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.


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