Some modern readers who love Jane Austen are eager to find ways to acquit her of being a woman of the long 18th century. Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. Click here for the first in the series.
This is the only time the word “enclosed” appears in Emma, in reference to a letter from Frank Churchill. The word “enclosure” and its alternate spelling “inclosure” do not appear at all.
The enclosure movement was a part of Great Britain's agricultural revolution. Throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, village land which had been held "in common" and which the villagers used for farming, grazing their livestock or foraging for nuts and berries, began to be fenced off by the local gentry. The enclosed fields yielded more crops per acre, as we will see, but it did make life more difficult for the villagers. They could no longer keep a cow for milk for their children, for example, because they had no grazing land. Enclosure was a driving force behind the great migration to the cities at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Dr. Helena Kelly gives an interesting and informative explanation of land enclosure and agriculture in rural 18th century Britain in Jane Austen: the Secret Radical. But is she correct that Emma, Jane Austen’s fourth novel, is a condemnation of land enclosure?
Short answer: I don't think so.
Long answer: I don't think so, but first, we'll have a digression about gypsies...
The gypsies are possibly worse off than usual because of enclosure. Some of the fields where the gypsies once camped as they roamed about the countryside would have been prohibited to them. That is why, Kelly suggests, the gypsies “are not at their usual campsite” (wherever that might have been), they are “camped on the side of the road.”
Austen wrote: "The terror which the woman and boy had been creating in Harriet was then their own portion. He had left them completely frightened..." They leave Highbury quickly to escape “the operations of justice.” Harriet ends up being the heroine of “Harriet and the Gypsies,” a bedtime story for Emma’s little nephews, and Frank Churchill is the hero who rescued her.
The best that Dr. Kelly can do with this contradiction to her thesis is to argue that Austen isn’t as derogatory of gypsies as other writers of the period such as Cowper and Wordsworth. Austen presents the gypsies in a “relatively positive” light, as compared to calling them “vermin,” as the popular periodical The Spectator did.
Gypsies appear in various guises in the literature of Austen's time, portrayed as thieves, carefree vagabonds, and as con artists, As well, there is a lot of attention given to gypsy women, who are exotic and possibly sexually available.
In the ballad "A Poor Little Gipsey," (excerpted above) the girl asks men not to "harm," ie to not seduce or rape her, while "The Little Gipsey Lass" portrays the gypsy girl as bargaining with men for her "maidenhead."
In "The Gipsey Girl," an 1805 poem, "Henry wanders in despair" because he has a hopeless love for a gypsy. Hopeless, of course, because of the ethnic and class divide between them. There is also a ballad called "The Gipsy Countess," in which an Earl marries a gipsy. There are several versions of this song.
.... In this, th' adopted babe I hold
With anxious fondness to my breast,
My heart's sole comfort I behold,
More dear than life, when life was blest;
I saw her pining, fainting, cold,
I begg'd--but vain was my request....
.... Taught to believe the world a place
Where every stranger was a Foe
Trained in the arts that mark our race
To what new people could I go?...
Though poor, and abject, and despised,
Their fortunes to the crowd I told;
I gave the young the love they prized,
And promised wealth to bless the old.
Yes, and that purpose is to create an important misunderstanding between Emma and Harriet. Emma thinks that Harriet falls in love with Frank Churchill after he rescues her from the gypsies.
Austen uses gypsies for their exotic qualities, their "otherness/" They heighten Frank's rescue of Harriet into a romantic, unusual episode. Reflecting on the incident later, Emma thinks: "Such an adventure as this,—a fine young man and a lovely young woman thrown together in such a way, could hardly fail of suggesting certain ideas to the coldest heart and the steadiest brain... 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;—and now it had happened to the very person, and at the very hour, when the other very person was chancing to pass by to rescue her!"
So if Emma is about land enclosure, who is the horrible person who wants to enclose the fields around Highbury to line his own pockets? Who is behind the drive to starve the gypsies and subdue the peasants?
I came across a succinct discussion of the origins of the Romani people with some information about their language and culture and their horrific persecution by the Nazis in this online textbook (pdf). The section about the Roma starts on page 94: "They are believed to have migrated into Europe from the Punjab region of northern India between the eighth and tenth centuries c.e., although their exact origins and the cause of their exodus are unknown. Europeans referred to Roma as “Gypsies” in the mistaken belief that they came from Egypt. From the beginning of their presence among the settled populations of Europe during the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period, Roma were known for their markedly different appearance, language, customs, and way of life."