Eras Journal – Crawford, R: Review of “The Man who lost Himself: The Unbelievable Story of the Tichborne Claimant”, Robyn Annear
Robyn Annear, The Man Who Lost Himself: The Unbelievable Story of the Tichborne Claimant
Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002
Isbn 1 877008 17 6
In The Man Who Lost Himself , Robyn Annear recounts the story of a Wagga butcher who claimed to be the long-lost heir to the vast Tichborne estate in England. Spanning the greater part of the nineteenth century and spread over three continents, the ensuing saga is part history, part detective story, part courtroom drama, and part farce. This myriad of genres hints at the issues regarding the relationship between history and fiction that have already been raised in Annear’s earlier work Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne. To what extent is The Man Who Lost Himself a piece of legitimate historical inquiry? To what extent is it a fictional account of actual events? The book’s subtitle further underscores this confusion. By ‘unbelievable story’, is Annear suggesting that the story is amazing or implausible? In order to answer these questions, it is perhaps best to examine The Man Who Lost Himself from two separate vantage points – that of the historian and that of the novelist or storyteller.
From an historical point of view, The Man Who Lost Himself contains significant shortcomings. Although the bibliography demonstrates extensive historical research, this is offset by the omission of sourcing. Annear asks the reader to accept her information in good faith. Yet in light of the arguments being presented and the material used to substantiate them, it is difficult for historians to do so. To pick a random example, how do we know that Tichborne’s tutors were ‘inept’? (p.13) Perhaps, instead, Tichborne was an inept student. Additionally, sourcing would have provided a clearer insight into the time frame of the long running story.
While Annear helpfully lists the ‘Cast of Characters’ at the beginning of the book, some figures appear without adequate introductions or descriptions. Despite his tale (which, given its late date, demands some sort of citation) Walter Fossey is simply described as ‘a Melbourne man’. (p.194) The famed journalist, George Augustus Sala, best known in Australian history for coining the term ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, similarly receives the barest of introductions. (p.308) These shortcomings highlight a broad underlying problem – namely, Annear’s reluctance to step beyond the confines of her immediate story. Recounting the excitement felt by Tichborne upon learning of his posting to India, Annear fails to comment on those books and accounts that would have whetted young Roger’s appetite for travel and adventure. (p.24) Sometimes, this shortcoming becomes an outright failure to contextualize events in even the barest and most necessary ways. Little mention, for example, is made of the norms of the British aristocracy in the mid-nineteenth century.
That said, Annear has a novelist’s capacity to paint a portrait of the past that makes up for some of this work’s shortcomings. No doubt drawing on her previous book, Nothing But Gold , one of the most striking examples of this ability can be seen in her vivid description of Melbourne hit by gold-fever:
With the riot of building in progress and the rowdy folk crowding what passed for footpaths, it was noisier than parts of London … There seemed to be a public house on every corner, with restaurants interspersed, all of them busting with diggers… (p.205)
This fertile imagination also enables Annear to take a unique perspective of the evidence before her. Her observation that the Claimant’s image of Arthur Orton was of ‘[n]ot one person, but several grafted together’ exemplifies her ability to envision the world inhabited by her ‘cast of characters’. (p.291) The use of imagination in historical interpretation is certainly an art that all historians would do well to develop.
Annear is at her best when she is spinning a yarn. To this end, the structure of The Man Who Lost Himself works perfectly. The story opens with vivid descriptions of the slothful Castro and the effete Tichborne. This juxtaposition not only sets the scene for the protracted and ultimately farcical debate, it also provides a subtle introduction to Annear’s views (which become increasingly overt as the story progresses). Her voice is clear and compelling throughout, as she signposts the complex narrative with her humorously sardonic observations. ‘Take a long last look as Arthur mounts the ridge’, she muses, ‘Orton or otherwise, that’s the last we’ll see of him for certain’. (p.233) Such comments and asides also work to maintain the mystery and intrigue that lie at the heart of her story. The importance of this skill becomes particularly evident in the flat parts of the story where the narrative threatens to collapse into an endless cycle of ‘he said, she said’ claims. Although the truth about the Claimant is already discernible from an early stage, Annear’s storytelling prowess enables her to maintain the reader’s interest. This is the positive outcome of her commitment to the immediate story, rather than to the broader history. For example, her discussions of class and psychoanalysis (both begging early treatment from a contextual point of view) are incorporated late. But, had the Claimant’s mental state been discussed earlier, the remainder of The Man Who Lost Himself would have been a somewhat laborious read. This dramatic sensitivity makes Annear a storyteller first and foremost.
The ‘unbelievable story’ recounted by Annear introduces the general public to history and historical writing – something that should be applauded. In this, The Man Who Lost Himself highlights for historians the importance of imaginative approaches to the past. On the other hand, its shortcomings underscore the importance of accurate sourcing. The question remains: what function do such fusions of fact and fiction serve? Ultimately, Annear’s work presents no definitive answer, but leaves us instead to ponder the already familiar mixed blessings of historical fiction.