The stigmatisation of Gypsies and problems or consequences of stereotyping Gypsies in nineteenth-century literature

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

3 Pages


The stigmatisation of Gypsies and problems or consequences of stereotyping Gypsies in nineteenth-century literature

This paper is about the stigmatisation of Gypsies in nineteenth-century English literature, about the reasons that writers of those times might have had for representing them in those ways and about the problems and consequences that might occur when stereotyping Gypsies. This also leads to the social reality of Gypsy life in Britain, which might have been influenced by Gypsy literature.

Gypsies were stereotyped in a lot of different ways in nineteenth-century literature. Mostly the descriptions were very negative but some authors also romanticized Gypsy life. I will discuss different points, such as the subject of stealing, lawlessness, begging, fortune telling, cursing, music, being uneducated, dirtiness, their attitude towards life, and housing. This is the sum of how Gypsies are said to be in literature, but also often in real life.

Gypsy life is romanticized in the following works. In Arnold's The Scholar Gypsy 1 [1] and Resignation 2 [2] and Clare's The Gipseys Song 3 [3] , Gypsy life is shown in a very romanticized way. Gypsies are portrayed as merry and free people who live the day just as it comes and make the best out of everything. Gypsies here do not feel restricted by magistrates. They are depicted as people who learned to live with the elements that do not harm their housing but that of the other people. The Scholar Gypsy shows an idyll, the carefree life in contradiction to the sorrows of other people's everyday life.

In Lavengro4 [4] a situation is described where people of a Gypsy camp suddenly pack their bags and disappear after getting a message from another Gypsy. It is not clearly said that something illegal is going on but the reader gets this impression. Later in the book the old apple woman is linked with stealing. She does not admit to have stolen herself, but she regrets never having forbidden her son to sell stolen goods that he gets from people speaking the same language as "Petulengro", who is a Gypsy as well. In chapter 53 some parts of Gypsy language are connected with illegal actions, e.g. the game of the pea and thimble. Furthermore the lawlessness of Gypsies is described in several other books and poems. In Henry W. Longfellow's The Spanish Student 5 [5] ("The old hag, who stole you in your childhood…") and Emma Leslie's A Gypsy Against her Will 6 [6] , Gypsies are hold responsible for stealing children. In Leslie's children's book this stealing is more a devious persuasion because the Gypsy woman promises Lizzie a great fortune if she leaves home. In The Spanish Student Gypsies are again said to be "…thieves and vagrants…"7 [7]. You can read the same in Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy 8 [8] and in Crabbe's The Lover's Journey 9 [9] ( … they break the laws … ). In Leslie's The Gypsy Queen 10 [10] Lovell steals chicken and rabbits to get food for Snow.

In his poem Beggars 11 [11] William Wordsworth mainly deals with the topic of begging. He writes about a person, coming along a Gypsy woman begging for a donation. The reason for giving the woman some money is that she is beautiful to look at, "…a weed of glorious feature…". He seems to enjoy watching this woman although he does not like this kind of people. Later in the poem he comes across two boys who also start begging. In the poem Wordsworth makes them out to be acting and lying when telling the traveller that their mother was dead. The reason for this is that they do not seem to be very sad or unhappy. There could be another reason for not being so sad, but the author shows the stereotype of Gypsies lying and cheating. It even seems as if he suspects Gypsies of teaching their children how to beg and pretend to be orphans.

In many works a lot of emphasis is put on the outer appearance of the Gypsy people. In Lavengro for example a couple is described as wild, with evil expressions, swarthy faces, dark complexions and very strange clothes.

Gypsies are even described as dirty, as in A Gypsy Queen where Snow, a non-Gypsy, likes to be clean. The only problem is, living among Gypsies, she has never learned how to wash. The image of Gipsies being dirty is also presented in A Gypsy Against Her Will. Another point is the housing of the travelling people. It is a fact that Gypsies were travelling people. In literature they are supposed to live in tents or similar accommodation, which can be easily removed. In my opinion this can also be regarded as a fact. Moreover, Gypsies really look a little different from western- European people, especially the British, and they do speak their own different language.

The questions that arises here is, how do all the other stereotypes or prejudices occur and did nineteenth-century literature have an influence on it?

How do prejudices normally appear? Often they are a matter of fear, ignorance, thoughtlessness, envy, or negative personal experiences.

People who came into contact with Gypsies might have become scared because of their outer appearance. Their wild expression or what the people thought looked wild and the unknown foreign language, which in addition shows an image of evil or mysticism, could be factors that alarmed other people. The fear that arises often leads to aggression. People then like to blame others to reduce their fury.

Moreover, ignorance could have been a problem. People might only misunderstand the habits and the attitude Gypsies have towards life. This also contributes to a fear of the "different". It was almost impossible to remove misunderstandings because of the language barrier. As an intensifying factor people's thoughtlessness should be taken into consideration. Gypsies might have often been blamed for whatever happened. People often say things without thinking of the consequences or they disseminate prejudices on purpose. One could think of non-Gypsies living their boring life one day after the other. Every day is like the one before. Then they think of Gypsies being able to travel whenever they want, wherever they want. They do not really know what the next day will bring. They see a lot of different places and live in a community in which people care for each other. Maybe they are also longing for the romantic life and wilderness. Envy arises.

Other people who were convinced of their own way of living tried to convert Gypsies to make them similar to themselves and fit them in their own society.

This did not work because Gypsies would not give up their own identity and their way of life. The biggest problem is that, whenever prejudices arose it was nearly impossible to resolve them and Gypsies were easy to blame because no discussion evolved between the two groups due to different languages, social backgrounds, norms, values, and the reservation about Gipsies.

How stereotypes came up is not the only question to ask. The other one is to think about why writers stigmatised Gypsies.

One of the reasons that are understandable very easily, could be an author who has a lot of prejudices, due to the different possibilities I mentioned above. The author could also have made negative personal experiences or could have been influenced by somebody who made such experiences.

Here again a possible reason could be the thoughtlessness of the author. It could be the fact that the writer just wanted to make up a nice and interesting story about a strange or exiting topic by using stereotyped Gypsies without thinking about the consequences. Another reason for an author might be the interest of writing a book that can be sold well. In this case he should write about a topic that suits the reader. The book does not even have to contain his own opinion. It is only important that the potential reader likes the book and is probably confirmed in his opinion.

The last intention I can think of is that an author depicts the facts exaggeratedly to rouse people, to make them think about prejudices and stigmas at all.

I am not sure whether nineteenth-century literature influenced the life of the Gypsies in Britain or the other way around the behaviour and treatment of the Gypsies influenced nineteenth-century English literature, but it is a fact that after centuries of persecution, banishment and execution of unwanted Gypsy travellers, missionaries tried to reform them by "bringing an end to their wanderings and then to correct the laxity of their morals."12 [12] Moreover they wanted to convert Gypsies to Christendom, to settle them down and send their children to schools. Evangelist missionaries wanted to achieve this by giving them gifts, assistance and bible readings, providing fixed housing and work.

"Reform, both in spirit and in practice, was intended to be oppressive and destructive of Gypsy traditions and ties."13 [13]

George Smith of Coalville fought in his legislative attack against the ignorance of legal authority concerning the way of living of e.g. Gypsies. In the end his work more caused saving the world from those people than to better their ways of living and to deprive them of their romanticized image in literature.

" To dress the satanic, demon-looking face of a Gypsy with the violet powder of imagery only temporarily hides from view the repulsive aspect of his features … The dramatist has strutted the Gypsy across the stage in various characters in his endeavour to improve his condition. After the fine colours have been doffed, music finished, applause ceased, curtain dropped, and scene ended, he has been a black, swarthy, idle, thieving, lying, blackguard of a Gypsy still."14 [14]


1 [1] Arnold, Matthew. The Scholar Gypsy. 1853.

2 [2] Arnold, Matthew. Resignation. 1849.

3 [3] Clare, John. The Gypseys Song. 1825.

4 [4] Borrow George: Lavengro. 1851

5 [5] Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth: The Spanish Student. A short verse play. In The Poetical Works of Longfellow. Oxford: OUP 1961

6 [6] Leslie, Emma: A Gypsy Against Her Will. London: Blackie. 1889.

7 [7] see ² act 3, scene 2.

8 [8] Eliot, George: The Spanish Gypsy. 1867. (p. 198)

9 [9] Crabbe, George: The Lover's Journey. 1812.

10 [10] Leslie, Emma: The Gypsy Queen. London: Partridge. 1884.

11 [11] Wordsworth, William: Beggars. 1802

12 [12] Mayall, David: Gypsy-Travellers in 19th Century Society- Measures Against A 'Race Beyond Recall'. Cambridge UP. Cambridge, 1988. (p. 98)

13 [13] see 12 (p. 103)

14 [14] see 12(p. 134)

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The stigmatisation of Gypsies and problems or consequences of stereotyping Gypsies in nineteenth-century literature
University of Hannover
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Gypsies, Hauptseminar
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Britta Jordan (Author), 2000, The stigmatisation of Gypsies and problems or consequences of stereotyping Gypsies in nineteenth-century literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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