Recently I mentioned here that there were a number of elements of my original concept for I Married the Duke that didn’t make it into the final story. Most of these had to do with Gypsies.
As I note in the Author’s Note of the book, today there’s quite a bit of debate over not only the appropriateness of the word Gypsies (Roma is preferred by many now), but the place of these peoples in modern European and indeed global society. Some of the questions that cities and legislatures have recently debated include, for instance, whether Roma should be mandated by law to settle in permanent communities, hold year-round employment, or be considered full citizens of the nations in which they have lived for centuries.
These questions are not by any means new. In my research into Roma in the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras in Britain, I discovered a concerted effort on the part of local as well as national lawmakers, as well as so-called reformers, to penalize “Gypsies” for behaviors considered undesirable at the time and to transform them into what was perceived as the ideal British subject-citizen: solid, steady, hard-working Christian souls.
Laws against “Gypsies” go back to at least the sixteenth century in England. Under Philip and Mary in 1554, An Act for the punishment of certayne Persons calling themselves Egyptians was put in place, prohibiting all Gypsies from entering the country and making them liable for a fine and eventually forfeiture of all their goods. Gypsies who did not comply were subject to the death penalty.
Thereafter vagrancy statutes were regularly enacted. During the rein of Elizabeth I, for instance, An Acte for the punishment of Rogues Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars was on the books, declaring that “all tynkers wandering abroade… and all such ‘sons, not being Fellons, wandering and p’tending themselves to be Egipcans or wandering in the habite Forme or Attyre of counterfayte Egipcians” were forbidden to ply their trades. (It may be of especial interest to our rogue-loving group lately that while the Oxford English Dictionary gives a fifteenth-century orgin to the word rogue, the word rogues first appears in statute books in 1572.)
People attend the inauguration of the “Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under National Socialism” in Berlin October 24, 2012. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
After the Napoleonic wars, many communities feared the soldiers who returned—often permanently injured—unable to work and who instead lived as itinerants, taking temporary work and odd jobs and sometimes begging for food or shelter. During this era, vagrancy laws multiplied quicker than during the previous three centuries combined. These were generally folded into anti-Gypsy law already on the books. Laws against “persons pretending to be Gypsies, or wandering in the habit and form of Egyptians” proliferated.
I Married the Duke begins with a fortuneteller declaring the fate of three young orphaned sisters. As of the mid-18th century, people “pretending to have skill in palmistry, or pretending to tell fortunes” were to be punished as rogues and vagabonds according to previous anti-vagrancy statutes. “Hawkers” and “pedlars” were added to the list of undesirables, and camping on the side of the road—as Roma often did in their caravans, in order to sell their wares to travelers—became liable to fines and imprisonment. The Vagrancy Act of 1824 punished anyone “not having any visible means of subsistence, and not giving a good account of himself.” In plain terms, this meant that if a man did not have a stationary home and year-round work on that land or nearby, he could be fined, imprisoned, or executed.
Quaker reformers and other Christian missionaries made attempts to “domesticize” Gypsy communities in nineteenth-century Britain, including establishing urban schools for Gypsy children and programs to assist Gypsies in becoming farmers. Most of these met with little success according to the standards of those who wished to “reform” their co-patriots that seemed to them less than civilized.
Part of the memorial to the half-million Sinti and Roma exterminated by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.
Interestingly, later nineteenth-century travelers—amateur ethnographers of a sort—tended to at once praise and exoticize Gypsies, describing in almost voyeuristic detail the primitive quality of their living quarters, the cleverness with which they plied their trades—tinkering, palm reading, and occasionally horse trading—their dress, and their family structures, as well as their music and dancing. It was in this period that the trope of the exotic Gypsy fortuneteller began to appear regularly in literature, and continues today.
Always, whether undesirable or exoticized, these peoples that had come to England in the Middle Ages—and thus were nearly as English as those people whose ancestors had been Norman before 1066—were considered set apart from true Englishmen and women, a foreign and lesser race.
In the Prologue to I Married the Duke, I tried to show that the fortuneteller is as English as the orphaned sisters even while practicing her superficially exotic trade. As is often the case in creating fantasy fiction from history, this was delicate to negotiate. Researching the Roma of the early nineteenth century in England meant a lot to me, and I continue to respect these historical subjects enormously, especially now that I understand the persecution they suffered for centuries. While their story ultimately didn’t make it into I Married the Duke, Roma of the era will find a big place in the third book of my Prince Catchers series.
Be. Still. My. Heart.
What do you think is the most common character trope in fiction? The anachronistically feisty, independent heroine? The villainous mother-in-law? The comic side kick? The rogue with a heart of gold (Flynn Ryder, le sigh!!)? The wise old mentor? Do you have a particular favorite stock character from the movies?