‘Place’ in Austen’s Emma
‘Place’ in Austen’s Emma
Englishness, Gypsies, and Harriet Smith
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter offers a close reading of the passage in Austen’s Emma in which Harriet Smith encounters a troupe of gypsies. Picking up on the ideas of walking and wandering explored in Chapter 5, the chapter argues that these are recurrent and loaded themes in Austen’s novels too, but the chapter is more particularly interested in related ideas about property, propriety and “place”. The chapter points out that the usually conservative Austen shifts any blame away from the gypsies, placing it instead on Harriet Smith. As in the case of Wordsworth, Austen’s attitude towards the gypsies is not what we might intuitively expect (or, indeed, what other critics have argued it to be); the chapter considers the need to think about the categories of “radical” and “conservative” in new ways, because of the manner in which gypsies are represented in literature from the period.
Writing in 1957, Lionel Trilling declared Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) to be ‘a novel that is touched—lightly but quite certainly—by national feeling’.1 Various subsequent critics have similarly been attracted to the wider political preoccupations which seem to lie behind Austen’s ostensibly parochial text. Claudia Johnson, separating the text from ‘the anarchistic and egalitarian novels of Godwin, Holcroft, and Wollstonecraft in fundamentally accepting English class structure, and in being able to discriminate positive authority figures’, nonetheless finds Emma to be powerful because of the challenge it poses to traditional social models.2 More recently still, Peter Smith has engaged directly with the notion that ‘[t]he principal topic in Emma...is England, England’s weaknesses, the dangers inherent in those weaknesses, and the choices that might still be made to secure the nation’s future’.3 Smith’s language of ‘choices’, and Johnson’s of challenge, point to a fundamental aspect of the character of the English ‘national feeling’ Trilling identifies: its apparent instability. Yet despite various critical gestures towards its identification, the precise source of the threat to ‘Englishness’ in the novel is never transparent in Emma. Various literary critics and historians have offered suggestions for Austen’s particular causes for unease: Mary Evans, for example, finds Austen’s concern to be ‘the dominant values’ of contemporary England, which she labels ‘materialism and individual self-interest’.4 It is true that the events of the novel occur just as a range of factors (larger historical events, like the Acts of Union, the threat of war and the spectre of revolution from across the Channel, but also more subtle alterations in the dynamics of social life in the wake of the eighteenth-century rise of a ‘polite and commercial people’, most (p.156) obviously represented by Mrs Elton) are causing wider anxieties regarding what Englishness itself might be. The institution of the first national census in Britain in 1801 implies a desire in the period to classify the nation empirically, an ambition suggestive of a generally felt lack of certainty. But the causes of instability seem to me to remain deliberately unclear in Austen’s novels, and it is not my intention to offer vague guesses as to their respective import. My point is rather that, whatever one argues to be the origin of the tremors shaking the foundations of the social system depicted in Emma, the world of the novel is a social structure which is shown to be troublingly under threat. This instability can be brought into focus through the lens of a single episode. In this chapter, I hope to establish that Harriet Smith’s encounter with a group of gypsies reveals a great deal about perceptions of gypsies in the early part of the nineteenth century, and that it is also able to shed light on Austen’s preoccupation with a social system, understood as ‘England’, undergoing change.
‘Place’ as I am invoking it here is a polysemous term, intended to refer to an idea of nationhood and home, as well as to social position and obligation. Deeply connected to a sense of identity, one’s ‘place’ (or lack of it) is always both national and local, associated both with state and with family and community. ‘Property’, with its associations of land, houses and their ownership, but also in relation to the idea of something ‘proper to’ oneself and a broader sense of belonging, is importantly connected to the idea of place, and all of Austen’s novels exhibit Austen’s interest in their interrelation. As property is associated with belonging, it is not hard to see that in a time of social anxiety regarding national identity, of fears about what might truly be ‘proper’ to the English (fears which stem from but also extend into ideas about one’s place), property becomes an issue in nationalist terms in both a physical and a mental sense. This chapter will trace the relevance of very particular ideas about place and property (and, relatedly, propriety) in Emma, and will go on to connect Austen’s interest in these characteristics to the unstable way in which ‘Englishness’ is conceived of in the period, suggesting that the encounter between Harriet and the gypsies offers Austen a means of exploring these concerns.
Raymond Williams argues for the class-blindness of Jane Austen’s works: ‘What [Cobbett] names, riding past on the road, are classes. Jane Austen, from inside the house, can never see that, for all the intricacy of her social description...where only one class is seen, no classes are seen.’5 Elizabeth Langland relatedly insists that ‘Jane Austen’s unique achievement in the novel seems to depend in part on the inclusion of (p.157) only one social class. In order to use social conventions as a measure of moral character, and to make that revealed moral character determine an individual’s fate, she must have only one class with clearly defined expectations for social behaviour.’6 It is true that, whilst we may hear an occasional reference to a servant, Austen’s novels generally ignore the poorest people who would have populated her landscapes and villages. Like all of Austen’s works, Emma is a novel with a deep interest in social status, and it seems to occupy a particularly conservative place: through Emma’s controlling mind, Austen plays with the respective positions of Harriet Smith and Robert Martin at different points in the novel so that the reader sees the propriety of their match; he or she understands the situation of the brought-low Bateses and of the upstart Eltons from Emma’s narrow, socially superior point-of-view. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet may marry Mr Darcy, and Jane Mr Bingley, despite their lack of money and their vulgar mother; in Persuasion Anne Elliot eventually may marry Frederick Wentworth, but Emma must marry Mr Knightley as the only possible partner in the social terms of Highbury, as they are set out in the text. But Emma, as various critics have noticed, is interesting in class terms in that it contains not only references to the plight of the rural poor but also representations of poverty and indigence.7 Both of these episodes involve Harriet Smith.
Relatively early in the text, Emma takes Harriet to visit a poor family who live a significantly ‘little way out of’ Highbury, offering an opportunity for Austen to laugh at the fickleness of girls whose thoughts are so quickly transferred from good intentions (‘“Poor creatures! one can think of nothing else.”’) to amorous interests (‘The lane made a slight bend; and when that bend was passed, Mr. Elton was immediately in sight’).8 The scene also allows Austen to display the propriety with which Emma tends to the objects of her charity:
Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done so little; entered into (p.158) their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will.9
It is specifically through Emma’s interaction with the poor of Highbury that Austen displays her heroine’s fitness for the role her future holds for her: these are the qualities which make her a fit wife for Mr Knightley, not those of meddling, matchmaking, or fun-poking. Notably, Austen says nothing of what Harriet does or says in the cottage. At the heart of the same novel, Austen introduces a second picture of poverty as Harriet encounters a group of gypsies. The episode is brief, but the appearance of the gypsies functions as a crucial plot device. In order to appreciate the importance of this moment more fully it is necessary to look at Austen’s gypsies with an eye informed by what being a gypsy might represent in the period. They need to be seen, that is, in a context which recognizes them as one small aspect of Austen’s more extensive treatment of walking and wandering, and as figures with a very particular symbolic value in terms of place, property, and propriety, and, relatedly, in terms of Englishness and English society. Reading Austen’s gypsies against this background, particularly reading them (as Austen draws them) standing beside Harriet Smith, reveals a peculiarly non-condemnatory attitude to the group of vagrants.
The introduction to Grellmann’s Dissertation on the Gipsies, from which I quoted in Chapter 2, touches on several of the perceived gypsy characteristics that Austen’s depiction seems to reflect:
For the space of between three and four hundred years, they have gone wandering about, like pilgrims and strangers: they are found in eastern and western countries, as well among the rude as civilised, indolent and active people; yet they remain ever, and every where, what their fathers were—Gipsies....Around, on every side, they see fixed dwellings, with settled inhabitants, they nevertheless, go on in their own way, and continue, for the most part, unsettled wandering robbers.10
This paragraph captures firstly the placelessness of gypsies: in Grellmann’s definitive account, their continual movement from place to place and their resistance to ‘fixed dwelling’ is what distinguishes gypsies from the rest of society. However, Grellmann’s emphasis on the persistence of this transience is given a warped reflection in the fact that, in the work of a range of writers in the Romantic period, gypsies do seem to have a ‘place’, insofar as they have become a recognized and often aesthetically desirable (p.159) aspect of the English landscape, albeit an aspect which might move about, and cause all sorts of anxieties for other reasons. As Deborah Epstein Nord puts it, ‘[a]lthough British Gypsies were considered alien, they were, at the same time, imagined as long-standing features of English rural life and, in some nostalgic views of the English past, signify the very essence of true and ancient Britishness [...yet] Gypsies tended to exist not in the midst but on the periphery of British settlement, so they were present but separate...encountered but seldom intimately known.’11 So for example Mary Russell Mitford, writing in the early 1820s (just a few years after the publication of Emma in 1816), laments the relative absence of gypsies in her own village as ‘a misfortune of which every landscape painter, and every lover of that living landscape, the country, can appreciate the extent’, because ‘[t]here is nothing under the sun that harmonizes so well with nature, especially in her woodland recesses, as that picturesque people, who are, so to say, the wild genus—the pheasants and roebucks of the human race’;12 when some gypsies do pitch their camp near to her home, they quickly become ‘our gypsies’,13 so that even though they don’t hang around for long, and remain at a distance (physically and imaginatively) from the settled villagers, when they are there, the gypsies are part of the local environment: they belong. Epstein Nord detects, and Mitford’s description encompasses, a trend more generally found in writing and painting from the period of Emma’s composition, of understanding gypsies as ‘proper’ to the English landscape. Though they may seem placeless by definition, then, this placelessness within the English landscape has become their place. One might say that they are in place because they are out of place, and would be out of place in a fixed place, and they and their placelessness (their ability to be placeless in this way) are part of the England that Emma fears is passing. Reading earlier depictions of gypsies, it would seem that this itself is actually a relatively new situation. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is that Austen represents it as the situation now, and it is the prospect that the situation now might be changing which is the cause for anxiety. Just as importantly, Emma’s gypsies know their place in a social sense, and as I shall discuss, this means that they can move on when they need to, for the proper resolution of events in the novel.
It is, correspondingly, Harriet Smith who has no place in Highbury: Harriet has no property, no home, no family, no job, indeed (p.160) no point until she is safely married off to Robert Martin. This is hardly Harriet’s fault. But Harriet goes further: she mistakes her place, with her ambition to marry far above her class. Emma is culpable here in her encouragement of her friend, but it is Harriet herself who, having learned to aim high when fantasizing about Mr Elton, independently learns to aim even higher, transferring her affections to Mr Knightley. Though they may seem (often literally) louder and more dangerous, it is neither Frank Churchill nor the Eltons who best represents the threat to the fabric of English society which the novel must overcome through the union of Emma and Mr Knightley. The Churchills and the Eltons are merely representative of a wider, more general threat in the novel; Harriet, welcomed in to the bosom of Hartfield by Emma herself, is its most dangerous manifestation in the microcosm of the text. To this extent, perhaps, the novel participates even further in the discourse of gender which interests Claudia Johnson, but the threat Harriet represents is not straightforwardly to do with the fact that, as a woman, and a woman in love with various of Emma’s own suitors in turn, she might in some sense replace Emma specifically, or with the fact that, lacking family, she represents a dangerous sense that anyone at all might ultimately rise to the top of the social tree. Because Harriet is a part of the community, she can’t be shunned: she has to be found a place. And, correspondingly, she is: she is practically as well as (it is inferred) morally improved by her union with Robert Martin, a union ultimately facilitated by Mr Knightley himself. But before this, her behaviour is indicative of the social threat, which is ultimately identifiable as a national threat, which Emma works to overcome, and the threat Harriet represents is exposed in her encounter with the gypsies. Through the uniquely expedient lens of the gypsies’ relation to place and placelessness, Austen exploits Harriet’s lack of place to explore the shifts taking place in perceptions of Englishness so key to the novel, and ultimately to restore order to the world of Highbury.
The paragraph I have quoted from Grellmann’s introduction also emphasizes the perceived inextricability of gypsies and concerns about property, firstly in that one of the things most troubling about the gypsies in his account is that they have chosen to be property-less, despite the evident temptations of the ‘fixed dwellings’ Grellmann mentions, but also in the sense that they continually act as a source of nervousness relating to household security: in the early nineteenth century, that gypsies are thieves is taken absolutely for granted, even by those (such as Mitford) who are fundamentally protective in their depictions. Just as for Grellmann they are ‘wandering robbers’, Mitford attributes their relative absence from her own locale to the excellent security of her community. Troublingly, as these innately light-fingered gypsies pass through communities, they (p.161) avoid the retribution that settled members of society must face if they transgress from their proper place and actions, but whilst this might have proved problematic in terms of local policing and justice, it also makes them very useful in terms of plot devices. There is perhaps a hint of the association between theft and gypsies in Emma in Mr Woodhouse’s horror at the theft of turkeys from Mrs Weston’s poultry house: it is gypsies and foxes who steal poultry in the early nineteenth-century imagination, and Austen here makes it clear that ‘the ingenuity of man’ is to blame.14 The connection between gypsies and poaching, and the absence of any other potentially criminal characters in this or any other of Austen’s novels, brings the gypsies back into the margins of the novel.
But Grellmann’s robber-gypsies are quite specifically ‘wandering robbers’, and another idea invoked by the presence of gypsies in the text of Emma is just this category of wandering. In Emma as in all Austen’s novels, wandering and the associated but significantly different activity of walking provide markers into the characters of the protagonists. As I have already suggested with reference to Cowper’s The Task and Wordsworth’s ‘Gipsies’, wandering is inherently connected with gypsies, and carries a specific ideological weight in the period. It is also something innately connected to the notions of place and property I have just raised: if wandering is the opposite of rootedness, then wanderers are fundamentally propertyless. They are also therefore almost inherently inappropriate: being without property and being inappropriate are dangerously close to being synonymous in Emma, and whilst this confers a special kind of freedom in the case of the gypsies, it confers a problematic dependency in cases such as those of the Bateses and of Harriet Smith. Once more, it is Harriet who throws the practicalities and connotations of wandering and of being placeless, initially raised by the gypsies, into relief.
In chronological terms, the gypsies first appear to the reader as the ramifications of their presence interrupt Emma’s reverie on quite how happy she is: ‘Harriet rational, Frank Churchill not too much in love, and Mr Knightley not wanting to quarrel with her, how very happy a summer must be before her!’15 It is while Emma is thus blissfully contemplating an untroubled future and the plot of the novel is thus, briefly, paused, that she is surprised to see approaching ‘Frank Churchill with Harriet leaning on his arm’, the latter, it transpires, having been rescued from a group of gypsies by the former. Although, then, exceedingly unexpected, this encounter occurs at a moment of tranquillity. And yet, by initiating a fundamental misunderstanding, it precipitates a far greater predicament, (p.162) and with it (this predicament forcing Emma to recognize her true feelings for Mr Knightley) the romantic union anticipated by the reader from the beginning of the novel, and hence the resolution of its plot. It is with Emma that the reader first hears about the gypsies, as, once Frank Churchill has led Harriet into the safety of Hartfield, the tale begins to come out. As Austen’s syntax mirrors the rushed confusion of their progress into the house, we are shown a Harriet who is ‘white and frightened’, and who, immediately on entering the hall, ‘fainted away’.16 Soon, the whole story is known: taking a walk with a companion (a Miss Bickerton, apparently even sillier than Harriet) and turning into a secluded road, the ladies ‘had suddenly perceived at a small distance before them, on a broader patch of greensward by the side, a party of gipsies’:
A child on the watch, came towards them to beg; and Miss Bickerton, excessively frightened, gave a great scream, and calling on Harriet to follow her, ran up a steep bank, cleared a slight hedge at the top, and made the best of her way by a short cut back to Highbury. But poor Harriet could not follow. She had suffered very much from cramp after dancing, and her first attempt to mount the bank brought on such a return of it as made her absolutely powerless—and in this state, and exceedingly terrified, she had been obliged to remain.17
There is more than a little of the comic in the image of the panicky and somewhat treacherous Miss Bickerton standing on her dignity and vaulting the hedge at speed at the approach of a single child, but Harriet’s fear here seems real: while it is difficult to forget her silliness, Harriet’s reaction (her being white, and fainting) on entering Emma’s home appears genuine enough, although its triviality is again indicated by the quickness of her recovery (the exposition of which occupies half a short sentence). Harriet’s reaction is proper to her, but it remains fundamentally inappropriate. Perhaps Austen does introduce a little more justification for this fear than the initial comic impression might suggest: the child ‘on the watch’ represents an uncomfortable touch of gypsy voyeurism which hints that the girls’ encounter with the gypsies is not as entirely coincidental as the cynical reader, laughing at Miss Bickerton’s over-reaction, might infer. On the whole, however, Harriet’s reactions are shown to be quite out of proportion with the level of danger implied.
More interesting, though, is the effect that the gypsies have on Harriet. Harriet’s encounter quite literally prevents her from continuing to walk: the advent of the gypsies initiates in Harriet another pause, an inability to move, both because they surround her, but also because they (p.163) bring on a physical symptom which has not prevented her taking a walk, but which now prevents her making her escape. Just as her behaviour during Emma’s visit to the poor in the cottage is suggested only through the silence which Austen lets hang over her participation (which seems telling in comparison with the lengthy description of Emma’s corresponding goodness and propriety), Harriet is here frozen. The gypsies thus interrupt her pedestrian journey with their vagrant presence, and although Austen retains a comic element (Harriet is not spellbound or even conventionally petrified with fear; she merely has cramp from too much dancing), the text flutters between this comedy and something more threatening: this involuntary physical symptom hints at something more serious, more deeply rooted, than a silly girl’s over-reaction. Perhaps, though, this threat does not lie with the gypsies. Perhaps, rather, it is found in the fact that Harriet represents the threat to society I have been invoking: if Harriet is unable to behave appropriately and she is one possible version of ‘the future’, her impropriety matters.
As the passage progresses, this element of threat increases. But Harriet’s plight is attributed by Austen to her own folly, and the first stage of her ‘attack’ bears more than a trace of the ludicrous:
How the trampers might have behaved, had the young ladies been more courageous, must be doubtful; but such an invitation for attack could not be resisted; and Harriet was soon assailed by half a dozen children, headed by a stout woman and a great boy, all clamorous, and impertinent in look, though not absolutely in word.—More and more frightened, she immediately promised them money, and taking out her purse, gave them a shilling, and begged them not to want more, or to use her ill.18
Explicitly identifying the gypsies here with their own wandering habits (they, like Harriet, are ‘trampers’ in this scene), Austen’s comic touch is evident in the personnel: here are simply noisy children, and a single ‘stout woman’; although their looks are ‘impertinent’, even the things they say are ‘not absolutely’ so. Here are no sticks and stones to break Harriet’s bones, and barely any words to hurt her. The event is described as ‘an attack’; Harriet is here ‘frightened’, but her fear seems not only slightly silly; the first sentence quoted here renders her own deportment actually culpable in the confrontation. In a recent article in Romani Studies, Kristine Douaud suggests that
Jane Austen’s fear and awe of the wild Gypsy are apparent in her novel Emma (1816). What is interesting in Austen’s portrayal—and indicates that she had perhaps never met a Gypsy herself—is that she conveys an impression (p.164) of the Gypsies through the way the ladies react to them instead of describing them directly: ‘A child on the watch came towards them to beg; and Miss Bickerton, excessively frightened, gave a great scream....How the trampers might have behaved, had the young ladies been more courageous, must be doubtful’ (1963:294). The insinuation is that Gypsies are wild and aggressive creatures, while the young ladies embody a higher, civilised order of species.19
As I have argued elsewhere, there are numerous indicators throughout the relevant passage in Emma which demonstrate that this is a profound misreading,20 and the sentences Douaud herself extracts illustrate why. The girls come face-to-face only with a begging child; Miss Bickerton’s fear is described by Austen as ‘excessive’ (in other words, out of proportion with any threat), and most importantly of all, Austen explicitly blames Harriet and Miss Bickerton: we can only wonder ‘How the trampers might have behaved, had the young ladies been more courageous’. The swiftness with which the gypsies subsequently vanish at the sight of a gentleman supports the sense that the gypsies are no real threat still further. There is, then, no ‘insinuation’ that the gypsies are ‘wild and aggressive creatures’. Rather, Harriet and her friend stand for a problematic disruption of the ‘higher, civilized order’. Unlike Harriet and Miss Bickerton, Austen’s gypsies know their place. Because Harriet does not know hers (and how could she, as ‘the natural daughter of nobody knows whom’?21), she cannot behave appropriately; this is mirrored in her being unable even to walk. As a result of her lack of propriety, itself the consequence of her lack of property and her placelessness, Harriet creates her own predicament when she responds inappropriately to the gypsies. Despite the generic differences, a similar thing happens in the broadly contemporary William Combe’s ‘The Second Tour of Dr Syntax’. Combe’s gypsies are pilferers, and the doctor’s companion, Patrick, introduces them as such: ‘They are all thieves, as it is said, / And (p.165) thus they gain their daily bread’.22 A long passage rehearses the standard stereotypes of gypsy life and behaviour. But when a theft actually takes place, the doctor blames Patrick’s own stupidity:
- He now turn’d round and instant saw
- A quiet piece of Gipsy law.
- A female hand had found its way,
- To where his trav’lling treasure lay;
- And was just taking at a spirt
- His last new shoes and Sunday shirt,
- Thus, when the solemn Doctor came,
- He heard his furious groom exclaim—
- ‘Now would your honour’s self believe it!
- My innocence could not conceive it,
- That yon young girl whom you may see,
- Who’s out of sight behind the tree,
- Would on her own ten naked toes,
- Have run off in my new made shoes...’
- This furious sally having heard,
- Syntax a short remark preferr’d.
- ‘My observations shall be brief:
- The Gipsy wish’d to play the thief,
- And that you knew, full well, she would,
- If by your negligence she could.
- Therefore, I pray, your anger cool,
- For, Patrick, you have play’d the fool.’23
Combe relies on a sense of people playing their parts here: gypsies do what they are imagined to do (‘gypsy law’ suggestively contains an idea both what gypsies must do, and of what they are said to do, in the sense of ‘lore’); Patrick is ridiculed because he in turn has ‘play’d the fool’. There are differences between Patrick’s behaviour and that of Harriet Smith: Dr Syntax suggests that Patrick deliberately tempts the gypsies into theft in order to prove the accuracy of the lengthy description of them he offers at the beginning of the encounter,24 whereas Harriet’s imagination runs beyond her control. But like Austen’s, Combe’s comedy depends upon characters acting according to imaginative constructions of what a gypsy might be, rather than behaving appropriately in the face of what they (p.166) really are. At the end of the passage, it is Patrick, like Harriet, who is found to be at fault.
Harriet Smith, feeling her encounter to be at an end, regains the power to walk, ‘though but slowly’; but as she moves away her own fear again lets her down: ‘her terror and her purse were too tempting, and she was followed, or rather surrounded, by the whole gang, demanding more.’25 This is still, however, just the same rabble of children, woman, and stout boy. Again, the consequence of this new surge in the tide of gypsy threat is to prevent Harriet from walking: Austen draws attention to the fact that she has ceased to move (‘she was followed, or rather surrounded’), her progression, which could have been followed had it continued, being arrested by her being besieged. The sequence of short commata mirrors the accrual of Harriet’s panic, as well as her method of re-telling the story to Emma, as Austen’s prose breathlessly adds to the scene. The entrapment described is perhaps the most threatening aspect of the event, more serious than the clamouring of children for pennies which immediately precedes it, and this new threat is explicitly compared to its former, relatively innocuous rehearsal by a description of sufficient similarity for it to be obvious that everything about its nature, as far as Harriet is concerned, has changed. Where before the words used by the gypsies were ‘not absolutely’ impertinent, here, they are ‘loud and insolent’; where before they begged, here they demand; where before the narrative lends a sense of Harriet’s being importuned, here is a sense of her being trapped. Harriet herself is at this stage more obviously terrified: she is physically ‘trembling’. She also begins ‘conditioning’: in the first stage of the occurrence, Harriet ‘immediately promised them money’; here, as she bargains, Austen suggests a new sense of desperation.26 Because Austen has made Harriet’s culpability clear, it is possible to read this as the consequence of her own blameable actions: this is what happens when one behaves inappropriately; social structures begin to collapse, and the ‘lower orders’ dictate to their superiors. But even if one accepts that the gypsies do seem to gain some responsibility for events here, if there is a hint, as I have suggested, of something potentially more serious than Harriet’s silliness, it is just at this moment that Frank Churchill comes upon Harriet, effecting her rescue. Any threat which has begun to accrue is immediately dispelled by the advent of a gentleman. We are told that ‘[t]he terror which the woman and boy had been creating in Harriet was then their own portion. He had left them completely frightened’;27 but we are not told how he has done so (we might recall that (p.167) Harriet’s terror was foolish—here also, the repetition of ‘woman and boy’ further highlights Harriet’s state as less perilous than she herself believes it to be), and the implication hovers that Frank’s mere presence is sufficient unto the day.28
Michael Kramp reads Austen’s depiction of Harriet and the gypsies very differently. Though he identifies the gypsies’ important relationship to a theme of nationality, he is determined that they highlight ‘the significant national function of the youthful Harriet’.29 Despite the fact that Harriet is so explicitly introduced as a character from nowhere, with no family, Kramp is determined that she is a ‘native member’ of the ‘local community’ of Highbury,30 and, as an insistently capitalized ‘White’ character, Kramp reads her predominantly as ‘a future progenitor of the English race’.31 But Austen is interested in class, not skin colour, and it is shifts in class, not in skin, which trouble her; moreover, there is little that is native about Harriet, and as I have suggested, that very placelessness is her problem. Kramp is surely correct in his claim that ‘Austen’s text reveals both nationalistic tendencies that suggest the instability of the traditional structure of society...as well as overt efforts to resecure this previous system of organization’.32 But Kramp’s central thesis is that the narrative of Emma
implicitly exposes an emerging cultural anxiety about a native national race by including explicitly non-English characters. The presence of the alien gypsies in the novel invites us to consider the role of Austen’s fiction in the construction of England’s post-French Revolutionary national identity and its racialized citizenry.33
As I have suggested, the gypsies are precisely not foreign, and Kramp has it backwards. It is not that Harriet ‘must be safeguarded from the nomadic lifestyle of the gypsies and schooled in the legacy and lore of her nation’, but rather that the gypsies are now parts of that legacy and lore, which Harriet woefully fails to recognize.34 If the ‘contented village’ of Highbury ‘seems (p.168) to have no interest in integrating the gypsies’,35 it is because they need no integration: they are already integrated, differently than the settled members of the community, but nonetheless integrated, where Harriet most definitely is not. Far from being ‘threatening because it disrupts the early nineteenth-century project to organize resources and maximize productivity’,36 the ‘transitory movement’ of the gypsies in Emma is innocuous because it is the very thing which allows them to carry themselves off at the sight of a gentleman. Mr Knightley effortlessly sorts the whole situation out, because despite their radical freedom, the gypsies are by their nature under Mr Knightley’s conservative wing, being part of nation and locale. Rather than its being the case that ‘the world of Austen’s text remains strongly influenced by earlier negative opinions of the nomadic people’,37 then, Austen’s conservative pen is surprisingly non-condemnatory when it comes to the gypsies.38
The encounter with a group of gypsy wanderers interrupts Harriet’s peregrinations, and it might be argued that this suggests something problematic with her walking, a suggestion I will pursue, shortly. But equally, it is only because he has chosen to be a pedestrian that Frank is walking and able, in turn, to rescue her:
By a most fortunate chance his leaving Highbury had been delayed so as to bring him to her assistance at this critical moment. The pleasantness of the morning had induced him to walk forward, and leave his horses to meet him by another road, a mile or two beyond Highbury....being on foot, [he] was unseen by the whole party till almost close to them. The terror which the woman and boy had been creating in Harriet was then their own portion. He had left them completely frightened; and Harriet eagerly clinging to him, and hardly able to speak, had just strength enough to reach Hartfield, before her spirits were quite overcome.39
Frank Churchill should be (is usually) in a carriage or on his horse, and it is only because he chooses briefly to walk that he is present to rescue Harriet. It is left to Emma to engage ‘to give...notice of there being such (p.169) a set of people in the neighbourhood to Mr. Knightley’. The relationship of obligation between gypsies and proper (propertied) landowner is here highlighted, and as Frank Churchill dashes off Austen implies that one brief stroll does not a true English gentleman make.40 But even though he does leave it to someone else to tidy things up, this is one of Frank’s better moments, and one might conclude that his literal coming down to earth out of the saddle is not unrelated to his behaviour here.
Mr Knightley is repeatedly given in the text as a great walker whenever the appropriate opportunity presents itself, so much so that Emma is surprised when he arrives at the Coles’ party in a carriage, and his habit and manner of walking is inherently connected to his gentlemanliness. (Harriet herself unwittingly makes this explicit through the double meaning contained in her comparison between Robert Martin’s gentility and Mr Knightley’s: ‘“To be sure,” said Harriet, in a mortified voice, “he is not so genteel as real gentlemen....Certainly, he is not like Mr Knightley. He has not such a fine air and way of walking as Mr Knightley. I see the difference plain enough.”’41) Thus, as he in turn chooses to walk, in becoming like Mr Knightley (in becoming more ‘properly’ English) Frank has assumed some of that gentlemanly character; it is in this character that Frank gains a specific type of authority so that the gypsies go away without argument or hesitation. His role in the event is interesting in these terms, because of his own awkward social status. Frank, quite apart from the unstable nature of his chances of inheriting, represents something slippery and slightly un-English in Emma, something tainted by the vanity of the town and the polish of insincerity. This is not to say that Austen paints Frank Churchill in any serious way as a dangerously radical figure: Frank may indeed be far from frank, and he is spotted even by Mr Woodhouse as ‘not quite the thing’42 (Mr Woodhouse’s complaint is to do with Frank’s letting a draft in, but nevertheless, at this point Frank’s too-smooth flirtation is slightly suspicious), but he is far from a villain; rather, he is the ‘young careless coxcomb, little fitted to receive any sort of confidence from any young woman’,43 described in an unsigned article of 1870. He is no Mr Wickham, not least because Emma herself must take a share of any blame which attaches to him. In this context, it is significant that Tony Tanner sees Frank’s easy intimidation of the gypsies of an example (p.170) of ‘the power of class’,44 because, as I have said, Frank must become more like Mr Knightley in order to have this effect. As Frank leaves the final clearing-up to Emma and Mr Knightley Austen again suggests the operation of a proper sense of place: insofar as they are a recognizable aspect of the local landscape, the gypsies are parts of Mr Knightley’s estate and as such operate according to a code of obligation. This is why they carry themselves off so cleanly, quickly, and quietly: they are intimate parts of a proper English social order. It is significant, then, that it is Harriet, ‘the natural daughter of nobody knows whom’, who (as even Emma admits) ‘in a legal sense...may be called Nobody’, who cannot cope when faced with the gypsies, who is literally petrified and unable to walk.45 Harriet’s presence in the text more generally threatens to interrupt the traditional order through her presence but also through her class and presumptions, and her involuntary response to the gypsies can be seen as another instance of this made manifest.
That Harriet’s walking has led to trouble, and the possibility of becoming a victim, and Frank’s has offered the opportunity to become a hero (at least in some eyes), is indicative of a pattern in Austen’s novels, connected to the ideas of propriety held by the world of her texts. The gendered connotations of walking in Austen’s novels are evidently codified. Walking is clearly significant, and is to different effect, depending on character and circumstances, and honest exchanges are regularly made on walks (as opposed to the meaningless discourse undertaken during the stiff formality of the conversation game explained by Elizabeth Bennet to Mr Darcy in the course of the ball at Netherfield46). Carriage-riding relatedly represents a complex code of social niceties: both are to different effect, depending on why, and by and with whom, they are done, and the degree of choice in the matter is always vitally important to the success and propriety of the exercise.47 Repeatedly, Austen seems to distinguish between a woman’s purposeful walking, for health or for good reason (in Elizabeth Bennet’s words, ‘The distance is nothing, when one has a motive’48), and the type of purposeless wandering in which Marianne Dashwood luxuriates: there is a discernible distinction between Elizabeth’s (p.171) activity, in ‘crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles’,49 and Harriet’s strolling along the highways indulging in a good gossip, and this may be another reason for Harriet’s distress. Even for the powerful Emma, walking is a ‘privilege’,50 and part of Harriet’s problem is that she fails to realize this: she is so busy looking up at her social superiors, and being impressed by what she sees, that she doesn’t recognize the limitations and responsibilities that might come with those social positions—places—she desires to occupy (indeed, at times, Emma herself famously forgets them). It is notable that Harriet is harassed while walking along ‘a road, the Richmond road’ (that there might be something especially problematic about the location is suggested by Austen’s repetition, which manages both to mimic Harriet’s breathless revelation of the tale, and to draw attention to the very roadiness of the location of her calamity; indeed, it is specifically ‘the road’, this particular road, which has ‘led them into alarm’, the verb perfectly confusing geographical specificity with metaphorical danger).51 Emma, however, has been enjoying her recollections of the ball whilst safely walking ‘about the lawn’, her safety emphasized by the fact that ‘the great iron sweep-gate’ must open to admit Harriet and Frank.52 Gardens and pleasure grounds, Austen infers, constitute an extension of the interior of the domestic setting, and although this relative confinement is felt, particularly in Emma, Austen seems to represent it as a perhaps frustrating but not unnecessary aspect of life. In her activity here, and as she is perfectly in her proper place, Emma exhibits her own propriety. As Anne Wallace (placing Austen’s walking women within the broader cultural context of the activity) writes, ‘[i]n Jane Austen’s novels, which frame the window of attitudinal and practical change, a taste for walking and respect for other pedestrians become signs of the virtues Austen ascribes to the best of the English landed gentry and freeholders’. According to Wallace, in Austen’s work ‘Gentlemen and gentlewomen are distinguished as readily by their willingness, even their desire, to walk as by their common sense, independence of opinion, unostentatious economy, country living, and what Mr Knightley calls “English delicacy towards the feelings of others”.’53 Again, then, in walking, Emma’s propriety is manifest. Furthermore, Emma is walking, we are explicitly told, because it is a means for her to get her thoughts straight:54 Emma is literally and metaphorically employing sense here. Emma herself makes (p.172) Austen’s connection between property and sense explicit when she tells Harriet that ‘a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else...a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind’.55 But Harriet Smith is not ‘gentry’; she is not propertied, and she also shows herself to be sadly lacking in the concomitant common sense both Wallace and Emma identify, and, along with it, any sense of propriety. Deprived of an inherent ‘English delicacy’, Harriet fails to respond appropriately to the gypsies: placeless herself, she fails to recognize their place as placeless, and thus she can only respond with misplaced terror.
All of this matters, because gypsies in the period are inextricably associated with their wandering habits (Austen’s are ‘trampers’56), and this, coupled with the fact that the walking of all of the players in the gypsy scene is highlighted, enters their status as wanders into a dynamic relationship with the activity of Harriet and Frank. I have already drawn attention to the fact that the gypsies’ wandering is a sign of their lack of property (with all the associations of that), and Harriet, too, can be understood as not realizing it might be a bad idea to wander because she lacks the propriety which comes only with being an owner of property, and the sense of ‘place’ that confers (the gypsies, of course, escape from this particular impasse because they specifically don’t want to be proper in this sense; their wandering is proper to them, and that is why they are so useful to Austen in this scene). Moreover, insofar as they are defined explicitly as a group of walkers, the gypsies are sheltered under, because they are parts of, the overarching social system which Mr Knightley represents. This system is the particular type of Englishness which is under threat in the novel, a threat articulated through concerns with social position and local acts of propriety (or otherwise). The problems of Highbury are those of confusions of status, whether they are found in Emma’s interruption of Harriet’s ‘proper’ romance with Robert Martin; in Jane and the Bates women’s falling out of their proper class; in Frank Churchill’s slippery ill-fitting within a society which habitually structures itself upon straightforward family ties (and the hint of Frenchness his name and fondness for haircuts implies), or in every misunderstanding resulting from Emma’s relationship with the family-less Harriet. The threat to the social fabric is articulated through the threat to the supremacy of the uncomplicated furtherance of ‘good’ families: Austen’s tale opens upon the occasion of the marriage of Miss Taylor to a man who already has a son who does not share his name, and whilst the reader may scorn Mr Woodhouse’s attitude to the (p.173) union, it is true that through this son, the forming of a new, non-nuclear family is responsible for a good deal of the unease which comes to infect Emma’s world. To some extent this threat is repaired at the end: Harriet and Robert and Emma and Mr Knightley are perfect pairs respectively because their unions further the ‘proper’ model (as Wallace has it, ‘[i]n [Pride and Prejudice and Emma], indeed, the union of hero and heroine with which Austen accomplishes her consolidation of English values is a union of walkers who reach mutual understanding and plight their troths on the paths of forests and gardens’57). And the story needs Harriet’s presumption in order for Emma to realize her true feelings for Mr Knightley. But Frank and Jane, perfect for each other because neither fits into the traditional model of society, nonetheless trouble this happiness for precisely the same reason. English tradition must hold, but it is an uneasy holding which must learn to accommodate moving social boundaries, and find a place for families like the Frank and Jane Churchills without collapsing as it does so. It is within this nexus that the gypsies need to be seen: as figures with a ‘proper’ place within the social and indeed national community. The gypsies have no place in the hypothetical world governed by married pairs of Frank Churchills and illegitimate women (though they too can be accommodated within their proper place: that is, subordinate to the more ‘appropriate’—on Austen’s terms—Englishness of Mr Knightley). Occupying as they do a marginal status and both known and unknown within the social network of the text, they provide a convenient opportunity for Austen to articulate concerns regarding just this troubling sense of Englishness under pressure.
Looking more closely at the passage concerning the gypsies, one might notice how anonymous and indistinct they are: we don’t even know if they are standing up or sitting down as the girls approach, and in what Marilyn Butler has called ‘this most verbal of novels’,58 we hear none of their words (‘begging’ tells us what they do, not what they say). We have very little description of the gypsies as individuals, and barely any of them as a group, so the fact that the term Austen uses for them collectively is ‘trampers’ suggests quite how closely this aspect of their activity is tied to their identity. If it is possible to read Austen’s description of the walking habits of her characters as coded references to their disposition, and in particular to their proper Englishness, then it is suggestive that these shadowy figures are defined by Austen exclusively as walkers, and this must tell us something about them, and specifically about their place within Austen’s (p.174) idea of the nation. Miss Bickerton and Harriet are frightened, essentially, by what might happen. As I shall discuss more fully in Chapter 7, Emma is a text which revolves around the fallibility of the imagination of Emma (and others); Austen emphasizes that Harriet’s and Miss Bickerton’s fears (the consequence of their imagining what might happen) are more culpable in the attack than the gypsies themselves (‘such an invitation for attack could not be resisted’) and reiterates this blame later in the same passage (‘her terror and her purse were too tempting...’). Like Miss Bickerton and Harriet, the gypsies are wanderers along public roads; in her indistinct sketch, Austen represents the unknowable-ness of gypsies to girls like this, even as they are depicted, essentially, as similar (the gypsies are ‘trampers’, the girls ‘walk[ed] out’, but as I have said Austen gives us little detail beyond this), and it is their unfamiliarity and strangeness with a certain degree of familiarity that makes them frightening to Harriet. But it is also the very thing that allows them so conveniently to provide a crucial plot device. The gypsies crop up, ruffle the feathers of Highbury, initiate a misunderstanding vital to the successful conclusion of the novel, and then quickly disappear, so quickly, indeed, that Austen’s syntax implies a kind of quantum leap which almost effaces the entire episode: ‘The gipsies did not wait for the operations of justice; they took themselves off in a hurry. The young ladies of Highbury might have walked again in safety before their panic began’.59 They serve their purpose and then vanish, apart from in the imagination of Emma and two little boys:
...the whole history dwindled soon into a matter of little importance but to Emma and her nephews:—in her imagination it maintained its ground, and Henry and John were still asking every day for the story of Harriet and the gipsies, and still tenaciously setting her right if she varied in the slightest particular from the original recital.60
Even in this description, Austen’s vocabulary is interesting: as the ‘history’ ‘maintain[s] its ground’ in Emma’s ‘imagination’, the legacy of the gypsies is seen to operate in precise contrast to the figures themselves, who de-camp, abandoning the ground on which they appear in the novel. Emma’s nephews are fruits of ‘proper’ English stock, representing the future of the two most propertied and ‘proper’ English families in the novel. Tellingly, by not allowing Emma to vary the story at all, they fix the story in a way in which the gypsies (by disappearing, and by never being really known in the first place apart from in Harriet’s anyway-unreliable narration) themselves refuse to be stabilized. By turning them into a story, (p.175) Austen allows the gypsies both to be stable and unstable signifiers at the same time.
Although Austen’s novels are stuffed with characters who must learn, or who are punished in one way or another (even if not ruinously), the gypsies in Emma are notable because they do not need to be punished. They take themselves off, out of the charmed world of Highbury, out of sight and out of mind except in the realm of the story (as far as Emma and the little boys are concerned), which is fundamentally where they remain vital (as far as the plot is concerned). Thus Austen apparently pulls away from the blanket condemnation of gypsy life which might be expected from one of her class and opinion—the condemnation which is evident, for example, in William Cowper’s The Task, or in Hannah More’s Tawney Rachel.61 This apparent protection of the gypsies is extended: ‘It was a very extraordinary thing. Nothing of the sort had ever occurred before to any young ladies in the place, within her memory; no rencontre, no alarm of the kind’.62 Harriet’s gypsy-induced trauma (though not the appearance of gypsies per se) is unique; these gypsies do not seem to be part of a wider social concern (as Miss Bates’ poverty, for example, so clearly does). So even though the happiness and excitement of the previous night disappear along with Harriet’s composure (‘The last night’s ball seemed lost in the gipsies’), the rarity value of such a happening and the consequence of that rarity are emphasized: ‘Within half an hour it was known all over Highbury. It was the very event to engage those who talk most, the young and the low; and all the youth and servants in the place were soon in the happiness of frightful news’.63
Austen’s insistence on the novelty of the event partly winks shrewdly at the usefulness of the gypsies as a plot device, as the narrative knowingly wonders that ‘it had happened to the very person, at the very hour, when the other very person was chancing to pass by to rescue her!—It certainly was very extraordinary!’64 But it also hints at a refusal to suggest a more prevalent gypsy menace. This reluctance to castigate a group associated with immorality, unsettledness, a lack of home, liberty and licentiousness may surprise the reader accustomed to recognize in Austen’s writing ‘unarguably, the lineaments of the committed conservative’.65 It is of (p.176) course Marilyn Butler who has made the best case for this conservatism, convincingly pointing out the subtleties of its manifestations. Austen’s sympathies for those rendered vulnerable through poverty permeate her works, and a significant amount of modern scholarship has argued compellingly for her sympathetic attention to a range of disadvantaged groups, but in the early nineteenth century gypsies are not usually understood as a category deserving of sympathy like this. Their supposed criminality, and their perceived reluctance to help themselves, usually offended even the most sympathetic social commentators of Austen’s time. Austen may be laughing at Emma’s controlling manner and her confident self-satisfaction when her heroine points out to Harriet that she could not ‘notice’ a man of Robert Martin’s class. But as she does so she draws attention to the fact that (as John Barrell has rehearsed elsewhere, in convincing detail) the rural poor who were to receive charity and assistance from their wealthy social superiors had to be seen to deserve it: ‘A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it.’66 Gypsies persistently lack such a ‘creditable appearance’. The unexpectedness of Austen’s generosity in her representation of the gypsies is evident in critical reactions to the episode. For Katie Trumpener, for example, the episode in Emma ‘glosses and reworks a different facet of late eighteenth-century Gypsy reception: its almost hysterical moralism in the face of Gypsy intransigence.’67 But Austen’s response to the gypsies does not match Trumpener’s description of ‘almost hysterical moralism’, and it is tempting to imagine that this interpretation is led by expectations set up by Austen’s class and convictions. The way in which Austen exonerates her gypsies, letting them off the hook, sits at odds with her conservatism.
Yet Austen’s very conservatism underpins this degree of tolerance. I have been arguing that at this moment in history, the lack of property is ‘property’ for the gypsies; that placelessness has become their appropriate place. David Simpson finds ‘a leading preoccupation with the question of property’ in Wordsworth’s ‘Gipsies’, and connects this to questions of ‘security and propriety’ as well as to ideas of labour and exile:68 Emma’s concern (p.177) with property and an associated idea of propriety, and the relationship between this and what it might mean to be a ‘proper’, adequate and secure citizen in the socio-political context of the early nineteenth century, is certainly not confined to Austen. (That both Austen and Wordsworth address these questions through an exploration of wandering, specifically related to encounters with gypsies, is a telling illustration of the availability of the gypsy for just such inquiries.) Gypsies are an aspect of Austen’s English countryside. They are as much part of a stable (if seasonally changing) scene as the home meadows Mr Knightley refuses to clear for his convenience (a refusal which marks him as a true English gentleman in the pattern of Burkean slow and progressive conservative change, just as Henry Crawford’s desire to demolish and reconstruct marks him out as ungentlemanly in Mansfield Park). But in an earlier chapter of this book I outlined the ways in which the few years which precede the writing of Emma are characterized by significant practical alterations in that landscape, not only through the ‘improvement’ which has interested many Austen scholars, but also through the enclosure of common land which is of more immediate relevance to any study of gypsies. When Harriet meets Austen’s gypsies, they are a little way out of Highbury, situated ‘on a broader patch of greensward by the side’.69 In their location here, perched on apparently the only patch of grass on which they can camp (because it is broader than the rest of the verge), the reader is given a glimpse of the effect of contemporary enclosure acts. In Chapter 1, I drew attention to John Clare’s ranting that ‘the inclosure has left nothing but narrow lanes were they are ill provided with a lodging’, and the ‘troublesome’ gypsy behaviour which Clare insists is the consequence of this.70 In the squeezing-out of the gypsies from the landscapes they previously had occupied we perhaps also see the legacy of the sequence of crackdowns on vagrancy in general, precipitated by fear of political radicalism stemming principally from events in France in the 1790s, which by Austen’s moment was severely affecting gypsies. The problem for gypsies is that vagrancy (as the paragraph from Grellmann’s Dissertation points out) is fundamental to their identity, so they can’t just start settling in order to avoid the punishments contingent upon those crackdowns. Austen’s advocacy of a Burkean model of progress, articulated principally through her engagement with the discourse of landscape aesthetics, has been well rehearsed.71 If we recognize the gypsies as part of the (p.178) world that Austen inhabited, as integral if shifting parts of the landscape, and appreciate that the gypsies were at this period under pressure for a variety of reasons, we can perhaps understand why a conservative writer like Austen might choose to protect (though she does not go so far as to celebrate) the gypsies in her text.
A letter to the editor of the Christian Observer published in February 1808 writes that the gypsies in England ‘seem to have a peculiar claim on our compassion’, despite being ‘but little removed from savage life’.72 ‘Our’ compassion here is clearly the compassion of English Christians (that is, the inhabitants of ‘this happy country, where the light of Christianity shines with its purest lustre’73). The gypsies represent an aspect of Englishness that Harriet and Frank may only aspire to, though their aspirations are shown to be to some extent realistic. With the figure of the gypsy becoming increasingly domesticated by the early nineteenth century, the threats pressing on the tranquillity of Highbury and the novel are of new, more dangerous kinds of foreignness, manifest in the frankishness of Frank and the unknown origins of Harriet. It is possible to argue, as Tony Tanner does, that Austen glosses over the gypsies in Emma; that they pass before us in a blur because Austen is reluctant to give voice to such a group, to such characters, who are decidedly not of the social classes which make up the stuff of her novels.74 But it is interesting in that case that Tanner’s eye is so caught by the gypsies that he cannot resist dwelling upon them in his study of the text. Tanner’s argument that Austen’s gypsies necessarily lack autonomy, because they represent a social group which her texts simply do not contain and do not want to give space to, does not explain why Austen absolves them by explicitly blaming Harriet for her own predicament. Tanner uses the episode of the gypsies in Emma as an example of ‘[t]he threats to Jane Austen’s society and her language’, which, in Tanner’s account, ‘are many and increase throughout her work [and] are essentially all from within’. The gypsies are his first example of this.75 But as I have outlined, the gypsies do not really represent any serious threat: the ‘whole gang’ flees in terror simply at the approach of Frank Churchill, and vanishes.
But not quite. When the episode of the gypsies is recalled in Austen’s story, the insistence of Emma’s nephews on accuracy gently underlines and thus undermines the fact that Emma has got the story quite, quite wrong (p.179) in the only particular which continues to preoccupy her. The episode is explicitly recalled just as the climax of the novel approaches. Emma, convinced of and thrilled by Harriet’s love for Frank Churchill, ‘could not but hope that the gipsy, though she had told no fortune, might be proved to have made Harriet’s.’76 Having reminded her reader of the earlier ‘alarm’, Austen hence brings Emma’s crisis to a head. Indeed, this recollection is important: because Austen reminds her reader of the gypsies, when Emma and Harriet speak of ‘The service he rendered you’, the reader is led with Emma to associate that service with Harriet’s rescue by Frank Churchill, and to do so all the more (or at least, to understand Emma’s misapprehension all the more) as Harriet exclaims:
Service! oh! it was such an inexpressible obligation!—The very recollection of it, and all that I felt at the time—when I saw him coming—his noble look—and my wretchedness before. Such a change! In one moment such a change! From perfect misery to perfect happiness.77
Emma understands Harriet to refer to her rescue from the hands of the gypsies; Harriet actually speaks of her social rescue at the Ball by Mr Knightley (which had taken place the night before her ‘alarm’, but which gets ‘lost in the gipsies’—again, conveniently for the plot, the gypsies are found to be at the root of this confusion). Later still, when the subject of this confusion is explicitly addressed, the gypsies are also brought back into the scene: the fact that the gypsies are alluded to as the truth of the confusion comes out, highlights their role in the predicament:
‘My dear Harriet, I perfectly remember the substance of what I said on the occasion. I told you that I did not wonder at your attachment; that considering the service he had rendered you, it was extremely natural:—and you agreed to it, expressing yourself very warmly as to your sense of that service, and mentioning even what your sensations had been in seeing him come forward to your rescue.—The impression of it is strong on my memory.’
‘Oh, dear,’ cried Harriet, ‘now I recollect what you mean; but I was thinking of something very different at the time. It was not the gipsies—it was not Mr. Frank Churchill that I meant. No! (with some elevation) I was thinking of a much more precious circumstance—of Mr. Knightley’s coming and asking me to dance, when Mr. Elton would not stand up with me; and when there was no other partner in the room. That was the kind action; that was the noble benevolence and generosity; that was the service which made me begin to feel how superior he was to every other being upon earth.’78
(p.180) Ever associated with storytelling themselves, the damage the gypsies inflict is this generation of the opportunity for a misunderstanding, crucial in plot terms, which causes far more pain than Harriet’s earlier ‘alarm’. Deborah Epstein Nord argues that ‘Austen’s own acute awareness of the cultural, emotional, and geographical limits within which she staged her fiction is marked comically in Emma (1816) when Harriet Smith encounters a group of gypsies’.79 Emma’s world is particularly claustrophobic: although people do come and go, Emma has never seen the sea; has never even been as far as Box Hill until the picnic within the novel; but the episode is less straightforwardly a comic comment on insular life than this would suggest. Rather than simply marking limits, it precipitates a crisis which eventually breaks through these same limits, allowing emotional self-knowledge.
Tony Tanner finds at the end of Emma that ‘[s]ociety has not collapsed. But in this novel it has started to scatter’.80 The particular chain of events which sets Tanner’s ‘scattering’ in place (by setting the ending of the novel in progress) is Harriet’s encounter with the gypsies. When Tanner goes on to assert that ‘[m]ystery and finesse—and surprise...yes, they pervert, or confuse, the understanding. But they make the novel possible’,81 the importance of Austen’s gypsies is reiterated, for of all the figures in the text, the gypsies remain the most mysterious, and inadvertently cause the greatest surprise of the novel for Emma: the realization that Harriet Smith has been in love with Mr Knightley, and the (unfounded) realization that he may also love her back. The extent of this shock can be seen as Emma’s usually brilliantly and tightly controlled verbosity breaks down. In the first instance, astonishment results quite literally in the inability to articulate anything:
‘Harriet!’ cried Emma, after a moment’s pause—‘What do you mean?—Good Heaven! what do you mean?—Mistake you!—Am I to suppose then?——’
She could not speak another word.—Her voice was lost; and she sat down, waiting in great terror till Harriet should answer.82
Although Emma subsequently ‘collects’ herself, ‘resolutely’, her former linguistic skills remain unavailable to her, and Austen’s confident, decisive Emma simply doesn’t know how to act or what to do: ‘“Good God!” cried Emma, “this has been a most unfortunate—most deplorable (p.181) mistake!—What is to be done?”’83 She becomes as silent as the gipsies themselves. ‘What is to be done’ is a question asked again at the very close of the novel, when Emma is too concerned about her father’s well-being to disturb his peace by marrying and thus leaving him alone. For one last time, the shadow of the gypsies is recalled: as I mentioned at the opening of this chapter, it is the theft of Mrs Weston’s turkeys which is, in the end, the only reason Emma can contemplate alerting her father to her impending marriage. Mr Woodhouse is so frightened by this theft, itself couched in half-ridiculous terms, that he needs a reliable, resident son-in-law to ensure his own safety, and thus, through the connotations of legerdemain which attach to them, the gypsies once more facilitate the resolution of the plot. The gypsies are an example of society’s potential to incorporate other groups, to domesticate strangeness, as long as those groups in turn behave with propriety (in a way, that is, which is proper to them). The gypsies thus offer hope that Frank and Jane, for instance can similarly be accommodated, despite the circumstances and behaviour which promote the (appropriate) ‘shame’ of the closing pages, which Frank and Emma mutually acknowledge and forgive in speech acts which themselves demonstrate the process of this reconciliation in practice.84 This exchange takes place whilst the rest of the room is diverted by Mr and Mrs Weston’s baby, the infant offering another hint that society is back on track; that the damage to society represented by Mr Weston’s bad first marriage (including the snobbery of his first wife’s family), and the subsequent fate of his son to be brought up away from his father under the name of his guardians, has been superseded, even if it can’t be repaired.
The very specific set of historical circumstances between 1783 and 1830 conspired to render the gypsy potentially meaningful in new ways, altering perceptions of gypsies and thus their representation in literature. It is at just this moment, where they are represented, that gypsies are repeatedly albeit paradoxically both defined by their difference from the settled, English societies through which they move, and recognized as an intimately known aspect of those societies. Thus, in various examples, far from being straightforwardly depicted as a stranger, the gypsy represents a very particular type of Englishness. Categorized, examined, and (by the early nineteenth century) legally and historically present, the gypsies find their place in the English landscape just as anxieties about English identity are being experienced. This renders the figure of the gypsy peculiarly useful for exploring ideas of one’s place within one’s nation, and what it might (p.182) mean to be English. That it is Harriet, whose social place is ambiguous and confused, who shares the scene with Austen’s gypsies, only testifies further to the importance of these themes to the chapter, and to the novel as a whole. I began this chapter by invoking Peter Smith’s recognition in Emma of ‘England’s weaknesses, the dangers inherent in those weaknesses, and the choices that might still be made to secure the nation’s future’.85 In implicitly recognizing the period as one of social upheaval, and more importantly of competing, potential social upheavals, Smith connects public and private peace: ‘What we are meant to infer, surely, is that a social arrangement with the capacity for perfect union is currently in a state of mild dislocation. The marriage that unites the two estates [Donwell and Hartfield] both spiritually and physically...represents the removal of this blemish in the nation’s body politic.’86 Smith identifies specific and fortunate contemporary political circumstances which induced a mood ‘of reconciliation and forgiveness’ to explain ‘Emma’s benign attitude’.87 For Smith, the Eltons, the inadequate Mr Woodhouse, and the bits of Frank inherited from the Churchills are ‘local representatives of what seemed to many contemporaries to be a corrupt and outmoded way of life subsisting everywhere, in other nations as well as England’ now being overcome.88 I would prefer to adjust Smith’s analysis in order to argue that these characters represent not an old but a new order, which is also to a great degree still only a potential order, which is threatening but, as the novel demonstrates, which can be overcome by the self-(re)assertion of the ‘proper’ social system. It is Mr Knightley who most fully represents the true and proper Englishness advocated by the novel: as Smith himself points out, ‘[b]y choosing Mr Knightley Emma commits her future not so much to an individual person as to a complex of ideas, one that is best summed up as Old England in its most idealized form.’89 Mr Knightley’s presence and action in the novel attests that this old order has never been overcome, even if it is troubled by weaker figures such as Mr Woodhouse,90 and threatened by disruptive presences (Harriet; Frank) who together, though in different ways, represent the fashion and novelty which are always so dangerous in Austen’s works. Emma herself is touched by this novelty: though she instinctively possesses the compassion and understanding proper to her (p.183) social position, she blunders socially and thus neglects her proper role when she is tempted by the sparkle of Frank Churchill. But she does still know what her proper role is: the Emma of the start of the novel is concerned for the poor and needy; her shame at her treatment of Miss Bates reveals her to be conscious of propriety even when she chooses to abandon it. The plot device which sparks the realization which in turn allows the happy resolution is Harriet’s encounter with the gypsies.
Just like Emma herself, the ‘old order’, threatened rather than replaced, must be re-established, having been cleansed through recognition of its past failings. But it isn’t a straightforward reassertion of some past idyll. Harriet, Frank, Jane: they all have to be accommodated with the structure, and so (in line with Edmund Burke’s ideal) the structure is shown to be flexible enough to accommodate change without shattering at the foundations. This is what the gypsies perfectly represent. They epitomize in microcosm the way in which society can adapt. Harriet can’t see this for them (though she can imagine it, wrongly, for herself), and this is why she is unable to cope with her encounter. More than simply drawing attention to Emma’s interest in the idea of Englishness, though, Austen’s gypsies also suggest that we should think carefully about the labels of radicalism and conservatism which shadow understandings of the period. With reference to Thelwall, to Clare, and to Wordsworth, I have argued that gypsies appear in texts from this period as fundamentally conservative figures, because they wilfully remain the same regardless of external events or pressures. According to Grellmann, they are utterly immutable: ‘they have remained, to the present time, what they were at their first arrival in Europe’.91 This is not the adaptable conservatism of Edmund Burke, but a more hardened adherence to tradition and the past. And in other texts, too, this perceived characteristic of the gypsies stands out: Franz Liszt’s The Gipsy in Music (1859) claims that the gypsy ‘seems only to continue to exist because it absolutely refuses to cease to do so; refusing also to be anything but what it is actually, and permitting no influence, no prescription, no persecution, and no instruction either to modify, dissolve or extirpate it.’92 As I have already argued with reference to John Clare, this refusal to transform tips the balance of political labelling. That is, the gypsies come to be seen as radical because they are thus conservative. The refusal of gypsies to conform (their steadfast sticking to their own ways and apparent refusal of the laws of their host society) dominates accounts like Grellmann’s from the early part of the Romantic period. In that political climate, such (p.184) apparent independence is radicalism.93 But whilst their omnipresent association with radicalism remains variously troubling or seductive for writers, the conservative connotation I have delineated simultaneously offers a fixed point. When that—as in Emma—is accompanied by a sense of familiarity and belonging (and though Austen’s gypsies are tainted with an association with turkey-stealing, they conform to social laws in the way in which they respond appropriately after their encounter with Harriet) their attraction to a conservative mindset is enhanced (it is surely partly this which allows the transformation of gypsies into the objects of nostalgia described by Trumpener, Epstein Nord and others by the middle of the nineteenth century). Austen’s gypsies, far from representing foreignness and difference, represent an aspect of Englishness: they are an integral part of the fabric of the rural community. No-one in Emma doubts, for example, that the gypsies are gypsies: everyone recognizes them, and there is a strong sense that this is just where one might expect to encounter them, and just how one might expect them to behave. Though some critics have misread them as representing a radical, threatening intrusion into the English verdure of Highbury, Austen’s account, without celebrating their less attractive characteristics, nonetheless preserves the gypsies as a part of the ‘proper’ England elsewhere best represented by Mr Knightley and those who share his ideals. In doing so, Austen like Clare participates in a discourse of tradition and necessary change which is intimately related to ideas of Englishness in the period, and which pushes suggestively on accepted definitions of radical and conservative.
Austen recognizes, and the text of Emma exhibits the fact, that the gypsy becomes a distinctive and convenient means of expression for a range of writers and artists in the early nineteenth century. The gypsies stand out in Emma, despite the brevity of the episode, because it is so rare to see the poor and indigent in Austen’s novels. Their presence in the text is interesting because it prompts speculation on the propriety and implications of walking and wandering within Austen’s novels: the gypsies are part of Austen’s countryside, and the idea of wandering—of who, and how and where one wanders—allows her to use them as an important device in the story. We should not get carried away: Austen is no Mitford, revelling in their aesthetic charms (Austen’s gypsies have none) and exciting connotations (Harriet’s dramatic perception of events is ill-founded). They (p.185) are even more interesting, however, because Austen’s treatment of them seems unexpectedly charitable given Austen’s conservatism. It’s not that she draws a picture of camaraderie and jovial trickery such as we find in Fielding’s earlier work; there is something troubling about the gypsies, even if Harriet Smith is more culpable than they are in her own fright. But nor do we find the castigation of Wordsworth or Cowper. The consequent ambivalent reading reflects the very particular moment in which Austen is writing: for the early nineteenth-century conservative mind-set, the placeless, unaccountable and light-fingered gypsies cannot be desirable figures (and the general opinion of them at the time as utterly intransigent resists the moderate improvement such conservatives identify as necessary to the smooth running of state and home). Yet the pressure that gypsy life supported in this period, from anti-vagrancy legislation, increasing industrialization, the Enclosure Acts which pushed them away from their habitual camping grounds, and the decline in popular beliefs and recreations of which they previously had been integral parts, rendered the gypsy way of life under threat. Mitford again provides a similar example: like Austen, she resists a simple condemnation of gypsies, even when she shows them as threatening, and as thieves. As I began to outline in my chapter on Wordsworth, the figure of the gypsy in the Romantic period initiates speculation about the disparity between aesthetic (in Austen’s case, this incorporates the idea of tradition) and socio-political attitudes. As they begin to represent something which is passing, a part of the English landscape and economy in decline, gypsies offer a new possibility to conservative writers because their very placelessness is what gives them a recognizable place in the English landscape and economy, a challenge which is evident in Austen’s refusal to condemn them. But they are also convenient ciphers because they resist the sort of classification and knowledge implicitly desired by the ‘new’ England, a nation of enclosers and census-takers. The lack of specificity and detail and voice in Austen’s description of her gypsies can in this case be read as the attempt to render her gypsies essentially hazy, not to silence an incipient social threat, but rather to reflect this complicated situation, symptomatic as it is of a sense of Englishness in flux. Austen’s gypsies thus highlight unresolved issues of national concern, of national identity, and yet allow the author to end her text optimistically, as its convention demands.
(1) Lionel Trilling, ‘Emma’, Encounter 8, no. 6 (June 1957): pp. 49–59 (p. 53).
(2) Claudia Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 126–127.
(3) Peter Smith, ‘Politics and Religion in Jane Austen’s Emma’, Cambridge Quarterly 26, no. 3 (1997): pp. 219–241 (p. 221).
(4) Mary Evans, Jane Austen and the State (London: Tavistock, 1987), p. xi.
(5) Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Hogarth, 1985), p. 117.
(6) Elizabeth Langland, Society in the Novel (Chapel Hill, N.C. and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 42.
(7) See e.g. Maaja Stewart, Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions: Jane Austen’s Novels in Eighteenth-Century Contexts (Athens, Ga. and London: University of Georgia Press, 1993), pp. 138–139.
(8) Jane Austen, Emma, edited by Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 93.
(10) Heinrich Grellmann, Dissertation on the Gipsies, being an Historical Enquiry, concerning the Manner of Life, Œconomy, Customs and Conditions of these People in Europe, and their Origin, trans. Matthew Raper (London: printed for the editor by G. Bigg,, 1787), pp. ix–x.
(11) Deborah Epstein Nord, Gypsies and the British Imagination 1807–1930 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 4.
(12) Mary Russell Mitford, Our Village, edited by Anne Scott-James (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), p. 155 (my emphasis).
(19) Kristine Douaud, ‘Gypsies, John Clare and English folk culture’, Romani Studies 18, no. 1 (2008): pp. 1–38 (p. 6).
(20) Sarah Houghton-Walker, ‘John Clare’s Gypsies’, Romani Studies 19, no. 2 (2009): pp. 125–145 (pp. 127–128). Douaud is certainly not alone in this reading of Austen’s gypsies as threatening: beyond literary criticism, we can find a similar impression in Douglas McGrath’s film adaptation of the novel starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette (Miramax, 1996). The scene does not stick particularly closely to the original in any respect, including in that a decidedly threatening atmosphere dominates the action. Although McGrath’s production is generally very aware of the humour in Austen’s text, here it is occluded in favour of a more dramatic interpretation in which swearing men from a hellish camp come forward and physically mug Harriet.
(22) William Combe, ‘Of Consolation’, in William Combe, Doctor Syntax: His Three Tours; in Search of the Picturesque; of Consolation; of a Wife (London, Frederick Warne, n.d.), pp. 123–248 (p. 159). The encounter with the gypsies spans pp. 159–165 of this edition. I have standardized the lineation, which is irregular (and not numbered).
(23) Combe, ‘Of Consolation’, p. 165.
(24) See Combe, ‘Of Consolation’, pp. 159–160.
(28) Combe’s gypsies similarly avoid the operations of any justice: criticized by Dr Syntax for his foolhardiness, Patrick simply mutters ‘“à la letter, / I fear that I have done no better”’ (p. 165), and in the next line the tour moves on without further mention of the gypsies, or, indeed, of Patrick’s shoes.
(29) Michael Kramp, ‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England: Harriet Smith’s National Role’, College Literature 31, no. 1 (Winter 2004): pp. 147–168 (p. 148).
(30) Kramp, ‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England’, p. 150.
(31) Kramp, ‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England’, p. 152.
(32) Kramp, ‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England’, p. 149.
(33) Kramp, ‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England’, p. 150.
(34) Kramp frequently repeats his notion that Harriet is seen by others within the text, and should be seen by the reader, as essentially ‘reproductive’, but again, there is no convincing evidence to support this, and the word itself is often—tellingly—tacked on to the end of a list of other adjectives (for example: ‘Knightley needs Harriet to be content, useful and reproductive’ (‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England’, p. 154); ‘a young, anonymous, and native member...a national resource: she has the power to reproduce English culture’ (p. 150)).
(35) Kramp, ‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England’, p. 156.
(36) Kramp, ‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England’, p. 157.
(37) Kramp, ‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England’, p. 156.
(38) As I have suggested, the union of Harriet and Robert Martin is indeed ‘a key element’ in the ‘project to solidify the state’ (Kramp, ‘The Woman, the Gypsies, and England’, p. 161): in class terms, it gets rid of the problem of Harriet, and keeps people in their proper places. But this has nothing to do with Kramp’s idea of constructing ‘a “national” race’: we are not invited into the marital bed at Donwell Abbey Farm, but rather left satisfied that the problem of Harriet’s placelessness has been solved by the community.
(43) Anon., ‘Jane Austen’, St Paul’s Magazine (March 1870), reprinted in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, edited by B. C. Southam, 2 vols (London, 1995), vol. 1 pp. 226–240 (p. 232).
(44) Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986), p. 39.
(46) Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, edited by Pat Rogers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 102.
(47) See for a slightly fuller discussion of the relative value of walking and carriage-riding in Austen’s novels Anne D. Wallace, Walking, Literature and English Culture: The Origin and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 100.
(48) Austen, Pride and Prejudice, p. 35. Even here, Elizabeth’s sisters accompany her as far as the town.
(49) Austen, Pride and Prejudice, p. 36.
(53) Wallace, Walking, Literature and English Culture, p. 99.
(57) Wallace, Walking, Literature and English Culture, p. 100.
(58) Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 273.
(61) Having said this, even in Tawney Rachel, there is a sense that the gypsy must be removed—must go away—rather than punished by more straightforward incarceration or corporal punishment: More’s Rachel is transported to Botany Bay. Though punishment indeed in real life, as far as the story is concerned, it is displaced from the realm of the narrative and in no way forms a spectacle.
(65) Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, p. 165.
(66) Austen, Emma, p. 29 (my emphasis). See John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), passim, and Chapter 8 of this book, where Barrell’s arguments are considered in the light of contemporary representations of gypsies.
(67) Katie Trumpener, ‘The Time of the Gypsies: A “People without History” in the Narratives of the West’, Critical Inquiry 18 (Summer 1992): pp. 843–884 (p. 868).
(68) David Simpson, Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 49–52.
(70) John Clare By Himself, edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell (Ashington and Manchester: MidNAG and Carcanet, 1996), p. 87.
(71) See especially Alistair Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971).
(79) Deborah Epstein Nord, ‘“Marks of Race”: Gypsy Figures and Eccentric Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing’, Victorian Studies 41, no. 2 (Winter 1998): pp. 189–210 (p. 193).
(85) Smith, ‘Politics and Religion in Jane Austen’s Emma’, p. 221.
(86) Smith, ‘Politics and Religion in Jane Austen’s Emma’, p. 222.
(87) Smith, ‘Politics and Religion in Jane Austen’s Emma’, p. 238.
(88) Smith, ‘Politics and Religion in Jane Austen’s Emma’, p. 237.
(89) Smith, ‘Politics and Religion in Jane Austen’s Emma’, p. 222.
(90) The weakness of Mr Woodhouse is not purely personal: whatever his good intentions may be, they precipitate a regime whose meanness (his table is notoriously spartan; he will not send his carriages for the dependent Bateses) is damaging to the happiness of others.
(91) Grellmann, Dissertation on the Gipsies, p. ix.
(92) Franz Liszt, The Gipsy in Music, trans. Edwin Evans, 2 vols (London: W. Reeves, 1926), vol. 1, p. 8.
(93) This is enhanced by the fact that the more general crackdown on vagrants which took place in the unsettled political climate of the 1790s reinforced this perception of a connection between vagrants—and thus gypsies—and the radical threat to which the crackdown was supposed to be responding. See e.g. Quentin Bailey, Wordsworth’s Vagrants: Police, Prisons and Poetry in the 1790s (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).