Emma Donoghue’s Room (Sept. publication date in the U.S.) made this year’s Booker longlist. I can’t possibly read the longlist –I’m too busy reading my classics and out-of-print books–but I do intend to take on a couple in keeping with my new READ ONE NEW BOOK A WEEK plan. Imagine my surprise when I found a copy of Donoghue’s 2004 novel, Life Mask, just waiting to be read on my bookshelf. Have you ever forgotten you own a book?
It’s not the Booker, but it counts as a contemporary novel, and it introduces me to her style. I can’t stop reading. I started this novel last night and simply couldn’t put it down. It’s a historical novel, which usually puts me off. But I am absolutely fascinated by her vividly-drawn characters and bold but graceful style.
Set in the late 18th century, Life Mask tells the story of three historic celebrities utterly unknown to me: Eliza Farren, an actress; Anne Damer, a widow and sculptor; and the Earl of Derby, the inventor of the Derby horse race. Eliza is my favorite, the daughter of two provincial actors who has made her way to the top of her profession in London. She is more careful of her reputation than any aristocrat: the newspapers are always manufacturing gossip about her, but she hopes to raise the status of actors by living blamelessly.
She has had an asexual “affair” with Derby for six years, but won’t even let him kiss her. His wife left him long before he met Eliza, but as he did not divorce her and she is now an invalid, Eliza is too classy to listen to talk of marriage. Her mother, Mrs. Farren, accompanies her everywhere and is always present at her meetings with Derby. Truth to tell, the ambitious Eliza doesn’t know if she loves him or not.
Certainly the other actresses are less careful about their reputations. Some of them have “keepers.” Donoghue describes Eliza’s feelings in a few succinct sentences.
“Eliza’s objection wasn’t a moral one. She rarely concerned herself with the state of her soul, or anyone else’s, but what did matter to her was her dignity. She knew she was widely respected for her character as well as her professional talents; she’d carved herself a place in London society with considerable effort and she didn’t mean to lose it.”
Derby is miserable with this unsexual arrangement but remains optimistic that his wife will die soon. In a way, this belief shadows the political beliefs of the liberal Whig Party, of which he is a member, who scheme to dethrone the mad, dying George III and Prime Minister Pitt and replace them with the liberal Prince of Wales and Fox, leader of the Whig Party. Derby is as active in politics as he is in his devotion to Eliza. And soon Eliza becomes political, too, as a result of new society friendships.
The novel begins with Derby’s introducing Eliza to the Duke of Richmond, Lady Mary, and Lady Mary’s sister, Anne Damer. Eliza is to manage their amateur theatrical performance of A School for Scandal and finds her work cut out for her. Slowly she makes friends with Anne, a politically active artist, and gradually becomes as fascinated as she is with politics.
Other famous historical characters people this novel, among them Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.
I’m really enjoying this very much.