My first intention for the 1920 book club was to read Catherine Carswell's 'Open The Door', but I lost track of the days a bit and was caught up in 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge'. when I got 'Open The Door' off the shelf it turned out to be 400 pages of tiny print that I knew I'd never finish in time. After that finding something specifically from 1920 that I already had, but hadn't read before was harder than I expected.
I could have gone back to F. Scott Fitzgerald, or E. F. Benson but wasn't in the mood for either, or for Agatha Christie. I need to get round to reading any Edith Wharton (beyond her excellent ghost stories) but now isn't the moment. What I wanted was something quick and a bit trashy that wouldn't derail me from some other reading plans I have for the next few days. Then I found E. Phillips Oppenheim's 'The Great Impersonation' from the British Library's short lived Spy Classics series.*
It was just what I was looking for. Oppenheim was hugely successful in his day. He wrote over a hundred books, and this one sold millions of copies (at least a million in 1920 alone), and whilst in some whilst in wine terms I'd describe him as having 'gone over' (some of the things he writes are no longer easily palatable) it's also easy to see why he was so popular in his day.
The action opens somewhere in German East Africa in 1913, so it was always a safe bet that there would be some offensive comments in it - there are, but as they feel more like a historical record of casual racism/racist attitudes they didn't bother as much as they might have in other contexts**.
Sir Everard Dominey, disgraced, alcohol sodden, broke, English Aristocrat comes crashing out of the bush and face to face with Baron Leopold Von Ragastein. The two men have an uncanny likeness (with the exception that the Baron is fit, disciplined, and looks 10 years younger). After noticing the likeness and a bit of a nap, Sir Everard finally remembers that the two men were at school and University together, rowing in the same boat (I think) and certainly friendly enough for Von Ragastein to have visited him at his country home.
Months later a fit, healthy, and newly wealthy Sir Everard Dominey returns to London where everybody wonders if it's really him because he seems so different - could he really be Von Ragastein in the role of sleeper agent? The situation is complicated by the passionate Hungarian Princess Eiderstrom who had been having an affair with Von Ragastein who then accidentally killed her husband in a duel which earnt him his banishment to Africa. The Princess, cousin of the German Ambassador, is convinced that Dominey is Ragastein and determined to resume the affair regardless of how inconvenient that might be for an undercover spy. She refuses to take no for an answer.
There is also the small matter of Lady Dominey who is apparently both insane and murderous, determined to kill her husband if he ever tries to spend a night under the same roof as her. This is because he turned up one night covered in blood, and with a broken arm, after another gentleman with questionable mental health who had been more or less stalking her had attacked Dominey. This breakdown has lasted for the full decade of Dominey's absence in Africa, whilst her only close companion has been the mother of her husbands assailant who she doesn't seem to like very much.
Oppenheim's approach to gaps in the plot seems to have been just to throw ever more unlikely elements into it until the reader is so overwhelmed they'll accept anything. For the most part it's fun and it works, but it's lady Dominey who is the serious problem with reading this book now.
The reason for her breakdown doesn't make a lot of sense, the possible Dominey's devotion to her under the circumstances make even less sense. She must be at least in her late 20s, possibly early 30s, given that the couple have been married for over a decade but she's constantly described as childlike in her speech and appearance, which all the men seem to find irresistible, but which seems quite unsavoury to me.
She is also convinced that the returned Sir Everard is not her husband, but is fine with it, she prefers the new version so much that she decides not to slit his throat as he sleeps, but instead asks him to hold her hand whilst she sleeps. There is nothing about this situation which suggests a long and happy marriage awaits, but it's fine because she's pretty, and unless wielding a stiletto in the middle of the night, totally fragile and helpless, so everybody adores her and considers Everard a coward for having cleared off to Africa in the first place.
I can quite see that by 1920 men who are trying to navigate the post war landscape would be comforted by the idea of women as fragile angels in need of 24 hour protection from a strong man. I can see that women might be quite happy to go along with the fantasy, but this particular mix is all red flags, and hard for the modern reader to take.
I think the final ending - which man will Sir Everard turn out to be, is fairly obvious given the age and popular nature of the book, but what's going to happen given everything thrown into the mix genuinely makes it a page turner. All things considered Sir Everard is a compelling hero figure through it all; there's genuine tension about who and what he is. Despite it's flaws and predictability I enjoyed this, I have a copy of 'The Spy Paramount' from the same series which I'll probably read quite soon, because both it's exuberance and certainties are comforting at the moment, even if it's prejudices are not
*I vividly remember buying this in the Nottingham branch of Waterstones in 2014, I'm really missing being able to browse around a good bookshop and being able to buy something on a whim - unemployment and Corona are quite the killjoys.
**Dorothy L. Sayers has a way of seeming pro eugenics, or casually denigrating Jewish characters which I find far more disturbing because they're incidents that seem deliberately inserted into her text.