Hester Thrale Piozzi in 1795 wrote “’tis now grown common to suspect Impossibilities (such I think ’em) whenever two Ladies live too much together – that horrible Vice … has a Greek name now & is call’d Sapphism”. The idea for Life Mask, the author tells us, came from this note in the commonplace book of the writer and literary salonniere, and in the novel Emma Donoghue recounts British society’s discovery of the existence and possibility of lesbianism.
(I can’t vouch for the full historical accuracy of this, but it certainly is true that the often pornographic libels of earlier political conflicts – in the Civil War and the period between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution – don’t seem to include this claim, and they do sling mud on any other sexual topic you can think of. And historical tradition tells us that news of the development had still not reach Queen Victoria when she was considering laws against homosexuality.)
Donoghue does an excellent job of recreating the intersecting late 18th-century worlds of high society and theatre in Life Mask, with the rustle of silk and the squeak of greasepaint. Yet what is most remarkable – and probably authentic – is that her characters, at least the central women, live in an atmosphere of tension and fear that permeates the whole book, and left this reader osmotically on edge. In the Beau Monde, what it calls “the World”, these two women – an actress and a widowed sculptress – live, for different reasons, on the edge of expulsion.
That’s not to say Life Mask is not an enjoyable read – it is, and a solid, if slow-moving, tale based apparently on fact – “I’ve tried to stick to the truth where it seemed to matter most”, Donoghue says. (Although this does raise a question of what “matters”. It seems safe to assume that the bedroom scenes were made up, but what else? An interview with the author helps to answer that question.)
At the novel’s centre is the relationship between the Earl of Derby and London’s “Queen of Comedy”, the actress Eliza Farren. Derby is tied with, it seems the same solidity as he holds his Whig political views, to this woman of humble Irish background, whom he woos in chaste chase – her mother always in attendance as chaperone. He can only wait for his ill wife, already put aside for adultery, to die.
Eliza is riding on a knife-edge – “unwomanly” because of her chastity in the face of this sustained campaign, yet the smallest slip towards sexual display can slide her back into the status of “kept woman”, forever outside the circle of polite society. The fall need not even be the result of her own actions; the showers of competing scandal sheets that float across London daily – far less controlled and controllable than any modern-day tabloid assault – could sway the theatre mob against her, and take away reputation and career with one deft phrase, one outrageous sketch. And every year she gets older, and has to wonder if a younger rival mightn’t come along. Even her faithful mother pushes at times for her to take the traditional courtesan route, accepting second status, outside society, in return for a guaranteed income for life.
Anne Damer, who becomes her unlikely friend, at least has the security provided by a steady if small income, a respectable ancestry and her work as a sculpture, albeit that she is the only “lady sculptor” in living memory, and hence more of an oddity on show than someone to be taken seriously as an artist. Yet she has in her past a feckless husband with whom she was never on good terms, who finally shot himself dead in a tavern in the company of two whores and a fiddler . It wasn’t her fault, says society, really, but then why did their relationship never take off, never produce children …
This is a period of wider political concerns. The novel covers in considerable detail the time before and after the French Revolution, as many of the milder Whigs swing over to the conservative side of Prime Minister William Pitt, pushed by the excesses in Paris. Derby is a solid backer of Fox right to the end, as is Eliza, as she’s pulled into the political orbit, while Anne swings to the Burkean right.
Derby tells the House of Lord:
“It is the government’s Secret Committee that strongly resembles the sinister Jacobins. It is the spider’s web of spies and informers that stretches across our islands – men who invent conspiracies to earn their pay – it is these spider’s webs … that adopt the abominable techniques of the French. … My Lords, if you pass this Habeas Corpus Bill in a spirit of panic, you’ll be suspending that sacred liberty, won by our forefathers, that until this year has defined us as Englishmen.”
There are definite modern resonances there – even arguments about the same foundations of English law being undercut in the face of foreign and domestic threats.
The story also swings through the world of contemporary letters, with Anne the confidante of the elderly Horace Walpole. It is at his home that she meets Mary Berry, who is to complicate and confuse other relationships in the book, and finally draw in on all of them a terrifying wave of scandal.
So there’s much to get into in this novel, many lives, many ideas, many images, but I was left on the final page with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Certainly it is pleasing to see the unjustly neglected Anne Damer resurrected – nearly all of the Google hits for her come from this novel – and the relationship between the Earl and Eliza was notable for her ability to hold out for what she wanted – the title and the place in society – denied to many former actress “queens” from Nell Gwyn onwards. But Life Mask doesn’t seem, in the end to have anything to say; any real reason for existing. It is a tale of its time, but but has nothing in particular to say to our time.