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A Review of: Life Mask
by Nancy Wigston

Irish writer Emma Donoghue's sixth work of fiction, the wonderfully erudite and sensual novel, Life Mask, takes place in late 18th century London. Donoghue beautifully captures this exuberant era that, if anything, surpasses our own in the scope of its ambition, its lively and dangerous politics, its shameless materialism. If clothes make the man (or woman), nowhere was this saying more true than in Georgian London. >From the first scene, when a nervous young beauty arrives at a grand house, her outfit accessorized by a muff so large it could be mistaken for "a fluffy, bloated dog squatting on her lap" (she is comforted by knowing the muff is "all the ton"), we are plunged into a world of wealth, fashion, and, not least, of reputation's import. Rummaging through history's closets with a trained eye, Donoghue unearths precisely the most interesting items, ones that have until recently been hidden away.
Life Mask is a complex work about art, life, and politics. It introduces a wide range of characters based closely-like the "life mask" of the title-on their English originals. At its heart is a triangular friendship consisting of Eliza Farren, Drury Lane's leading comedic actress, Lord Derby, her titled suitor, and their mutual friend, the rumoured "Sapphist" and groundbreaking sculptor, the widowed Anne Damer. This friendship plays out against various backdrops: theatre, where Farren is the star; the arts, where Damen shines both in the grit of her studio and in London's glittering exhibition halls; and, not least, the male world of politics and sport, where Derby, a supporter of the reformer Charles James Fox, moves powerfully among Whig politicians of the day. Meanwhile revolutionary events are unfolding in France. Left-leaning ladies take to wearing bits of the fallen Bastille on chains around their necks. "Visit[ing] the Revolution" becomes fashionable among the Beau Monde-until the massacres of September 1792 provoke horror among the watching English, and something very like fear infiltrates London society. Donoghue begins her novel with what-but for its lavish setting-could be termed a pastoral interlude. Eliza Farren makes her successful debut among the "Quality", coaching them as they rehearse and then perform an amateur play. The Duke of Richmond, Anne Damer's brother-in-law, has built a small theatre for the occasion on his estate. (Later, when emotional and political complications ensue, this performance will appear in memory as a happier, simpler time.) Here we get to know the central characters, courtesy of observations from the female flank: the gorgeous actress is a "tall doll with a mask for a face"; Lord Derby (the famous horse race still bears his name) is variously described as a "big spender with a frugal streak," a "thickset midget," or "a Velasquez dwarf" beside his tall paramour; Eliza decides Mrs. Damer's "face, which promises much" will carry a leading role in the drama-within-a-drama. The actress is right. Damer indeed emerges as the main player in what becomes an engrossing trajectory of personal transformation.
Much of the pleasure in Life Mask comes from Donoghue's contrasting evocations of interior spaces, where public masks are discarded. Many scenes transpire at Strawberry Hill, the home of Damer's godfather, Horace Walpole, who penned the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. Scholarly, avuncular, sentimental, Walpole emerges as a complex man who sees his own end approaching and hates it. Like Walpole's "toy palace", Damer's art studio in her Mayfair house exerts a physicality that speaks volumes about its inhabitant's wants and needs. In turn, Derby's character is filled in, not by his public role as suitor-in-waiting, but in well-lubricated town and country gatherings of like-minded males where he and his allies argue and shape political policy.
Interestingly, the behind-the-scenes episodes starring Eliza and her fellow actors are not as titillating as we might expect; the beauty keeps her own counsel much as she does in public, and actors' talk, then as now, often centres on money. The lowly born Eliza's currency is her popularity, and, surprisingly, her virginity. She cannot afford to lose either as she inches up the social ladder, chaperoned at all times by her mother. Donoghue's most riveting scenes occur when Eliza drops her mask-when, for instance, she visits Derby's dying, adulterous wife, thereby taking an uncharacteristic risk, or when she confronts Anne Damer about the rumours that dog her in the gutter press.
Damer, with her lofty connections and greyhound lapdog, comes gradually into sharp focus; we sympathise with her attempts to pursue her art, living on her own, while maintaining her place within a society that harshly judges those whose reputations come under the wrong kind of scrutiny. English royalty, no matter how grotesque, could do what it liked, but no one was spared tabloid gossip at a time when reading the daily newspapers was becoming a national habit. When Hester Thrale Piozzi, carving a living from the leavings of her friendship with the late Samuel Johnson, unearths a rhyme slurring Anne's sexual reputation (rhyming Damer with "damn her"), emotional hell breaks loose.
As much as Life Mask performs its task as a mirror of an age, its appeal, as with all enduring historical fictions, is rooted in Donoghue's ability to bring people and places to life, forging fresh connections between past and present. Friendship, that rare thing, may not survive the gossip of the "World", but the romances-rooted as they are in reality-that Donoghue scrutinizes prove unexpectedly moving. Though not what we were taught by official history about marriage, love, or class, many of the pairings Donoghue portrays fit perfectly with our need to believe that talent, independence of spirit, and courageous self-discovery will be justly rewarded. For this, and much more, she deserves our reverence and our gratitude.

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