The Great Impersonation (novel)
First edition book binding 1920
|Author||E. Phillips Oppenheim|
|Publisher||A.L. Burt Company with Little, Brown, & Company|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||322 (1920 First Edition)|
The Great Impersonation is a mystery novel written by E. Phillips Oppenheim and published in 1920. German Leopold von Ragastein meets his doppelganger, Englishman Everard Dominey, in Africa, and plans to murder him and steal his identity in order to spy on English high society just prior to World War I. However, doubts of the returned Dominey’s true identity begin to arise in this tale of romance, political intrigue, and a (literally) haunting past.
The story begins in German East Africa, where Englishman Everard Dominey awakens to his doppelganger host, German Leopold von Ragastein. They spend the night drinking and sharing their dark pasts. The next day, Leopold and Dr. Schmidt hatch a plan to make Everard disappear in the wilderness, thereby allowing Leopold to steal his identity and fulfill his special commission for the German government.
In London, Everard seems very different from his peers, but is so familiar with his own past that he is accepted back. Unfortunately, his wife, Lady Rosamund Dominey, is still insane, and still thinks that Everard killed Roger Unthank, who disappeared just before Everard left and has not been seen since. Princess Stephanie Eiderstrom recognizes Everard as Leopold immediately, and threatens to reveal him if he does not meet with her later. Everard speaks with Mr. Seaman and reveals that Leopold killed a Hungarian prince, the husband of his lover the Princess Eiderstrom, which is why he was banished to Africa.
He sends Seaman to the princess and lets her know that they cannot be together until he is done being Everard. Seaman, in turn, informs him that his true mission in England is to keep an eye on Ambassador Terniloff. Princess Eiderstrom informs Terniloff of Leopold’s true identity. The Prince means to ensure that Leopold is a spy for peace, not warfare, and he assures the Prince that the former is true.
At the Dominey estate, Mrs. Unthank accuses Everard of murder. Everard and her son, Roger Unthank, had fought over Lady Dominey soon before Everard left for Africa, and he hasn’t been seen since. As a result, Lady Dominey wishes to kill her husband, and the ghost of Roger Unthank haunts the manor weekly. That night, Everard wakes up to his wife holding a knife to his throat, but she leaves. She summons him to her room the next day; she has lost her desire to kill him, but cannot figure out why. Everard goes to her doctor and he tells Everard that Mrs. Unthank is bad for Rosamund’s health, and that her sanity depends on Everard’s actions alone, now that he has returned. Rosamund is sent to a mental hospital.
Mr. Seaman tells Everard that he has been asked to see Kaiser Wilhelm I in person. Everard confronts Mrs. Unthank and makes her leave the manor. In Germany, the Kaiser reminds Everard of Germany’s intentions to start a war, insists that he stay close to Terniloff, and promises that if he succeeds in England, his banishment will be rescinded.
Back in England, a hunting party is formed, and Terniloff finds out about the haunting of Roger Unthank. Princess Eiderstrom brings Everard a letter from the Kaiser, which both allows and insists that Everard marry her. He rejects her, both because it could possibly reveal his identity and because he secretly has feelings for Rosamund Dominey, who just returned from the mental hospital. Lady Dominey has one last remnant of her insanity left: she believes that the returned Everard is not really her husband.
Everard and the hunting party explore Black Wood and find that the ghost has left tracks. Lady Dominey plays the role of hostess, finally returning to high society after over a decade of absence. Prince Terniloff and Princess Eiderstrom continue to berate Everard about his spy status and its consequences, and a message from Dr. Schmidt arrives. It says that the real Everard may be alive. Seaman, however, immediately recognizes the messenger as spy Johann Wolff, and wonders why a German spy would check up on them. Wolff disappears in the night.
Princess Eiderstrom tells Everard that the real Leopold von Ragastein was left behind in Africa, and what is left is just his dispassionate likeness. Mr. Seaman talks her into keeping her silence, and she vows to leave for Africa. Seaman also believes that Wolff was abducted, and leaves for London to investigate.
Six months later, Everard and Rosamund have dinner together in London, where Seaman has summoned Everard. She still believes that her Everard loved her more than the returned Everard, but she still loves her new husband. Seaman tells them that English spies probably took Wolff. Seaman then shows Everard a map of what the Kaiser hopes will be the German European empire one day, and tells him that their goal is to keep England out of the coming war until France falls. Seaman gives Everard the map for safekeeping.
World War I begins. The Ambassador calls Everard to apologize for being wrong the whole time and not believing that Germany would start a war, and gives Everard his memoirs of his experience in England and the political intrigue surrounding it. Everard then goes to Rosamund, and tells her that he regrets to inform her that he must fight for his country.
Everard commissions a group of lumberjacks to destroy Black Wood, and Mrs. Unthank watches them. Everard accuses her of driving his wife to insanity, creating the howling ghost of Roger Unthank, and victimizing an attempted murderer. She questions his true identity. Everard spends the night outside his own house, waiting for the ghost of Roger Unthank. It appears, and Everard finds out that the howling, haunting ghost of Roger Unthank was, indeed, a half-mad Roger Unthank. He is not dead, but instead hiding out in Black Wood and terrorizing the Domineys with the help of his mother. One mystery is solved.
Seaman returns from London. Princess Eiderstrom returns from Africa with Doctor Schmidt, who immediately recognizes the returned Everard Dominey as the true Everard Dominey. Everard reveals that he killed Leopold von Ragastein after finding out the latter’s plan. He is the reason Wolff disappeared – Wolff knew the truth, and was trying to inform Seaman – and he has turned in both the map and the memoirs to the English government. Seaman and Schmidt are arrested, Eiderstrom leaves in disgrace, and Everard is left with his wife – who now acknowledges him as her true husband.
- Everard Dominey - a thirty-six-year-old English baronet with a history of debt, drunkenness, and violence
- Leopold von Ragastein - full title Major-General Baron Leopold von Ragastein, currently exiled because he killed his ex-lover’s husband
- Rosamund Dominey - the insane wife of Everard Dominey, renowned for her youth and beauty
- Princess Stephanie Eiderstrom - a Hungarian Princess and Leopold von Ragastein’s ex-lover
- Mr. Seaman - German spy, partner of the returned Everard Dominey
- Roger Unthank - the missing (presumed dead) rival of Everard Dominey
- Duke Henry - prominent English politician behind the anti-German movement
- Duchess Caroline - wife of Henry, cousin of Everard, and high-society hostess
- Ambassador Terniloff - German ambassador to England; works towards peace and understanding between the two nations
- Mrs. Unthank - the mother of Roger Unthank and attendant of Rosamund Dominey
- Dr. Harrison – Rosamund Dominey’s live-in doctor
- Johann Wolff – a German spy who disappears halfway through the book
World War I
The majority of this novel takes place just before the start of World War I, which takes place in chapter 27. The political intrigues of the novel – the initial spy mission for von Ragastein, the fights between Mr. Seaman and Duke Henry, and the presence of Ambassador Terniloff, among others – are focused entirely on the struggle between the British and the Germans, with Great Britain as the “good” side and Germany the “bad” one.
The dark wilderness
Another main theme in the book is the metamorphosing capacities of the dark wilderness. Roger Unthank goes to Black Wood after a traumatic event, and returns years later a crazed man. Everard Dominey goes to Africa after a traumatic event, and returns years later a new, reformed man. Both Lady Dominey and Princess Eiderstrom propose, at various points during the impersonation, that their true lovers were left behind in Africa, and what returned is a false similarity.
Reception and sales
The book was so popular in its time that it sold over 1 million copies in 1920 alone, and was the 8th best-selling novel of the year in the United States.
David Lehman called it “escapism on a grand scale” and “far and away the best” of Oppenheim’s thriller novels. The Guardian put it on its definitive list of “1000 Novels Everyone Must Read” in 2009, under the “Crime” category.
The book has been adapted to film three times. The first was in 1921, starring James Kirkwood as Everard Dominey/Leopold von Ragastein and directed by George Melford. The second was in 1935, starring Edmund Lowe and directed by Alan Crosland. The last was in 1942, and has significant plot and name changes (mostly to situate the story around World War II), Ralph Bellamy stars as Edward Dominey/Leopold von Ragastein, and it is directed by John Rawlins.
This book features real political figure Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The Duke of Worcester is a title that had never actually existed in English gentry. However, the Duke of Beaufort is the modern incarnation of the titles Marquess of Worcester and Earl of Worcester. All but two Dukes of Beaufort have been named Henry, the name of the Duke of Worcester in this book. While this is not a real character or title, there are references to real-life people.
- Dryden, Linda, ‘Conrad and his Readers.’ In Allan Simmons ed., Conrad in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2009), pp. 221-228.
- Lehman, David, “Gilt-Edged Intrigue; The Wrath to Come and The Great Impersonation. By E. Phillips Oppenheim”, Newsweek, Sept. 17, 1984.
- “1000 Novels Everyone Must Read,” The Guardian, Jan. 23 2009.