Jane Austen's gypsies: a collision of political and aesthetic forms in "Emma"

Late in Jane Austen’s "Emma," a peculiar scene of harrowing adventure disrupts an otherwise realistic novel. On an early morning walk, Harriet Smith takes a wrong turn into the woods outside the posh village of Highbury. A “gang” of young “gypsies,” presumably of Romany descent, surround Harriet and demand her purse. As a foreign element outside of Highbury’s rigid class structure, the parent-less gypsy children represent a corrupted reflection of Harriet, herself an orphan, in her attempts to assimilate into Emma’s social circle. Prior critical responses to this scene have trended in one of two directions—a sociopolitical interpretation through the lens of cultural studies and historicism or an analysis of the rhetorical and narratological devices Austen employs. By emphasizing particular interpretive methods over others, critics often miss opportunities for a multi-pronged analysis of how the formal elements of a narrative may inform the political ideology it knowingly or unknowingly promotes—and vice versa, how politics can influence the choice of aesthetic forms. When dealing with authors like Austen who eschew overt ideological statements, the New Formalist methods proposed by Caroline Levine and others can reveal hidden layers of thematic resonance and contradiction. Similarly, adopting Amy Devitt’s view of genre as a flexible rhetorical tool, rather than a fixed literary category, allows for an analysis of the gypsy scene’s function in harmony or contrast with other genres Austen employs in the novel. "Emma’s" abrupt placement of Harriet in distress provides what Levine might call a “collision” of multiple forms—story devices, social networks, and unifying structures—which unsettle each other but ultimately reshape and confirm the novel as both a political work with nationalist aims and a lighthearted comedy that satirizes its own insular preoccupations.