Duck Duck Book

65 – birthright
05.31.2010, 7:08 pm
Filed under: social sciences

Birthright : the true story that inspired Kidnapped / A. Roger Ekirch.
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2010.
[MCL call number: 364.154092 E367b 2010; two copies, two holds]

I came to A. Roger Ekirch’s account of James Annesley’s unhappy and newsworthy life not from an interest in Annesley’s biography, but because I so enjoyed Ekirch’s earlier book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (reviewed in duck duck book number 39).  Anything else he cared to write, I thought, must be worth my time.  And indeed it was.

James Annesley was the only son of Arthur, Baron Altham, an Irish peer, and though one might say he was lucky to have been born with wealth and privilege on his side, in actual fact his early life was pretty hard.  His parents separated when he was small.  Arthur ran through most of the family fortune and became indebted to his mistress, who didn’t like James and made Arthur toss him out of the house at the tender age of nine.  Then Arthur died, when James was just 12, and shortly after, Arthur’s younger brother Richard had Arthur kidnapped and transported to America as an indentured servant so that he could become the next Baron Altham (and inherit several other family titles besides, and the land and wealth to go with them).  James endured many years in servitude, but eventually made his way back to the British Isles and attempted to sue the crap out of his uncle in a long series of notorious trials.

It’s worth pointing out, actually, that Ekirch makes the story of dozens of years of complex and confusing lawsuits seem fascinating, rather than dull and stupefying as one might expect.  But the whole arc of James’s life, as Ekirch tells it, is pretty compelling too — this young person has had his childhood stolen away just as he lost his father, how horrible!  By his uncle, who should love and protect him, how appalling!  And he is made a temporary slave, how unjust!  But he bears up and attempts manfully to claim what’s rightfully his, how noble!  Really, it’s easy to see why the story was so newsworthy at the time, and in fact, as Ekirch’s subtitle points out, it was the basis for several popular novels, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, and several others.

After reading Birthright, I realized it might be the perfect book to take traveling.  It’s not very long (about 200 pages), but the story is dense, challenging, and packed with odd details of 18th century British and Irish life – Ekirch describes the minutiae of civil court procedure, illuminates the workings of aristocratic households, considers the daily life of indentured servants in early America, and explains the mechanics and the social role of the press in mid-1700s London.  These carefully deployed bits and pieces bring clarity to a fascinating but terribly complex story.  I’m a fast and rather reckless reader, but I slowed down, so as not to miss anything, and it was worth the effort.


1 Comment so far
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Many thanks for the kind words. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the book!

Comment by Roger Ekirch

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