Saturday, April 3, 2010

Kirsten McKenzie's "A Swindler's Progress"

Kirsten McKenzie is Senior Lecturer in History, University of Sydney.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A Swindler's Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty, and reported the following:
Choose to write your history in the genre of a mystery story and the page 99 test could get you into serious trouble. Would it be a case of “Spoilers ahead”? Could I complete the assignment without giving the plot away? It was with some trepidation that I dipped inside A Swindler’s Progress, only to find that the typesetters had unwittingly played into my hands.

The story opens in a dingy court room in Sydney, in the penal colony of New South Wales, in 1835. A man stands before the dock charged with forgery and imposture. The authorities claim he is ‘John Dow’ (sometimes spelled ‘John Doe’) a former convict. The prisoner denies that name. He claims he is Edward, Viscount Lascelles, eldest son of the Earl of Harewood and heir to one of Britain’s most spectacular fortunes. He tells a melodramatic tale of betrayal and disaster. He had taken the fictitious name of John Dow, he explains, “in order that the spotless honor of my family might not be sullied by my disgrace”.

It was true that the Viscount had made a scandalous disappearance from the ranks of Britain’s elite. Had he ended up a convict under a false name? The book that follows is divided into three parts, taking the story of Edward Lascelles from the ‘Arcadia’ of aristocratic Yorkshire through ‘Ruin and Disgrace’ to the ‘Antipodes’. Along the way my intention is to reveal as much about the interlinked histories of Britain and Australia as about the stories of ‘Edward Lascelles’ and ‘John Dow’. My research uncovered a wildly improbable tale - one no less melodramatic than the story John Dow told in court. But I wanted to use it to ask bigger questions about what liberty could mean at this time of revolutionary change. Breaking the established bonds of status and rank meant the freedom to pursue individual potential, to rely on innate worth rather than on birth. But what does it mean to be free? The freedom to reinvent oneself also meant the freedom to lie.

And page 99? We have known from the first that Edward Lascelles is going to come to grief. The question is - how? p. 99 contains only the epigraph for part two of the book. But it gives a big hint at the secret about to be revealed:
My son, keep thy father’s commandment, and forsake not
the law of thy mother: Bind them continually upon thine
heart, and tie them about thy neck. ...
For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and
reproofs of instruction are the way of life: To keep thee from
the evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange

Proverbs 6:20–24
Read an excerpt from A Swindler’s Progress, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue