Life Mask by Emma Donoghue is a biographical novel that explores late 18th century upper class English history through the life and loves of aristocratic sculptor Anne Damer. Damer’s unlikely friendship with actress Elizabeth Farren, and the peculiar triangle they made with Farren’s long-time (and married) suitor the Earl of Derby provide the lens for Donoghue’s panorama of gender dynamics, political tangles, and social contradictions as her characters and their contemporaries grapple with the upheavals of the French Revolution and its effects on English politics and ideals.
Donoghue has the knack of showing us characters whose motivations and actions are out of step with our modern day, but showing how they make sense in their own era. Damer struggles with achieving recognition as a serious artist in the face of sexism, while relying on the social and financial privilege of her birth to be able to continue that struggle. Farren is in an entirely different position, having clawed her way up to the status of famous and respectable actress (at a time when the profession was typically far from respectable) and being faced with whether to maintain that path or to take the semi-honorable retirement position of being the Earl of Derby’s mistress. (Spoiler: she holds out for marriage and eventually achieves it.) Derby was, for me, the least relatable of the characters but his point of view provides entrance into the men-only realm of politics and sport that the other characters only touch on. Later in the book, we meet Damer’s eventual partner, writer Mary Berry who embodies the delicate negotiations between women who yearn to move their relationship from friendship to something less socially acceptable.
The Writing Style
It is important to come to this book knowing what to expect. This is not a romance novel. In many ways, it’s less a novel than a fictionalized biography. Human lives don’t have clear and compelling plot arcs and Life Mask takes a slow and detailed tour through the historic setting on its way to the protagonists’ eventual fates. I love Donoghue’s attention to that detail. This is the sort of historical novel I devoured in great quantities in my youth, picking up the outlines of history via the stories of the fascinating people who lived it.
I’ve been fascinated by Anne Damer’s story since encountering her repeatedly in my reading for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. Donoghue did a superb job of taking that story, with all the bits and clues relating to Damer’s sexuality, and placing it realistically into its historic context.
It took a while to settle into the rhythm of this book and to set my expectations for the pacing and length. It’s quite long, and there are long stretches where you get a lot of details of politics and less of the interpersonal elements. How you respond to this book will depend on what you expect it to provide. Don’t expect it to provide a quick, fast-paced, fluffy romance.
Read this book if you come for the history as much as for the story of Anne Damer. It will reward you for the time invested.
Excerpt from Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
[Anne] kissed Eliza. ‘It’s been weeks,’ Anne murmured. ‘I heard the most thrilling accounts of your conquest of Dublin from the Duchess of Leinster. Here, come and meet yourself’—tucking one arm into Eliza’s.
Eliza hadn’t yet seen the Thalia finished. Besides, it made all the difference to have it posed on its pedestal, as if floating above the crowd. The lustre of the white marble startled her. ‘It’s astonishing,’ she said in Anne’s ear. ‘People will think me a poor, fleshly copy of the stone original.’
Walpole found his tongue at last. ‘I can hardly imagine,’ he murmured, ‘how sweet it must be to see all those long months of labour transmuted into beauty.’
‘Oh, but you write books, sir,’ Eliza protested.
‘Not the kind that transfix their readers with ecstasy,’ he said, rueful.
‘Are you enjoying yourself, despite the crush?’ she asked Anne.
The sculptor loosened into a smile. ‘I am, I confess. It does me good, once a year, to feel my chosen art matters so violently to so many people. I always half expect someone will be trampled to death on the stairs!’
‘Perhaps the Muses would appreciate the sacrifice,’ Walpole said merrily, then caught sight of one of his many nieces and excused himself to greet her.
‘I can’t take my eyes off my own marble face,’ Eliza said, then turned to look at Anne. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you, have I?’
‘Why should you?’
‘Thank you,’ said Eliza simply. But even as she said it she was aware of performing the phrase, of delivering it in as modest and charming a way as she could. That was the problem with her profession: it made it impossible to stand, sit or speak without some aura of self-consciousness.
‘It’s I who should be thanking my model,’ Anne protested. ‘In fact, I have a little gift—nothing that need embarrass you, just to mark the happy occasion.’ She took a tiny package out of the pocket that dangled in the seam of her gauze-covered skirt.
Eliza peeled open the paper, wishing the two of them were in the workshop at Grosvenor Square, instead of amid the humid flurry of Opening Day. The final layer of paper tore and a ring fell into Eliza’s cupped hand; she almost dropped it. ‘Oh, my dear,’ she whispered. The ring was tiny and gold, in the shape of an aquiline eye; it seemed to wink at her. The eye was an insert of painted ivory, with a tiny black pupil. She turned it over and read, in minute italic engraving, Preuve de mon amitié.
‘Of your friendship. Yes, I know enough French for that,’ said Eliza, laughing to ease the moment.
‘Friendship, or affection, or love; the two languages don’t quite correspond,’ said Anne, laughing too.
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9780156032643
- Publisher: Harcourt
- Emma Donoghue Online
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