I’ve known for so long that reading books are no different from going on trips–we pack our imaginary suitcases and fly elsewhere according to our whims. Reading historical fiction gives us the bonus perk of time-travel so apart from the freedom in choosing our dream itineraries, we’re also very much in control of calendar and clock. Pretty neat, methinks.
Stunning, dramatic and memorable—Life Mask is a Victorian trip on high definition grandeur. I feel every bit the tourist with the truckload of pictures and millions of stories to make all my friends jealous. And really now, just how gorgeous is a reading experience for a souvenir?
Life Mask, at nearly 700 pages, is perhaps one of the longest books I have ever read and I’m not gonna lie– it’s 200% the reason why I was so scared to pick it up. Before I had the chance to chicken out, I started on a chapter right away so I know there’s no turning back. It’s like buying a plane ticket to wherever with my eyes closed—I just wanted to get over my nerves before my nerves get to me. I’d be lying if I said Emma Donoghue’s ‘Slammerkin’ didn’t raise the bar for my expectations; that book is incredibly good and even ended up on my top 12 best reads of 2013. There’s also this point of comparison since both books are set in medieval London, at almost intersecting periods in that century. Thankfully though, the books are set-apart from each other, distinct in their differences.
While in ‘Slammerkin’ we get an in-depth view of prostitution and the sufferings of the lower class, in Life Mask we get a first-hand account of the upper echelons of high society–nobles and lords and artists—and their own share of hardships. It’s a breath of fresh air to see problems of a different sort than the usual. Instead of poverty, starvation, homelessness and terrible working conditions, we have scandals and political feuds galore complete with Victorian tabloids, countesses with a ravenous appetite for gossips, extramarital affairs left and right and even a French Revolution to boot. Delicious. It’s like Donoghue is telling us that regardless of whether you are living in filth or living filthy rich, we’re all tragedies waiting to happen just the same anyway. And ain’t that just so oddly comforting?
*spoilers ahead; read at your own risk*
Life Mask is made up of Assorted Aristocrats—a cast of characters so extensive that I’ve been tempted more than once to grab a piece of paper and create a freaking graph just for me to remember all the names and their respective titles. (For the sake of example: if I come across ‘Duchess of Devonshire’ anywhere in the story, I had to keep in mind that it refers to Georgiana.) At the end of the day, we have three people at the heart of this novel: we have Lord Derby, founder of the pioneer horse racetrack and cockfights, who is head over heels for Eliza Farren, a widely celebrated actress regarded as Queen of Comedy, who has been a close friend to Mrs. Anne Damer, a widow of a noble and a very talented sculptress. This brings to mind one of the funniest parts of the book, wherein the lords from the opposing party of the parliament did this hilarious albeit sexist and offensive drinking game called ‘Connections’, where they take turns interlinking names of persons who’ve in one way or another has been sexually associated. In a nutshell, it’s basically a game of who-slept-with-whom. There’s the English tongue-in-cheek humor for ya. I thought it’s a brilliant way to capture the complexities and vulnerabilities of relationships during that era and how messed-up everything is.
Lord Derby is the character I liked the least because, well, he’s just not as charismatic or magnetic as most Victorian protagonists usually are, and frankly, not man enough, in my opinion to even be half as brave as the other two ladies. He’s got no real major conflict which might explain why I’m not as compelled to him as I would have liked to be. Eliza Farren, the actress, was my favorite for the first half of the book. She’s likeable alright and I understood and admire her every reaction and decision to circumstances. I love that she’s got spunk and is no pushover—this girl knows how to stand up for herself and places her virtue above anything else. Mrs. Anne Damer, on the other hand, stole the limelight for the second half of the story all the way until the very end.
Have you ever wondered how challenging it must be to be a woman struggling with your sexuality at a time in history when ladies are literally caged in corset-tight confines of decorum whereas men can frolic in decadence to their hearts’ content? How can you emerge a triumphant protagonist when your own villain is yourself? Is it really any different from the century we live in? Why are we always at the mercy of society and its perceptions of us and why can we never break free from its harsh scrutiny?
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.
…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.
For all it’s worth, Life Mask is an incredibly well-researched and fine detailed novel in as much as it’s an intimate tale of friendships blown out of epic proportions. Donoghue’s storytelling is assured and lyrical and compelling. I agree though, that the editing of its length could have had made it a better story. The pacing would’ve been so much more fluid if things picked up within the first hundred pages but I guess it was necessary to linger in establishing the world and the parameters by which it exists—some things probably take time. Nevertheless, as a journey, it is one I am so happy I have been to, and one I wouldn’t mind revisiting again someday.