How to Survive in a World that Doesn’t Want You: Catherine Johnson’s Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo

If you Google “Caraboo” sometime, one of the sites that comes up is a hypertext edition of an 1817 account of the life of Mary Wilcocks Baker, also known as the Princess Caraboo ( The mysterious editor of the site (he goes by Mr. X) begins the hypertext with a stern condemnation of the “romantic fictions” that modern versions of Caraboo’s story have presented; and the 1817 account itself acts as a general warning to kind-hearted ladies who take in foreign-looking women. The 1817 version, by John Matthew Gutch, cannot help but admire Mary Wilcocks Baker’s skill at survival and ability to escape detection for so long. At one point he writes, “Cervantes himself could not have expected the realization of so fine a scene” (18). Mr. X, whose other interests include lake monsters in Canada, cannot share in Mr. Gutch’s admiration; he wants to unmask Caraboo as an “imposter”.

caraboo3.gif - 296.75 K

This is a copy of Mr. E. Bird’s portrait of “Caraboo” in the clothing that she made as part of her “native” costume. An engraving of this portrait was inserted into John Matthew Gutch’s version of Caraboo’s story, and it is also mentioned in Johnson’s version.

For Mr. X, the reasons why this young woman would have taken on a new identity are irrelevant. To imagine that criminals have honorable motives is nothing more than romantic fiction. But Mr. X—who, interestingly, has himself taken on an alternate identity— has never, if we can take him at “face” value, been a woman. Catherine Johnson, in her recent novel for the young adult audience, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, clearly does know what it is like to be a woman, and she shows in her eponymous character a vulnerable, poor, mixed race girl in Britain’s early 19th century who rises above the situation in which she finds herself to not only survive, but thrive.

Johnson has done this before. In 2001, Oxford University Press published Hero, the story of the daughter of a West Indian slave and a white Jewish mother who finds herself unprotected in the East End of London in the early 19th century. Hero turns to prizefighting to survive when her father is sent back to Barbados and enslavement. But it is not just survival; after her father’s exile, Hero is sent to live with an aunt and uncle who, Cinderella-fashion, make her do all the housework. Hero does not want to be a “skivvy” so she tries for something better—as well as something that will allow her to make money to possibly reunite with her father.

One way to survive is to fight–as in Johnson’s earlier book, Hero.

The Curious Tale of Lady Caraboo has similar overtones, but Johnson makes clearer the threats to a young woman alone in the 19th century. Not only is the young Mary Wilcox raped in the opening scene, she has already been bedded and abandoned, pregnant, by a young man who promised to marry her. Mary, in the midst of being raped by two farm hands, thinking of her dead baby boy, wishes to die and muses, “surely Hell could not be any worse than this” (5). It is a bleak opening, but one that completely eradicates the idea of Mary Wilcox as criminal. The criminals are the men who take what they want from women and then label them as the ones in the wrong.

It is not only farm hands who take advantage of women; wealthy young men have even more power over self-representation and sexuality. The son of a lord and the son of a banker are shown at one point in a brothel. It is made clear that they frequent the place, and that the young women are desperately dependent on the young men. When a friend implies that Fred Worrall is lucky to have a prostitute so devoted to him, Fred replies, “She wants me to buy her out of here . . . She expects me to buy her off Mrs Ingrams, then find her rooms, pay for her clothes, set her up as a respectable young lady—hah! . . . Thank God term’s nearly over—very soon I’ll never have to see the little minx again” (30). Of course, he retains his “respectability” throughout, and once he leaves London, we never hear of what happens to “the little minx”. Women are disposable in this world, especially poor women.

Johnson’s tale is only curious because a poor nonwhite female manages to survive and thrive in the early 19th century.

Mary Wilcox, face down in leaf litter, is made especially aware of this because of her skin color. She had already feared she “looked like a savage” (2) when she is attacked and the young men comment that they “Ent never seen an arse as brown as this” (2). She is triply damned, female, brown and poor. She can do nothing about the first two aspects of her life, so she reinvents herself as Caraboo, a princess from foreign lands to a wealthy family whose matriarch is American, and interested in “happy carefree woodland peoples” (8). Caraboo is never carefree, but she uses silence, her brown skin and her femininity as tools to allow those around her to paint the picture that they want to see. She refuses to speak, remaining a(n increasingly) decorative object until she hears them tell her what they imagine her to be, and then she becomes the very thing they find themselves wanting. Mary Wilcox, discarded by society, makes herself into an object of desire to that very same society.

Johnson makes it clear throughout that Mary/Caraboo’s aim is survival, but she also allows her character to thrive. Whereas the real Caraboo is unmasked and must struggle to avoid prison and make a life for herself, Johnson imagines a romance for her with the wealthy son of her patroness, who follows her to America where they make a new life. America is a place of new starts for both Mary and for Fred Worrall, who has come to regret his past disregard for women. “He should feel content and happy—he was heir to Knole and the Tolzey Bank: a long life of pretence stretched out ahead of him. Pretence that he was happy and that he was a gentleman—when any one who looked inside, who saw his heart, would know just how sullied it really was” (250). Because he recognizes his life as a lie, and wants to live his true self, like Mary does, he is redeemable. But it has to be lived in America, free from the lies that English society forces on everyone who lives in it.

Johnson’s version of Caraboo’s story might be considered by Mr. X to be “romantic fiction”; but in many ways it tells a more honest story of the difficulty of being poor, female and nonwhite in the 19th century than the “exposé” version of the story. Johnson’s story also offers a powerful message to today’s readers: you should choose how you are defined, and not allow yourself to be summed up and discarded because of the way you appear on the surface.


3 thoughts on “How to Survive in a World that Doesn’t Want You: Catherine Johnson’s Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo

  1. alisonrbaker

    A wonderful book. Have you read A Nest of Vipers? Another of Catherine Johnson’s books that look at race, slavery and criminality in Georgian London.



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