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Life Mask

Life Mask

4.0 17
by Emma Donoghue

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The bestselling author of Slammerkin vividly brings to life the Beau Monde of late eighteenth-century England, turning the private drama of three celebrated Londoners into a robust, full-bodied portrait of a world on the brink of revolution. The Honourable Mrs. Anne Damer is a young widow of eccentric tastes, the only female sculptor of her time. The Earl of Derby,


The bestselling author of Slammerkin vividly brings to life the Beau Monde of late eighteenth-century England, turning the private drama of three celebrated Londoners into a robust, full-bodied portrait of a world on the brink of revolution. The Honourable Mrs. Anne Damer is a young widow of eccentric tastes, the only female sculptor of her time. The Earl of Derby, inventor of the horse race that bears his name, is the richest man in the House of Lords, and the ugliest. Miss Eliza Farren, born a nobody, now reigns as Queen of Comedy at Drury Lane Theatre. In a time of looming war and terrorism, of glittering spectacle and financial disasters, the wealthy liberals of the Whig Party work to topple a tyrannical prime minister and a lunatic king. Marriages and friendships stretch or break; political liaisons prove as dangerous as erotic ones, and everyone wears a mask. Will Eliza Farren gain entry to that elite circle that calls itself the World? Can Lord Derby's pride endure public mockery of his long, unconsummated courtship of the actress? Will Anne Damer ever silence the whispers of Sapphism that have haunted her since her husband's death?

Editorial Reviews

Julia Livshin
Donoghue, who is also a playwright and historian, has alighted on another terrific story, and she pulls off a dazzling feat of choreography in setting it all in motion. She takes obvious delight in the sumptuous details of dress and comportment, the subtle inflections in conversation and the slow blooming of erotic tension. As Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire would say, "It was all simply ravish."
The Washington Post
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. Agent, Kathleen Anderson at Anderson Grinberg. 8-city author tour. (Sept. 4) Forecast: The sensational thrills of bestselling Slammerkin aren't on offer here-there are many more earnest conversations than sex scenes-but readers who appreciated Slammerkin's emotional and historical depths will enjoy Donoghue's latest. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Donoghue's (Slammerkin) latest historical novel is a fictionalized account of the 16-year courtship of Lord Edward Derby, the richest and ugliest man in the House of Lords, and England's queen of comedy, Eliza Farren. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the French Revolution and the chaotic reign of Britain's George III, the novel plots in excruciating detail not only Derby and Eliza's lives but also that of noted sculptor Anne Damer. Derby introduces Eliza to London's upper-crust society, a group so self-centered that they refer to themselves as "the World." She befriends Anne, and the two become close until rumors arise that Anne is a lesbian. Although Eliza does not believe the story, she coldly drops Anne's friendship. After a year, the two reconcile, only to have the rumor arise again, at which time Derby insists that Eliza break off the friendship forever to save her own reputation. Despite a rich portrayal of 18th-century genteel society, Donoghue's bulky account of this relatively tame scandal, by historical and modern standards, is unfortunately dull. For large libraries only. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/04.] Karen T. Bilton, Somerset Cty. Lib. Syst., Bridgewater, NJ Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher


"Mesmerizing. With the French Revolution raging in the background, Donoghue has lighted on another terrific story, and she pulls off a dazzling feat of choreography."--Julia Livshin, The Washington Post Book World

"Few will be able to put it down before its enthralling tales end."--Chicago Tribune

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Primary View

The angle from which a sculpture yields its most pleasing and comprehensive view.
Some sculptures appear fragmentary or implausible when seen from any angle but the primary view.

SEVERAL of our Correspondents have written to enquire exactly what is meant by that familiar phrase, the World. Allow us to reply that those who must ask the nature of the Beau Monde (alias the Quality, the Bon Ton, or simply the Ton) thereby prove themselves to be excluded from it.

This select band call themselves the World, being convinced that there is no other-or none that matters. Their number is composed of the great and grand: gentlemen and ladies of note (of family and name, of fortune and distinction, of fashion and figure). There are two points of controversy. The first, whether persons of no Breeding, who have achieved high fame and elevated station through their own merits, can be considered members of the World? The second, conversely, whether those members of the higher orders (by which we distinguish the Gentry and the Peerage) who have failed to inherit any of the fortune, elegance or other distinguished qualities of their Ancestors should be considered to have forfeited their membership? To put it in simpler terms, who is the true lady of the Beau Monde: the lovely Miss F-rr-n, whose birth is shamefully low but whose shining talents have won her unfading laurels on the stage of Dr-ry L-ne, or old Baroness Dung-Hill, who starves and mumbles in her brother's west wing and hasn't been to town for a new gown since the last Coronation?


THE THAMES WAS LOOSENING, ITS THIN SKIN OF ICE CRACKED open by thousands of small boats, as if spring were on its way. The carriage with the Derby arms gilded on the side forced its way down Whitehall through a tangle of vehicles and pedestrians. 'The traffic, these days.' The Earl of Derby sighed.

Eliza Farren leaned across her mother to pull open the blue velvet curtain. The sun splashed her face like water. 'The Richmonds must have a marvellous view, right across to St Paul's and south to Surrey.'

'Mm. I'd never choose to live anywhere but Mayfair myself,' said Derby, 'but I suppose the Duke needs to be close to Parliament.'

Only a few minutes to Richmond House, now; Eliza's stomach was as tight as a nut. Despite the fur-lined mask, her cheekbones ached with the cold; she withdrew into the hood of her cloak and her hands crept deeper into her muff. Had it been a mistake? She'd bought it only yesterday on Oxford Street; it struck her now as ludicrously large, like a fluffy, bloated dog squatting in her lap. Her mother was right that the muff was all the ton, but that didn't mean it would please the people Eliza was going to meet today. How fine the line between fashion and vulgarity and how easy to stray across it. Perhaps she should leave the thing in the carriage.

'Of course, the one I've been longing to have you meet is the Duchess's half-sister, Mrs Damer,' said Derby. 'She's an original; reads Latin better than most of us Etonians. Her parents were enlightened and hired the best of tutors for the girls. I've known Anne Damer all my life and never experienced a moment's tedium in her company.'

On Eliza's other side her mother pressed her lined face to the glass, then recoiled from its bite. The women's feet sat together on the pewter warmer; the daughter's in pointed yellow silks, the mother's in brown leather. Over the years, Eliza had pressed some recently fashionable skirts and bodices on Mrs Farren, calling them cast-offs, but she'd never been able to persuade her to give up her boots. Eliza untied her mask now, tapped her mother's wrist and mouthed the word mirror. Mrs Farren fished it out of her skirts, as blank-faced as a pickpocket. Head turned away from Derby, Eliza checked her face in the small oval of glass. Had she rouged a trifle too high for three o'clock? The handkerchief was ready in her mother's hand. Eliza gave each cheek a quick wipe.

Her stomach made a discreet grumble; she'd had nothing since her morning cup of chocolate, though her mother had brought up toast, devilled eggs and cold beef on a tray. Eliza, who had the benefit of her mother's constant service and company, often reminded herself to be grateful. Mrs Farren had seen two daughters in the grave already; fifteen years ago she'd thrown in her lot with Eliza, the one with a chance of making the family's fortune. Peggy, the other surviving daughter and a toiling actress up in York, quite understood.

Derby was still singing the praises of the Honourable Mrs Anne Seymour Conway Damer. 'They say she's the first female ever to take up sculpture in a serious way. Did you see her gorgeous spaniels in the last Exhibition? You're both such geniuses, I'm rather hoping you might become great friends.'

Eliza smiled, doubting it. She'd always been too busy for intimacy. Besides, she wasn't driving to Richmond House to make friends, exactly, but to step into a magic circle of protection. To spin herself a tough and glittering web.

Today was work, though the kind for which it was impossible to name a fee. In their initial interview the Duke of Richmond had murmured something about a recompense for Miss Farren's expertise, for the great deal of time she would be missing from Drury Lane. But Eliza's instincts hadn't let her down; she'd looked mildly offended and changed the subject. This had clearly gratified the Duke-a big spender with a frugal streak. So today she would step over the threshold of Richmond House not as a hired theatre manager but as a lady; she could mix with these titles and Honourables on equal terms, knowing that she hadn't been paid, and that they would know it too. Derby hadn't mentioned the matter-money was taboo between them-but she guessed he would be pleased.

Over the years she'd got to know some of the Earl's more easygoing friends-Party men like Fox and drinking companions from Brooks's Club-but the ladies were a different matter. When the very word actress still carried murky associations, how was someone who earned her living on the stage to shake them off? The thought caused Eliza a prickle of something like shame, which was ridiculous; wasn't she proud of having clawed her way up from her father's strolling troupe to reign as one of the three Queens of Drury Lane? The problem was her colleagues, that whole slipshod line of them stretching back more than a century to Nelly Gwyn.

Take Mrs Robinson, for instance, who rode around town in her own carriage with an invented coat of arms on it these days; when the Prince of Wales had offered an annuity of £500 a year, hadn't she given up the stage as quick as a blink, as if she'd only chosen it in the first place as a vast shop window where she could show off her goods to the bidders? And even more genuine talents, like Mrs Jordan-much as Eliza disliked her rival, she had to grant that the woman knew how to deliver a line-Dora Jordan, too, lived with a man who enjoyed only the courtesy title of husband. Actresses, apart from the odd drab wife or spinster-and, of course, the sternly virtuous Mrs Siddons, Queen of Tragedy-all had keepers; it was the done thing.

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.

This winter at last the Richmond House theatricals seemed to present the perfect opportunity for Derby to introduce Eliza to some of his oldest connections, letting her penetrate a closed circle of the well-born and well-bred. Everything depended on whether she could charm the Richmonds and their friends close to; her future might turn on what kind of a welcome she won herself today. Derby would present her to his friends with the most respectful delicacy-but then, Derby is still a married man. No, it wasn't shame Eliza felt there, and certainly she had nothing to reproach herself with, but the fact remained. It irritated her stomach like grit in an oyster, half pearled over by the years.

The carriage had stopped; Eliza glanced through the window at the imposing pediment of Richmond House. Derby jumped down and his thin shoes slithered on the icy cobbles. He came round to the other door, which the coachman was already holding open. Below her, Derby looked like a thickset midget, got up in impeccable grey silk. When this young coachman had first entered the Earl's service-replacing his father, whose sight had gone-he'd tried to hand Eliza into and out of the carriage himself, as convention dictated. She'd been amused to watch Derby make it quite clear, without words, that when he was present no one should help Miss Farren except himself. Eliza took the Earl's hand now, exchanging a brief heat through the kid of her glove.

The slush left a little tidemark on the toe of her shoe. 'My dear, you forgot your muff!' Her mother hurried up the steps to hand over the enormous ball of fur. Eliza suppressed her irritation and gave her a gracious smile, practising.

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Life Mask
Copyright © Emma Donoghue 2004

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

Born in Ireland, Emma Donoghue spent many years in England and now lives in Canada. She is the author of Slammerkin as well as two other novels, a collection of short stories, and a collection of fairy tales. Her novels have been translated into eight languages.

Brief Biography

London, England and Ontario, Canada
Date of Birth:
October 24, 1969
Place of Birth:
Dublin, Ireland
B.A. in English and French, University College Dublin, 1990; Ph.D. in English, University of Cambridge, 1998

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Life Mask 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing read. Very Dickensian...very dark and you really care about the characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great depth of character. Fantastic ploline, based on historical documents & strong research.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully engaging and perfect for readers who love Victorian-style writing. Characters are not thrown together but built from the ground up. If you¿re looking for rapid fire reading, this book is not for you. If you want to know how a character grows, know the world they live in and feel utter sadness when the book concludes than you can¿t pick up a better book than Life Mask.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend Life Mask to those that enjoy getting completely swept up in historical novels. The detail is amazing/ Though there are chapters that move rather slowly, all-in-all it is a fabulous novel.
Woodsever More than 1 year ago
waste of time.....too many characters and boring storyline. Couldn't get into this book, having tried three times to restart. It was a huge waste if time and money.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved 'Slammerkin.' I had such high hopes for 'Life Mask.' I was so disappointed. It was slow-moving and had characters I never cared enough about to find out what happened next. I never cared whether Eliza Farren and Lord Derby ever got to have a relationship. Most of the other characters were lifeless and transparent. I grew so bored with the story, I had a hard time keeping straight who was who!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is great historical fiction. Very well written and engaging.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Life Mask was an incredible novel to read from both a historical perspective, and a human one as well. It's set in the upper class of England, the beau mond, and watches as events unfold from the political drama of Whig vs Tory, and the French Revolution. For the characters of this story, friendship and scandal bring them together and apart again, asking demanding answers of loyalty and love.