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Testimonies from the Margins

Glaring Invisibilities and Loud Silences in ‘The Gipsy’s Baby’ by Rosamond Lehmann

Flagrantes invisibilités et retentissants silences dans « The Gipsy’s Baby » de Rosamond Lehmann
Florence Marie


Le nom de Rosamond Lehmann ne s’impose pas de manière évidente lorsqu’il s’agit d’étudier les voix et les visages des démunis de la société dans la mesure où ses romans évoquent bien souvent des femmes de la classe moyenne et leurs amours malheureuses. Ce n’est toutefois pas le cas de ses nouvelles, au nombre de cinq, parues pendant la seconde guerre mondiale. La nouvelle intitulée « The Gipsy’s Baby », la plus longue de la collection, s’articule autour de la « logique de dépossession » et met en scène les processus d’invisibilisation et de muselage auxquels sont soumis les indigents : ostracisme, humiliation, expertise, institutionnalisation, etc. Toutefois, la nouvelle peut aussi être lue comme une tentative par la narratrice adulte de faire entendre la voix de l’enfant la plus silencieuse de la famille pauvre à laquelle s’intéresse le récit — la seule à tenter toutefois de se rebiffer en créant — et d’écrire un texte à la mémoire de cette fillette, désormais incarnation spectrale de tous les laissés pour compte qui hantent la société, demandant à être regardés et écoutés.

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  • 1 Lehmann was not to do so again probably because she did not feel legitimate enough, knowing as she (...)
  • 2 The five short stories Rosamond Lehmann wrote were gathered as a collection entitled The Gipsy’s Ba (...)

1Rosamond Lehmann wrote seven novels but only five short stories. She wrote them in the early forties at the request of her brother, John Lehmann, who had founded a literary periodical entitled New Writing in 1936, in which he published works by leading poets and writers and working-class budding authors. It was the first time she had tried her hand at short-story writing and in ‘The Gipsy’s Baby’, she also dealt with working-class people for the first time1. Admittedly Lehmann seems an unlikely candidate for the study of the voices and faces of the left-behinds since most of her novels revolve around the unsatisfactory romances of women from the middle classes or the bohemian circles. As stated by Niall Griffith in 2006, however, her short-stories ‘move somewhat away from the focus of her longer works . . . . Well, here you will find wintry illness, dampness, fungus, privation, rural squalor’ (Griffith vii). This is particularly the case of ‘The Gipsy’s Baby’, which is the longest piece (it is forty-nine pages long) in this eponymous collection2. In this short story with autobiographical undertones, the adult narrator tells in retrospect the story of the first encounter of Rebecca Ellison, a nine-year-old girl born into a rich middle-class family, with a destitute but loving family who has ‘a very low local reputation’ (23)—the Wyatt family with its nine members—and more generally with what had been hidden from her view until then—namely her own social position and prejudices and the intrinsic limits of her point of view.

  • 3 ‘Mais les Wyatt ne sont là que pour servir une cause infiniment plus dérangeante que celle de l’ext (...)
  • 4 ‘[subjects designated as ghostly] may also work with the metaphor [of the ghost], reshaping it to a (...)
  • 5 Ross underlines the differences between their two approaches of spectrality: ‘This formulation bear (...)

2The text as a whole exemplifies the way the vulnerable family is denied audibility and as a result the ability to fully exist. The active processes of inaudibility and invisibilisation will be analysed in the first two parts of this paper. After having dealt briefly with the way spatiality is used by society to relegate the poor to the margins, I will focus on voice, using Guillaume le Blanc’s conceptualisations of humiliation, textual silence and invisibility and Rancière’s ‘distribution of the sensible’: ‘a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience’ (Rancière 2004, 13). On the other hand, the short story does more than simply register the partition of society, as suggested by Francoise Bort. In her analysis of Lehmann’s short story, Bort contends that the Wyatts are only here to showcase a cause which is less realistic than that of extreme poverty, namely the uncanny power some utterances can yield (Bort 91).3 She focuses rightly on the hypodiegetic story told by one of the characters, Chrissie Wyatt, in the last pages of the short story (43–47), the power of which is undeniable in spite of its fictionality. It seems to me, however, that this power may not be that of pure fiction but of the spectral in literature and this will be the focus of the last two parts of the paper. In that sense, the short story exhibits the power literature has to retrieve socially erased people from oblivion, bowing to their potential as haunting figures as shown by both Esther Peeren4 and Stephen Ross.5

Spatial Ostracisation: ‘If some places are inaudible and invisible it is because precarity is spatialised’6

  • 6 ‘S’il existe [. . .] des lieux invisibles et inaudibles, c’est parce qu’il existe une spatialisatio (...)

3The short story opens on the description of a cottage in very bad repair, the Wyatts’ cottage, and its garden. The lexical field of decay is everywhere to be found: ‘decayed’, ‘old’, ‘broken’, ‘sinister’, ‘insanitary’, ‘mean’, ‘discoloured’. It is a waste land full of rubbish, discarded materials and worn-out bits and pieces, which signals to each and every one that the family living here is not the proper kind of family (3, 9, 39). The ‘excessive visibility’ of the place is at the core of ‘the paradox of avisuality’ (Peeren 33), since the people living here are physically present but not to be acknowledged.

4Throughout the short story the narrator takes great care to show the rigid demarcation that exists between the house of the wealthy middle-class family and the ‘row of brick cottages’ at the back where working-class people live: ‘I never thought of the back lane kids as children like myself: they were another species, and, yes, a lower’ (15). What is more, the Wyatt cottage is situated ‘at the bottom of the lane that ran between our garden wall and the old row of brick cottages’ (3, emphasis added). The lane separating the two families is no mere border; it is almost a chasm, as if they did not live on the same planet as suggested by the metaphor of ‘the orbit’: ‘the space of time during which our orbit touched the orbit of the Wyatt family’ (4). In between the two planets can be found the lane, ‘a bottom gate’ (16) in the garden wall and a garden with a profuse shrubbery—a wild territory (16). Had the Ellisons’ dog not eaten the Wyatts’ cat and had Sylvia—the narrator’s younger sister—not let the Wyatt children enter the garden and then the house while her mother was away, the two worlds would never have met. The destitute may be kept within the confines of society but they remain most of the time concealed and on the margins, a source of fascination nonetheless for the Ellison daughters (7).

5The architecture of the house of the wealthy family mirrors the division within society, the division between the haves and have-nots: ‘Ladies and gentlemen to the front door, persons to the back’ (7). It is revealing that the Waytt children should enter the mansion by the bottom gate and the back door while at the end of the short story their father is ‘show[n] out of the front door’ (49) by the narrator’s liberal-minded father.

6The spatialisation of precarity, however, is not the only way used by the authorities to silence the destitute; humiliation in many guises may be more subtle but not less potent and voice is at the core of these power relations.

The Processes of Silencing and Invisibilisation at Work: ‘The surest way for any man to become invisible is to become poor’7

  • 7 ‘Pour se rendre invisible n’importe quel homme n’a pas de moyen plus sûr que de devenir pauvre’ (We (...)

7The short story is built on a series of disconnected vignettes affording different perspectives on the characters. Thus the reader is given the opportunity to listen once to the voice of the dispossessed father after the death of his wife in childbirth. Clearly the man is not voiceless in this passage; neither can he be said to be unheard by the narrator’s father, who lets him enter his house at night (through the French windows) and pour out his grief and his outrage at length. The long monologue that follows is hardly interrupted by Mr Ellison. All Mr Wyatt’s grammatical and pronunciation mistakes are inscribed on the page as well as his repetitions, hesitations, ellipses and silences as indicated by the numerous dashes and aposiopeses (34–36). The reader can hear what corresponds to the individual point of view of one of the poor, whose monologue is reproduced as earnestly as possible. The short story being autobiographical Mr Wyatt’s speech is not supposed to be fictional (although one must remain wary since the story was written thirty years after the events). The voice of Mr Wyatt is all the more likely to have struck the narrator as on this particular occasion it was different from his usual voice: ‘. . . he cried out suddenly in a terrible threatening voice, like an Old Testament prophet’ (34).

8This speech, however, does not empower Mr Wyatt in the long run, as it befits a prophet screaming in the desert. The successive confrontations between this man and the power structures just before and after the death of his wife lay bare the active processes of silencing and invisibilisation at work precisely at the moment when the family has now become more visible than they used to be since they no longer are in some kind of social limbo; they have become ‘the object . . . of many a local charitable schemes, both private and official’ (37). Henceforth ‘opportunities for surveillance’ (Peeren 43) multiply.

9The contrast of the father’s voice pouring out his grief in front of the narrator’s father and his reported laconic words when the authorities start meddling with his family the day after is telling. Mr Wyatt identifies himself with the ‘poor people’ and opposes this group to the medical staff—although he is never given the opportunity to speak with the doctors, only the nurses: ‘I never saw no doctor. They don’t always trouble so much about poor people and that’s a fact, sir’ (35).

10Humiliation seems to be an indirect way of quietening people. The nursing staff say in plain words to Mr Wyatt that his wife’s death is due not to the ontological vulnerability common to each and every one but to her social vulnerability, thus indirectly putting the blame on him and questioning his love for her:

‘Sir, do you know what they says to me? She didn’t never ought to ’ave ’ad another, they says. It was ’er time of life. She was too worn out, they says. She ’d ’ad too many. I . . .. . . Then he cried out: ‘I loved my wife, sir! They can say what they like—nobody can say different. We was happy. . . A happy family. . . She thought the world of them—the ’ole blessed lot. “I wouldn’t be without one o ’them,” she’d say. . . (36, emphasis added)

  • 8 ‘Une société humaine humilie ses membres lorsqu’elle fait peser sur eux un doute quant à leur inscr (...)

11The pronoun ‘they’ the father uses to refer to the nursing staff as a whole suggests the insuperable gulf between the poor and the others in the Edwardian society, the two nations inherited from the Victorian era. At a time when contraceptive devices were increasingly available to middle-class people, who could afford to buy them, the social norms concerning numerous families were changing. This coercive ‘forest of norms’ was definitely middle-class and only served to discriminate against the poor. The implicit condemnation of their lack of chastity (most probably tinged with neo-Malthusianism) leaves Mr Wyatt aghast and even if he is still able to speak out and tell his truth, the aposiopeses to be found in the previous passage could indicate the wounds inflicted by the doubt cast on his love for his wife and by the normative definition of what a happy family should be like. Mr Wyatt’s grief is tinged with a feeling of humiliation since ‘a society humiliates its members when it questions their really belonging to humankind’ (translation mine)8.

12Expertise and its corollary, self-confidence, are other ways of enforcing passivity and silencing people. The father is not allowed to see his wife once she is in hospital and can only wait passively for the doctors’ orders: ‘What could I do, sir? I ’ad to let her go, didn’t I? I’ad to abide by what the doctor said?’ (35). After the death of the mother, the family becomes more visible for the authorities but ironically enough this is the cause of its increased inaudibility and its forthcoming greater invisibility: ‘[I]n some situations, emerging from the visible in-visible can produce further disempowerment, especially when the emergence is enforced rather than chosen, taking the form of exposure or conjuration rather than manifestation or apparition’ (Peeren 43). This is most explicit in the following passage in which the Wyatt children unwittingly report to the narrator and her sister how some lady—most probably a social worker embodying the expertise of the authorities—has silenced a bereaved and bewildered Mr Wyatt:

  • 9 Horace is referring to three of his brothers, among whom there is Alfie.

Horace said:
‘They’re going tomorrow—the three of ’em.’9
‘Where are they going?’
‘To the Institution.’
Silence. We did not know what he meant.
Our dad said for us to stay together and we’d manage but that lady said it was too much for Maudie. She hadn’t ought to do it. She come and see ’er. She said Maudie couldn’t give ’em what they needed, so she spoke to our dad.’
Our dad cried,’ said Alfie.
‘So she said they’d better be off in the Institution. She wanted for the baby to go too, but Maudie wouldn’t let ’im go.’
Maudie cried,’ said Alfie.
The lady said it was ever so nice there. They was ever so kind to children. They ’ave a Christmas tree and all. So our dad said to ’em to be good boys and learn their lessons and ’e’ d ’ave ’em out soon. . . . (38–39, emphasis added)

  • 10 In particular the semi modal verb ‘ought to’ similar to the one used by the medical staff.
  • 11 Aristotle considered the ability to speak was only granted to certain people. This is Lyotard’s def (...)
  • 12 ‘[. . .] sa voix est finalement rendue inaudible par le recouvrement que produit la voix des autres (...)

13In spite of his wish that they should all stay together and his dream of self-sufficiency, the father is no longer in a position to impose his will; his voice is obstructed by the expert who judges and knows what is to be done, as indicated by the modal verbs she uses.10 Since the father is a law-abiding citizen, respectful of expertise, he is cowed into silence and ends up crying. In other words he is now ‘speechless’. His reaction underlines both his passive helplessness and his disempowerment when confronted with the authorities. As a result, this man, who works as a shepherd, is dispossessed of three of his children and deprived of his authority as a father, namely the capacity to decide what is best for his family (the only thing which is his) and to try and remedy the situation. He finds himself on the wrong side of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ to quote Rancière: ‘Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.’ (Rancière 2004, 13). According to Rancière, who is here referring to Aristotle,11 the ability to speak defines who is visible. The Wyatt father cannot be said to be ‘a speaker’ any longer. Bursting into tears he simply expresses his grief and his helplessness and finds himself on a par with his thirteen-year-old girl, Maudie, or as Aristotle would have said, with ‘a noisy animal’ (Rancière 2007, 12, translation mine). His son’s repeating parrot-like what the ‘lady said’—as underlined by the anaphora of the phrases ‘the lady said’, ‘she said’ (repeated twice each)—suggests the father has forfeited his right to have a say: ‘. . . his voice has become inaudible because it has been obscured by the voice of the others’ (translation mine),12 in this particular case the voice of the power structures. Henceforth he is to remain bereft of words till the end: ‘Mr Wyatt went on wringing his hands, speechless, for a long time, then said brokenly: “God bless you, sir,” and went away’ (49).

  • 13 ‘Their voices were important, not pathetic. The family had obviously been the object lately of many (...)
  • 14 Ross is here referring to Butler and Athanasiou’s conception of what he calls ‘material dispossessi (...)

14The passage also suggests that from the point of view of the rich, the poor are in desperate need of the help of those who are the rulers and who decide for them from above. In a way, the lady’s decision may be judicious—Maudie is only thirteen and she would have had to take care of six children, which could have been a handful—and the father bows to it. Although the recognition the family has received has boosted their own importance13, this recognition entails no overturning of the usual hierarchies, quite the opposite; their greater visibility is neither authentic nor empowering. The ‘Institution’ which is referred to in the previous dialogue turns out to be the workhouse, a place branded with infamy (even in the eyes of the nine-year-old narrator [39]), synonymous with the end of autonomy and similar to a prison; a place of punishment and social erasure where the three little boys’ bodies are to be administered by a disciplinary power as suggested by the ‘new suits’ (38) they are wearing even before entering the Institution. Paying no heed to the father’s wish and sending his children to the workhouse means reducing this family not simply to an object of discourse and thought but to the status of objects as such: ‘Far from enjoying the autonomy associated with possessive individualism, the materially dispossessed find themselves interpellated and constructed as subjects of oppression and abuse, as objects more than subjects, even—given their role in constituting the social wholes from which they are excluded—abject” (Ross § 14).14 Locked up in the Institution, the Wyatt children will be condemned to the ‘silence and invisibility [which] are part of the system of institutionalized precariousness’ (Regard 83). By the end of the short story, the three boys already mentioned as well as one of their sisters, Chrissie, will have been whisked off to diverse institutions, ‘included in the legal order through their constitutive exclusion’ (Owens 570).

15In this case, the spatial and vocal invisibility and inaudibility imposed on the have-nots by those in power in the name of their own good are weapons wielded by the authorities. Their aim may be to relieve the poor but it is also to relieve the rich when the poor become too visible or audible (Korte 8), which is for instance what happens to Chrissie. Before disappearing into a void, she will have spoken out. If this is of no avail since she ends up being silenced by the authorities, at least her voice will have heard by the narrator. In the same way as Chrissie may have given existence to the most invisible children among them, the narrative voice follows suit; spectrality takes over.

Silence and Invisibility versus ‘Creating’:15 ‘An effective form of agency, therefore, can be found within or through spectrality’ (Peeren 24)

  • 15 To create: 1. to bring something into existence. 2 (informal) to make a fuss / complain (Oxford Dic (...)

16Chrissie Wyatt is the odd one out. Right from the start, the narrator insists on the singularity of the little girl. Whereas all the other Wyatt children are seen as a group, one long paragraph is devoted to the portrait of the little girl (4–5). She is conspicuous because she is ‘beautiful’ (22) and gipsy-like. She could be the destitute sister of dark-complexioned Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, at least this is how the narrator views her when she sees her nearby the gipsies: ‘I remember thinking then what a fascination the bright roving caravans must have for her; how congruous a part she would seem of the life of fairs and gipsies’ (42). She is also different on account of her muteness (12, 16, 21), her refusal to fawn over her betters and her capacity to dodge the system in unorthodox ways, not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s Kid (Le Blanc 2014). She goes her own way using silence or invisibility as weapons: ‘But Chrissie remained mute, tense, annihilating herself; all of her repudiating us’ (12, emphasis added); ‘Chrissie’s going to stop at ’ome. She went and ’id herself when the lady come’ (39, emphasis added). Silence and invisibility here become a form of resistance (“repudiating us”). From time to time she vents her feelings in an inarticulate way. For instance, when an aunt offers to take her after the death of her mother, the little girl makes a fuss: ‘But Chrissie created so our dad said for ’er to stop at home’ (39). As long as Chrissie wields invisibility, silence or inarticulateness as conscious weapons, she is safe, probably because she conforms to what is expected of ‘a noisy animal’ having simply the ability to voice pain or pleasure. In fact, some of the verbs and comparisons used to refer to her evoke animals: ‘might she not spit, screech like a monkey?’, ‘her eyes rolling fiercely, like a colt’s’ (5), ‘scuttle’ (24). But when she starts to use language so as to protest and assert her voice, she ends up being crushed by the authorities.

17Nothing is said about Chrissie’s reaction to the death of her mother, of her mother’s baby, the departure of three of her brothers and the end of their ‘happy family’. She is not reported to have ‘created’ as she did at the beginning of the short story when the Ellisons’ dog ate her cat (12). The narrator simply notes that ‘[s]he looked as usual, in her plaid frock’ (40). Three months later, however, she is for two days the focus of attention of all the children in the neighbourhood. She is the one in charge of a story she tells some other girls and that the narrator becomes aware of by hearsay. The anaphora of the phrase ‘She says’ (44—it is repeated four times as in the case of “the lady said” [38–39]) refers this time to Chrissie telling the story of a dead baby boy left behind by the gipsies: ‘“We know because Chrissie told us. She found it. It’s under some bramble-bushes. It’s got no clothes on. It’s a biby boy. She says the gipsies left it there.’” (42) She is the one who divulges information, arouses curiosity and creates suspense: ‘She’s going up tomorrow to see’ (44). The rumour spreads around and is believed by the horrified and yet engrossed children and some gullible adults (45). Two days later, however, the police come to the rescue of society and the little girl is exposed as a liar and pilloried. This time she quails into silence and her body takes over: ‘So teacher mide ’er stand up in front of the ’ole class and tell us she’d mide it up. . . . She never said nothing. She was shivering and shaking all over’ (47). She then disappears into a void: ‘We never saw Chrissie again’ (47).

  • 16 Interestingly, the only sentence that the narrator ever heard Chrissie say was: ‘“Yes, I bites,” wh (...)
  • 17 ‘La visibilité des précaires tend à être une visibilité monstrueuse, dégagée de tout code de la vis (...)

18Making this story up is for Chrissie a way of becoming the centre of attention and acquiring some form of ‘narrative agency’ (Peeren 39), which enables her to bite back16. Her fictional story is a monstrous one because in a society where the flotsam and jetsam of society are most of the time unheard, monstrosity, that is to say deviating from the natural norms and disrupting the order of things, is their only recourse:17Horror toppled above the village for a short while” (43); “We were silent, beholding the monstrous image of a dead naked baby under the bramble bushes” (44) (emphasis added). As the author of this melodramatic piece of fiction, Chrissie exploits the deeply-ingrained prejudices of the population against the gipsies. Her story targets these people who are even more marginalised and precarious than she is in the village, considered as they are as a ‘load of alien humanity’ (42) confined to the gravel-pit field (41) but luckily for them in a way not on the books of the authorities.

  • 18 ‘Chrissie invente de toute pièce un être vivant. [. . .] les mots engendrent des êtres, et des être (...)

19Chrissie’s monstrous story also corresponds to the return of a repressed traumatic event. The fictional lie testifies to the unresolved nature of past events; it is her way of of projecting her own feelings of loss, abandonment and exclusion but also of expressing what has been repressed until then. Although Bort adds that Chrissie’s story and thus the baby boy she invents are pure fiction (Bort 91),18 I contend that this made-up story could also be Chrissie’s way of grieving for a life that nobody deems worthy of grief, namely the infant who died a few hours before her mother did (33) and about whom even her elder sister says as if offhandedly: ‘We got enough babies, anyway’ (32). Doing so Chrissie makes this life ‘grievable’: ‘Some lives are grievable, and others are not; the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be perceived, and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary / conceptions of who is normatively human: what counts as a livable life and a grievable death?’ (Butler xiv–xv). Emplotting her traumas into a hackneyed, melodramatic story, that is to say fitting death into a symbolic net, Chrissie ‘creates’ in the two meanings of the verb and becomes an agent. Her story is not meant simply to keep the people listening to it on tenterhooks; it is a mode of address synonymous with lodging a complaint and refusing indifferent fatalism. It is evidence that fiction, even of a poor sort, is the place where such a voice as hers can be heard—although it is not reckoned with in the embedding narrative itself. In the following pages Chrissie is simply condemned as a ‘bad wicked little liar’, ‘a bad, bad girl’ (47), ‘a wild wicked demon’ (48), punished for her lies as if she had truly committed a murder and dispatched elsewhere without much ado and further detail.

20Her neurotic mode of address can be said to have been faulty and to have failed as a consequence. This may not be completely the case, however, as proved by the very existence of Lehmann’s short story, which testifies to the active potency of spectres and to the role literature can play in making them audible and thus visible again.

The Short Story as a Memorial Reclaiming Lives from Oblivion: ‘To write is to hear the lost voice’19

  • 19 ‘Écrire, c’est entendre la voix perdue’ (Quignard 94, translation mine). In his essay, Quignard doe (...)

21The process at work behind the writing of the short story could be similar to the process which urges Chrissie to make up the story of the dead baby boy. As said before the little girl may have invented her story so as to retrieve an ungrieved life from oblivion; similarly, the author of the short story may have wanted to so the same by writing it, this time as a memorial to Chrissie. The title of the short story could be applied to the baby in Chrissie’s figment of imagination, the hypodiegetic story—which is a way of giving pride of place to a story which occupies less than five pages in the whole narrative—but also to the story of Chrissie herself, who is likened to a gipsy’s child throughout the story (4, 5, 22, 42). The story invented by Chrissie caught the narrator’s imagination on account of the image it brought to her mind: ‘We were silent, beholding the monstrous image of a dead naked baby boy’ (44). The same could be said of Chrissie, who endures under the guise of a glaring image forever imprinted in the narrator’s mind: ‘everything was as before . . . except for one small figure carried away on it, vivid, but dwindling’ (43, emphasis mine). Writing the short story is tantamount to rescuing from silence a life made inaudible but nevertheless deemed ‘grievable’ and worthy of a narrative by the narrator herself, the power of the ghost being ‘mostly exercised through the imagination’ (Peeren 3).

22Francoise Bort argues that this impulse is at the core of all the writings by Lehmann and that it became more explicit when she started experimenting with the genre of the short story (49). To back up her analysis she refers not only to the recurrent theme of the dead baby in Lehmann’s work (Bort 45, 74) but also to the first short story written by Lehmann, ‘The Red-haired Miss Daintreys’ (Bort 49, 64, 71–73, 77–79), the incipit of which can be read as a literary manifesto:

. . . leisure employs me—[. . .]—as a kind of screen upon which are projected the images of persons—known well, a little, not at all, seen once, or long ago, or every day; or as a kind of preserving jar in which float fragments of people and landscapes. . . . Suddenly, arbitrarily one day, a spark catches, and the principle of rebirth contained in this cold residue of experience begins to operate. (53)

23Generally speaking, literature was for Lehmann a way of giving a voice to all those who had vanished into thin air but had stayed as images engraved in her memory (she wrote in the aftermath of WWI) and whose ethical call insisted on being answered. One of the ‘vivid’ and riveting images flashing in the narrator’s mind more than thirty years after the encounter with the Wyatts took place will have been that of Chrissie, in her ‘frock of black and scarlet plaid’ (4, 42). In the case of this particular short story it meant refusing to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear in retrospect to what the little girl had to say and giving a voice to some dispossessed neighbours, whose images had been haunting the narrator’s mind from time to time and could prey on the reader’s.

24In the article Stephen Ross devoted to the salience of spectrality, he contends that ‘the spectral is bare life with agency’ (Ross §3). Unlike what happened to the Wyatt family in real life, their spectres refused to be obliterated. Once Mr Wyatt and his three remaining children have gone away, their cottage is ‘fumigated and washed down’ (49). The new lodgers are poor but respectable people. After a while the cottage, which used to be so conspicuous, cannot be distinguished from the others, as if the Wyatts had never lived there and had never existed. They endured, however, in the memory and the imagination of the narrator: ‘It was my younger sister Sylvia who subsequently insinuated [the Wyatts], first into the garden, then into the house; and so forever into memory and imagination’ (15, emphasis mine). They were not wiped out, although or because they represented a disquieting reality at the foundation of society and because they elicited ambivalent reactions tinged with guilt. While the dehumanising metaphor used by the narrator to express the way she reacted to the Wyatts when she was nine reminds one of the social constructs inherited from Victorian literature and shows how ingrained and internalised such prejudices can be, it also insists on the impossibility for her to forget these people not only at the time but also in the long run: ‘as if a nest of vermin had got lodged under the boards, rampant, strong-smelling, not to be obliterated’ (39, emphasis added). Her writing their story and in particular the story of Chrissie more than thirty years after meant giving birth to them again thanks to the marking of letters on a sheet of paper—an act which is precisely the opposite of the act of ‘writing across letters, striking out letters’, the very etymology of the verb ‘obliterate’. Through spectrality the little girl regained visibility and audibility and thus agency: ‘Spectres can act upon us and force us to act for them. They have agency and very often make agents of the living to transact business in the world’, ‘[T]hey assert a gentle, affectionate agency that insists upon renewed memory—an ethical comportment that embraces the Other as other and yet equally familiar, as constitutive of uncanny presence per se (Ross §30, §28).

  • 20 ‘[. . .] and everything was as before, except for the usual scatter of flotsam left by the retreati (...)

25One might wonder why Lehmann did not write this story earlier on or rather why ‘the principle of rebirth contained in this cold residue of experience beg[an] to operate’ (53) more than thirty years after. An inkling may be found at the beginning of the short story written during the early 1940s. Although situated in the Edwardian period, ‘The Gipsy’s Baby’ can be related to the Second World War through the arresting image of Chrissie. In the first pages of the short story, the description of the little girl underlines not only the fantasmatic quality of her singularity (‘[it] gave her the enhanced reality, or the unreality, of a portrait of a child’ [4]) but also her kinship with all outcasts throughout the ages and more specifically during WWII: ‘Whereas the others all looked, curiously enough, clean in a superficial way, she was always excessively dirty, and this increased her look of a travel-stained child from a foreign country: a little refugee, we would think now’ (5, emphasis mine). Building on the ideas of Harendt and Agamben according to whom the refugee is ‘the ultimate figure of bare humanity’ (Ross §40), Ross asserts that he/she is ‘also the world-historical figure of haunting, an overwhelming tidal return of the repressed produced by Western constitutionalism per se’ (Ross §40). Thus the glaring power of the spectral image of Chrissie, similar to ‘the usual scatter of flotsam left by the retreating tide’ (43),20 and its loud silence are likely to prey on the reader with even more intensity when s/he realises that behind the little girl all the invisible and silent refugees of WWII and beyond can be glimpsed at and hopefully recognised not simply as victims but as potential narrative agents.

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Bort, Françoise, Rosamond Lehmann. Porte-parole d’une génération sans visage, Dijon: Éditions universitaires de Dijon, 2013.

Butler Judith, Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2006.

Gildersleeve, Jessica, ‘Monstrous Child: Rosamond Lehmann’s War Writing’, Philament 17 (2017): 1–11.

Griffith, Niall, ‘Foreword’, The Gipsy’s Baby (1946), London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2006, vii–x.

Korte Barbara, ‘Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain: An Introduction’, Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain, eds. Barbara Korte and Frédéric Regard, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2014, 1–15.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, L’Insurrection des vies minuscules, Montrouge: Bayard Éditions, 2014.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, Vies ordinaires, vies précaires, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2007.

Lehmann, Rosamond, The Gipsy’s Baby (1946), London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2006.

Lyotard, Jean-François, ‘On the strength of the weak / Sur la force des faibles’, trans a.k.m. Adam, L’Arc 64 (1976): 4–12, last accessed at, on December 30, 2020.

Owens, Patricia, ‘Reclaiming “bare life”? Against Agamben on Refugees’, International relations 23.4 (2010): 567 582, last accessed at on December 30, 2020.

Quignard, Pascal, ‘Petit Traité sur Méduse’, Le nom sur le bout de la langue, Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

Peeren, Esther, The Spectral Metaphor. Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility, Basingstake: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Ranciere, Jacques, Politique de la littérature, Paris: Galilée, 2007.

Ranciere, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible, London: Gabriel Rockhill, 2004.

Regard, Frédéric, ‘The Sexual Exploitation of the Poor in W. T. Stead’s “New Journalism”’, Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain, eds. Barbara Korte and Frédéric Regard, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2014, 75–93.

Ross, Stephen, ‘The Secret Agency of Dispossession’, Études britanniques contemporaines 53 (2017), last accessed at 30 December 2020.

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1 Lehmann was not to do so again probably because she did not feel legitimate enough, knowing as she did that she would always presuppose ‘a non-marginal “us” looking at the visualized ghosts’ (Peeren 40). She must have been aware of the shortcomings of such an approach: ‘evoking the [readers’] pity and sympathy, emotions which essentially affirm and perpetuate the static Manichean configuration of oppressor and oppressed’ (Peeren 64).

2 The five short stories Rosamond Lehmann wrote were gathered as a collection entitled The Gipsy’s Baby or in some cases The Gipsy’s Baby and Other Stories. Although ‘The Gipsy’s Baby’ was not the first short story Lehmann wrote, it was the longest one and it may be the reason why its title was used for the collection. In the edition I am working on, ‘The Gipsy’s Baby’ (1–49) is followed by ‘The Red-haired Miss Daintreys’ (51–87), to which I will also allude. An article by Jessica Gildersleeve entitled ‘Monstrous Child: Rosamond Lehmann’s War Writing’ also deals with The Gipsy’s Baby but focuses on the three other stories in the collection, which are studied as ‘textual representation of anxiety’: ‘Three stories in The Gipsy’s Baby—‘Wonderful Holidays,’ ‘A Dream of Winter,’ and ‘When the Waters Came’—are narratives which express the anxiety of the single mother responsible for two children, an anxiety compounded by that “climate” of “war, of winter, of privation and ill health”’ (3).

3 ‘Mais les Wyatt ne sont là que pour servir une cause infiniment plus dérangeante que celle de l’extrême pauvreté. Cette cause est celle du statut de la parole et du pouvoir des mots proférés. Chrissie Wyatt invente de toute pièce un être vivant’ (Bort 91).

4 ‘[subjects designated as ghostly] may also work with the metaphor [of the ghost], reshaping it to activate other, more empowering associations of the ghost to go from being overlooked to demanding attention by coming to haunt’ (Peeren 8).

5 Ross underlines the differences between their two approaches of spectrality: ‘This formulation bears some affinity with Esther Peeren’s notion of “spectral agency”, outlined in The Spectral Metaphor, but there are key differences (see, e.g., 1–32). Where Peeren equates bare life with spectrality, and the bodily with the disembodied, I insist upon their distinction. For her, the spectral is a situation of abjection that can be turned to disruptive or resistant uses, where I see it as the agential alternative to the abjection of bare life’ (Ross §3, note 1).

6 ‘S’il existe [. . .] des lieux invisibles et inaudibles, c’est parce qu’il existe une spatialisation de la précarité [. . .]’ (Le Blanc 2007, 165, translation mine).

7 ‘Pour se rendre invisible n’importe quel homme n’a pas de moyen plus sûr que de devenir pauvre’ (Weil translation mine).

8 ‘Une société humaine humilie ses membres lorsqu’elle fait peser sur eux un doute quant à leur inscription réelle dans le genre humain’ (Le Blanc 2007, 173).

9 Horace is referring to three of his brothers, among whom there is Alfie.

10 In particular the semi modal verb ‘ought to’ similar to the one used by the medical staff.

11 Aristotle considered the ability to speak was only granted to certain people. This is Lyotard’s definition of ‘“the speaker” in these times of Athenian imperialism’: ‘the Athenian citizen, son of Athenian parents, recipient of the income from a plot of land, male, speaking Attic, respectful to the civic cults, bearing arms’ (Lyotard).

12 ‘[. . .] sa voix est finalement rendue inaudible par le recouvrement que produit la voix des autres’ (Le Blanc 2007, 151).

13 ‘Their voices were important, not pathetic. The family had obviously been the object lately of many a local charitable schemes, both private and official; and this had set them all up in their own estimation’ (39, emphasis added).

14 Ross is here referring to Butler and Athanasiou’s conception of what he calls ‘material dispossession’.

15 To create: 1. to bring something into existence. 2 (informal) to make a fuss / complain (Oxford Dictionary).

16 Interestingly, the only sentence that the narrator ever heard Chrissie say was: ‘“Yes, I bites,” whispered Chrissie, beaming. I think it was the only thing I ever heard her say’ (22).

17 ‘La visibilité des précaires tend à être une visibilité monstrueuse, dégagée de tout code de la visibilité, retournée contre les formes habituelles de la visibilité’ (Le Blanc 2007, 166).

18 ‘Chrissie invente de toute pièce un être vivant. [. . .] les mots engendrent des êtres, et des êtres rendus tellement réels par la puissance des mots que le mensonge prend statut de crime. [. . .] Chrissie ne fait rien d’autre que de trouver des images pour exprimer sa propre exclusion déjà en marche, avec la force d’un regard neuf que tout oppose à la résignation extrême de ses parents’ (Bort 91).

19 ‘Écrire, c’est entendre la voix perdue’ (Quignard 94, translation mine). In his essay, Quignard does not deal with spectrality but with the fact that language is not innate and is something man has had to learn.

20 ‘[. . .] and everything was as before, except for the usual scatter of flotsam left by the retreating tide; [. . .]’ (43).

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Florence Marie, « Glaring Invisibilities and Loud Silences in ‘The Gipsy’s Baby’ by Rosamond Lehmann »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 05 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Florence Marie

Florence Marie is Senior Lecturer in English Studies at the University of Pau et les Pays de l'Adour (E2S UPPA). She is a member of ALTER. She defended her thesis on J.C. Powys in 2003 and since then she has published articles on his first eight novels and on other modernist writers (with special interest in Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage). She has edited, with Fabienne Gaspari and Michael Parsons, a volume of Rives entitled Premières rencontres avec l’autre (L’Harmattan, 2010), and edited another one entitled Le fou—cet autre, mon frère (L’Harmattan, 2012). She has co-edited Le genre, effet de mode ou concept pertinent? (Peter Lang, 2016) and participated in the writing of Féminisme et prostitution dans l’Angleterre du xixe siècle: la croisade de Josephine Butler (ed. by Frédéric Regard, ENS Éditions, 2014).

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