Robyn Annear is exactly the sort of guest I like to meet at dinner parties: I know from sitting in on a Melbourne Writers Festival session where she was a panelist that she has a marvellous quirky sense of humour and she knows all kinds of kooky stuff about our Australian history to keep the table entertained.
Annear’s first book, Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne, is my all-time favourite book about Melbourne, which I recommend for anyone visiting my city, for all its inhabitants and especially for Victorian teachers of Australian history who want some chatty anecdotes to jazz up their lessons or excursion to Melbourne. This is because there are all sorts of fascinating stories from the time when it was just a village, and it has a handy map so that you can wander around town finding the source of these stories without getting lost. (My copy still has the Melbourne Writers Festival ticket from 1999 inside it, as a bookmark!)
Although it’s not about a place, The Man Who Lost Himself is about a most interesting character who could only ever have come from the Australian colonies. It’s the story of the Tichborne Claimant, a truly amazing attempt at …well, was it fraud? Even now, I am not sure…
In 1854, Roger Tichborne, sole heir to a fortune, was lost at sea en route to Chile, presumed drowned. The estate went to an infant relative from a rival branch of the family, the Doughtys. But Roger’s indefatigable mother, the Dowager Lady Henrietta Tichborne – possibly aware that she was ‘just the kind of mother a son might feign death to escape from’ refused to believe in her son’s demise, and advertised throughout the world for news of him.
And lo! Sir Roger surfaces in Wagga Wagga in Australia. Well, maybe…
One Tom Castro, a dubious butcher of even more dubious antecedents, hailed from Wagga Wagga too.
Robyn Annear tells this bizarre tale with all her trademark wry humour, all the way from Wagga Wagga to the law courts in England and Chile too. It’s an extraordinary tale, complete with shonky ambitious lawyers, witness bribes from both sides of the bar table, and not one but two Commissions taking evidence from people at the opposite ends of the earth. There were Tichborne Bonds and a Defence Fund raised by the working classes of England to support the Claimant against the oppression of the aristocracy (huh?), and the passage of legislation entitled the False Personations Act! Ladies had to be cleared from the court to hear, a-hem, evidence about certain aspects of the Claimant’s appendages, and there must have been whole forests of trees cleared for the reams of paper expended at the trial.
Most intriguing of all was the behaviour of the Claimant. One would have thought that fraudulent or otherwise, the man who would have done everything he could to co-operate with his counsel and advance his case. But he did not. Most of the time he seemed to be disinterested in it, and often went out of his way to sabotage it.
And it’s all true!!
Seriously good fun, and highly recommended. No wonder it’s still in print ten years after its first release!
Author: Robyn Annear
Title: The Man Who Lost Himself
Publisher: Text Publishing 2002
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library
Fishpond: The Man Who Lost Himself: The Fabulous Story of the Tichborne Claimant