I read Room by Emma Donoghue recently and loved it, so was keen to read other books by the same author. I’ve had Life Mask for a while and had deferred reading it to enjoy the anticipation a bit longer, but as things turned out, if I read Life Mask first, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Room. The politics of the time, which the author goes into in depth, bored me silly.
The main thing to bear in mind while reading Life Mask is that all of the characters were real people and that the story is based on real events. Eliza Farren, one of the main characters, was a Drury Lane actress who was known as The Queen of Comedy. Eliza kept Lord Derby (of the horse race) dangling after her for a great many years. Lord Derby wasn’t free to marry Eliza, and she wasn’t prepared to become his mistress.
The other main character was Anne Damer, a renowned sculptor. Anne’s friendship with Eliza and the eventual breakdown of their friendship is one of the major themes of Life Mask. Anne is a lesbian, or Sapphist, as lesbians were called at this time, although Anne doesn’t seem to realise that she is attracted to women romantically until much later in the story. During the glory days of their friendship Anne created a marble bust of Eliza which was shown at the Royal Academy. (Google the statue, it is absolutely beautiful, and so was Eliza. You can also find a portrait of Eliza by Sir Thomas Lawrence on the internet).
Eliza broke off her friendship with Anne because associating with a sapphist would have been damaging to her career, and would also have lost her standing with Lord Derby. Reading Life Mask, I had the feeling that if Eliza’s ambition not been so important to her, she and Anne would eventually have became involved romantically.
Anne eventually finds love with Mary Berry, who was also a creative woman. Anne is portrayed throughout Life Mask as being a good person, hard working and talented.
Lord Derby is the other main character and his friendships and political relationships form the backdrop of the story. The novel is set during the French Revolution, while in England the Whig Party are trying to remove Prime Minister Pitt and the mad king from power. Lord Derby and other political movers and shakers admit the right of all Englishmen to express themselves freely, however they rely on the English character to stop before someone gets hurt, unlike the French, who are gaining their freedom in a bloodthirsty manner.
I have to admit that by the time I reached the middle of Life Mask, I was skimming over the politics as I didn’t find this aspect of the story interesting. For me, the women’s personal stories were the only reason I read (or skimmed) the book to the end.
To sum up Life Mask, Eliza got her man (and his title), Anne got her woman and Lord Derby eventually won his horse race.