Content Note: homophobia, social exclusion.
I picked up Life Mask because I wanted historical lesbian romance. What I actually got was historical lesbian drama, which is not quite the same thing, and the not getting what I expected threw me off for the first third or so of the book. Then I fell into the story and all was forgiven. Although - although, my expectations of a romance did change my experience of the book, because the romance genre has tropes that a reader expects; like for instance, knowing from the get-go what the end game pairing will be. This is not necessarily the case with Life Mask.
All major and secondary characters are real people, which makes this historical RPF, but my existing knowledge of late 18th century politics was such that is might as well have been new fictional characters for me. Life Mask is set in the “Beau Monde” of the 1780s and 90s London aristocracy. It deals with politics both parliamentary - the characters are generally Whigs and supporters of Charles Fox - and social - the power of rumor and scandal (especially homophobia) are strong themes.
The book is told from three POVs, which Donoghue switches around as she wishes, giving a random feel to the series of vignettes that tell the story. It was disorienting at first, but by the end of the book I was loving all three. They are: (P.S. Wikipedia articles contain spoilers for real life, and therefore for Life Mask.)
Elizabeth Farren (Eliza), an actress at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. She is the daughter of impoverished actors, who came to London with her mother to make her big break and worked her way up into High Society. She spends much of the book navigating a World that she wasn’t born into, managing her expenses and her reputation, and always aware of how fragile is her place in society. Cognizant of the power of scandal to ruin a woman’s life, she guards her virginity fiercely, determined to keep her virtue untarnished until she is married and her place in the World assured.
Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby. Derby is completely infatuated with Eliza, and at the start of the book, has been her patron for six years. Declining to grant a divorce to his existing wife, he is unable to offer Eliza the legitimacy she demands, and so they spend many years in an uneasy checkmate. He’s kind of the Platonic (ha!) Ideal of a Nice Guy – if he remains her friend, she’ll eventually marry him, right? Of course, he never compounds the situation by calling her names, and from quite early on their situation is made clear, but stuck by situation into one of more-but-not-more than friends. He is a friend of Fox, and a powerful voice for the Whigs in the Lords. His ideals and his views change with age, and with the great political upheavals happening at home and abroad.
Anne Damer, widowed sculptress and favorite godchild of Horace Walpole. Anne is a passionate politico and vocal supporter of Fox, hindered only slightly by the fact that she can’t actually vote. She has a strong passion for many Whig ideals, and watches the French Revolution with hope at first that turns to revulsion when the Rein of Terror sets in. She and Eliza become fast friends very early on, but their relationship is beset by rumors and scandals which has absolutely no grounding in reality - OR DOES IT?
Life Mask is a story about privileged white liberals who fuss over scandal and social injustice and the wars that Britain is fighting overseas in ways I’m sure could ring no bells for any modern reader. The characters discuss the risks and benefits of monarchy vs anarchy, and the petty internal politics that beset a party from inside as well as hinder its attempts for power in a parliament. The role of women in politics is discussed (Why would you want a vote when you can throw political parties?) and while not a large part of the book, a stream of white guilt runs through: Eliza and Anne discuss boycotting rum and sugar because of the slavery implications, then later Eliza notices that her friend is so much more polite to her black servant than her white ones. But still, the book is about rich white folks.
At one point, it became a particularly hard book for me; it’s not a happy, heartlifting lesbian romance, this one. It’s a as-real-as-she-could-make-it portrait of social politics and self realization in the 18th century. And yes, this means that there are violent scenes of a crowd turning to a mob and yelling “sapphist!” and “Tommy!” at the ladies. But more than that, there is the power of the rumor, and the devastating effect of social exclusion, when you sit at a table with your friends, and they make an excuse and leave.
At that point, it doesn’t matter whether the rumors are true or not.
And now we get personal.
During a conversation with my Bank Street conference group, we talked about bullying at high school. My advisor asked me if I was out in High School.
I gave one of my incredulous laughs. “Well, I didn’t know. They did, though.”
When I was 13/14 years old on Guide camp, I lay awake, pretended to be asleep, and listened to two people who were supposed to be my ‘friends’ (but only because I had no one more friend-like) adopt the tones you use to tell a particularly gruesome campfire ghost story, and describe with gleeful detail the kind of horrific rape I was obviously longing to commit on the poor girl in the bed next to me. Disgusting right?
When I was 15 on a school trip, I was cornered in a room by a group of girls who wanted me to know that I was a terrible person for lightly hitting someone in defense of their homophobia. Fighting back, it was made clear to me, was absolutely forbidden.
What I’m saying is, social exclusion and isolation hits HUGE FUCKING BUTTONS for me. And if they hit the same buttons for you, then at least you’re going to go into this book warned.
It’s a great book, and an involving book, and the characters are believable and real and completely relatable. But it’s not a happy, sunny, girl meets girl and sssssh no one must ever know simple romance, is what I’m saying.
As a portrait of 1790s London, and the public image of sapphism therein, it’s indispensible.