Borrowing Historical Figures for Jane Austen fan Fiction

Borrowing Historical Figures for Jane Austen fan Fiction

It’s tempting to shoehorn historical characters into Jane Austen fan fiction, even though Austen herself never used any outright current-day (for her time) politicians, actors or literary figures. You don’t see Fitzwilliam Darcy talking to Pitt the Younger or discussing strategy with Wellington and you don’t see Elizabeth Bennet asking Fanny Burney for her autograph.

But for a modern-day author, it’s fun to throw in a little nod to those readers who probably know more than the author about Hannah More or Josiah Wedgwood or Joseph Priestley. It’s even more fun to be as veiled about it as possible, so that only the “right sort” gets the reference.

In my first Austen-related book, I managed to avoid any real figures other than Charles Dundas, whom I mentioned in my previous blog post. I was challenged to invent a personality for him and I did so based solely on portraits of the man and what little personal history I found online. I wanted him to be a sympathetic character, so I didn’t really want to find information that showed him otherwise.

For my next book, Our Mutual Friends, however, I’m basing two characters on known historical figures, but modifying them somewhat for my needs. The first one I want to mention is Princess Caraboo, who managed one of the most charming frauds ever perpetrated and almost got away with it.

On April 3, 1817, an oddly dressed young woman who spoke no English presented herself at the door of a cottage in the parish of Almondsbury, in Gloucestershire, and by means of signs made clear her desire to sleep there.* The young woman was later taken to the local magistrate, Samuel Worral, where her appearance and manners and odd customs charmed and intrigued the magistrate and his wife. Mr. Worral’s Greek valet was asked whether he could interpret her speech, but despite his knowledge of the languages of the Levant, he could not. The valet was suspicious of the young woman but he was unable to find any reason to accuse her.

Edward Bird, 1817 Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Over time, the woman’s story began to unfold thanks to several people who professed to understand her language. These interpreters included a Portuguese man who said she spoke a dialect common to Sumatra, and a gentleman who had traveled the East Indies, although he used both words and signs to communicate. The tale these interpreters uncovered was highly entertaining. The young woman claimed to be Princess Caraboo of Javasu and she was of Chinese or Malaysian descent and had been captured by pirates and later sold to a brig captain. When the brig neared England, she jumped to shore and wandered the country until her arrival in Almondsbury.

She apparently gave numerous details of her previous life, including the dress she’d been accustomed to and when given material, created an exotic dress of calico and at times a turban decorated with peacock feathers, although she also went about with no head covering, piling her hair above her head and securing it with a skewer.

According to accounts, she never spoke anything other than her curious language. Her customs were equally curious: she drank only water; at first ate no meat but later when given a live pigeon, tore its head off and cooked it herself; fasted on Tuesday and on that day would climb to the roof and sit; and often bathed, often publicly and often without any clothing.

She also disappeared from the care of the Worrals twice and on the second occasion made it to Bath, where she became the darling of the haut ton. Unfortunately her activities led to her downfall. The attendant publicity made someone come forth and identify her as Mary Baker of Devonshire and the whole story of her life eventually came out, although that story was as colorful as her invented story (and possibly as false). She’d been a poor uneducated girl in service but with no patience for the life of a servant. She went from situation to situation, occasionally went begging and even applied to a Magdalene asylum for fallen woman but was thrown out when even that was discovered to be a lie. She fell in with highwaymen but was abandoned by them when she proved unable to handle a pistol and also traveled with gypsies. She’d been married but her husband abandoned her with a child that later died. Then she had the idea of her imposture.

With her customary luck, the Worrals took pity on Baker even after she admitted her fraud and gave her money to seek a new life in America. The Worrals had for a time basked in the fame of their exotic guest and Baker took them for nothing more than the cost of feeding, clothing and housing her. Even when she disappeared from their house she’d taken nothing with her but what she’d been given.

In America, Baker traded a little on her fame but eventually returned to England and made a respectable living selling leeches. She died in 1864 and is buried in Bristol.

The tale of Princess Caraboo has always affected me. In a society where your birth, your class, your speech and your dress dictated your life, it’s amazing how Baker could invent herself. The determination she showed to keep up her imposture is almost inconceivable. I could say that she would have been better served had she been content with the life of a person of her station, but I say that with the safety of living in the modern day, when a wife isn’t her husband’s property, when a woman has the right to a vote and when compassion is more than the treadmill and the workhouse.

I guess I’ve always had a weakness for the charming fraud—the ones who injure no one but leave behind the sense that it is possible to reinvent yourself. I know I have no facility for this so I admire it in others. I once on a rafting trip introduced myself to the other rafters as Gwen, ostensibly because there were four other Jennifers on the trip but primarily because it was during the wilderness years of my marriage and I wanted to be someone different. I chose Gwen because Jennifer is Guinevere in French by way of Wales and because Gwen sounds like a fun name. Of course everyone thought I was unforgivably rude because they’d call my name and I would ignore them: “Look out for that rock, Gwen!”

So for two days I couldn’t even manage to respond to the name I’d chosen. Baker invented a language and even writing that fooled experts. You could call the Georgian era a credible age—after all, experts thought Mary Toft gave birth to rabbits—but the convincing fraud survived into the twentieth century with Ferdinand Waldo Demara (it helped being portrayed by Tony Curtis) and Frank Abagnale (again, Leonardo DiCaprio helped) and even into the twenty-first century with Clark Rockefeller, although as a convicted murderer, he was not so charming.

Baker, or Princess Caraboo rather, remains popular to this day. I know of two musicals about her and I’m sure there are other musicals and plays about her. She’s usually included in great impostor lists and there’s a great podcast about her at Stuff You Missed in History Class.

In my book, Princess Caraboo of Javasu becomes Prince Nanaboo of Samokar. The time is shifted slightly earlier to have more relevance to the Napoleonic War, but many of the details are borrowed from Baker’s imposture.

For my next regular posting, I’ll talk about my take on Franz Anton Mesmer and his mysterious bacquet.

12 Responses to Borrowing Historical Figures for Jane Austen fan Fiction

  1. I was fascinated by the entire post, and then at the end, got a great and delighted laugh from it. My nickname in my family was and is “Nanaboo”. Since Lady Diana eventually became Princess Diana, I, on more than one occasion was called “Princess Nanaboo” by a teasing sibling. I’m so gratified to have a literary counterpart – even if he is a fraud.

  2. I had heard of her but it has been a while. In fact I think I saw the movie. In any event, some of those “odd” happenings you referenced, like the lady giving birth to rabbits were really bizarre. Thanks for an interesting post!

  3. That is a fantastic story! I’ve never heard of “Princess Caraboo” but now am dying to watch the movie. Already checking Netflix!!

    How fun to discover these hidden gems. Like you, Jennifer, I tend to prefer the offbeat references in my novels. I’ve tossed in the occasional encounter or mention of a real person from the Regency Era, but the only ones I’ve spent time with were lesser known. Makes it more fun, for one thing, plus as a writer you can take more creative license with their personality or location. 🙂

  4. The movie, in my estimation, is wonderful, as is Kevin Kline. He and Phoebe Cates were and are married, which undoubtedly added to the chemistry of their performance.

    Although in many respect the movie is accurate, I don’t think Baker had any romantic entanglements, which is a shame. There were, however, rumors that while en route to America, she stopped in St. Helena where Napoleon was quite taken with her. That would have been a curious route, however.

  5. Never heard of Princess Caraboo until you mentioned her here. It will be fun to see the movie. I love it when an author adds a little history into their story. Thanks, jen

  6. What a brazen lady. I bet she could’ve made quite a living on the stage. I wonder why she didn’t go for it. Maybe the challenge of the disguise? Your new book sounds intriguing. Thank you for sharing.

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