Susannah Fullerton is President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia and the author of Jane Austen and Crime (2004), A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters went to the Ball (2012), and Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (2013). She writes about her wide-ranging literary interests for her Google Classic Novels site and in her newsletter, “Notes from a Book Addict,” and she leads literary tours to Jane Austen country, and to France, USA, Ireland, and Italy for Australians Studying Abroad. Sometimes, she takes her tour groups to one of my own favourite places, Prince Edward Island, to visit Green Gables and other literary sites. Susannah is Patron of the Kipling Society of Australia, and she’s the author and presenter of the audio CD Finding Katherine Mansfield (2009). I’m pleased to introduce her guest post for Emma in the Snow.
The encounter with the gypsies—such a small incident in the novel, and yet it achieves so much. The day after the Crown Inn Ball Harriet Smith and her school friend Miss Bickerton go out for a walk and encounter a group of gypsies: “half a dozen children, headed by a stout woman and a great boy, all clamorous and impertinent” (Volume 3, Chapter 3). The gypsies want money from the two girls and seem prepared to use violence to get it. Miss Bickerton runs away as fast as her legs will carry her, but Harriet suffers cramp as a result of all her energetic dancing the night before, and is left to the mercies of these gypsies. She gives them a shilling, but they demand more and poor Harriet is terrified. She begs the group not “to use her ill.” Of course, as every reader of Emma knows, she is then rescued by Frank Churchill, who gets her safely to Hartfield where she faints dead away.
A modern reader might condemn Harriet for her timidity and her fainting, but Jane Austen’s contemporary readers would all have known just why Harriet faints. Gypsies were seen as a major problem in England in Austen’s time. There had been an attempt in 1563 to expel every gypsy from the country, but that failed and for the next centuries gypsies eked out an existence on the margins of society—pilfering and moving on, raiding hen-houses and moving on, avoiding the authorities as much as possible. In Jane Austen’s juvenile work Evelyn, the not very heroic hero Mr. Gower is terrified as he rides home at night and closes his eyes “to prevent his seeing either Gypsies or Ghosts.” Such was society’s hatred of gypsies that it actually became a hanging offence to be found “conversing with gypsies.” The legal authorities of England took it for granted that if you were in conversation with a gypsy, then it must be for no good purpose. In 1782 a fourteen-year-old girl, desperately protesting her innocence, was hanged for being found in the company of gypsies. Of course any humane judge would be most unlikely to put poor Harriet to death for her misadventure, but technically Harriet Smith commits a serious crime that could result in her life being terminated. No wonder she faints! Contemporary readers would have been far more sympathetic to her peril and would have totally understood her reaction.
“The Gypsies did not wait for the operations of justice: they took themselves off in a hurry.” Emma promises Frank that she will give “notice of there being such a set of people in the neighbourhood to Mr Knightley.” He is, of course, the local magistrate, and knows how to deal with such a gang. Emma’s nephews then regularly demand the exciting tale of Harriet and the gypsies, “tenaciously setting her right if she varied in the slightest particular from the original recital” and that seems to be the end of the business. But of course it is these very gypsies and their attack which start Emma linking Harriet and her rescuer romantically in her own mind—and we all know into what trouble that leads her.
But do those gypsies make a second appearance in the novel? In the final chapter “Mrs Weston’s poultry-house was robbed one night of all her turkies—evidently by the ingenuity of man. Other poultry-yards in the neighbourhood also suffered.—Pilfering was housebreaking to Mr Woodhouse’s fears.—He was very uneasy; and but for the sense of his son-in-law’s protection, would have been under wretched alarm every night of his life” (Volume 3, Chapter 19). It is for this reason that he agrees, far more willingly than anyone expected, to Emma’s marriage, so that Mr Knightley can live at Hartfield and protect them all. We do not know for certain that the poultry is stolen by gypsies, but they must be the first suspects—they surely scouted out the neighbourhood when there previously, and a quick raid back to grab some chickens and turkeys is highly likely. If so, they are responsible for bringing about the marriage of the hero and heroine of the novel—no mean accomplishment by the novel’s most unsavoury characters.
The gypsies in Emma give us a glimpse of the crime that was so prevalent in Georgian society. This may not be an obvious feature of Jane Austen’s novels, but it is an important one, as I discovered when I wrote my book Jane Austen and Crime. Jane Austen does have her darker side—duels, thefts, elopement, hangings, adultery, gaols, and even murder all have a place in her writings, and learning more about the crimes she depicts adds much to contemporary understanding of her novels.
Tenth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Janet Todd, Carol Chernega, and Elisabeth Lenckos.