In 1817 a quick-witted, penniless young woman persuaded local worthies and then some of the great that she was a lost princess from a foreign land. I decided to blog about this now not only because it's an engaging story, but because there's an enjoyable movie about it that might be a good choice for the lingering days of the summer holidays.
There's a complete account of the adventure available on googlebooks here and I'll start by quoting the opening.
"On Thursday evening the 3rd of April 1817, the Overseer of the Poor of the parish of Almondsbury, in the county of Gloucester, called at Knole Park, the residence of Samuel Worrall, Esq. to inform that Gentleman and his Lady, that a young Female had entered a cottage in the village, and had made signs, that it was her wish to sleep under its roof; but not speaking a language, which its inhabitants or the Overseer understood, the officer thought it right to refer to Mr. Worrall, a Magistrate for the county, for his advice; knowing also, that there was a man servant residing in Mr. Worrall's family, who was conversant with several foreign languages, and who could probably comprehend that in which the stranger spoke."
A little later we get a clear exposition of the situation of a vagrant in Regency England. "Upon Mrs. W.'s return from church, she summoned the young woman before her; and fearful of imposition, she attempted to interest the stranger by addressing her in the following soothing and compassionate language; "My good young woman, I very much fear that you are imposing upon me, and that you understand and can answer me in my own language; if so, and distress has driven you to this expedient, make a friend of me; I am a female as yourself, and can feel for you, and will give you money and clothes, and will put you on your journey, without disclosing your conduct to any one; but it must be on condition that you speak the truth. If you deceive me, I think it right to inform you, that Mr. W. is a Magistrate, and has the power of sending you to prison, committing you to hard labour, and passing you as a vagrant to your own parish."
The lost princess was in fact Mary Baker, and as best anyone can tell, she'd decided that foreigners had a better chance of being treated gently than English people, and then responded with quick wits to what happened. When shown scenes from foreign countries, she showed interest in Oriental ones, especially those from China.
She was obviously good at what she did, for she gained support from various people with knowledge of the East. Then she got really lucky with a Portuguese man who was clearly the sort to latch onto anything exciting public interest.
"At last a foreigner of the name of Manuel Eynesso, a Portuguese from the Malay country, who happened to be in Bristol, was introduced to her, and he declared that he could undertake to interpret her language. The tale, this impostor pretended to extract from her, was, briefly, that she was a person of consequence in her own country, had been decoyed from an island in the East Indies, and brought to England against her consent, and deserted. That the language she spoke was not a pure dialect, bi>t a mixture of languages used on the coast of Sumatra, and other islands in the East. This Manuel Eynesso in short invented a story so plausible, and one so well suited to the imposition the girl had determined to practice, that Mrs. W. was induced a second time to take her to Knole, intending to communicate the particulars of her history, as far as she could collect them, to some respectable individual at the East India House, and extend her protection to her till the truth of her story could be developed."
However, Mrs. Worrall intended to take the princess to London to be questioned by the East India Company, so Mary decided it was time to disappear. She'd previously intended to take ship to America and booked passage, but didn't have the money. That was why she'd gone wandering, hoping to find the means. Now that she had possessions of some value she took off for Bristol, but the ship had sailed.
Later, reason unclear, she ran away to Bath. Whether she intended it or not, she became a sensation with the great. When Mrs. Worrall tracked her down, she found this.
"The drawing room was crowded with fashionable visitants, all eager to be introduced to the interesting Princess. There was one fair female kneeling before her, another taking her by the hand, another begging a kiss !—The girl afterwards declared, that this was the most trying scene she ever encountered, and that on this occasion she had more difficulty to refrain from laughing, and escape detection, than in all the singular occurrences of her life."
Mrs. Worrall took her back to Knole, for which the princess expressed gratitude, but the true story was beginning to emerge. It's all laid out in the book, but is too complicated to attempt here. Basically Mary was a clever girl who from a young age refused to settle to any position thought suitable for her, and who was both a survivor and a natural confidence trickster.
Probably keen to see the end of her, Mrs. Worrall bought her passage to America, where I'd have thought Mary would do well, but it seems her Princess Caraboo act didn't go so well there. She should have been capable of some other ruse, but perhaps she'd become addicted to life at the top. She returned to England and lived out her life in a humdrum way. The film gives her a happier ending.
As the author, of the book, John Mathew Gutch wraps up: "That an illiterate girl, unaided by education, in her usual manners and common appearance by no means elegant or striking, and with no apparent object, but an ambition to excel in deceit, should have so conducted herself both in the language she made use of, and in her general demeanour, as to have induced hundreds to believe, that she was no less a personage than an unfortunate, unprotected, and wandering Princess from a distant Eastern Island, cast upon the shores of Britain by cruel and relentless Pirates;—that she should have sustained this character, with a countenance never changed by the most abject flattery, or the most abusive invective, constantly surrounded by persons of superior talent and education, as well as by those in her own rank of life, who were always on the watch to mark any inconsistency, or to catch at any occurrence that could lead to detection ;—and that on no occasion was she found to lose sight of the part she was acting, or once to betray herself;—is an instance of consummate art and duplicity exceeding any occurrence in the annals of modern imposture."
That's true, especially as it's claimed in the book that she was skilled with a bow and arrow and a sword!
The fun aspect of such period narratives is the sidelights to the time. What to make of this, included in the true story of Mary Baker?
"Being at this time very fond of finery, she applied the wages which she received in the purchase of clothes, and then returned to her father's. On her return he was much hurt to see her in white, and her mother insisted on her taking it off, which she would not do. She staid there only six days, during which time she saw her friend, and her old master and mistress; but being dressed in white, they said, that she had dishonestly procured it."
As I've always assumed with reason that shifts etc were white, I can only assume this means a white gown. Would a white muslin gown be so much more expensive, or was it the impractibility of it that ruled it out? Any idea?
Does any of this surprise you? In truth, people still get away with stunts like this if they have panache. We seem willing to believe the bold, and especially eager to believe extraordinary stories, especially about people from distant lands.
And yet, as I said, less forgiving in fiction. If this were written as a Regency Romance, how would you regard it?
Have you read any romances with equally implausible plots, and how did that work for you?