The Double Life of Mr. Alfred BurtonJanuary 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.