En route to the Social History Society’s conference in Glasgow, I’ve been reading Ron Howard’s wonderful book, The Fabulist (2006), the true story of Louis de Rougemont, the ‘Greatest Liar on Earth’.
Peter Carey could easily have chosen Louis de Rougemont as his subject for My Life as a Fake in place of the creators of Ern Malley, or otherwise used him as the model for Herbert Badgery, the boastful trickster-protagonist of Illywhacker. The man reads as a character lifted straight from Carey’s back-catalogue.
De Rougemont was a Swiss man born Edward Grin c. 1847 who created a furore in London at the end of the century. He conducted an audacious swindle on the the readers of London’s World Wide Magazine – and, more incredibly, on the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In a serialised memoir which appeared in World Wide Magazine in 1898, he claimed to have spent thirty years in the wilds of north-western Australia as the god or king of an Indigenous tribe.
For a few months, de Rougemont’s stories of cannibalism and flying wombats in the Kimberley were seriously believed by many in London. He was even invited to address the British Association of scientists on two occasions, speaking to packed auditoriums. What could be more fascinating than his story of marriage to an Indigenous woman who killed and ate her baby so that she had enough breast milk to suckle a sick de Rougemont back to health? Or of discovering the lost explorer Alfred Gibson just before he died?
For the Australian public, de Rougemont’s fame proved the preposterous gullibility of the British public. It had been incredulous at first at the rapturous reception given to stories of wombats flying in clouds from a small island and vast gold reefs in the desert. That incredulity turned to scorn after it was discovered that de Rougemont had lived for decades in Enmore, Sydney, having married a fancy-goods salesgirl in Newtown. He had even fathered four children with her whom he abandoned when he came to London. Before that, he had been responsible for blackbirding Indigenous Western Australian men – that is, kidnapping them and forcing them to work on his two-bit pearler – and was even wanted as an accomplice to the murder of one of these men in the mid-1870s.
The story of de Rougemont’s unmasking as well as his contemptible exploits in Australia is wonderfully told by Ron Howard. Beautifully measured, structured and researched, The Fabulist is well worth the read for anyone fascinated by arch imposters and literary hoaxers – or even just in search of a good read for a transcontinental haul.
Note: a play based on de Rougemont’s life showed at Primary Stages in NY in Feb 2009: Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself).