This novel was a bestseller in the first decade of the twentieth century, on both sides of the Atlantic. It would be adapted for the stage, it would be filmed four times over the years, but the creator of the work would see none of that; because she died in 1911, when she was just thirty-six years old.
That may be why she is so obscure; over-shadowed by the tide of great women writers who would emerge as the twentieth century.
I can make no claims for her being a lost literary great, but, on the evidence of this book and the one other of hers that I’ve read, I would say that she is a very fine storyteller whose work has stood the test of time.
This particular story opens on a foggy night in London. Two men nearly collide. When they speak they both notice that they sound alike, and when they see each other each man thinks that they might be looking in a mirror. They really are doppelgangers. As they talk they find that their circumstances are very different. John Chilcote is a member of parliament, aristocratic, wealthy, and prominent in the social and political world. John Loder, had a humbler background, circumstances had left him alone in the world, and so he lived quietly in rented rooms.
Chilcote learned that Loder was politically aware, eager to learn more about the role of a member of parliament, and ambitious to make more of his life; while Loder learned that Chilcote cared nothing for the things that interested him, and that his weakness for morphia was undermining his social and political life.
A plan – an outrageous plan – began to take shape in Chilcote’s mind ….
Now at this point the story sounds strikingly similar to a couple of other books – ‘The Scapegoat’ by Daphne Du Maurier and ‘The Man Who Lost Himself’ by Henry de Vere Stacpoole. It is, but it predates both of those books, and it has a very striking difference.
What happens next is agreed by both men.
When the two men part, Chilcote suggests that they exchange cards. And, some time later he visits Loder’s lodging to try to purchase his double’s services; to step into his life for a period of time while he absents himself. Loder’s first instinct is to refuse,to say that it could never work, but Chilcote is persuasive. He explains that he is known to be eccentric, and that he is distant from his wife, family and friends. He plays on Loder’s desire to enter his world and his need for money. He wins him over, and he wins the freedom to indulge in his own vices.
I knew that it was going to happen, but the I loved watching this particular scene play out.
Plans are laid, and then the exchanges begin.
Loder throws himself heart and soul into the political world, he proves to have a wonderful gist for oratory, and he rekindles faith of the world in John Chilcote M. P. He finds it impossible to be cold to Chilcote’s wife, and so he explains that he is trying to overcome his vices, to be a better man. She is moved by that but he tells her that he will struggle, that there will be times when he struggles to cope – when the real Chilcote returns to his life.
It seems that the plan is working.
But the two men find it more and more difficult to return to their original spheres; Chilcote because of his craving for morphia, Loder because of his commitment to the work he is doing in parliament, and his growing love for Eve, Chilcote’s wife.
The story is compelling, the psychology is pitch perfect, and it was clear that the author understood her characters and their world very well.
There was a crisis. I knew that there would be, but I was sorry that it came so soon because I was loving following Loder in Chilcote’s world.
There would be some dramatic twists and turns before the story reached it’s conclusion. There were some contrivances, there was one very large coincidence; but I enjoyed watching the pieces fall into place, and I think that, as a whole, the story worked.
It’s a political thriller wrapped up in a psychological study of two men; it’s a wonderful human drama very well told; and I can understand why it was such a big success in its day.