Marlene Suson's The Fair Imposter

Marlene Suson's actress novel, The Fair Imposter, not only employs the actress playing Shakespeare, but also uses Romeo and Juliet as an integral part of the plot. Actress Sally Marlowe looks startlingly like Lady Serena Keith, who has eloped with another man rather than marry her betrothed, Garth Traymor. OF course, Garth doesn't want to marry her either. Equally offended by his father and half-sister's social climbing and Lady Serena's barely concealed contempt for his low status, Garth escaped to the diplomatic corps and has now returned to England at his father's death, determined to escape his betrothal by convincing Lady Serena to cry off. Since Lady Serena has loped off, her family--in debt to Garth--leaps on the chance to present Sally as Serena. Once again Shakespeare becomes the normalizing feature in a novel whose central problems are tied to class in a variety of ways.

	Both Sally and Serena, her twin as it turns out, are interlopers, one transposed into the upper class in gratitude to a noble lady whose baby died at birth and the other playing the substitute and falling in love with Garth. Her "role" is to play Serena and convince Garth to cry off so that the family will not have to repay their debt to his father. The more he falls in love with her and she with him, the more insuperable she finds the class barriers which divide her from a baronet. However, she first charmed him when she appeared (heavily disguised) as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra with her travelling troupe and she utterly enchants him with departures from conventional ladylike behavior. And she completes his quotation from Henry VI, part 1:

Garth is amazed and pleased with her knowledge, and the quotation itself affirms sentiments which have led him to seek the end of this betrothal.

	Thoroughly enmired in the deception, Sally only reveals the deception after Serena turns up with her husband. Garth's rage and Sally's subsequent return to the stage revive the Shakespeare references which have all but disappeared in the body of the novel. Sally has her big chance; she is to play Juliet at Drury Lane. Unfortunately Garth shows up with the supposed new woman in his life, Lady Mary Mortley, and completely destroys her performance--she cannot think about the play, only about him and so muffs all her lines "'O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou . . .' she could not stop herself from looking toward Garth, her heart crying out her own love to him" (203). He, of course, kisses the hand of the lady with him and completely demoralizes Sally, who promptly flees London.

	When she returns to her old travelling troupe, her former boss seeks to restore her confidence by casting her as Juliet again and rehearsing with her. Persuaded by Serena's sister-in-law that Sally DID love him and was not just trying to trick him into matrimony, Garth steps into the performance during the balcony scene--which Sally still cannot do because she can only think of him. Now he declares his love in Shakespearean language:

He has come to claim her for his wife, of course, but it is now she who insists that "just as Romeo and Juliet had been torn apart by feuding families, she and Garth could never close the chasm between social classes that separated them" (216). He does convince her that he much prefers her to her twin, raised as a lady of quality and destined to bore him. Of course, part of this recognition comes from the fact that Serena's husband, Lord Leland, plans to stick by his low-born bride, despite her deception in marrying him when she has learned of her birth. As Lady Emma tells Garth, "' It appears a duke's son, with his superior birth can afford to be less concerned about his consequence than a baronet can. Lee loves Serena, and intends to stick by her'" (210). The triumph of love over class boundaries rewrite Romeo and Juliet for Garth and Sally as well. Garth demands her acceptance as he made his declaration, with Romeo's lines:

All in all, the entire scene reworks Romeo and Juliet's Balcony scene: the hidden lover listening to his beloved and speaking when she does not expect it, the anxiety about whether he means honorably (Sally first thinks that Garth offers a carte blanche), the declarations and worries about the obstacles between the lovers, and "Romeo's" final, but redundant request that she offer her faithful vow--Sally has already told Garth several times that she loves him. Shakespeare's play becomes the lens through with problems of class are negotiated and apparently resolved here.

In Suson's version of the actress-novel, despite the acknowledged destruction of her promising career on the London stage, the only real quandary Sally seems to face is her loss of her beloved Garth. Margaret Evans Porter takes the career and self-sufficiency of the actress--and her future employment after marriage--much more fully into account. Her Flora completely resists losing her career and her financial independence. She accepts her lover when she has tired of the London theater scene and decides to write for the theatre instead. Suson's Sally has no such thoughts of the future, and the novel ends on the semi-ambiguous note that Garth and Sally love each other as Romeo and Juliet did. And we know what happened to them.

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