Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped by A.Roger Ekirch

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Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped by A.Roger Ekirch

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of James Annesley, a member of the 18th-century Irish aristocracy whose abduction inspired Stevenson's Kidnapped.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 258 Date: February 2010
Publisher: W W Norton and Co
ISBN: 978-0393066159

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They say truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and it is not unusual for novels to be based partly on fact. So it was in the case of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannering, and at least three others, all of which can point to the saga of James Annesley for inspiration.

Born in Dublin in 1715, Annesley, or 'Jemmy', was the presumptive heir of five aristocratic titles. At the age of eight he was turned out of house and home by his bullying father, Baron Altham, probably at the instigation of the latter's mistress. Though he managed to keep in touch with his family after a fashion, he had little option but to look for work running errands or as a shoeboy, sleeping in doorways or beneath market stalls in the streets, until he was taken in by a kindly butcher and his family. His 'uncle Dick' eventually traced him and kept a distant but unsympathetic eye on him. When the lad heard about his father's funeral in 1727 he made his way to the ceremony and attended, though only as a spectator, and reviled by his uncle as nothing better than an impostor and a vagabond.

Five months later the same uncle had the moment he had been waiting for. He saw the boy visiting a market, had him abducted by accomplices, and sent by ship to the United States as an indentured servant in Delaware. As heir to one of the greatest family fortunes in Ireland, Richard Annesley had every reason for wanting him out of the way, so he could seize his nephew's lands and inheritance.

After thirteen years of virtual slavery he escaped, returned home and took steps to reclaim what was rightfully his. His uncle had already become (or one might say made himself) Earl of Anglesea, and the stage was set for a lengthy battle through the courts. The impostor Earl had a few more dirty tricks in his armoury, and the plaintiff was involved in at least one accident which may have been a deliberate murder attempt. It was also asserted that he was illegitimate, the son of a wet-nurse employed by the family.

All things considered, it is quite a poignant story. Elkirch sketches in the convoluted family history and background well, although in one of the early chapters it requires some concentration (as well as frequent reference to a very helpful genealogical table at the front) to keep abreast of all the relations and ancestors. He also evokes the seamier side of Dublin and the often less than friendly rivalry, gossip, greed, backstabbing and betrayal, gambling, drinking and even occasional violence, so prevalent of the aristocracy in Georgian Ireland. It was a brutal world, in which only the strong survived. As for the conclusion of the drama – that would be telling, although it was an unhappy business that vindicated Jemmy (who was not spared to live to a great age) but left nobody really satisfied.

One minor quibble I had with the book was the way in which the author writes the Prologue in the present tense. It's a style which can be quite permissible, even effective, in a novel, but in biographical or historical non-fiction I personally find it mildly irritating. That apart, this is a good tale, told well.

Our thanks to Norton for sending Bookbag a copy for review.

If you enjoy this, for a novel set in Georgian Britain we can recommend Death in Hellfire by Deryn Lake.

Buy Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped by A.Roger Ekirch at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped by A.Roger Ekirch at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped by A.Roger Ekirch at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped by A.Roger Ekirch at Amazon.com.

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