How tired I am of keeping a mask on my countenance. How tight it sticks–it makes me sore. There’s a metaphor fo you.
Donoghue prefaces Life Mask with this quote by William Beckford; it essentially lays out the concerns of the book: literal and metaphorical masks, why we wear them, what they hide, what they reveal, etc. Beckford, as we find out (the whole book is people gossipping, essentially), had to flee England in disgrace after getting caught with the nephew of the Duke of Somewhere-or-other.
What I really admire about LM is it’s not just a depiction of private relationships between historical people; it also looks at how the concept of homosexuality functions in society. Not just that Homophobia is a Bad Thing, but how it operates as a tool, a weapon, a means of control.
It all takes place during the French Revolution; the British are freaking out over The Rights of Man and the revolting masses (it was strange to read about French streets running with blood and starving peasants, aristocrats being torn to pieces, and look out the window and see ordinary French people buying bread and drinking coffee). And in times of crisis the powers that be become more vigilant in preserving the status quo. Society cracks down on the deviants, like a wealthy aristocratic widow who aspires at sculpture, our heroine Anne Damer ; or a celebrated actress, born in poverty and practically engaged to the wealthiest earl in England, Eliza Farren . One woman violating gender norms and the other transgressing class boundaries in a period where “actress” is still synonymous with “whore”. And when they form an intense friendship, well, the easiest smack-down to give uppity women is to call them dykes. Watching their relationship fragment and dissolve as the newspapers accuse them of “Impossibilites” is painful and all too familiar. Mrs. Damer has been dogged by rumors of sapphism most of her life (the result of a mysterious kiss in Italy), it turns out; later in the novel she forms another intense friendship with bluestocking Mary Berry (a name so unfortunate it has to be real), only to come under attack yet again. So while Anne struggles with her personal demons, Eliza tries to keep her reputation intact as she waits for Lord Derby’s estranged wife to die.
In the background is the political drama between the Whigs and the Tories; Eliza’s earl happens to be a prominent Whig politician, so politics plays as much a part in the scandal as homophobia and sexism. Donoghue outlines the parallels between the paranoid Pitt government and the current political climate, and at times overdoes it. I was willing to let “homeland security” slide, but putting “weapons of mass destruction” in Derby’s mouth was too much. That such an otherwise thorough and meticulous historian (I loved her work Passions Between Women) would stoop to such blatant anachronism annoyed me to no end. I got it, Emma. You don’t have to hit me over the head, thanks. Overall the prose is a bit uneven; not quite up to the level of Hood or Kissing the Witch. It feels like it needs another going-over to smooth out the rough spots.
But then she gives us a sentence like “Their peals of laughter went up like birds” and all is forgiven. Donoghue’s ability to articulate subtle emotion never fails to move me; she knows how to paint a scene and communicates volumes with simple gestures. I love the eroticism in the scene where Anne and Mary go sea-bathing for the first time:
Mary smiled as she floated; her arms were spread like an angel’s. Her cap had floated off; her dark curls relaxed on the water. No, not an angel but the statue of an angel, or something like it; the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which Anne went to see whenever she was in Paris. The calico clung to Mary’s narrow limbs like carved drapery. She was a Sybil in white marble, a gleaming monument. Like somone who’d leapt from a cliff and now floated, free of her despair. Her eyes opened, and she and Anne were looking at each other.
I was afraid that skipping ahead might lessen the impact of certain scenes but I shouldn’t have worried. I’ve re-read the moment where Anne and Mary finally, finally kiss and it never loses its impact:
For all their talk of candour and sincerity, the two of them had tangled themselves up in lies, it occurred to Anne now: the unsaid, the veiled, the unnameable. Six years, thousands of letters, murmured conversations, professions of faith and attestations of virtue, and what did it all amount to? She lay in the darkness, she and Mary breathing the same inch of fragrant air. It occurred to her that whenever Mary had said I have full confidence in your frankness, what she’d meant was more like Don’t tell me. Now, after all these years, Anne was trying to tell the truth, but perhaps Mary thought she was lying. Was it impossible to say anything that wasn’t some kind of lie?
Mary kissed her on the mouth.
Shock kept Anne where she was for a moment, then she kissed back, and slid her arm under Mary’s waist and kissed her again, as if sealing a pact, though she couldn’t have named the terms.
Frankly, I found myself wishing occaisionally that Mrs. Damer hadn’t been named Anne. It’s almost embarrassing to see such private thoughts and moments in print. Like Donoghue reprinted parts of my diary.
She heard it like a voice in her head: I am what they call me.
It was strange how quickly these revelations could strike when they came at last after years, after decades, after a lifetime. Like the Greek philosopher in his bath, crying out Eureka, I have found it. Or no, more like Monsieur Marat in his bath of blood, stabbed to death by a girl. That was what Anne felt like now; one sudden blow and a helpless draining away…There were words for women like her, women who saw all the natural attractions of a man like Charles O’Hara and were left cold. Women who asked for more than had been allotted to them. Women who became fixated on shallow, glamorous actresses. Women who loved their female friends not generously but with a demanding, jealous ruthlessness; women who got in the way of good marriages and thwarted nature. There were words for such propensities–hidden inclinations–secret tastes–and she knew them all, had heard them all already.
For all its sweeping historical context, it’s ultimately a very personal little drama. Despite the grandiose setting, so much of it was so familiar.
How little she’d known, thought Anne–and how little she’d known herself. It seemed she wasn’t naturally ascetic or born to solitude. She was no good at renunciation after all. It was as if her virgin heart had been fasting all her life, building up an endless appetite, and now she couldn’t have enough of pleasure. She was glutting herself on love. She was unshockable; there was nothing she didn’t like, nothing she could do without. Under her fichu the soft skin of her neck was purple with kisses.
But of course, when I think about it, I’ve hardly read anything that resembles my experience; less than 10 books, off the top of my head, in a lifetime of reading. You grow up thinking you’re the only one, so it’s still a surprise to discover other’s have been there too, felt the same way. But I can identify with so much of Anne Damer’s story, as Donoghue imagines it, that it makes me wonder. Are we all doomed to lose someone because of homophobia? To have somone care about you, but not enough, not if it means being called Tommy! and pelted with tomatoes. Do all of us consider suicide at some point? Do any of us escape self-loathing? Aren’t there any other plots for us?
Whether you actually ARE gay, in the world of the novel, is almost beside the point; Anne and Eliza’s relationship is completely platonic. But gossip is the social currency of the World and what matters is if people think you are, if you might be. Anne’s cousin Walpole is the victim of rumors and allegations, but he never suffers the same kind of scandal. He’s a man, and he can simply write a sharply worded letter to the editor and that’s the end of it. Eliza has no choice, really, other than to treat Anne like she’s got the plague. She’s got to maintain her reputation of virtue or she’s out of a job. It’s a brilliantly neat means of control: gender roles are kept strictly in force and the homos learn to keep their heads down. If they don’t self-destruct, that is.
Everybody gets their happy ending; Eliza gets her earl and Anne shacks up with Mary. Every love has its own peculiar story, Donoghue states, but I imagine most of them don’t embody the intersection of the political and the erotic the way the Derby-Eliza-Anne-Mary love, uh, quadrangle (?) does.
I’m reading, or rather trying to read, another historical novel, Pope Joan. I’m making a valiant effort, cause beggars can’t be choosers, but it just doesn’t compare. All I need to read now is Stir-Fry and I’ll have finished all of Donoghue’s fiction. So you better get cracking on the the next novel, Emma; a girl’s got needs, you know.