I’ve always been fascinated by the real life story of Caraboo – a warrior princess from the tropical island of Javasu, captured by pirates, taken half way around the world before she escaped from them by jumping ship in the Bristol Channel and swimming to shore. Homeless in a foreign country she was taken in as a house guest by the Worrall family of Knole Park, Almondsbury, in 1817. There she spent weeks speaking in an incomprehensible language, hunting with a bow and arrows, swimming naked in the lake, climbing trees and praying to a pagan god.
This strange, exotic beauty was a sensation, charming everyone she met until she was recognised and exposed. In reality she was Mary Willcox, a cobbler’s daughter from Witheridge in Devon.
The story of Princess Caraboo is an intriguing one not least because no one really knows what Mary’s motivation was. As Catherine Johnson points out in her author’s note this wasn’t a con trick as such – Mary Willcox didn’t profit financially from it. She was never prosecuted for fraud – in fact Mrs Worrall obviously cared deeply about Mary, paying for her fare to America after her identity was revealed and treasuring the letters Mary sent back.
So why did Mary Willcox do it?
Catherine Johnson’s answer to that question is a piece of genius: it’s brilliantly simple and makes perfect psychological sense.
She wasn’t pretending.
Set in the early 19th century, the book opens with the brutal ‘end’ of Mary Willcox. The very first chapter sees her raped at the side of the road - after having been betrayed and abandoned by her lover and having given birth to a stillborn child. To escape the trauma, to save her own sanity this damaged girl retreats into a place of safety inside her own head: she is no longer Mary Willcox, but becomes instead the invincible warrior princess Caraboo.
What has begun as a simple survival mechanism starts to get complicated when other people become involved. Caraboo arrives at an inn and is then taken home by Cassandra, the rich, bored daughter of the Worrall family. Her mother – whose interest in anthropology is something of an obsession – is fascinated by the new arrival. Soon the whole family is caught up in Mary’s fantasy not because Caraboo is particularly cunning or conniving, but because they so desperately want to believe she is real.
Catherine Johnson’s novel is a crackingly good read: a thoroughly gripping story in which all the characters – even the spoilt rich ones – are so warmly drawn and engaging you really mind about what happens to them. The love story that slowly develops between the Lady Caraboo and Fred Worrall is so tenderly written it made me cry.
The nature of lies and deception, fantasy and reality, love and honesty is explored in a book that says so much about the power of stories and our desire for exotic fiction rather than prosaic truth. There are moments of bleakness, moments where we seem to be in a world where love is nothing but self-deception, where all human relationships are a sham.
But there’s a wonderful paradox at the heart of the novel – the fictional creation of Princess Caraboo takes the characters on a journey that brings them closer to their true selves. What begins as a lie actually redeems Mary Willcox and Fred Worrall and offers both real hope for a happier future.