Jan/Feb 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

Life Masks

Review by Pamela Mackey

Life Mask.
Emma Donoghue.
Harvest Books. 2005.
ISBN 0-1560-3244-3.

The reign of George III (1760-1811, with a couple of time-outs) was an interesting time for England. The American colonies rebelled and went their own way. In France, citoyens attended the birth of another new republic with pikes and pitchforks, terror and la guillotine. A coalition of Lords, in league with the heir apparent, George, Prince of Wales, undertook to displace the intermittently insane monarch. This tapestry of revolutions, sedition and madness form the grand backdrop for a smaller, less time-specific sort of drama in Emma Donoghue's Life Masks.

London society in the eighteenth century's twilight centered on a "World" or "Beau Monde, (alias the Quality, the Bon Ton, or simply the Ton)" whose members, for the most part, were aristocrats. On occasion, a "person of no birth" would migrate into this elite group, but such entry required sponsorship and was always provisional. That's the novel's milieu. Sexual identity crises, scandal-driven tabloids and the crusty idealisms of an embattled ruling class round out the plot.

The pivotal character, Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, is the richest man in Parliament. He's a political dissident, horse racer and fancier of blood sports. He's also short and funny-looking, maybe even ugly. Good friends with the aristocratic sculptor Anne Damer and besotted with the commoner actress Eliza Farren, he introduces the two, and they soon bond. But Damer, a suicide's widow, is the target of recurrent rumors; she's said to have "Sapphic" tendencies. Such talk bewilders her, for she imagines that a true Sapphist would have erotic feelings for women, and this has not been her experience.

Or has it? There was a moment, long ago:

'I met this girl,' said Anne, barely audible.
'An Italian girl?'
A nod. The words came out like a sigh. 'There was a kiss... It was just a kiss... it happened to be glimpsed by an English party... and the story raced its way back to Grub Street.'

Then there's her work. As the only woman sculptor in England, Anne has made her mark in a man's profession, a physically demanding, manicure-mangling one at that. And her persona: tall, independent, outspoken... sure signs, all.

When the gossip reaches Eliza, she bolts. And why not? Anne's friendship has already brought her into the World; a whiff of scandal-by-association might push her right back out. In a country whose laws condemn male homosexuals ("We never let a year go by without hanging one or two, or stoning them in the pillory...") the absence of legal sanctions against women who love women means little; a single rumor can destroy reputations and careers.

Avoiding Anne, keeping Derby at arm's length, Eliza colludes with her mother, an astute career counselor, and achieves celebrity as the sensational "Queen of Comedy." Her name on the program ensures fat receipts for the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who is also proprietor of the Theater Royal, or Drury Lane Theater. For all that, however, she's underpaid, and Mother won't let her forget the facts: she's not getting any younger and the future is not secure.

And so when Derby, who will not divorce his long-estranged, ailing wife, makes Eliza a certain sort of offer, Mrs. Farren is pleased. But Eliza holds out for the title and the ring. (Think Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman.) Derby raises his bid. He guarantees, in writing, "on the death of the present countess," to "propose marriage to Miss Elizabeth Farren, of Green Street, Mayfair, on whatever terms of settlement she may choose." When Betty passes on, the two marry, and live, incredibly, happily ever after.

Meanwhile, in time, Anne's affections gravitate toward a woman. The resulting affair follows years of epistolary and conversational denial from both parties. Anne's moment of truth: 'I am what they call me... ' is late in arriving, but once it does, she pursues her love-object, the young, idealistic Mary Berry, with artful determination. Berry's engaged to a soldier whose affections Anne had previously spurned; she projects herself into their plans and wrangles invitations to join a perhaps-Platonic threesome in Gibraltar. The engagement dissolves, and the women go on vacation. A giant wave washes away their inhibitions. Passion heaves into port. As with Eliza Farren and Derby, the attraction survives and flourishes.

Life Mask, Donoghue's fourth novel, runs in excess of 600 pages. Its major characters were once real. The story, however, is an exercise in speculation, and shows them in a weird light. Frivolous, manipulative, judgmental, they seem, in the end, remote, and unempathetic. Donoghue's dead might walk and talk, but they're just too cold. As every first-year journalism student knows, the dead cannot be libeled. They may, however, be induced to spin in their graves.


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