Benjamin Markovits
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Buy *Imposture* by Benjamin Markovits online

Benjamin Markovits
W.W. Norton
288 pages
May 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Imposture.

A chance meeting and sly, covetous glance begins this seductive period piece that centers on the riddle of mistaken identity and, in the process, brings the cause célèbre of 19th-century London to life. John Polidori, the Italian-English physician and writer, is thrust into a chance encounter with the idealistic and fanciful Eliza Esmond when they meet one morning on the rainy doorstep of Lord Byron's publisher Henry Colburn.

Eliza automatically assumes that the handsome John is in fact the celebrated poet and author of The Vampyre, the first vampire story to be published in English. Eliza, however, doesn't quite figure that Polidori has in fact written the work himself, when three years earlier he entered Lord Byron's service as his personal physician and accompanied Byron on a trip through Europe where they stayed at the Villa Diodati, a house Byron rented by Lake Geneva.

Well aware of Byon's promiscuous reputation and also of his infamous associations, Eliza automatically falls under John/Byron's spell, totally captivated and also quite flattered by the possibly that she has at last reconnected with the striking poet. Unfortunately, John is not the sort of man to accept his failings and "apt to stick when nothing good could come of sticking." He decides to go along with the pretense, the girl's ridiculous attentions somehow heartening him and her silly delusions proving to be something that he can quite easily perpetuate.

Certainly this imposture could work because in the past people have commented that Byron and Polidori are very much like a "youthful mirror," and on more than one occasion they had been mistaken for each other. Both possessed of a delicate and easily led nature, John and Eliza are fuelled by their propensity toward artifice and the urge to indulge their most impulsive natures. Neither, however, is prepared to face the truth about themselves and the ramifications of their tantalizing web of deceit.

As the affair progresses, the author interlaces his story with Polidori's past as he gradually sinks into the reveries of his travels with Byron. Here the kernel of his story The Vampyre once began with the first taste of woman's flesh, the night that John spent in Dover with Byron on the eve of their setting forth for France, and Byron's old friend Hobhouse, who openly resented having to chaperone this most young and ambitious doctor.

Of course, Byron and Polidori do eventually go their separate ways, but not before the physician has engendered a sympathy for Byron with regard to the amusement at "playing the part." But Polidori also learns that everyone needs a pose and a posture to get what one wants, which is why it becomes so easy for him to pass his work off as someone else's and also to lie to the poor and willingly desirous Eliza about his identity.

John doesn't count on the tender feelings that indulging in this kind of charade can evoke. Although he becomes intent on seducing Eliza, an innocent girl whose only sin is her sensibility, John is constantly wracked by his impulsive nature - there's nothing in his life that cannot be wagered and bet upon. For him, even as he spends his evenings gambling his fortune away, his imposture, that of countenancing Eliza's silly misapprehensions, allows him to find relief even for a moment from the squalor of his life.

Meanwhile, Eliza never senses trouble - at least until it is too late. Her older sister, Beatrice, warns her by whispering furtive hints into her ear. She knows that it's just like Eliza to fall for a hopeless impostor by the way she wastes herself on books. Surely she cannot realistically imagine that one day Lord Byron himself would actually come to woo her. Still, Eliza refuses to listen, her youthful imagination belying a sense of self-importance and arrogance. In the end, her confidence that she can one day actually persuade Byron to love her triumphs all her powers of reason.

Markovits eventually coalesces Polidori's own spiritual and financial struggles with that of Eliza's growth and maturity as a woman in a society where the urge for desire has its own sensual rewards, and where the price of fakery and deceit seems to be boundless. Eventually thrown into a maelstrom of unrestrained duplicity from which it seems almost impossible to escape, poor Eliza must endure the ultimate imposture and the most crucial misapprehension of character before she can move on with her life and free herself from the strictures of John's attentions.

In truly elegant prose that evokes some of the most stunning images of Victorian England - the smoky, alcohol-soaked gambling dens, the premier nights at the theatre, the stultifying drawing rooms of the aristocracy, and the misty and dank alleyways of London - Imposture absolutely breathes with life while also beautifully mimicking the many facets of the nineteenth-century courtship novel, particularly with regard to the mechanics of style.

These flawed protagonists are blindsided by their delusions of romance and confounded by their predicament, which seems to grow so much beyond their control. John continues to be consumed with his enigmatic sexuality and perhaps even by his furtive attraction to Bryon, and Eliza, the wild child who spends too much time playing at "being grown," comes dangerously close to sacrificing her most precious commodity: that of her innocence.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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