This week I have been mostly reading about Kings and Queens, Barons and Countesses, and adventurous lives in fantasy European kingdoms – and a fabulous journey it’s been!
Although the novel is set in the 1930s, I guessed it must actually have been written and published in the ’40s. Firstly, there’s the fabulous hairstyles on the front cover. Did you ever see anything more glossy or Brylcreemed than the guy’s hairdo? And in the novel, the heroine seems to spend an awful lot of time at the hairdresser’s, which she would have to do, in order to keep her hair as perfectly waved as the woman who’s with him. And I love the 1940s lipstick!
There were another couple of other clues to the time of publication. Inside the front and back covers were two advertisements:
The one on the right is for Super Shave.
If you look at the shaving advert, you’ll see a drawing of a soldier, bottom left. He’s saying: The stuff to give your troops! Send YOUR soldier boy some! The advert claims the product is a boon to the troops, because soldiers can use it whilst shaving with cold water. (Although I’m not sure how excited a soldier would be, opening a tin of shaving cream on his birthday.)
So, I guessed the novel was written during the second world war, and when I Googled it, I found it was actually published in 1944.
It’s a typical story of European doppelgängers. I expect you know the theme! Love’s Vintage follows a young girl who has trained as a secretary and can take shorthand in French and German. She is offered a job with the Queen of Valdovia – a European country which has lots of lakes and mountains and, as the heroine herself says, “comedy military uniforms”. The Queen’s daughter is suffering from some mysterious mental affliction, which is making the Queen highly anxious. Her daughter is supposed to be getting married to Count Anton and being crowned in a few months. If she doesn’t get crowned, then a dastardly Count called Wild Nick will become King, and they can’t allow that to happen, because Wild Nick is, well, dastardly.
But all is not lost! Of course not! It turns out that our heroine, Elena, is actually the princess’s cousin, and not only that – yes, you guessed! They look exactly alike – what an incredible coincidence! Oh, except Elena has black hair, and the princess is blonde. But that’s OK, because Elena doesn’t mind spending loads of time at the hairdresser’s. So, she bleaches her hair and takes the princess’s place, and only has to remember to keep getting her roots done in order to fool everyone FOR EVER. Oh, and she falls in love with Count Anton as well, which is good, as they have to get married anyway. Of course Count Anton has to be in on the secret, as at some point he is bound to discover that Elena isn’t a natural blonde. Meanwhile, the real princess goes to some sort of asylum. I found this a little hard-hearted.
Disappointingly, dastardly Wild Nick dies long before the end of the book. It was a shame about that, as he was the only interesting character. He gets stabbed through the heart with a stiletto (a knfe, not a shoe), by a wild gypsy girl who is jealous of his lust for Elena. So that got rid of him quite conveniently, but after that the book was a little boring.
The theme of doppelgängers in European aristocracy is as popular as ever in romantic fiction. In fact, Europe appears to be awash with lookalikes, so much so thatI’m amazed I haven’t bumped into my own double on the other side of the Channel. She must be out there somewhere, living in her castle with her tiara and her mystery ailment!
Here’s the blurb for a recently published Mills and Boon novel, for example: Protecting the Pregnant Princess, by Lisa Childs. “A princess and her doppelganger are missing and a griefstricken king turns to his bodyguard for answers. When one of the women is found, Aaron Timmer’s mission is to keep her safe and find the abductor. But how can he do that when the mystery woman has lost her memory?”
The novel which very first started the romantic doppelgänger trend was The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope. It was published as long ago as 1894, and if you’ve never read it, I urge you to do so! You can download the e-book for free, here at Project Gutenberg. It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s a cracking adventure, it’s funny, and most of all it has one of the best villains in literature in the form of the dashing Rupert of Hentzau. Even the hero, Rudolf Rassendyll, says of Prince Rupert: if a man must be a knave, I would have him a debonair knave…it makes your sin no worse to do it à la mode and stylishly.
There have been a couple of film adaptations of The Prisoner of Zenda, but my absolute favourite is the 1952 film starring Stewart Granger, Deborak Kerr, and who else for the debonair Rupert of Hentzau but the thrilling James Mason. I don’t think anyone plays a baddie better than James Mason. Take a look at this clip (which I got from YouTube, so hope is OK copyrightwise):
Who would you rather have: James Mason in his wicked greatcoat and splendidly polished boots, or Stewart Granger, who wears a medallion and white monogrammed PJs in bed? Personally, I think there’s no contest. The bad guy definitely has it.
Have you read The Prisoner of Zenda? Or any other doppelganger books? If so, please let me know in the comments – I always love to hear from people!