Henry de Vere Stacpoole was a doctor, a traveller, a poet, a dramatist, a biographer and – on the evidence of this book from 1918 – a very capable novelist.
You may know his name from ‘The Blue Lagoon’ – which I hope is a better book that its most recent film adaptations suggest – but this is a very different story.
It opens in London, where a young American businessman, named Vincent Jones, has not been having the best of times. The business deal that had everything riding on it had not come off, his trip to London had been far more expensive than he had expected, and he wasn’t at all sure what he would say to his business partner when he got home.
Jones saw a face he recognised but couldn’t quite place in the lounge of his hotel, and when he offered a greeting the an in question steered him towards a mirror. The two could have been identical twins. Jones’ new friend swept him off for a night on the town,, he plied him with far more alcohol than he was accustomed to. When Jones woke the next morning he was wearing the finest of clothes, he was in the grandest of bedrooms, but he had no idea at all of how he got there.
And then a manservant entered the room and took him to be the Earl of Rochester.
At first Jones played along, thinking that he was part of a fine practical joke. But the morning paper brought news that made him realise that the real Earl of Rochester wouldn’t be coming back, and that he was trapped in the role he had assumed.
At this point you may be thinking that this sounds rather like ‘The Scapegoat’ by Daphne Du Maurier. You’d be right, and I don’t know if Du Maurier was influenced by Stacpoole, if they were both influenced by an earlier story, or if the resemblance is as coincidental as the resemblances in the two stories. But I can say that the style, the tone and the way the story plays out in the two books is quite different.
And I can say that I liked Vincent Jones: he proved himself to be practical, capable, and fundamentally honest and decent.
The Earl had fallen out with his family, so that was one problem deferred as Jones picked his way through Rochester’s life, trying to sort out the problems that had led him to leave his life behind.
He had the sensible idea of presenting himself as a man who had seen the error of his ways and was trying to change his life to account for changes in ‘his’ demeanour, and he found Debretts invaluable in establishing just who his friends and associates were.
Meanwhile, he considered the consequences of staying in his new role, or of trying to re-establish the truth. He knew that becoming Jones again present practical problems, he knew that the truth would be distressing for the Earl’s family; but what he didn’t realise was that the family’s paramount concern would be avoiding a scandal; or that he would fall in love with the lovely young wife who had been driven very close to the end of her tether by the real Earl.
The story is well written and judged, it’s engaging from start to finish, and there is always something happening and something to think about.
It visits a variety of places in London – a city that I could see the author knew and loved – and there’s a lovely diversion into the country.
There were moments when I had to suspend disbelief – of course there were – but they were few and far between, and they really didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all.
I saw one or two possible twists, and I really couldn’t predict how the story play out or how it would end until it did. I was sorry that it was over, but the ending was just right.
It was a grand adventure, and I’d happily read more by by Henry de Vere Stacpoole.