Life Mask is based on the true story of three 18th-century Londoners: actress Eliza Farren, sculptress and aristocrat Anne Damer, and nobleman Lord Grey. Working within the facts – Eliza ended up marrying Lord Grey; Anne Damer (Horace Walpole’s niece) was reputed to harbour Sapphic tendencies – Emma Donoghue has created a plausible and poignant love triangle.
There are plenty of masks in this novel. No one’s entirely honest (even with themselves) about what they want, what they feel, what they think. Eliza’s manipulative and steely-nerved: Anne’s haunted by a single kiss, years since: Derby is ugly, emotionally stunted and probably deserves better than he gets.
Donoghue strikes resonances with contemporary affairs: Fleet Street hacks who hound the nobility, a cult of celebrity, scandal-sheets and anonymous reportage, the threat of war and the power of rumour. In pointing out the similarities, Donoghue’s occasionally heavy-handed: it’s not necessary to use modern phrases like ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ to hammer home the point.
Some of the info-dumps are a little too blatant, too: “only 200 of the 558 members of parliament” ... a reminder that Walpole’s the author of that lurid Gothic romance The Castle of Otranto ... ‘editorials’ from the fictional Beau Monde Enquirer, illuminating the wider issues of the day in language that’s plain to a modern reader.
But this is still an immensely readable novel, packed full of observations on human nature, on friendship (between two women, between men, between men and women) and on love, sexuality and repression. Anne, apparently devoid of an impulse towards erotic love, wonders if she’s unsexed herself for her art like the castrato she’s heard sing. This is as much her story as it’s Eliza’s, and the happy ending that she achieves is unexpected but just.