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The Double Life of Mr. Alfred Burton

January 23, 2014

So, I read The Double Life of Mr. Alfred Burton, by E. Phillips Oppenheim, and…I kind of don’t want to talk about it.

Or maybe I do, because E. Phillips Oppenheim is a massive fucking snob, and I normally take it for granted, but when it’s the whole point of the book, it’s probably time to at least acknowledge it. The Double Life of Mr. Alfred Burton is, I suppose, tragicomic. At the beginning of the story, Oppenheim’s snobbishness was comic, and at the end it was tragic. And the move from tragic to comic is, at least, intentional, but Oppenheim’s snobbishness magnifies it.

But probably I should explain the story.

Alfred Burton is the head clerk for an auctioneer and house agent, and, being moderately vulgar and glibly untruthful, he’s pretty good at it. Then he…eats a mysterious bean in an empty house. Yeah, I don’t know either. But after that, he can only see and speak the truth. And obviously that changes his life, but not only — or even primarily — in the ways you would probably expect.

This is the comic part of Oppenheim’s snobbishness, because apparently being utterly truthful in thought and deed is the same thing as having the tastes of a man born to a wealthy and cultured upper class family. Only more so, I guess. This is kind of delightful when Burton is replacing his tails, cheap silk hat and gaudy tie with a quiet gray suit and a shirt with a soft collar, mildly painful when he points out an an auction exactly what lies and half truths have been told in the catalogue, and sort of awful when he finds himself completely disgusted with the appearance and manners of his own wife and kid.

The tragic part is that there are times in the book when the magic fades, and Burton reverts to his former tastes and pursuits. I don’t actually know what I hate more: the idea that seeing only truth makes you an asshole to anyone who doesn’t also like nice clothes and antiques, or that, having spent months appreciating fine art and music and honesty, you could go back to being exactly the person you were before. For Oppenheim, the accident of Burton’s birth makes him incapable of having good taste without the aid of magic, and the accident of his wife’s birth makes her horrible to be around for anyone who wasn’t raised similarly, and…I don’t know, it’s just super, super gross.

For what it’s worth, I think The Double Life of Mr. Alfred Burton is pretty good, if intensely problematic and at least a few chapters too long. But it’s not actually any more problematic than any of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s other books. He is, pretty fundamentally, an author of escapist fiction. And it’s a lot of fun to spend time with his wealthy and cultured characters, but only as long as you don’t see what he thinks of people who aren’t wealthy and cultured, because that’s a lot uglier, without being any more realistic.

But even more than the snobbishness, I hate the idea that people can’t change. Lower class people can only have good taste with chemical assistance. Having good taste with chemical assistance doesn’t change anything about their taste without it. And there’s apparently no possibility of anyone’s tastes changing naturally, ever.

I hate that I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that Oppenheim’s “truth” equals good taste, although I suppose that’s better than thinking Oppenheim’s “truth” equals truth.

Whatever. This book kind of hit me hard, but there’s not a lot I can do about it besides choosing to be happier about the ending than Oppenheim might have wanted.

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3 comments

  1. Oh dear, I don’t think I’ll read this one. Sounds depressing.
    I downloaded 3 Oppenheim books because of your review on the The Great Impersonation. I read Anna the Adventuress and Jeanne of the Marshes already because I like relationship stories.
    I enjoyed them both.
    I get your point about his snobbishness. In the Anna book, the guy who would have been a hero in any other book is made fun of by Mr. O thru the mouths of society chaps.Granted he’s a guy who”s too concerned about how things look. But Mr. O blames it on his low class background – a poor guy became a rich tradesman and gets knighted.

    The story of identical but not twin (?) English (well-born(?) sisters, Anna and Anabel was kind of great but terribly frustrating. They both start the book in Paris.The wild sister is Anabel and she sings in a cabaret (maybe) and she does something awful and has to flee. By chance, a very morally conservative older bachelor ‘rescues’ her and sends her back to London. But knowing that he would not help her if she reveals her real identity, she lets him continue his mistake of thinking she is her sister, Anna. Anna is an artist, low key, virtuous, etc. Also she’s the older sister who has spoiled this brat and continues to enable and fund her craziness. She even lets Anabel’s savior-suitor believe the lie, and then has to live her sisters life, to a degree. It ends well for everyone, but a little more of Anna’s HEA would have been appreciated.

    Jeanne’s story was better for me. You’ve got an innocent convent raised girl-heiress age 19 or 20 who is traveling all over Europe with her gold digging, card playing step-mom (who happens to be a real albeit minor Princess) and a couple of creepy guys. Step mom uses all the girl’s allowance and her gambled winnings keeping up appearances so she can ‘sell’ Jeanne to the highest bidder. But one of the creepy guys is a card shark who has to lay low, so they talk a young neer-do-well noble kid into inviting the group to his home in the country.
    NDWN-kid has a great older brother, who pretends to be a fisherman when the group takes over his manor house. It takes a while but Jeanne finally becomes a person about half way through the book and starts thinking and acting for herself. Up til then it was kind of maddening.
    Two couples end up together at the end. One sweet and the other smarmy. This one is long and involved and like Anna, the end is too quick. But still I liked it a lot.

    I’ve got Great Impersonation on my kindle, but I’m not much of a mystery fan. Knowing my preference for relationship stories, will I like it?


    • Those both sound like a lot of fun. It sounds like they’re a lot more female-focused than the Oppenheim books I’ve read, too, which is nice.

      The Great Impersonation is sort of more suspense than mystery. That said, there’s sort of two plots — the vaguely Gothic story of the main character and his wife and the events that made her sort of insane, and the story of diplomacy and spies on the eve of WWI. I like both plots equally, but if you don’t think you would go for the suspense stuff, it’s more than half the book but not by a huge amount.


  2. I just finished another Oppenheim. This time it’s the Tempting of Tavernake. I read a review about it elsewhere that made we want to read it. It alluded to the fact that the main character is a perfect description of a person high on the autism spectrum.(I work in a special ed room, so I’m with several young men like this all day.) This is something that wasn’t even recognized as a condition for at least 20 years after the book was written.
    Leonard Tavernake is very odd, selfish, and obsessed with making money. He works for a real estate firm and he is unusually good at buying land that will appreciate quickly. He’s not interested in girls or anyone else, until he sees a girl steel a bracelet and follows her. This gets him involved in a strange family mystery and changes the path of his life. Beatrice and Elizabeth are the sisters. Mr. O seems to like writing about sisters where one is good and one is evil.
    The really strange thing about this book is that there wasn’t any of the snobbish stuff, and it was seemed written by a person with autism!
    It was rough going about a third of the way through and had it been a hard copy, I would have skimmed and read the last chapter. I tried to do that with the e-book, but then I went back to fill in the holes and ended up reading the whole thing. I’m glad I did. Again he ends things too fast for me. But you get the classic HEA, and that’s important to me.



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