Friday, May 14, 2010

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

James Annesley (1715-1760) was the son of Arthur Annesley, Baron of Altham, and thus heir to Annesley family lands and titles in both Ireland and England. Unfortunately for James, his father was a drunkard and a wastrel, who let his second wife send James away to live as a pauper. When his father died, James was kidnapped by his uncle (next heir in line) and sold into indentured servitude in the American Colonies. When after more than ten years he returned to Great Britain, he sued to establish his identity and reclaim his inheritance. The story filled newspapers in both Ireland and England, and Annesley became a hero of the common people who saw his cause as an attempt to hold the landed classes accountable for their frequent misdeeds. If Annesley could win in court, perhaps they too could use law to win their rights. A. Roger Ekirch recounts the resulting series of sensational trials in Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped.

Ekirch refers to Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson right in the title and briefly explains early in the book how the true story differs. He also identifies how Sir Walter Scott and Tobias Smollett drew from Annesley's story for their novels. As a reader, I thought instantly of Bleak House by Charles Dickens, as Annesley's case also ends up spending a couple of decades in Chancery Court. As a reader of this review, you can probably now guess that Annesley did not easily win back his titles and fortune from his much hated uncle, who had the money to keep several courts well supplied with requests for continuances.

One of the most compelling parts of Birthright is the narrative about the rotten state of affairs in Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, when English landlords were using Irish lands and poor tenant Irish labor to keep them in big houses and powdered wigs. The Annesley family saga is a bit more challenging. The reader of Birthright can easily get a bit confused by all the names (ancestors and descendants) and all the litigation. Ekirch provides a family tree with the introduction to which I turned numerous times. After a bit of a slog in the middle of the book, it takes off when the trials begin. Overall, I found it a worthy book foretelling less known history and its revealing the origins of plots in British literature.

Ekirch, A. Roger. Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped. 2010. W.W. Norton. 258p. ISBN 9780393066159.

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