DISCUSSION: Impersonation stories

Cover of 2011 e-book edition

Cover of 2011 e-book edition

The theme of an heir returning from the dead (or long-missing) is one which is occasionally used by writers – particularly thriller or crime writers – often to enable a bit of chicanery and double bluffing – is he or she really who they say they are? And if so, what effect does it have on the other characters? Maybe the first such case – real life – was the celebrated ‘Tichborne case’, in the 19th century: Roger Tichborne, heir to riches and a baronetcy, was presumed drowned in a shipwreck in 1854, travelling from Rio de Janeiro, though his mother refused to believe that he was dead. A claimant appeared in Australia in 1866, and the case was fought in the law courts: Lady Tichborne immediately accepted the man as her son, though not everyone else believed him, and thought him an impostor. Eventually, after a very long court case, which concluded in 1874, his claim was rejected, and he was later tried for perjury and impersonation, and died destitute in 1898 after ten years in prison (there’s a much longer article on Wikipedia if you’re interested, and it’s one of the cases mentioned in Dornford Yates’ B-Berry And I Look Back).

I’m going to briefly discuss a few novels in which the impersonation is the main theme, the driving force behind the plot, and to compare and contrast how each writer deals with the topic. Coincidentally (or not), all are women writers: Mary Stewart with The Ivy Tree; Josephine Tey with Brat Farrar; and Patricia Wentworth with The Traveller Returns.

Cover of 1984 Penguin edition

Cover of 1984 Penguin edition

In Brat Farrar, which is probably the best-known of the three, Tey plays the deception on the other characters: from the start, the reader is not deceived about Brat’s identity. Brat Farrar is back in England, after a long time away, in London, when he’s spotted as the image of a young man, Patrick Ashby, who is supposed to have committed suicide eight years ago at the age of thirteen, and who would be heir to an estate, Latchetts. Simon, Patrick’s younger twin brother, is on the verge of turning twenty-one, and is the current heir. Tey gives very little detail about how Brat is coached in his new identity as Patrick by the rather shifty actor, Alec Loding (né Ledingham), formerly a neighbour of the Ashbys, who knows a good deal of the details of Patrick’s and the Ashbys’ lives. His price for helping Brat to Patrick’s inheritance is half of the proceeds. Brat goes down to Latchetts, is accepted by almost everyone as Patrick – except by Simon – and discovers another mystery.

Cover of 2007 Hodder edition

Cover of 2007 Hodder edition

Patricia Wentworth plays the deception both on reader and characters alike. Anne Jocelyn was thought to have been killed on a beach in Brittany during the Second World War; her estranged husband Philip inherited her estate. Then Anne returns unannounced from Nazi-occupied France, and despite the details which she’s able to use to prove her identity, Philip refuses to believe that this woman is his wife. Added to this is the complication that Philip has fallen in love with another woman. However, it’s not long before the reader is given hints that, if Anne is who she says she is, then there is also something else going on: has Anne been coerced into supplying information to the Germans? Philip’s relentless opposition to the idea that this returned traveller is his wife tends to produce in the reader a similar sense of incredulity, since he’s continually pointing out how different this Anne is from the girl he married.

Mary Stewart does things slightly differently in The Ivy Tree. Mary Grey is sitting by the Roman Wall in Northumberland when she is discovered by a young man, Connor Winslow, who is convinced that she’s really his cousin Annabel Winslow, who ran away from home eight years before . He and his half-sister, Lisa, convince Mary to come to Whitescar, to pose as Annabel, so that, should Annabel’s grandfather choose to leave the farm to her, instead of to Con, that she’ll hand over the property to him – he more or less runs it now anyway.

Stewart does the telling very cleverly, deceiving the reader as well as the other characters, and it’s quite some time before we realise what’s going on. It’s also very interesting to re-read, knowing the outcome, seeing how Stewart, telling the story in the first person, drops hints which the reader doesn’t necessarily recognise as hints the first time round.

Of the three, I think The Ivy Tree is the cleverest, though Tey does suspense very well in Brat Farrar, and her portrayal of Brat’s journey from initial acceptance of Loding’s proposition to Patrick partisanship is nicely done, as are the individual reactions of the family to Patrick’s supposed return – and his reactions to them. Wentworth’s is much more of a crime novel than the other two, and Anne’s not portrayed particularly sympathetically: the reader is meant to sympathise more with Lyndall Armitage, in love with Philip, but determined to recapture the love she used to feel for Anne. Compared like this, it’s also evident that Tey and Stewart are better writers: their cast of characters is smaller, and hence better characterised. Stewart does landscape and setting particularly well, and she makes the limited first-person narrative work for her in the same way that Tey makes the third person narrative work for her novel: it’s told from several different viewpoints, mostly Brat’s and the Ashbys’ aunt, Bee, and the increasing tension in the set-up is done beautifully.

There’s crime in all three, but also done differently: two murders in The Traveller Returns, and the presence of Miss Silver, Wentworth’s usual detective; one in Brat Farrar, and an attempted murder; an attempt in The Ivy Tree. The first is more straightforwardly a crime novel, whereas Brat Farrar is more a novel about people in a tense and odd situation, which only later has crime added to the mix (of course, Brat’s impersonation of Patrick is in itself a crime, but one which isn’t usually the sole subject of crime novels). The Ivy Tree is more of a romance or a straight piece of fiction than an investigation or elucidation of a mystery, though there is a mystery. I’ve written before about Stewart’s fiction – The Ivy Tree is one of my favourites, partly because it’s such  strong story, cleverly told, and partly because of the Northumberland setting.

What other impersonation stories are around, and what makes them good (or bad)? Does it matter if the impersonation is successful, or is the impostor always found out?

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11 Responses to DISCUSSION: Impersonation stories

  1. bani says:

    Oh, great tips! I love Josephine Tey so have read Brat Farrar of course, but the other two are new to me and I’ll have to keep my eyes open for them. Thanks!

  2. Oo, good post, even though I haven’t read any of these three books. You know what one I loved, in a book for much younger me? I loved the imposter child in Little Lord Fauntleroy — remember that? The mother claims she was married to the older son of the rich lord, and Ceddie is no longer the proper heir?

    But in sober judgment, I think impersonation stories are better when you truly doubt it from the first, and continue doubting it all along. I am generally a fan of the ambiguous ending, and impersonation stories are no exception. (I just thought of two examples and then immediately forgot them, darn it!)

    • Ela says:

      I don’t remember the impostor child in ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, but then it’s years since I read it, and I think I read it only once. I’d love to look at your suggestions if you can remember them! I’d generally agree with you that the impersonator should be ambiguously so – although it’s resolved at the end, it’s one of the reasons I like ‘The Ivy Tree’ so much. Although ‘Brat Farrar’ is unambiguous in its presentation of the con, you do root for Brat throughout – and of course there is the mystery of how does he look like his supposed twin?

  3. I have always been really drawn to the Enock Arden theme in mystery stories (Christie did return to this idea over and over of course )so really enjoyed this post – especially as I have not read the Mary Stewart book. Thanks Ela.

    • Ela says:

      I can think only of ‘Taken at the Flood’ where Christie does deliberate impersonation so as to inherit – and in that book she does it twice, both with the ‘Enoch Arden’ character who turns up suspiciously and is killed, and the central deception. I agree that there are quite a lot of impersonations in her books and short stories for other reasons, of course – the Parker Pyne short story ‘The House at Shiraz’, for example, or ‘After the Funeral’, where the impersonations aren’t to gain the inheritance of the impersonated character, and certainly aren’t sustained for any length of time. But I may have forgotten some!

      • I admit I was taking a broader tack in that she kept coming back to the idea of distant relatives coming back that might not be who they should be, as in A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED for instance – but not always for an inheritance, totally fair point 🙂

      • Ela says:

        Yes, I was taking a rather narrow view of the idea of impersonation, but I agree with you about ‘A Murder Is Announced’, which I’d forgotten. There’s also a few of the short stories which deal with that, though I think it mostly gets found out by the way, rather than being the focus of the story.

  4. bani says:

    I love Little Lord Fauntleroy and totally remember the imposter child. 🙂

    • Ela says:

      Ha ha, I must try re-reading it. I remember ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘A Little Princess’ much more clearly of Burnett’s books.

  5. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere: December 2013 | Past Offences

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