On Being Duped

Going through a box of VHSs last night, I found a tattered copy of the 1994 film, Princess Caraboo with Phoebe Cates in the title role. The background is that in the summer of 1817, a mysterious/exotic/oriental-like/attractive woman was found wandering dazed and confused in the Gloucestershire countryside.

Initially thought to be a common vagrant – or, worse, stay-behind French agitator only two years after Waterloo – she was taken to the local Overseer of the Poor, who then handed her over to the care of county Magistrate, Samuel Worrall and his wife.

Soon, however, the woman began behaving even more unusually than the French by conversing in an unintelligible language and communicating by gestures, insisting on naked swims, fencing, referring to the equally exotic pineapple as “ananas” (although, to be fair, she could have been using pretty much any Indo-European language – plus Arabic and Hebrew – except English) and conducting theatrical prayers to a deity named “Allatallah”.

No longer afraid that she may be French, the Worralls became fascinated; even more so when an itinerant Portuguese man claimed to understand her babble, and reported that she was a lost princess named Caraboo from a China Sea island called Javasu. This piqued the Worralls’interest who, believing they had royalty in their abode, told all and sundry; attracting dignitaries, local members of the establishment and minor aristos.

When, however, the story and sketchings of the Princess Caraboo reached as far away as Bath, a Mrs. Neale recognized her as a servant-girl and daughter of a Devonshire cobbler called Mary Barker who had amused the children with her own argot and fanciful stories.

Now all the newspapers in the land took an interest, although not in the way the parochially-snobbish Worralls had wished; as knowing metropolitan observers saw the declining rural landowning classes (the film version added a half sozzled, degenerate Prince Regent to the dupees) be taken for mugs by an enterprising member of the lower-classes. The disparity was even stronger than the upstart Corsican from a minor aristocratic background who almost had brought all of Europe to her knees.

Napoleon also featured in a false memory of Barker’s story. After exposure, she departed for the United States to a role as a novelty performer, and a humorous newspaper article which presented her as stopping-over at St. Helena and charming the imprisoned Emperor became accepted as fact by the popular record.

Aside from this vignette about the shift of power and deference to the urban centres from the rural areas, casting my mind back to when I watched the film, I remember a church service in which the collection plate was handed around.

Samuel Worrall – played by Jim Broadbent – ostentatiously plonked a wad of notes upon it in an act of public displays of generosity for personal glory which is in no way still extant.

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