Debbie Lee was driving through the Devonshire countryside one muggy July day on the 200-year-old trail of a mysterious Englishwoman. She was tracking the wanton daughter of a local cobbler, a woman who had donned the identity of an exotic princess and conned her way into the company of the aristocracy.
Lee’s adventure had begun a few months before, when she found an intriguing footnote about an identity theft in a book by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A salesman had fooled Coleridge and an entire community into believing he was an English gentleman. Intrigued by the story, Lee, an associate professor of English at Washington State University, turned her find into a paper, which she presented at a conference in Canada. When an editor approached her and asked if she was working on a book, she said, “Sure. Yeah, it’s going to be a book.” Lee admits now that she had simply acted on opportunity.
Those few words led to a grant proposal, a book deal to write Romantic Liars, and a large cash advance—enough to bankroll a lengthy stay in England for Lee to hunt out her stories. What Lee didn’t realize at the time was that she, a teacher, scholar, wife, and mother, would be taking on the new roles of hunter, sleuth, and historian; and that, following in the footsteps of her subjects—among them a Javanese princess, a sailor, and a witch—living where they lived, eating where they ate, she would slip out of her own identity and into theirs to better understand them. Nor did she realize the toll that moving between countries, living among strangers, and pursuing what were often the unhappy pasts of her subjects would take.
That July day in Devonshire, the village of Witheridge looked to her like something out of a fairytale, with its quaint stone buildings and thatched roofs. But what was more on her mind, as she drove into the village, was how she could win over the locals. She stopped at a pub in the hope that someone there could offer some details about Mary Baker, a woman born into the community in 1791. What she did know was that Mary was pretty, dark-haired, and petite, with a cunning ability to tell tales.
The folks at the Angel pub knew all about Mary, telling Lee that she was somewhat of a local celebrity. They urged her to seek out the town historians who lived close by.
Moments later, she was sharing tea with the historians, an older couple, and listening as they imparted details about the town, noting that the members of Mary’s family had been craftsmen, and that Mary as a child had been boyish and willful. Yes, Lee thought, she already liked this woman.
The historians showed her to their garage, a room stuffed floor-to-ceiling with boxes of diaries, papers, deeds, marriage certificates, and firsthand histories of the community. A village had existed in the area of Witheridge from prehistoric times, and for thousands of years the landscape had been dotted with farmhouses of mud walls and thatched roofs. It was not a wealthy place. In Mary’s day, the village had had a bakery, which is still standing, a few pubs and inns, a stone church, and a large market square. For a girl with aspirations, life there must have been frustrating.
Digging into the piles of boxes, the historians handed Lee her first great find, an aged, hand-written document detailing Mary’s family history and her early years in the village before she became the famous Caraboo, a princess from “Javasu” who had escaped from pirate captors.
On the hunt
Lee spent six months in Britain hunting for Romantic-era imposters and hoaxes. She explored her subjects’ villages, spent nights in or near their childhood homes, sought out their churches and graves, and wandered the neighborhoods where they lived out their lives.
The investigation, though exciting, wasn’t easy. Lee was used to doing her scholarly work through books. But to best understand these subjects, she needed to walk in their footsteps, hold their letters, sit in their pews. She was amazed at what these women of limited means were able to accomplish simply by altering their identities.
Working out of a small apartment in London, Lee would line up visits and interviews, schedule appointments at museums and libraries, dig up maps, and find places to stay. Then she’d hit the road for a week or two at a time. It was lonely work, she says, and, where Mary Baker was concerned, sometimes frustrating, since Lee often couldn’t tell if she had uncovered the truth, or just stumbled into another of the woman’s fabrications.
Though it was Coleridge’s salesman masquerading as a lord who gave Lee the impetus for the project, Lee found herself much more drawn to the stories of women, in part because she had more in common with them, having come from a working class family herself and sought ways to improve her own lot in life. She was also intrigued by what their assumed identities said about their times—how they reflected cultural and religious issues of the day, and attitudes toward gender, education, and wealth. “No one really had looked at these women as a group—completely reforming their identities,” says Lee.
And who were these women?
There was textile worker Mary Bateman, the “Yorkshire witch” who practiced folk medicine on lonely women, preying on their fears, extorting money from them with the promise of preventing impending disaster. In addition to killing her victims with poison, Bateman invented two alter egos, clairvoyants named Miss Blythe and Mrs. Moore, who would write letters on her behalf.
There was the prophetess Joanna Southcott, unmarried, middle-aged, who attracted thousands of followers from around England. At one point Southcott convinced her flock that she was going to give birth to the second messiah.
Another was Ann Moore, a protégé of Southcott’s, who deceived thousands of visitors and donors into believing in the miracle of her ability to survive without food. The trick, it is said, is that her daughter would pass food to her when they kissed.
Yet another was John Taylor, or rather Mary Anne Talbot, who spent a good part of her life as a man, sailing with the British navy first as a footboy and later as a sailor. She lived in the guise of a man into adulthood, until a press gang tried to force her to join the crew of a war ship. Her only way out was to reveal that she was a woman.
But of all the hoaxes and imposters, Lee was most enthralled with Mary Baker, the working-class girl who found a way out of small-town life through lies and invention.
“I tell my students this: go for what interests you most, even if you don’t know why you’re interested. It’s an intuitive way of investigating, but that’s what’s going to probably deliver up the most interesting and important work,” says Lee.
A time of change
Following one’s feelings and instincts, as Lee did, is certainly a characteristic of the Romantic period—roughly the late 18th through the mid-19th centuries. It was an era of change and exploration—and of reaction against the previous generations’ classical ideals of reason and logic. The industrial revolution had eclipsed agriculture, and many people were trading their rural lives for cosmopolitan ones. It was the peak of the British Empire, when the country had more colonies in more countries around the world than it would ever have again. There was a fascination with the exotic, but a limited understanding of it. And within this culture of change, the idea of the self emerged, celebrating individual creativity and imagination.
Lee loves the period and has made a career of studying it. “There were these fascinating characters leading insane lives,” she says. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, for example, left his pregnant wife and their child to run away with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who became Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein). They traveled across Europe, sometimes with very little money, befriended other great artists, and contributed greatly to English thought and literature. In the end, Shelley drowned in a lake in Italy under mysterious circumstances. “It’s a wild time,” says Lee. “I first got interested in this group of writers when I was 22. I’m still not tired of talking about them and teaching them.
“Wordsworth once said, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,'” says Lee. “They knew that living at that time was something special.”
For women, especially, it was a complex period. While they caught glimpses of the wide world, they were discouraged from being independent, sometimes punished for being imaginative, and often forced to stay within the confines of the social class into which they were born. Men had the option of leaving home, sailing the seas or exploring new countries as members of the military, or simply bettering their lives by finding different vocations than their fathers. But women who came into hard times could only become servants, beggars, or prostitutes, says Lee.
Some of Lee’s subjects frequented Bath at the same time as Jane Austen. But unlike Austen’s heroines, the women in Lee’s stories had few prospects. Born into poverty and lacking education, it was only through invention, opportunity, and daring—abetted by the public fascination with the new, the mystical, and the exotic—that they could find ways to move out of their class.
The age of identity
On the first day of class this spring, Lee talked to her students about her imposter project, detailing these famous British hoaxes. Afterward she was mobbed at the podium. She wasn’t surprised by her students’ fascination. “It taps into a sense that we all have, especially as we’re developing, that there is some leeway to play with the self and who we are when we go to a new place.”
Lee had come home to a generation of American students swamped with notions and issues of identity. This group, she noticed, is fascinated with self, as well as with being recognized by others.
So many of her students are into social networking and have blogs, MySpace pages, or a place on Facebook. They are members of the “Look at Me” generation, according to Generation Next, a recent report on 18- to 25-year-olds from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. According to the Pew findings, more than half of this age group uses sites like MySpace and Facebook, and of that group 82 percent have created personal profiles or online identities.
About half of them have altered their appearance, either with a tattoo, by dying their hair, and/or by piercing a part of their body other than their earlobes. And fame and fortune are their generation’s top goals, they say.
A fixation on identity, appearance, the desire to be rich and famous—these are all things 18- to 25-year-olds have in common with Mary Baker, says Lee.
In fact, our own time has much in common with Baker’s Romantic era. Two hundred years ago, England had a global perspective and was creating colonies and trade relations throughout the world through entities like the Honorable East India Company. The United States today is focused on global trade and international relations.
The rise of Romanticism coincided with a shift from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Now the United States is in the middle of another major shift, from an industrial society to a post-industrial one, in which our manufacturing-based economy is transforming to one based on information and service. Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell predicted the change in 1973 in his book, The Coming of Post Industrial Society.
And both societies are fascinated with the notions of individual identity and celebrity. In our case, one need only watch the nightly news for half an hour.
Facebook sites with links to WSU students reinforce the Pew findings that this generation wants to be seen. There are hundreds of carefully crafted online versions of students, complete with photos and personal details like favorite books, music, even current moods. One woman posts her wedding photos on both her Facebook and MySpace pages. Another, a freshman, leads off with a photo displaying her pierced eyebrow. A third student posts his modeling portfolio and lists his interests as including “working out” and “inspiring others.”
These are idealized versions of oneself, says Regina McMenomy, a WSU doctoral student in American studies. Her research focus is girls, the Internet, online gaming, and identity. The creators pick the characteristics and images they think will be most appealing to their viewers. What they choose to say can be both revealing about themselves and about what they believe is important to the community around them.
Beyond social network profiles, identity-shaping takes place in the characters young adults create through video games. McMenomy has been studying people who play World of Warcraft, a popular online multi-player game. Each participant can create an avatar, choosing a race—such as human, orc, or elf—gender, physical appearance, and social role. “You have so many choices in creating avatars,” says McMenomy, “it can reflect how you want to be seen.” Some of the teens in her study spend more hours gaming online than they do with people in real life. McMenomy wonders if they are struggling with “which self is the true self.”
This focus on crafting identity is something Lee finds fascinating, though not new. But this generation has what the Romantics did not, an opportunity to immediately create, alter, and—through Web cams, cell phones, and computers—share their identity in a very public way. It’s not the identity-shaping that leaves Lee wondering, it’s the act of doing it where the whole world can see. “These are strange times,” she says.
Chasing the past
After she left the historians’ home in Witheridge, Lee went straightaway to visit a distant relative of Mary Baker’s, a man who was living in the house where Mary was born. He pointed her to the spot where Mary, boldly improper, often swam in the ditch with the local boys.
He had a rare copy of an old book about Caraboo/Mary Baker. While Lee looked through it, the older man filled out the story with details that he had learned at the knees of his parents and grandparents. Lee was able to piece together a picture of an attractive girl who liked to compete, wanted to learn to read and write, and was punished for her “wild” behaviors. She left home at the first opportunity—at age 16. (Lee and Mary had that in common, since Lee, too, had run away from home at age 16.)
She followed Mary’s trail to Bristol and then to the London suburbs, where the cobbler’s daughter worked as a servant for three years. In that job she learned to read and write and developed her tendency for fabricating, until she was caught in a lie by her employers and was forced to leave. Lee next picked up Mary’s trail at a home for reformed prostitutes. Telling her own story much later, Mary said she had lied about being a prostitute to get in. But Lee wondered, as she struggled through the tangle of truth and lies along Mary’s path—maybe that wasn’t a lie.
Then along came a man. John Baker seduced Mary, traveled with her, and shared with her his fascination for the East. Then he left her. She was 25 and pregnant.
This last detail led Lee to a foundling hospital, where Mary had taken her infant son. There, Lee came closest, she felt, to catching the true Mary Baker, who simply couldn’t have invented a baby or the need to have it cared for. Lee held and examined the very documents detailing a story of seduction and betrayal that Mary had held in her hands and signed. “You’d find these old tattered letters. But because she was so clever and she did tell so many lies, even as you were sitting there reading these letters in a public record office, you knew that even this could not be true.”
Lee was pulled even deeper into Mary’s story. “I tried to actually live it,” she says. “I kind of got a little weirdly obsessed. I was thinking so much what it would be like to be her.”
The records do show that Mary visited the baby at the foundling hospital every week for several months. A mother herself, Lee understood what drew her back. But when Mary’s baby died, everything changed. “She sort of went off the deep end,” says Lee.
It’s at this point in Mary’s story that she vanishes and Princess Caraboo appears.
To flesh out the details of Mary’s subsequent history, Lee turned to the research of John Wells, who spent many years on the trail of Caraboo, and whose book, Princess Caraboo, was adapted into a movie in 1994.
Shortly after Mary Baker’s baby dies, an exotic woman appears in the town of Almondsbury, an upscale suburb of Bristol. According to Lee’s account and others, she wears a black shawl around her head, speaks no English, and tries to communicate using strange sounds and gestures. People offer her food. Then someone takes her to the magistrate who, confounded by her appearance and lack of history, wants to leave her at the outskirts of the village. His wife, an American heiress, thinks otherwise. She takes the woman in, imagining she’s a traveler in need of help.
The strange woman speaks a language all her own, calls herself “Caraboo,” and behaves in ways her hosts find fascinating. She tries to sleep on the floor, she prays devoutly before tasting her food. A sailor claiming to speak her language chatters with her. He tells her hosts that she is royalty from Java who was stolen from her home by pirates.
Titillated by the story and thrilled by the attention brought by housing a lost princess, Caraboo’s hosts contact the newspapers. She catches the interest of historians, orientalists, and journalists. A noted artist comes to paint her portrait. As her exposure to these “experts” continues, her portrayal of Caraboo evolves to incorporate the defining “Oriental” characteristics the experts discuss in front of her. At one point, she even creates a written version of her language. When she appears in public, people fawn over her, and even kneel before her with respect.
The charade does not last, though. A few months after she first appears in Almondsbury, she is unmasked by a woman who recognizes Mary Baker in a description of Caraboo printed in the newspaper.
Her hosts, still caught up in her charms, promise not to punish her if she reveals her true story. So the details of Mary Baker’s “real” life come out and are published, revealing how even the experts and aristocrats were duped by her clever ruse.
In the ensuing months, Caraboo’s celebrity carries her across the ocean to America, where the stories of her imposture and her duping of the British elite precede her arrival. What is more American, after all, than the brashness and ingenuity of a member of the working class winning her fame and fortune?
Through correspondence with another of Mary’s distant relatives, Lee was able to find newspaper accounts of Caraboo’s visit in the New York Post and the American Beacon. People crowded the dock to meet her as her ship arrived. She was feted, invited out, and often visited by people wanting to see her perform as the exotic princess.
Mary Baker made her living portraying Caraboo for audiences, then eventually returned to England, where her popularity gradually waned. She supported herself by selling leeches to a local hospital, died at the age of 74, and was buried in a mass grave. Lee found the site, but no headstone to acknowledge that Baker was buried there.
As Lee’s time in England wound down, she felt worn out from trailing these characters with their shifting identities. She was also lonely and unsure of the direction of her project. “I started to kind of lose it,” she admits. “You don’t make that many friends when you’re just researching and writing. I became depressed. I started to kind of lose my sense of self.”
It wasn’t until she came home to her family and set her research aside for a time that she recovered. “Then one day, in February, I thought maybe I’d just sit down and write,” she says. Two months later she had completed 80,000 words about women imposters and what their chicanery revealed about the follies of British society at the time. For example, the false prophet mocked religion, according to Lee. The healer mocked medicine. The sailor, warfare. And Mary Baker/Caraboo mocked ethnography and aristocracy.
All of them, through the reinvention of self, managed for a time to overcome the barriers of gender and class.
“We construct identities all the time—based on who we’re with and where we are. We even believe different things about ourselves at different times,” says Lee. “What’s interesting about these people [the imposters] is that they push that phenomenon that happens to all of us. They push that to an extreme.”
Staff illustration. Inset: A detail from Princess Caraboo of Javasu (Mary Baker), 1817 (oil on panel) by Edward Bird (1772–1819), Bristol City Museum znd Art Gallery/ The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality