Double Identity

“Double identity” is a name I’ve given to a genre of books that people don’t tend to group as a genre. In fact, it’s a trope that can be used in any genre, but I think it’s interesting to consider these books together and see what they have in common, what makes them so fascinating, and how they work.

Double identity is where a character looks so much like somebody else that they could change places, and they do. The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) is a well known example. There are all sorts of variations on the theme, both in science fiction and fantasy and in mainstream novels. There are versions where the double has only a family resemblance and the original is dead, versions where the double is pretending to be a double and is actually the original, versions where almost everybody guesses about the substitution but has their own reasons for keeping quiet, and so on. Some doubles have been well drilled on the family they must deceive, others know literally nothing. The centre of these stories is the masquerade, keeping up the facade, the tightrope walk of pretending to be somebody who looks exactly like you.

The books I’m going to be looking at are Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar (1949), published as a mystery, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (1957), published as a mainstream novel, Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree (1961) published as romantic suspense, and Joan Aiken’s Deception, (1988) published as regency romance. I’m probably also going to read The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) which I haven’t read for decades. I may even read George Macdonald Fraser’s Royal Flash (1985), which is one of the weaker Flashman books but which does The Prisoner of Zenda. I shall tag these posts “double identity.” If you have comments on these specific books, try to save them for the individual posts, coming soon.

Of the four I’ve read this weekend the most striking thing they have in common is the way they are about houses and families. None of these books are about royalty, the way Zenda is. The families in all of these books are respectable middle class, with servants. There’s money, but not huge amounts of money. They live in nice houses, and the houses are important. Come to that, all the details of their lives and dinners are significant, and significantly described. Because of the deception, the simplest things become charged with significance and danger. As well as domestic detail, there’s a lot of scenery in these books, and it’s scenery the text approves of.

Another point of commonality, which I only noticed when I was trying to think of more examples, is that the doubles are uniformly the heroes of the books. Trollope’s Is He Popinjoy (1878) is fiction based on the Tichbourne case in which the imposter is strongly disapproved of by the text. But in all of these examples the text is thoroughly on the imposter’s side. The joy of reading them is seeing the character getting away with it, and being constantly aware that at any moment they might plunge into the abyss. You don’t want them to be revealed as false. Generally they do better than the real person would.

The deception in these stories is sympathetic, but it’s something where the protagonist has a choice. They could walk away from it if they chose, yet they keep on with it. Their reasons for this vary, but I think this is one of the defining parameters.

There’s also the inevitable question of revelation. The substitution will at some point have to be revealed, and the way the different books deal with this in different ways—not revealing at all, revealing at different times to different people, discovery without revelation—is one of the things that makes them interesting.

What really draws me to them is the way these stories have a new angle on identity and belonging, and on seeing things from the inside and the outside at the same time.

I’ve already written about Heinlein’s Double Star, which is probably the best known genre example. In Double Star, an actor who is similar but not identical to a politician is hired to impersonate him and essentially becomes him, overcoming his aversion to Martians and changing his political opinions on the way. This is different from most of my examples in that there isn’t a house and a family—Lorenzo is deceiving the public, but those closest to Bonforte know he is an imposter. It doesn’t have the delight in domestic details—never Heinlein’s thing.

I’ve also written about Pamela Dean’s Secret Country (1985). In this, five children from our world take the places of the five royal children of the Hidden Land. They’ve been pretending to be them in games for years, now they have to pretend to be them full time and fool everybody else. There’s a house, there’s domestic detail, there’s the potential abyss and there’s also fantasy plot and magic and unicorns. No wonder I adore these books.

Tarr and Turtledove’s Household Gods (1999) which I posted about recently also kind of fits with this theme. L.A. lawyer Nicole finds herself in the body of Umma, a tavern keeper in Roman Carnuntum. She has to deal with Umma’s slave and children and friends and family as if she were Umma, and with no preparation. This is one of the things that makes the book fascinating. It’s not a deliberate deception though—Nicole has no choice. It’s all part of her passivity, which is the thing that annoys me so much about her.

The best science fiction example is Mark Vorkosigan in Mirror Dance (1994). Mark is a clone of Miles, designed to take Miles’s place and assassinate Miles’s father. He gets away from the plotters who had him made and makes his own plan, which also involves impersonating Miles, at least to start with. Mirror Dance takes this double identity trope and does a lot of really interesting and brilliant things with it. No wonder I love this too.

So, does anybody else have any double identity examples you’d like to throw in? Any genre?


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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