I am a sucker for books that no one reads anymore, and I will doubtless bend your ear in future about many of them. One of my particular favorite themes is a story about Person One taking the place of Person Two for some reason: to save the country; to save a life; or sometimes, just because they can. Though it usually turns out to be something more, or other than, fun. It’s what I call the ‘Who am I, really?’ theme.
First, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Set in England in the sixteenth century, it’s about a peasant boy swapping places with Prince Edward VI, Henry VIII’s boy. The real prince gets to dash about the countryside and have the adventures he’s always dreamed of, while Tom Canty gets to eat regularly and spends his time cracking walnuts with the Great Seal of England. Fun.
Next, we move to the nineteenth century and Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Adventure—sensing a theme here?—romance and derring-do. I am a sucker for derring-do and does it not sound cool? Okay, Zenda: it seems, back in the day, an Englishman had some adventures in Ruritania, an imaginary kingdom based on one of those European principalities which proliferated before the Franco-Prussian War gave Prussia the opportunity to corral them all into the German Empire. A descendant of that original roving Englishman ends up looking exactly like the crown prince of Ruritania and is cajoled, persuaded, and sweet-talked—“Consider your honor, sir!” harumph harumph—into standing in for the kidnapped prince at his coronation. “It’ll only be for a few days, honest,” the good guys tell him.
A few days stretch out a bit longer and our Honorable Englishman ends up having to marry the Princess Flavia. He and the princess then proceed to fall in love, but when the real prince finally shows up, she gives up her English love. For honor. Flavia, girl, what were you thinking? I mean, the real prince is a creep. But that’s honor for you, not to mention Englishmen during the Empire. In books, anyway.
On to our next Englishman: this book is set a bit later, as in right before The Great War. E. Phillips Oppenheim wrote a bunch of adventure novels, of which his best known is probably The Great Impersonation. It’s 1913-ish and Everard Dominey—which I think you’ll agree is the most English name it’s possible to conceive—has left England for the wilds of Africa after an unmentionable badness happened back home. Yep. His honor again. He has seriously let himself go when he stumbles into the tent of a German and, vast surprise and plot twist: he and the German, Baron Leopold von Ragastein, who’s been exiled for killing his lover’s husband, could be twins.
The crafty Baron goes all broody and thoughtful and realizes this is an opportunity to insert himself into the middle of English society, sort of a sleeper agent in a country he knows will oppose his own if/when a big war starts. He consults with his doctor/secret agent buddy; they send poor Everard into the jungle, with plans to murder him so the German can take over his identity
Cut to England a few months later and, taa daa, Sir Everard has returned home. Everyone, friends and family, is surprised at how gosh darn good he’s looking, though he’s a bit stiffer and, uh, more military than they recall. Only his poor wife thinks he may be Someone Else, but she’s been in a sanitarium as a result of that aforementioned badness, so no one takes her seriously. Of course it’s Everard; who else could he be, right? Then all sorts of shenanigans—there’s a word we don’t use enough—ensue before the exciting denouement.
Now, lest you think I’ve forgotten about speculative fiction, which is in face impossible: my favorite of the Person-One-pretending-to-be-Person Two batch: Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star, which won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1957. This book ranks high in my personal Heinlein pantheon, which consists of literally every Heinlein. Jo Walton says in her blog that Heinlein’s “ability to write a sentence that makes you want to read the next sentence is unparalleled” and lordy, lordy, as we say in the South, ain’t that the truth?
In this jewel of a book, the not-as-good-as-he-thinks-he-is actor Larry Smythe aka The Great Lorenzo is asked to play the role of Joseph Bonforte, a political big wheel who’s been kidnapped right before an important meeting with some Martians. To miss that meeting could cause chaos in the solar system. Larry agrees, even though he has this horrible aversion to the way Martians smell. Getting that little problem solved is one of my favorite parts.
Adventure, romance, and an interesting ending, which I won’t spoil for you. Actually, yes I will; if you haven’t read Double Star yet, then why shouldn’t I add to your overwhelming burden of shame? See, they get Bonforte back but the stress is too much for him, and Larry has to take over the role again. Permanently.
It’s a beauty of a book and go read it right now. I’ll wait.