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Life Mask Paperback – 7 Jul 2005


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Product details

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Virago; New Ed edition (7 July 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844081753
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844081752
  • Product Dimensions: 12.5 x 3.8 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 330,967 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Review

She. . . makes interesting parallels between the political concerns of the 1790s and those of today (Guardian)

A born writer (New York Times Book Review)

. . . another bright, bruising slice of eighteenth-century life in London . . . Why should Michel Faber hog the glory? (Elle)

Donoghue's latest book pulsates with the vibrancy of London in an era that couldn't be more extravagant. While Mad King George was teetering on the throne, the grotesquely privileged carried on a gaudy social whirl (Time Out)

Book Description

From the author of Slammerkin, a gripping historical novel about three famous Londoners - an artist, an actress and an aristocrat - based on a true scandal of 18th century London.

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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Purpleheart TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 19 Aug. 2010
Format: Paperback
`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 opening of this 600 page novel could come from a Regency romance and its tone takes a little while to settle down. This is an accomplished historical novel, set in the late eighteenth century and exploring the lifestyle of `the World', the `Beau Mode', the `Bon Ton'. The `World' is the small world of the aristocracy there by birth and those there by virtue of talent or ambition. The character list is large and includes Charles Fox, Horace Walpole, the Prince Regent and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. They are familiar to me from Amanda Foreman's fine biography of the Duchess of Devonshire and Stella Tillyard's fascinating Aristocrats, about the Lennox sisters.

Donoghue has three protagonists: Eliza Farren, a gifted actress known for her roles in Drury Lane; the Earl of Derby, smitten with Farren and Anne Damer, gifted sculptor and god daughter of Horace Walpole. Their real life stories are intriguing and Donoghue manages her material well. There are the odd times when it seems she didn't want to waste her research - so one character will tell another an interesting fact. In the main, she takes us through the French Revolution, the long opposition by Charles Fox, the interminable courtship of Farren by Derby with verve and humour and clarity. Anne Damer and Eliza Farren are both leading independent lives in London and becomes friends - a friendship which breaks when they are accused of unnatural feelings! This subject matter and the historical novel has led to Donoghue being compared to Sarah Waters but their styles are very different.

I've since spent time researching these fascinating characters. Brava!
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Format: Paperback
I hesitated when deciding on a star rating for this book. When it's good, it's very very good; Donaghue really can write. Anne Damer is the most interesting character, and the story was strongest when focused on her. Rumours of "sapphism" plague her, although she swears there is no truth in them. And yet, her warm friendships with women are tinged with jealousy, while she recoils from romantic or matrimonial entanglements with men. How long, the reader wonders, can she continue to deny her own nature, even to herself?

The other main characters are Eliza and Derby. Derby's devotion and Eliza's insistence on keeping her virtue (Derby is still legally married, although long separated from his wife) seem touching at first. However, when Eliza tells Anne that she thinks Derby "a silly man", I lost patience with her and wished for the interminable courtship to end.

The political background (the madness of King George, the French revolution) provides an interesting backdrop, but too much of it is background noise. Politicians and aristocrats walk on and off, seeming interchangeable (apart from some colourful souls like Walpole and Lady Georgiana). Far too many events are described second-hand or were only tangentially related to the overall plot.

If the book focused more on the personal relationships, and tried less to cram in a history lesson, I would have given a 4 or 5 star.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By jsmjf2 on 11 Oct. 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Life Mask is an excellent depiction both of its main characters and the period in which it is set. The three main protagonists-- actress Eliza Farren, the Earl of Derby and sculptor Anne Damer, all real historical personages-- are well-rounded and thoroughly credible. The plot is a slow burner but worth staying with to see the way their stories intertwine and develop.

As a historian of the period I was pleased to see a broad range of familiar characters popping up to deliver supporting or cameo roles. Charles James Fox, the Duchess of Devonshire and Horace Walpole appear, and I loved nearly every single scene-stealing appearance made by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. My main criticism of the book would be that the political background, a major part of the novel, is oversimplified. A lot of technical terms are bandied about without the author apparently understanding them in context-- "Tory", "prime minister" and "liberal" for example. Donoghue also has a regrettable habit of making unsubtle and intrusive attempts to connect events of the 1790s to events of the 2000s. The parallels between Britain's reaction to revolutionary France and the American and British reactions to 9/11 are obvious enough without having to resort to using anachronistic terms like "weapons of mass destruction", "homeland security" and "terrorist".

These are, however, pedantic niggles and certainly did not detract from my overall enjoyment. I highly recommend this novel to any student of the period, and hope anyone unfamiliar with it will find it an entertaining introduction to late eighteenth century Britain.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Zannie on 4 Jan. 2007
Format: Paperback
I have to admit that, with the exception of joyfully breezing through Jane Austen, I generally find 18th-century novels hardgoing. However, Emma Donoghue has succeeded in writing a convincing 18th-century novel while maintaining a deftness of touch to engage the 21st-century reader.

While by no means simple, the plot narrative is striking in its clarity to ensure that a deep understanding of 18th-century politics is not a pre-requisite. It educates and informs without obstructing the story, and I felt more than a little smug after reading it that I could excuse the hours I spent immersed in the book has left me with an improved education.

Donoghue should be particularly congratulated also for her excellence in drawing the frisson between Derby and Eliza, especially in the opening chapters. Even in the comparatively loose society we inhabit today, one is all more than aware of the awkwardness that is caused by a mis-judged move for romance, especially in a group of mutual friends and acquaintances. The scenes such as Mrs. Dramer's dinner following a first move by Derby felt deliciously voyeuristic as I could feel and see the atmosphere caused by his discomfort.

The characterisation is underpinned by a cynical sense of humour about class and appearances that are as true today as they were 200+ years ago. Donoghue at times seems to judge her characters from 21st-century standards of what is hypocrisy and hence the line between pastiche and parody sometimes appears to come into view. Regardless of this, it is the best book I have read so far in 2007 out of a total of two and will remain at the top of my favourites list for some time.
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