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April 19 , 2009

The Scholar Gypsy

The Quest for a Family Secret


As a child, Anthony Sampson was haunted by a family skeleton. He knew his grandfather John Sampson had been an authority on the gypsies. They had called him the Rai - the Master - and had flocked to his magnificent funeral on a Welsh mountain. But of his grandfather's private life he was told nothing, nor of the mysterious aunt who joined the family after his death. In fact only sixty years later did the truth begin to emerge. This book follows a trail of clues to uncover an extraordinary hidden life and a gypsy world now disappeared.

John Sampson was a brilliant philologist who, happening to encounter a gypsy tribe in North Wales, compiled over thirty years a dictionary of the Romani language that remains the standard work. But he also became a Bohemian himself, a bigamist and the father of a child who was brought up secretly and who would in turn become a remarkable scholar. Using intimate letters, bawdy rhymes and wonderful illustrations- including many by Augustus John who was part of the circle - Anthony Sampson brings to life a group of scholars, writers and painters who escaped Victorian convention to pursue an alternative life in the Welsh hills.

The Scholar Gypsy is both a detective story and a moving voyage of discovery. Ranging through finely observed contrasts and connections it illuminates many lesser-known aspects of Victorian and Edwardian Britain and vividly conveys the spell that gypsies cast on the imagination of artists and writers, and the fear that they arouse among the conventional.
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