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The Great Impersonation: Book Review

The Great Impersonation, written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, was published in 1920. Oppenheim wrote over one hundred novels, which sold millions of copies. Critics regard The Great Impersonation 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 [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.

It’s 1913. In Africa, a dissolute, alcoholic Englishman, Sir Everard Dominey, 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. 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.

Who Is He?

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 also orders Dominey to befriend the German ambassador, Terniloff. Terniloff aims 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 hasn’t left 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 says she knows that he’s 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 she is travelling to Africa to discover what really happened there.

A messenger of the German Secret Service arrives. He says that he has reports that a man answering the description of Dominey 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 the British have picked him up.


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 had no 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. [blackout]He traps 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.[/blackout]

Seaman and Princess Stephanie arrive [blackout]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.[/blackout]

Finally, [blackout]Rosamund returns from hospital, cured of all her delusions, and rekindles intimacy with her husband.[/blackout]

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 madwomen 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. In plot terms, the espionage holds Dominey in an impossible situation. He can’t marry Princess Stephanie because he is already married to Rosamund, and he feels that taking advantage of Rosamund would be dishonourable.


Who is the man posing as Dominey in Britain? Rosamund says he isn’t Dominey, Princess Stephanie says he isn’t Von Ragenstein. They can’t both be right.

The truth revealed only on the second-to-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.


To say The Great Impersonation is implausible is to state the obvious. The whole plot turns 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 Great Impersonation is a quick paced and engaging novel. 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, [blackout]that the man posing as Dominey is in fact not Von Ragenstein, conflicts with the start of the novel, where Dominey was a hopeless alcoholic set on self-destruction. The novel offers no explanation for his completely different personality on return to England.[/blackout]


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.

The only sympathetic German character, Prince Terniloff, is charming and honest. This is acceptable though, as he recognises in the end that the warmongering Kaiser has duped him.

Interestingly though, on his return, Dominey changes for the better by becoming more ‘Germanic’. Though colder, he has become upstanding and honourable instead of weak and dissolute. He is a sympathetic character throughout, despite apparently being an enemy agent conspiring to infiltrate Britain and damage her. This is course is one of the reasons the novel works.

Outdated Attitudes

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 female character. The text constantly describes her as innocent, helpless and childlike, and needing a man to save her. In contrast, Princess Stephanie is ‘voluptuous’, and ‘passionate’ because she’s independent, knows what she wants and has 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 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, appears several times in The Great Impersonation. The spy, Seaman, infiltrates his pro-war meetings, implying that being anti-war is 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

There are three The Great Impersonation movies:

  • A silent film from 1921.
  • A ‘talkie’ in 1935, starring Edmund Lowe and directed by Alan Crosland.
  • An updated version, set during World War II and starring Ralph Bellamy, appeared in 1942,  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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