Lords and liars

The Antipodean shenanigans of an identity fraudster who impersonated an aristocrat were a gift for historian Kirsten McKenzie, writes Matthew Reisz

June 24, 2010

Is it possible to combine serious historical analysis with telling a cracking good story?

That is one of the questions asked, and implicitly answered, in Kirsten McKenzie's new book, A Swindler's Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty. It undeniably tackles the big theme she describes as "the transition from aristocratic to bourgeois concepts of power and identity", and ends with the 1832 Reform Act in the UK and the transition to democracy in Australia. Yet it does so largely through the "mystery story" of "how one man disappeared and another came to steal his identity".

Now a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sydney, McKenzie was born in South Africa but, by the age of seven, had lived in both Britain and the US.

Her passion for history seems to have been innate, with her parents discovering that they could keep her quiet in any museum or historic site simply by telling her "endless stories about the people who once lived there".

She returned to South Africa for her education up to master's level and then secured a Rhodes scholarship in 1993 to take her doctorate at the University of Oxford.

Although her research initially focused on South African history, McKenzie became increasingly interested in a more comparative approach that eventually led to her 2004 book Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town, 1820-1850.

Despite the title, she observes that the book was written in a fairly academic style, exploring "British identity, how ideas of respectability play out in colonial places, and how people use scandal as a tool of social competition in new societies that are trying to work out their hierarchies".

It was partly to work on the Australian half of this book that McKenzie took up her first academic post, as a research Fellow at the University of Queensland in 1998.

This was not something she had ever expected to do. While growing up in South Africa, she recalls, she had "a fairly prejudiced idea about Australians and thought people only emigrated there for reasons I didn't approve of - for the white, sexist, sports-mad culture. But I later met a lot of Australians at Oxford and discovered a much more cosmopolitan, intellectual side to the country."

As a non-expert appointed to teach Australian history, McKenzie acknowledges that she was "lucky to arrive just when historians were moving out of a very national framework to a transnational framework, with a resurgence of imperial history. There wouldn't have been a place for me five or 10 years earlier."

This was also the time of the "history wars", with "black-armband history" pitted against "white-blindfold history", as conservative politicians and pundits accused historians of distorting the past to serve left-wing agendas.

"I felt it was an unhelpful debate," she says, "because it forced us to go back over old ground.

"We had established the violence of Australian frontier history, which I think is incontrovertible, and reached a point where we were recognising the small variations within that. Once the massacres and underlying violence of settler society were again under question, we had to prove again what we'd already proved."

Although her own work was not a particular target, there was a sense of "footnote paranoia" in the air, as historians carefully checked and rechecked their sources. With Scandal in the Colonies already in proof, McKenzie decided she had better make absolutely sure she had got all her facts right.

So she looked again at a traveller's tale told by an Austrian baron, which poked fun at the gullible Antipodeans who had been taken in and often defrauded by a former convict who passed himself off as Lord Edward Lascelles.

Suddenly, she observes, "the sources multiplied. The swindler jumped from passing anecdote to detailed legal archive" - and even acquired the implausible name of John Dow. McKenzie had just discovered the subject for her new book.

The story of what happened to the real Edward Lascelles is uncovered in A Swindler's Progress: the reasons he was forced to leave England and later turned up in Vienna as an attache - a post often given to rich but stupid young men who, as one of his superiors complained, thought that their sole responsibilities were "to drink a glass of wine, to smoke a cigar and to damn the natives".

In parallel, McKenzie reconstructs the career of Dow right up to his appearance in a Sydney courtroom in 1835, where everyone was notably anxious to demonstrate that they wouldn't have fallen for his patter and could tell the difference between a real and a fake aristocrat.

"A trial about whether a man was a viscount or a convict impostor", she writes, "was bound to touch a collective nerve in a society where all were on the make."

In order to research the British side of the story, McKenzie spent a good deal of time in London, in the West Yorkshire Archive Service in Leeds and even "brushing off the thick layer of Edinburgh soot" from the records of Dow's earlier brush with the law in Dumfries.

All this enabled her to go beyond the argument of Scandal in the Colonies, where she had taken rather at face value the image of Britain, so common in Australia and South Africa in the early 19th century, as "a stable set of standards", a model of respectability and hierarchy of which rough new settler societies could only dream.

"Once you actually start looking at the history of Britain of the period," she points out, "you see that the idea of Britain as stable was very much an invented notion. It doesn't hold up once you examine all the one-upmanship, social climbing and self-invention."

By one of those fortunate coincidences with which researchers are sometimes blessed, the Lascelles family themselves offered a perfect illustration of this theme.

Just like the chancers, ex-convicts and landowners who were trying to carve out new lives for themselves in Australia, if on a rather grander scale, the Lascelles were also imperial opportunists on the make.

Their art collection and spectacular family seat - Harewood House in Yorkshire - made tangible, and apparently timeless, the prestige recently gained from the wealth of the Lascelles' West Indian sugar plantations.

The title of Baron Harewood was granted in 1790, with Viscount Lascelles and Earl of Harewood following in 1812. In 1796, Henry, the future second Earl, was elected one of two Members of Parliament for Yorkshire. The other was the era's foremost anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce.

This left the question of how such rich material should be shaped into a book. McKenzie describes the astonishing occasion when Wilberforce came to visit Henry Lascelles, the man who was then his ally, at Harewood House - where the glasshouses, Corinthian columns and palatial surroundings were all the fruits of slave labour.

The two would fall out and run against each other in the 1807 election; McKenzie's account of the fierce battle offers a vivid snapshot of a changing Britain with its "heady mix of the most significant players of the period ... the aristocratic power-brokers, the artisans, the industrial middle classes, the evangelical reformers, the provincial journalists, the slave-trade abolitionists".

Just as A Swindler's Progress arose directly from her work on Scandal in the Colonies, McKenzie has removed the more peripheral material from the new book for inclusion in a further volume, provisionally entitled The Theatre of Liberty.

Since that project will involve spies, surveillance, "a convict who escaped from Australia, changed his identity and took on the British government at the Cape" - and even "a British surgeon whose sex is under dispute" - it should prove something of a page-turner.

A Swindler's Progress is a highly gripping narrative, its sociological insights conveyed largely through a series of striking human dramas. So why did McKenzie choose to write it that way?

"It's such an archetype of a story," she replies. "I couldn't believe my luck. If the Lascelles hadn't made their fortune in the West Indies, it would have been such a different book.

"That Dow happened to pick this particular viscount was so useful to me. That the particular family happened to go head to head with Wilberforce - it's just wonderful.

"I had to play up the narrative side," she admits. "It would have been a crime to write the book any other way!"

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