Book Review: Pale imitations of a colourful hoaxer

Princess Caraboo: Her True Story John Wells Pan, £4.99
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In April 1817 a pretty young woman appeared in a West Country village, apparently unable to speak English, and wearing a turban. She was initially taken for a foreign beggar, but began to excite considerable interest when no one could discover whe re shewas from.

She was taken in by Elizabeth Worrall, a member of an elite Bristol family, and succeeded in leading many experts to believe that she was a half-Chinese, half-Malayan princess called Caraboo, who had been abducted by pirates from her home of "Javasu", and had jumped ship off the English coast and swum ashore.

After she gained national fame some weeks later through accounts in various newspapers, she was exposed as a fraud "from down along, where dumplings grace each table". She was, it turned out, an itinerant serving-girl from Devon.

Her story has now been revived, with two books out and a film on release. On the front of Caraboo: The Servant Girl Princess, Jennifer Raison and Michael Goldie claim to have produced "the real story of the grand hoax"; yet on the back their work is described as, "an intriguing blend of fact and fiction". The blend itself is considerably less than intriguing, as is the fiction: it is the facts, as one reads along, that one hopes to be able to uncover. Much of the book consists of the made-up journal andletters of Elizabeth Worrall, and the made-up confession of Caraboo. The authors seem to see no oddity in producing a largely faked account of a real fraud. There is no palpable humour, for example, when they have someone write to Elizabeth Worrall: "Your letters read like Romances."

The Bristol Mirror of the time was far more alive to the curious boundaries brought into play by the hoax, and remarked delightedly, when it was suggested that Caraboo should perform her story on stage: "The picture would be an exact copy - her imitationwould be the thing itself."

Raison and Goldie's imitation is plainly not the thing itself. Occasional extracts from genuine letters and newspaper editorials provide one with an instant standard for comparison. Their pastiche contains peculiar tense shifts, ungrammatical sentences in the modern style, and endless forced attempts to incorporate details of patriotic hat trimmings and horse diseases. They convert Elizabeth Worrall from the American bluestocking she was into a pale reminder of a Jane Austen fuss budget. Worse, they bowdlerise the account that Caraboo really did leave of herself, in conversation with two contemporary journalists.

These strange decisions are revealed by the counter-example of Princess Caraboo: Her True Story, by John Wells. He does his level best to keep fact and fiction apart. Where he is inspired to enter into the spirit of fraud himself, he discusses it openly;on one of the most amusing pages, he explains exactly which of all the occurrences just laid out he felt compelled to distort when he turned the story into the current film. He quaintly divulges the attraction Caraboo holds for him as a benchmark for the degree to which she was able to beguile others, and holds up his own attempts to find out more about her as a parallel to the way in which she was pursued at the time.

Wells does a better job than Raison and Goldie of bringing to life the historical context of the hoax, describing male prostitutes stumbling into workhouses after hours, the appalling, primitive medical practices of the time, and prison warders who "keptcats to stop the rats eating the prisoners' feet". He also tackles more convincingly than his rivals the historical reasons why so many people were "pre-disposed to believe".

Nevertheless, in both books one is left feeling that there was something human and dreadful at play in Caraboo's life that the authors have been unable to catch. Wells describes how one gentleman, trying to expose Caraboo as a fraud by making her blush, whispered into her ear: "You are the most beautiful creature I ever beheld." She remained pale and reserved; and it is this suggestive reserve that is still the most appealing thing about her.