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Life Mask (2004)
by Emma Donoghue
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As I read this book, the comments Jerry Seinfeld once made about his tv show came to mind: that it was "a show about nothing". This book is very similar in mood, tracing the lives of three main characters and the people surrounding them. Eliza Farren, the celebrated actress; Edward Smith-Stanley, Lord Derby, who was in love with Eliza but successfully held at arm's length for more than a decade; and Mrs. Anne Damer, a sculptor and mutual friend. Their intertwined lives and the scandals involving them are played out in London, against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the reign of George III. There is a great deal of politics, and that can be a bit confusing.
It's a long book and does have some very dry spots, but I enjoyed it. It gives a very clear picture of what life was like for the aristocracy in England during the late 18th century, and the confusion and fear overtaking them as social change became the main goal of government.
Oh, I love Emma Donoghue! This is historical fiction of the best kind -- actually based very closely on fact, using an impressive treasure trove of journals, letters, and biographies to flesh out historical figures with imagined details. The tale of two female friends in England in the late 1700s, rumored to have participated in a relationship barely imaginable at the time. There is a bit of drag towards the end, but overall the writing is fascinating. I have been recommending this book freely.
At first I was annoyed at how much insinuated detail there was: the author decided to avoid an info dump about the 1780s of London by making every other sentence serve as a vehicle for a passing remark on current events, manner explanations, or political tensions. It seemed a thin excuse that the protagonist we first meet is an up-and-coming actress who is trying to pass for a gentlewoman, and knows little of the inherent topics of well-bred conversation. Eliza's pretty darn good by the time we meet her, so not sure this passes.
Also, the first couple narrator switches had me confused, since the action is still jumping about on the exposition and the setting details, and I'd barely registered the names of the characters before we started head-hopping!
However, most of the story was fairly gripping: the politic of the age dealing with royal debts, royal madness, laws of property; the shifting lines of propriety and class identity; the fabric of female friendships; the inner strengths and outer masks worn by Eliza and Anne. Very well explored.
The ending was not extremely satisfying, and I felt a bit let down/ nonplussed by Anne's 'transformation'. Not sure I bought it as such. But, lots of interesting things to think about, and some funny buts and thrilling heartfelt moments, too.
A long novel set in the 18th century, centering around three people who share a character trait of being indecisive and boring. Anne Damer is a an aristocrat and a sculptor; she's friends with Lord Derby who has for literally years had a chaste relationship with actress Eliza Farren who has risen from the lower classes to stardom on Drury Lane. Eliza is unwilling to make an arrangement with him while his ailing wife still lives. Anne and Eliza become friends but scurrilous rumors suggesting they are Sapphists threaten both their reputations.
The problem with the book isn't so much that it's long and boring, but that the characters aren't brought to life. Anne's thoughts and feelings are described more than the others. It's hard to see why Derby is so besotted with Eliza that he's willing to wait for her and why Anne is so drawn to her - we're told of her beauty and grace and Derby and Anne's delight in that, but beyond that she doesn't have any particular appeal. She's a comedy actress but doesn't come across as clever or funny, and her personality is vague - she says she's never felt love for anyone. She just goes through year after year of performances with a few thoughts about her fellow thespians, but there's no insight into how she prepares for a role or her feelings about acting. A character who's the center of admiration needs to sparkle. The backstage scenes are lifeless, and if Eliza is so appealing, why doesn't she have other stage door Johnnies?
Part of the plot is one of the character's lack of self knowledge, which accounts for some of the vagueness. This was mildly interesting to me in the sense of wondering, in times when sodomy and Sapphism were judged harshly, how would would a person who realized they were drawn in that direction come to terms with it. But as a story, it was unsatisfying. There's much much more intrigue about various characters as the book winds along, but after a while I just didn't care.
Oh yeah they're based on real people, and the politics were interesting enough to make me go to Wikipedia for more background - so was Hugh Walpole - but that wasn't enough. I should have believed the Goodreads reviewers who said this was boring.
This is a gripping psychological thriller about a love affair that begins like all love affairs - in paradise. But this one ends definitely in hell.
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All of the main characters are real historical figures (yes, this is historical RPF), and Donoghue fleshes out the details from the historical record with fluid and imaginative details. These are nuanced and complex characters -- she does a great job of getting into the mindset of the era, letting even her most sympathetic characters express views that are appalling from a contemporary context. She does this with considerable subtlety -- never overtly passing judgment or providing an intrusive authorial presence.
Recommended for anyone who likes historical fiction or is interested in British theater or politics of the era, and for fans of Georgette Heyer. (Don't expect one of Heyer's neatly-resolved endings here, but do expect considerably more attention to queer themes.) ( )