarded as harmful. Debates rage all over this, on many fronts, and ongoing debate is encouraging.
For myself, born into a marginalised culture with a mostly oral tradition, the ‘minor’ incident in Emma stands out. After all, my own tribe has quite a bit in common with the Romany. There was once a link made between the Romany of Europe and the Lost Tribes of Israel. It turned out to be incorrect, but the placement of ‘other’ in an otherwise ‘native’ land is a context embedded into my lived experience every day – and that’s quite apart from the grim reality shared in the concentration camps of Europe during World War II; a shared history I'm not sure an imaginist like Austen – or Emma – could envisage. Its surreality is what allows deniability to play so plausibly in the minds of those focused on the façade, rather than any kind of ‘real’ history.
Real history is profoundly unromantic – and yet, somehow, we still try. There is beauty in stories, in narratives of the tales about long-ago lovers and their imagined worlds. There is much solace to be found in story – I love re-reading Austen (although Emma is not my favourite), but in between the wonder of her words, I find myself reading for traces. Traces those whose stories deserve to be told.