Life Mask is set in the world of late eighteenth-century British high society. This period saw economic crises, impending war, and the threat of revolution, but also an increasingly educated population and more social mobility. A few women were beginning to access careers, especially in literature and the arts, but they still lived in a world in which reputation was everything and entering public life remained extremely risky.
Following the early death of her boorish husband, aristocratic Anne Damer has been able to enjoy a relatively independent life and has made a name for herself as a sculptor. Eliza Farren, meanwhile, has risen from her working-class origins to become a successful actress on the London stage, one of the celebrities of the period. The lives of these two women are linked by their relationships with a powerful man, Edward Smith-Stanley , twelfth Earl of Derby, an old friend of Anne’s and suitor to Eliza. Despite the difference in their social positions, Anne and Eliza become close friends, but when ugly rumours about the nature of Anne’s sexual preferences begin to surface, they threaten to bring scandal and ruin down upon all their heads.
Donoghue is a very empathetic writer and there are no villains in Life Mask; there are just flawed people trying to survive in complex situations. The Earl of Derby has been discreetly courting Eliza for several years, but has been prevented from making her an offer by the fact that his estranged wife is still alive. Lady Derby is in poor health, so he’s likely to become free again, but in the meantime, Eliza must resist pressure to become his mistress and keep her own reputation absolutely spotless if she’s to have any chance of becoming a duchess after she retires from the stage. Anne Damer’s position is more precarious than she realizes. She makes excuses for her eccentric decision to pursue an artistic career rather than to remarry, and is blind to the danger she could pose to someone like Eliza.
One of the most delightful characters in the novel is Anne’s cousin, Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Oxford, now best remembered for his Gothic novel The Castle of Ontranto (1764) and his equally extravagant gothic revival villa, Strawberry Hill. He’s an old man when we meet him and Donoghue treats him with great affection. She doesn’t attempt to pin down Walpole’s sexuality and he exists in the novel, as he seems to have done in life, in an in-between space, viewed with suspicion and gossip, but managing to protect himself from persecution by evading definition.
Walpole also represents the very problem that confronts the younger characters, the problem of sexual definition and ‘knowledge’. Donoghue does a good job of showing us how people, who we might now leap to identify as “gay” or “lesbian”, could have remained ignorant of their own desires, and wouldn’t necessarily have associated themselves with the lurid but incoherent discourses of sin and sodomy that were circulating at the time. This is a society in which ideas about sexuality were still in flux, but were beginning to cohere into something more like what we recognise today. The ending of Eliza and Anne’s “innocence” about themselves is perhaps symbolic of a larger end of innocence, as discourses about sexuality, and sexual identity, become more coherent and widely disseminated by an increasingly powerful media.
This is also a comment on the larger problem of doing lesbian history because we don’t “know” if Anne Damer, or any of the other characters, were lesbians. It was impossible for them to be explicit, so in a sense, we are still struggling with the same problem of sexual knowledge, left with interpretation and speculation based on bits and pieces of evidence that can always be dismissed. All the characters in the novel have to deal with the same problems that the historian has to address. What was the nature of these relationships? Did these people fully understand their own relationships? Did they ever at any point say “we are in love”, or were they obfuscating even to themselves?
When I read a historical novel, I want to be immersed in a different world and one thing I really like about Donoghue’s work in this genre is that she never presents you with twenty-first century characters in fancy dress. As a historian herself, she always makes a serious attempt to keep the subjectivities of her characters contained within the possibilities – for thinking and understanding – that would have been available to them at the time.
Life Mask is really good imaginative reconstruction that highlights some of the problems of doing lesbian and gay history, while also being a hugely entertaining and readable novel.
Like the sound of this? You might also enjoy The Sealed Letter