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The Great Impersonation: Book Review

The Great Impersonation  was written by E. Phillips Oppenheim and published in 1920. Oppenheim was prolific (over one hundred novels written) and very commercially successful (selling millions of copies) .   The Great Impersonation  is generally regarded as his best novel.

The Great Impersonation: Logline

In 1913, a German spy assumes a dead Englishman’s identity and infiltrates British society as a sleeper agent, but when he falls in love with the Englishman’s wife and his Hungarian ex-lover recognises him, he must decide how to deal with the two women who may wreck his plans.

The Great Impersonation: Plot Summary

Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.

It’s 1913. In Africa a dissolute, alcoholic, Englishman, Sir Everard Dominey is lost. He stumbles into the camp of a German explorer, Baron von Ragenstein who happens to be identical to him. The two recognise each other as old school-friends and reminisce. Both men have left their home countries for Africa after killing a man. Dominey killed a rival for his wife Rosamund’s attention, driving her insane as a result. Von Ragenstein accidentally killed the husband of his lover, Princess Stephanie Eiderstrom.

Von Ragenstein is part of a long-term German Secret Service plot to infiltrate the British upper class that has been in progress since von Ragenstein’s schooldays in England. He decides that killing Dominey and assuming his identity will give him his chance. Von Ragenstein sends Dominey into the jungle with nothing except several bottles of whiskey, assuming that he will drink himself into a stupor and then die.

In London some months later, a man claiming to be Dominey arrives and proceeds to pay off his mortgages and settle his debts. He convinces many people of his identity, although most remark on how much he has changed – colder, more disciplined and a lot more sober. Some people are suspicious, and Princess Stephanie recognises the man as von Ragenstein, but he persuades her to go along with his story.

Seaman is a German spy, who contacts Dominey in England to relay his instructions. Dominey is to be, a ‘sleeper agent’ and an ‘agent of influence’ in upper class British society, not a common spy. He is also ordered to befriend the German ambassador, Terniloff, who is determined to prevent war between Germany and Britain.

Dominey goes to his house in Norfolk, which is supposedly haunted by the ghost of the man he killed. He meets his wife, Rosamund, who has been confined to the house for a decade, driven insane by the murder and the subsequent haunting. Dominey’s servants warn him that Rosamund has sworn to kill him. She comes into his bedroom that night to do so but stays her hand. Later when asked why, she states that she knew that he was not her husband. Dominey sends her to a hospital to be cured.

Seaman then sends Dominey to Germany to meet with the Kaiser and get his orders directly. The Kaiser promises Dominey that he will restore his place in German society if his mission is a success. He also tells him to marry Princess Stephanie, which Dominey regards as impossible.

Returning to England, Dominey continues to charm Terniloff. He also fends off his wife and Princess Stephanie, both of whom are now in love with him, but who he cannot romance with any honour. Dominey’s wife, is much recovered, but remains convinced that the man she shares a house with is not Dominey. Princess Stephanie comes to believe the opposite, that he is not von Ragenstein. She announces that she is going to Africa, presumably to discover what really happened there.

A messenger of the German Secret Service arrives. He says that a man answering the description of Dominey has been seen in Africa looking for a ship and may arrive back in England at any moment. Dominey and Seaman think this can’t be possible. Next day the messenger vanishes and Seaman thinks he might have been picked up by the British.

Several months later, war is looming and Princess Stephanie is due back from Africa. Seaman gives Dominey a map showing Germany’s plans to make the whole of Europe its slaves.

War breaks out. Dominey meets Prince Terniloff who is a broken man, realising that the Kaiser has tricked him and never had any intention other than a war of conquest. Terniloff hands Dominey a diary detailing his negotiations with Britain and the lies the Kaiser told him. Seaman remarks that Dominey now has the two documents that can show the world Germany’s true face, and he must guard them with his life…

Dominey returns to Norfolk. He asks the doctor to give his wife sleeping tablets so she is not disturbed. Then he waits for the ‘ghost’, who turns out to be the man he supposedly killed – still alive but completely insane and living like an animal in the woods. He sends the man to hospital.

Seaman and Princess Stephanie arrive along with Von Ragenstein’s doctor, who denounces Dominey as not  von Ragenstein. Dominey reveals the truth: he killed von Ragenstein in self-defence in Africa. Ever since he has been working with the British Secret Service to lure the German spies into a trap. He arrests Seaman after a brief struggle.

Finally, Rosamund awakes, cured of all her delusions, and rekindles intimacy with her husband.

The Great Impersonation: Analysis

The Great Impersonation has a Hybrid plot (see Spy Novel Plots ), and is not a pure espionage novel. It is partly a Mission, but mostly a Mystery, and a romance with Gothic elements.

Gothic Romance

The haunting sub-plot, with its spooky old house, secret passages, haunted woods, and terrified servants, is straight from a gothic novel.

Similarly gothic is Rosamund’s ‘insanity’, brought on it seems by nothing other than seeing her husband injured, and sustained for a decade by some screeches in the dark that no one ever dared investigate. It is not a realistic depiction of mental illness, though mad women in the attic were a common plot device in Gothic fiction.

Dominey spends most of The Great Impersonation  trying to deal with the love triangle between himself, Rosamund and Princess Stephanie, and in plot terms the espionage is designed to hold Dominey in an impossible situation. He cannot marry Princess Stephanie as she would like because he is already married to Rosamund, and he feels that taking advantage of Rosamund would be dishonourable.

Mystery

Who is the man posing as Dominey in Britain? Rosamund is convinced he isn’t actually Dominey, Princess Stephanie is equally convinced he isn’t von Ragenstein. They can’t both be right. The truth is only revealed on the second-last page, though I guessed which it would be very quickly. There was an awful moment when I thought of another semi-plausible explanation involving identical twins, but luckily the novel did not go down that route.

Implausibility

To say the The Great Impersonation  is implausible is to state the obvious. The whole plot is based on the fact that the two men are identical and can fool other people into believing they are each other after swapping reminiscences one night.

The novel is very fast paced and engaging. Though the writing is not literary by any standard, it is passable enough, though the overuse of adjectives stands out. The novel is melodramatic much of the time, and makes much use of cliffhangers, but there are no unlikely escapes and deus ex machina moments, unlike  The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Having said that, the final twist, that the man posing as Dominey is in fact not  von Ragenstein, conflicts with the start of the novel where Dominey was shown as a hopeless alcoholic set on self-destruction. The novel offers no explanation for his completely different personality on return to England.

Attitudes

The attitudes displayed in  The Great Impersonation  are those common in Britain at the time (two years after the end of the First World War). That the British are basically good, while the Germans are fundamentally evil is axiomatic. Prince Terniloff though is sympathetic, charming and an honest man, but he recognises in the end that he has been duped by the warmongering Kaiser.

Dominey is also shown as a man changed for the better by becoming more Germanic. On his return, though colder, he is upstanding and honourable, instead of weak and dissolute. He is a sympathetic character throughout, despite being an enemy agent conspiring to infiltrate Britain and damage her. This is course is one of the reasons the novel works.

Both Dominey and von Ragenstein show little but contempt for Africans in the opening chapter, and snobbery about servants and the lower classes, including Seaman the German spy, is present throughout the novel.

The Great Impersonation  is of course a feminist’s nightmare. Rosamund, is a stereotypical weak-willed woman, constantly described as innocent, helpless and ‘childlike’, and needing a man to save her. She is contrasted to the ‘voluptuous’, and ‘passionate’ Princess Stephanie. Stephanie though is independent, knows what she wants and is also given agency, taking it upon herself to go to Africa and discover the truth about Dominey and Von Ragenstein. That the reader’s sympathies are clearly being directed to Rosamund is then rather disheartening.

The outdated attitudes in The Great Impersonation  are reminiscent of The Thirty-Nine Steps  and The Riddle of the Sands  but just as in those novels, allowances have to be made for the period if the reader is to enjoy the novel.

Real People and Events in The Great Impersonation

Prince Terniloff is a very slightly disguised Prince Lichnowsky, the real German ambassador to Great Britain just before the First World War, who did everything in his power to prevent the war, and regarded it as the “greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen”. He was highly thought of in Britain because of his honourable and peace-loving conduct, and because of a pamphlet he published in 1916 that blamed the war on the Kaiser’s recklessness.

Lord Roberts, who had been head of the British army and after retirement was a campaigner against Germany and in favour of National Service in Britain, is mentioned several times in The Great Impersonation . The spy Seaman is shown infiltrating his meetings, implying that being anti-war was treasonous. In 1920, the First World War was only just over and the later view that it had been pointless and futile had not yet formed.

The Great Impersonation: The Movies

The Great Impersonation has been filmed three times. Once as a silent film in 1921, as a ‘talkie’ in 1935, starring Edmund Lowe and directed by Alan Crosland.

An updated version was made in 1942, set during World War II and starring Ralph Bellamy. It was directed by John Rawlins.

The Great Impersonation: My Verdict

Ludicrous and melodramatic, but very readable and actually a lot of fun.

Want to read it?

The novel of The Great Impersonation  is available on Project Guttenberg .

The movie is not available.

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