Sep 15 2010 2:17pm

Two young ladies: Joan Aiken’s Deception

Deception (1987) (U.S. title: If I Were You) is the most recent of these four double identity novels, and the only one to be out of print. Aiken’s adult novels never seem to get reprinted, and it’s a pity, as most of them are fun and some of them are brilliant. This was published as a Regency romance, after Aiken had written some of her Austen continuations. (It’s far superior to them.) It’s a charming piece of fluff, but very nicely done. It’s also, like many of Aiken’s romances and gothics, not actually a romance—the novel does not end in marriage or even a kiss. Nor does it really follow the conventions of a Regency. You couldn’t guess that from the British paperback cover, though.

In 1815, two coincidentally identical young ladies at the Abbey School in Reading exchange places because Louisa wants to go to India as a missionary and her parents insist on her going home. American orphan Alvey has no home, and agrees to go to Louisa’s for a year to complete the novel she’s writing. Louisa is obnoxious and Alvey is imaginative. Almost everybody in the household sees through the strategem immediately, but they do not reveal the deception for their own reasons.

Louisa has been away from home for four years and has grown up in that time, it’s perfectly reasonable that someone with a coincidental resemblance could replace her. However, the resemblance is closer than that—the girls are like twins. At one point Alvey says she’s not unique but part of a set. Personalities apart that is—because there they couldn’t be more different. Louisa is priggish and horrible. She bullies Alvey into taking her place. Alvey, initially reluctant, agrees for the sake of having somewhere peaceful to write. Once she gets to Northumberland she’s almost immediately sucked into the complexities and problems of the family. She thinks she will be detached, but she becomes essential.

This is a historical novel, written in 1987 and set in 1815, and it therefore has the conscious historical background of research, not the casual historical background of somebody writing in their own time that has subsequently become history. I really noticed this because of reading it so closely after the others. I don’t think Aiken’s clumsy about it, but it was a huge difference.

With all these books, I’ve been thinking about the level of melodrama. The problem with writing something that isn’t SF or fantasy is that you have to have something happen, and as you can’t have alien invasions and magical problems the events have to arise out of pure human nature, which often means you have to have some very odd characters in order to get a plot at all. Tey makes this work by having one psychopath, and given the existence of one psychopath, everything follows. Du Maurier has a set of people with an odd history leading to psychological oddness. Stewart’s attempt to have people who would act that way doesn’t entirely work. Aiken does something different—she knows it’s melodrama and she plays with that, she bounces the plot off it, she doesn’t pretend you’re supposed to take it seriously. All these books have mysteries surrounding deaths. Aiken doesn’t bother to make it a guessable or plausible mystery—she seems to be saying that this is scenery and not the point. The point is domestic.

Deception is the story of a girl without family coming to care for her duplicate’s family and then leaving—like The Scapegoat, but with a much gentler end. It’s funny the things you think when you compare books that you’d never think when you think about them in isolation. The Scapegoat ends with a family resolution and the personal left entirely open. Deception closes everything off so nicely you don’t need any more and you don’t keep wondering at all.

The very nice bits here are the children who have wholeheartedly adopted the worship of Mithras, the relationships of the mother and grandmother with Alvey, Alvey’s writing, and the lack of romance.

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.

1. OtterB
Okay, I was pleased to find this one at another branch of my public library and have put it on hold. It sounds like something I'll enjoy.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
OtterB: Isn't it nice to live near a good library! I hope you do enjoy it.
3. RosalindM
I've loved Joan Aiken ever since a British relative sent me a copy of the Whispering Mountain when I was twelve. There must have been another fan working at the Hamilton Ontario public library because I've been able to borrow most of her adult and childrens books over the years.
I have several books of her wonderful, rich short stories and especially love the Armitage family adventures. Thanks to your heads up last year I bought the complete "Serial Garden" set and am now reading them to my 12 year old.
4. OtterB
The library is mixed. There's more stuff than I would like that I read reviews of and would like to check out, but they don't have and aren't ordering. Was true even before the current budget crunch, and worse now. But they surprise me pleasantly on occasion.

I also bought the Serial Garden after it came up here last year and have enjoyed it. I read some of her other children's books when I was young and didn't care for them, though I no longer remember why.
5. HelenS
as you can’t have alien invasions and magical problems the events have to arise out of pure human nature, which often means you have to have some very odd characters in order to get a plot at all.

LOL! Well, that's one way to look at it.

I rather gave up on adult Aikens after I read one that I found very disturbing (an innocent character dying very suddenly, in a way that just wouldn't have happened in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or The Whispering Mountain). But I'll be glad to try this one.
7. Teka Lynn
I love this book, but something seems to have happened to my library's copy, and I've never seen it anywhere else.
8. dancing crow
I've always had trouble with Aiken's adult books, mostly not liking the characters much. My first of her juveniles was Nightbirds on Nantucket, made extra exciting by actually having been sailing there that summer.

I remembered one more of these double identity books - a YA from E.L. Konigsburg called Father's Arcane Daughter. I found it in my library, I think it is hard to locate. I enjoyed it because I like almost everything from her.
9. HelenS
I've read it now, and it's very good indeed -- thanks for the recommendation!

It's *just* possible I've read it before (Tot and Nish seemed somewhat familiar), but I don't think so. It definitely isn't the one that disturbed me back when.
10. TheophilusThrockmorton
Oh, I love Joan Aiken’s adult novels! Rather more than they deserve, perhaps, but they are so strange and charming and delightful. I always check new libraries and bookstores for additions to my collection. Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever met another person who had the slightest interest in anything beyond Wolves of Willoughby Chase, so it’s nice to see some of Aiken’s other work featured on here. And this novel, Deception (though I always knew it by its American name) is one of my very favorites.
11. Theodora Hamiliton
I am another fan of the adult novels. Strange and delightful yes, with possibly a faint hint if the whimsical, the merest touch. I am dismayed at the price her books now command. I wish to reread them not make a sound investment.

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