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Life Mask Paperback – September 5, 2005

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Editorial Reviews Review

One of the satisfactions of Emma Donoghue's masterful fourth novel, Life Mask, is the tension between the writer's contemporary interests, like lesbianism and the balance of power in marriage, and her 18th Century subject matter. Life Mask is a fictional recreation of a plausible (but unproven) love triangle between the comedic actress Eliza Farren, the sculptor Anne Damer (the niece of Horace Walpole, a fantastic minor character here), and Edward Smith-Stanley, the twelfth Earl of Derby, a Whig (liberal) politician who left his name to the horse race he founded. Like her bestseller Slammerkin, the novel spins an intricate story from the slightest of historical traces, in this case a single reference in the commonplace book of Hester (Thrale) Piozzi: a snarky four-line epigram that hints at the danger to Miss Farren's reputation in consorting with "one whose name approaches 'Damn Her.'"

Readers who stay with Donoghue through the crowded and confusing early chapters of Life Mask will find a skillful, partly sympathetic portrait of English aristocracy during and after the French Revolution, a trove of period detail, and a spellbinding tale of unlikely but enduring love. --Regina Marler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Few sexual liaisons among the gentry went unnoticed in 18th-century beau monde England—the gossip papers of the era make our own tabloid culture look respectful—and though fleeting same-sex affairs were somewhat fashionable, suspected homosexuals were condemned to public humiliation and criminal punishment. Offering a fictionalized account of real-life scandal, Donoghue (Slammerkin) tells the story of three minor historical personages: the actress Eliza Farren, the Earl of Derby and the widowed sculptress Anne Damer. Famously ugly Lord Derby has been pursuing chaste young Eliza for years, hoping to marry her when his estranged, invalid wife dies. In the meantime, Eliza meets Derby's friend Anne and the two strike up a close, platonic friendship. Though she denies them vehemently, rumors of Sapphism haunt Anne Damer and endanger the reputations of everyone around her. Spanning the decade from 1787 to 1797, the novel follows this cast of characters through their complicated romantic and political entanglements. All the while, the French Revolution rages, causing major upheaval among the British nobility. Even as Derby and Anne befriend common folk like Eliza and support the liberal Whig party, hoping to topple mad King George, the mounting wave of European democracy threatens to extinguish their life of indolent leisure. Donoghue, who has written a historical examination of 18th-century British lesbian culture, Passions Between Women, has an extraordinary talent for turning exhaustive research into plausible characters and narratives; she presents a vibrant world seething with repressed feeling and class tensions.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 650 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1st edition (September 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156032643
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156032643
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #477,535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose novels include the bestselling "Slammerkin," "The Sealed Letter," "Landing," "Life Mask," "Hood," and "Stirfry." Her story collections are "The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits," "Kissing the Witch," and "Touchy Subjects." She also writes literary history, and plays for stage and radio. She lives in London, Ontario, with her partner and their two small children.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Paul McGrath on September 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In her previous novel, Slammerkin, Ms.Donoghue created a superbly realized piece of literature based on a tiny historical footnote: one Mary Saunders, a prostitute, in 1760's England, was put to death at the age of 16 for murdering her benefactor. Out of this tidbit came a vivid, engrossing and deliciously lurid tale.

In this, her latest novel, she is quite a bit more ambitious. For now her tale encompasses the lives of not one, but three characters in 18th century England, each of whom is far more complex than poor Mary, being as they are at the forefront of London society, politics and culture. Although the historical record gives Ms. Donoghue more to work with, there is still plenty of room for her imagination to soar, and soar it surely does in this magnificent novel.

The notable accomplishment here, and the thing which historical fiction aficionados most desire, is that it wholly transports one to another time and place. More than just recounting events or the clothes one wore, the reader wishes to come to know people. What were their thoughts, their motivations, their fears, their hopes in this long ago period? How were they able to cope, and what were society's expectations of and limitations on them?

Ms. Donoghue expertly brings this era to life--the ten year period beginning in 1787 London--through the lives of her three main characters. They are: Eliza Farren, the premiere comedic actress of her day; the Earl of Derby, her suitor, a member of the House of Lords, and the richest man in England; and Anne Damer, a member of the nobility, and a noted sculptress.

Eliza Farren was not born to the nobility but finds her ticket out of the dregs is her beauty and superb composure on the London stage.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By D. Campbell on August 23, 2005
Format: Paperback
I've read reviews complaining of this novel's length. In my view that's one of its strengths. It's like a gourmet meal with unfamiliar dishes, as opposed to a fast-food burger and fries. It helps to be familiar with 18th century British history--I found all the characters to be marvelously drawn. Although I was familiar with most of the historical figures, her rendering of Walpole, Fox, Sheridan and the others made them come alive. It would be useful to have read the wonderful recent bio of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (exact title and author escape me). I picked "Life Mask" up in an airport bookshop, looking for a quick read on a plane, never having heard anything about it and knowing nothing about the author. I was wrong about the "quick read", but delightfully so. I'm so sick of novels that can be read pretty much in one sitting and/or lack complexity. So many novels seem to be written with a screenplay in mind. This one took over a week to read, and I was sorry when it was done.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Erika R. on October 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I was introduced to Emma Donoghue through her previous novel "Slammerkin", and am currently reading everything she else she has written so far.

"Life Mask" is a complex novel, both in it's characters as well as in it's settings. The story follows the loves and lives of Eliza Farrow, actress, Lord Derby who is in love with Eliza, and Anne Damer, a sculptor who also appears to be in love with Eliza. Thus we are introduced to their triangluar relationship and become privy to open and closed secrets.

The book is fascinating, although at times the politics of the time overwhelm the story somewhat. I am familiar with European politics having grown up in Austria, but I imagine it could be challenging to someone less familiar. Still, a smashing read!
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on September 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Judging by Emma Donoghue's second novel, the rabid London scandal sheets haven't changed a bit in the last 200 years. She opens each chapter with a titillating bit of tattle from a (fictional) tabloid focused on the "beau monde" of London high society, or, as they like to dub themselves, "the World." Set during the decade from 1787 to 1797, Donoghue's ("Slammerkin") story revolves around a real-life scandal concerning an actress, an earl and an aristocratic female sculptor.

From this vantage point, Donoghue's view encompasses the turbulent politics of the time, from the madness of King George III to the French Revolution. She explores the stratifications of class and the restricted lives of women as she ventures from Parliament to the stage, from the sculptor's studio to the drawing room. While clearly copious, her research never gets in the way as she dresses her characters for intimate dinners of ten, and sets them to talking gossip and politics over lobster au gratin and mutton with gherkins.

Eliza Farren is the actress, the Queen of Comedy at Drury Lane who has caught the eye of the Earl of Derby, a man of small stature and huge fortune. He is also, unfortunately, a man in possession of a wife, albeit a disgraced and estranged invalid of a wife.

Derby is eager to introduce Eliza to Anne Damer, "an original; she reads Latin better than most of us Etonians." Widowed, Anne enjoys her independence, in every sense of the word. She is a serious sculptor who has always followed her muse and never taken a commission.

To their mutual surprise, the women become fast friends. Anne is a well-connected, well-educated aristocrat and Eliza has clawed her way up from the gutter on talent and determination.
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