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3.6 out of 5 stars
3.6 out of 5 stars
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`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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on 29 September 2011
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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on 22 January 2015
I'm a huge fan of Emma Donoghue and the Georgian period - I have to admit, if I wasn't, I probably would have given up on this book. It was the kind of historical fiction where the author chucks in all of their research as if to show that they've done it. There were a lot of needless speeches and scenes that really dragged down the pace. However, because of Donoghue's obvious talent there were parts that sparkled, and I particularly enjoyed the last quarter of the book where things sped up (finally!). It certainly did get me interested in the real people the story was based on.
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on 11 October 2012
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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on 4 January 2007
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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on 27 October 2013
Emma Donaghue conjures up life backstage in both politics and the theatre. We get a good idea of London society in ferment while the revolution in France is being played out. She tells a good story though at times she shoe-horns in her background research with a dogged determination! Even so she does not always get her facts right though none of the errors are glaring. The book may be over 600 pages but the reader is carried along by the narrative.
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on 1 August 2006
There's a missing period of English history for those of us who studied in English schools; we learned lots about Nazi Germany and the Tudors, but even when reading Jane Austen, few of us were told exactly why all those soldiers were all over the country attending balls and breaking hearts. The late 18th century was a fascinating, turbulent, idealistic time; the recent BBC series calling it 'The Century that Made us' got it about right with Enlightenment ideas resonating down to today. Emma Donoghue's novel captures the zeitgeist brilliantly, uncovering 'the World' for us through the eyes of three real people, the sculptor Anne Damer, Lord Grey and the actress Eliza Farren. You'll learn about Whig politics, the French Revolution, 18th century theatre in London and much more. You may, like me, also find yourself deeply involved in and moved by the lives of these three and others in the book. A particular triumph is her characterisation of the novelist & belles-lettres writer Horace Walpole. If this is not yet set for the BBC's costume drama department, it should be snapped up at once!

This book only fails to get five stars because my benchmark for historical fiction will always be Jeanette Winterson and/or Dorothy Dunnett....
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on 22 September 2005
This is the first book I've read by Emma( a huge crime I know) but I'm completely amazed at how brilliant it was and how she ever could have escaped my attention. Being a huge fan of Sarah Waters someone suggested to me that I should give Emma's books a try and I'm so glad I did.I can honestly say I loved everything about this novel-the charactyers were rich and complex, the setting was fabulous and the intricate details that went into, for example, Anne Damer's profession were beautifully done.
10 out of 10 and even that doesn't do her justice.
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on 17 January 2010
review by Marie Lloyd
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Having read Slammerkin and not liking it very much, due I think to the main female character being someone I could just not like,I was a little apprehensive about Life mask. How different these books are. Other than some of the political parts of the book being a little dull, I thought it was brilliant. All the main characters are likeable and in some ways there is a happy ending, unlike Slammerkin. I have learned so much about that time period which I didn't know and about some of the people who I had heard of. I have been so interested in this book I have put names into google and found pictures for all the main characters. I have looked at the sculptures mentioned too. For me the main character was Anne Damer and not Eliza Farren, Anne came across as a lovely person and the pictures of her I think support this. I now have a big crush. If you like books about historical figures and love stories with happy endings you cannot fail with this book. 10 out of 10.
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on 28 September 2004
Emma Donoghue is a weaver of words. It can take a couple chapters to get into Life Mask, but it's well worth it. Once into it, you find yourself basking in skillfully crafted sentences and dialogue that could tear your heart out.
The love triangle is not presented as simple -- nor are Emma Donoghue's characters ever thin or predictable. In Life Mask, you'll find heartache and ecstacy and characters who jump to life right off the page.
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