Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Imposture.
This remarkable tale of mistaken identity in 19th-century London is couched in illusion and literary aspirations, the cause celebre the moody poet Lord Byron. With brilliant literary sleight of hand, the author posits a mysterious adventure that is imaginative and ultimately poignant.
Victims of the Victorian class pretensions that define London society, the two primary characters are caught in a web of deceit, each harboring secrets. John Polidori is a young man who seeks identity in his profession as a physician but is grossly incompetent; his patients die more often than not. In spite of this, he is contracted by Lord Byron to travel as his personal physician. In Byron’s entourage, Polidori experiences the dark side of the artistic life as well as the freedoms; out of sheer boredom, Byron and his friends challenge one another to compose ghost stories. The result of this eccentric adventure Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.
With literary aspirations of his own, John is inspired by Byron’s circle and their endeavors. He pens his own tale, The Vampyre, which is later published by Henry Colburn, who mistakenly believes Byron to be the author. Eventually, Polidori strains even Byron’s patience and the two part ways, John retuning to London with no money or prospects, his barren rooms hardly livable.
Arriving on Colburn’s doorstep to claim recompense for his manuscript, the Byronesque Polidori meets Eliza Esmond, a plain, bookish young woman who immediately assumes he is the poet. The unsophisticated Eliza’s face bears “the screwed up look of concentrated loneliness, its brave front.” Unable to ignore the flattery of this mistaken identity, John goes along with the charade.
Polidori’s appeal is tempered by his flaws, as he indulges his weaknesses, “apt to ‘stick’ when nothing good would come of ‘sticking’, and liable to give in just when something might.” John is never at ease with his position, “afflicted by absurdity, sorrow’s cousin, once removed.” Eliza has secrets of her own, pretending to be above her station but unwilling to disclose her true circumstances, thus contributing to the pretense. Begun with deception, the result of the ill-fated romance is ultimately tragic.
Neither John nor Eliza truly desires to be stripped of artifice, both thriving on subterfuge. Victims of their time and place in history, each yearns for a more substantive life but is restricted by class and circumstance. The unlikely lovers are utterly believable, particularly Polidori, who nearly realizes his potential only to be reduced by glaring deficiencies of character.
Markovits reveals his character’s souls in revelatory prose. The young physician yearns for Byron’s attention, perhaps even seduction. Waxing equally nostalgic and resentful of the days spent with Byron, Polidori craves only a little adulation, even through the eyes of a woman who believes him to be someone else. This precise, intense novel mines the beauty of language and the tragedy of circumstance, a fragile romance defeated by a foolish deception.