Sep 2 2011 2:00pm

Tall, Dark, and Exotic: Gypsy Romance Heroes

Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering HeightsI’m not generally a fan of pirates or Vikings or bare-chested Celts, although of course there are exceptions. But I have a real weakness for Gypsy heroes, a strange affection for someone whose favorite heroes are most often intelligent betas. It is one of those inexplicable preferences, but I know I am in good company. The Gypsy hero has been around for a long while.

The Romany people were expelled from Spain in the late 15th century and entered Great Britain thereafter. Their nomadic lifestyle led writers of romance to transform the Gypsies, as they were popularly known, into a symbol of freedom and an escape from the mundane. In particular, the dark, mysterious Gypsy male who promised danger and passion became a staple in Western literature. At least as far back as the early 18th century, versions of the folk ballad “Gypsy Davey” told the story of a highborn lady lured away from a conventional life of wealth and status, home and family by a Gypsy lover.

In D. H. Lawrence’s classic short novel, The Virgin and the Gipsy (written in 1926 and published posthumously in 1930), the free-spirited Gypsy exercises the same fascination over a vicar’s daughter:

“He looked back into her eyes...with that naked suggestion of desire which acted on her like a spell, and robbed her of her will.”

Thunder and Roses by Mary Jo PutneyThe seductive Gypsy male is the ultimate bad boy hero whose appeal is rendered more powerful by the danger he represents. The Gypsy Earl has proved a great favorite with romance writers. Mary Jo Putney in Thunder and Roses (1993), the first of her Fallen Angel books, pairs Nicholas Davies, Earl of Aberdare, the half-gypsy “Demon Earl,” with pious Methodist schoolteacher Clare Morgan in a story that includes social concerns, questions of faith, the meaning of friendship, and a love passionate enough to bridge all differences. When Clare first sees the adult Nicholas, she thinks,

“Though not unusually tall, he radiated power. She remembered that even at the age when most lads were gawky, he had moved with absolute physical mastery.”

Rexanne Becnel’s Dangerous to Love (1997) features another Gypsy Earl with a Gypsy mother. Ivan Thornton finds cruelty and prejudice in his grandmother’s home and in the school to which she sends him. He is arrogant, angry, and filled with desire for revenge on those who scorn him. This hero knows that though his title and wealth may gain him admission to the ballrooms of the aristocracy, the haut ton views him as a dangerous animal. Becnel, like other creators of Gypsy heroes, emphasizes the untamed quality that is an ineradicable part of the Rom in popular culture:

“He fought down the urge to snarl at them, to send the entire pack of ninnies squealing in fear for the safety of their mother’s bosoms.”

It will take his bluestocking bride, Lady Lucy Drysdale, a twenty-eight-year-old spinster who is “not exactly biddable” to teach this Gypsy Earl that love can heal his wounds.

One Moonlit Night by Samantha JamesYet another Gypsy Earl, Dominic St. Bride, the hero of Samantha James’s One Moonlit Night (1998) is saved physically and emotionally by the heroine, Olivia Sherwood, a vicar’s daughter. The contrast James draws between the fairness of the heroine and the darkness of the hero is another convention of the Gypsy hero’s story. Olivia has skin “the color of Devonshire cream” and hair that is “part gold, part russet.” Dominic’s skin is “golden brown,” and his hair “like darkest chocolate.” Olivia looks at him and knows he is unlike other men:

“It struck her anew...he did not look like a Gypsy. Yet neither did he look like any gentleman she’d ever seen. He was dressed in a snowy white shirt and cravat, tight doeskin breeches and shining knee-high boots. He possessed a curious roughness that was almost at odds with his elegant clothing. But there was no denying it...”

Gypsy Lover (2005), the third book in Edith Layton’s Botany Bay series, could serve as a classic text for studying the Gypsy hero. Layton introduces Daffyd Reynard, part-gypsy, part-aristocrat, and ex-convict, in the opening line of the book: “He sat in the shadows, waiting.” This man of shadows is described as “a lean, dark, dangerously attractive young man,” and, in a twist of the convention, the golden lady in a light-filled room is the mother who gave him his blue eyes and rejected him. When he joins forces with governess Meg Shaw to find her missing charge, the contrast carries more substance than mere physical differences. Daffyd acknowledges that “his dark gypsy looks had always made females shiver, and men look askance.” Meg first appears as “the woman in gray,” who “looked sober, proper, and apprehensive.” In a wonderful road romance that encompasses both parts of Daffyd’s world, the Rom and the ton, he discovers that Meg is intelligent, courageous, and truly good, and she discovers that he is funny, passionate, and a man of honor. The two fall in love but separate once the runaway is found. It takes being away from Meg to force Daffyd to surrender his conviction that his past makes him unfit for love and marriage.

Lisa Kleypas takes a different approach in her first two Hathaway novels. Mine Till Midnight (2007) revisits half-Gypsy, half-Irish Cam Rohan, a character whose story readers’ clamored for after meeting him in Devil in Winter. Kleypas uses Cam’s hybridity to create complex layers for this hero who yearns for freedom. But like Layton, Kleypas’s distinctive treatment does not mean the absence of Gypsy hero conventions. Cam has a “face created for sin” and an “expression not tempered by warmth or kindness.” Amelia has fair skin and a “rosy-cheeked wholesomeness.” Yet on a deeper level, it is their oppositions that make them perfect for one another. Cam cares tenderly and passionately for the caretaker Amelia, and she offers him the freedom that can be found only within the bonds of love.

Seduce Me at Sunrise by Lisa KleypasThe mysterious Kev Merripen, a secondary character in MTM, is the hero of Seduce Me at Sunrise (2008). Even for Kleypas, a champion at creating tortured heroes, Merripen is superlative. Part of the Hathaway household since boyhood, he nevertheless sees himself as “other,” convinced that his love for Win Hathaway can never be fulfilled. He is large, “exotic,” and “brooding”; she is pink and white and physically fragile. Like many other Gypsy heroes, Kev is presented in animalistic terms. The savagery of the tormented child rescued by the Hathaways remains a part of him. As an adult, he is “impenetrably mysterious,” a man who will “never be more than half-tame.” One of the most revealing moments in the book comes when Merripen understands that in giving his all to Win, he must also give her the “broken pieces.” This realization makes possible the HEA. It means that Merripen has discovered what Win has always possessed, the quality Leo identifies as “the courage to live.”

How do you feel about Gypsy heroes? If you share my fondness for them, who are your favorites?


Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.

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Vanessa Kelly
1. Vanessa Kelly
Great post, Janga! I loved Lisa Kleypas' Gypsy heroes. It's a powerful trope - much like the eternal lure of the sheik hero, too. What could be more fun than to explore the forbidden?
Vanessa Kelly
2. Janga
Thanks, Vanessa. I think Lisa Kleypas heroes probably have their own room in the Romance Heroes Hall of Fame, but even among LK's characters Cam and Merripen are special. I was one of those readers who fell in love with Cam in Devil in Winter.

I hadn't thought about the connection with the sheik hero, but I think you're right about the similarities. My guess is that the light and dark imagery abounds in both.
Donna Cummings
3. Donna Cummings
I hadn't really thought of the prevalence of Gypsy heroes, but as usual, you've got a wonderful list of suggestions. :) I wish I could just read 24 hours/day -- it would give me a chance to get to everything on my list!
Louise Partain
4. Louise321
Thanks, Vanessa!

I'm with you, @Janga. I loved the way Cam lured Lillian with the thought of a wild ride on a Pooka. Dangerous indeed! Yep I wanted me some of that and was so happy he got his own story and in fact his own series. I recently reread that series and realized that Cam is indeed the lynchpin upon which the stability of the Hathaways is founded. When he almost died in Merripen's book, it was the catalyst that brought Merripen back to the living. I love me them Gypsy men! Even the half gypsy men as long as the other half is at least Irish.

By the way, I envy you if you have read Mary Jo Putney's book. I can't find a copy anywhere.
Vanessa Kelly
5. Janga
Donna, I think 24-hour reading marathons would just mean our TBR mountains would become whole ranges, and we'd still be saying "So many books, so little time." :)

My list of Gypsy heroes is incomplete. There's Deanna Raybourn's Nicholas Brisbane, for example. He's a wonderful hero--part Scottish, part Gypsy.
Vanessa Kelly
6. Janga
Louise, another member of the Cam Club, I see. I think he's a scene stealer--and a heart stealer--in every book in which he appears.

As for MJP, I started reading her with her second book and haven't missed one since. Most of them are on a keeper shelf. Her Silk books are now available as ebooks. Perhaps you'll soon be able to find the Fallen Angels books in that format as well.
Vanessa Kelly
7. Dick Atterbull
The comments are interesting; no acknowledgement that Romanies are real, everyday people, twelve million throughout the world. For the fantasizing of Romany women, see Ian Hancock's essay in Valentina Glajar's book "Gypsies in Literature and Culture" (2008)
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