Interviewer Luan Gaines:
Your choice of the Beau Monde as the centerpiece for your novel perfectly pinpoints the social issues of the times. What specifically inspired this focus?
I came across a piece of gossip that linked three famous Londoners (an actress, an earl and an artist) in a scandalous love triangle, and I loved the idea of tackling such an oddly modern story about celebrity and the media. Because my last novel, Slammerkin, was all about the poor in the 18th century, it was a fascinating contrast to turn to 'high life' this time.
History repeats itself with familiar themes. Does the civil unrest of the late 18th century preshadow the great class conflicts of the years to come?
Yes, very much. In a sense, the American and French Revolutions set a pattern which is still going on in various parts of the world today - when a country's professionals and intellectuals start trying to reform a fossilized, elitist system, but are still fearful of giving 'the mob' too much power and being hurled into chaos. In Life Mask the same issues come up in my characters' private lives as in their political views: openness vs. censorship, liberalism vs. fear, repression vs. uprising.
1787 London struck an atavistic chord - visions of Rome burning, as well as today's excesses, the world on the cusp of greatness or disaster. Any thoughts on these critical moments in civilization?
Any such hinge point is fascinating to write about because it tears characters away from what they know, tests their mettle. In the ten years covered by Life Mask (1787 to 1797) it's no accident that dress fashions transformed unrecognizably, because everything else (laws, manners, economies, attitudes) did as well. And there's a wonderful tension gained by beginning just before some famous world event like the French Revolution of 1789, since - as with 1914, or the late 1960s - readers know it's all about to fall apart.
Lady Melbourne says, "My rank places me above the scandal of the little people, and I shall meet such petty insouciance with the greatest ease and tranquility." Does this statement sum up the attitude of the elite, "the World"?
Absolutely. As a general rule the English aristocracy couldn't have cared less about what the plebs thought of them, which explains why English journalists and cartoonists were allowed a surprising freedom to satirize. Though women had to be more careful of their reputation than men, they still enjoyed their gambling, eating, drinking and affairs with a degree of liberty which would have shocked their Victorian granddaughters. But Life Mask explores that unsettling point at which scandal becomes horror: when Anne Damer is "outed" as a Sapphist, she feels an overwhelming mortification and a gentleman like William Beckford had to flee the country when he was accused of sodomy.
As reflected in his writing, Richard Sheridan is quite the scandalmonger. What particular role does he play in Life Mask's unfolding drama?
As Eliza Farren's manager at Drury Lane Theatre, and the Earl of Derby's political pal, Sheridan was a marvelous link between the two worlds for me. But more than that, his strongly left-wing views and fearless, often malicious way of speaking made him very useful for challenging, exposing and undercutting the other, more discreet characters.
The Earl of Derby is rich and powerful, yet apparently in thrall to Eliza's every whim. How do you account for his consuming patience?
I found it great fun to write about a heterosexual eighteenth-century man who, though he had the money, time and freedom to be a real rake, instead maintained this unconsummated, slow-burning devotion to a rather cold woman for many years. The answer is love, I suppose. Or, more cynically, you could say that Derby has so much power and privilege in other areas of his life, he can afford to surrender and subordinate himself in this one respect.
After the theatricals at Richmond House, Eliza Farren confronts the Earl of Derby, unwilling to become his mistress after years of holding out, although it is socially acceptable. Why is marriage the only option she will consider?
This is an example of how historical novelists really must get the psychology right, that's more important than the clothes or food. Virginity was important to Eliza in a way most of us find hard to credit nowadays, and it wasn't a religious or moral issue, it was a matter of dignity. Though it was socially acceptable for an actress to have a keeper, she would be seen as a borderline prostitute. What Eliza wanted was something very new in the 1780s: to be taken seriously as a self-made lady, a professional theatre practitioner.
The roles Eliza enacts onstage contribute to the impression of women as the weaker sex. Is such material typical of the roles women were offered?
Oh, very much. The really strong roles show up more in tragedy, which was ruled by Eliza's colleague Sarah Siddons. Of course some of Eliza's roles have depth and complexity to them - Shakespeare's Olivia, for instance, or Sheridan's Lady Teazle - but she played in an awful lot of repetitive fluff. Like Hollywood actresses today, she was often stuck with roles which didn't stretch her at all.
You deftly portray female friendships of the era, the showing of affection, the exchange of likenesses. What is the subtle difference here that allows one woman's intentions to be questioned, but not another?
That puzzle is at the heart of Life Mask, actually. Anne Damer doesn't appear to have been any more gushy or intense with her female friends than many of her peers; I think her having been targeted for scandal as a "Sapphist" was much more because of her unusual reputation as a woman sculptor, and the independent widow of a man who killed himself. But of course it's always hard to know what's going on between people, whatever their sex, and what I tried to show in the novel is that an "outing" spreads panic, because it suddenly leaves all fondness between men or between women open to question.
The close association of Eliza Farren, Anne Damer and the Earl of Derby allows each a measure of privacy and the support of like-minded friends. But is it not inevitable that the three will be tested by the natural order of pairing?
Oh yes, triangles are inherently unstable. But their friendship lasted for quite a while, because eighteenth-century gentlemen generally felt quite unthreatened by - as they saw it - the very different comforts women got from each other, rather than from men. If roles are clear, triangles can maintain balance (for example, two parents and one child).
To that point, isn't Eliza in an untenable position when Derby makes assumptions regarding her relationship with Anne?
The lack of frank talk between her and Derby causes confusion at many points, yes; he can only guess what's going on in Eliza's head, and often gets it wrong.
Anne Damer had a singular accomplishment in the 18th century, other than her art. In this regard, can you describe what you mean when you say that people don't just have sex, they have sexual identities?
The 18th century saw a gradual and uneven spreading of the idea that, rather than say, sodomy being a sin that any two men could stray into if sharing a bed, there were certain people with a tendency or bias towards fancying their own sex. So it's not as simple as Anne Damer being accused of having sex with women; she was really being accused of the much more amorphous, unprovable wrong of desiring them.
The protagonists are multi-dimensional, especially fascinating because they are based on real characters. Do their personal conflicts illustrate the ambiguities that underlay any society?
Oh, I hope so! In Life Mask, I have tried to constantly tilt the reader's sympathies between my three main characters, and therefore between women and men, between those born to privilege and those uneasily grasping at it, between passion and wariness, the spotlight and the shadows.
Of the three, do you have a favorite?
Possibly Anne Damer, as it was her peculiar situation that first drew me in - but I think Eliza is the easiest to identify with for most of us non-aristocrats (!), and I very much enjoyed the passages from Derby's point of view, as I'd never thought like a millionaire cockfighting fan before!
Anne Damer and Mary Berry mention Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. How strongly do the women identify with Wollstonecraft's seminal work?
Oh, that book was so scandalous very few ladies would have admitted to reading it. But I'm hinting that Wollstonecraft's tough analysis of the female lot (in particular, what a waste of time the lifestyle of an idle, frivolous lady was) was something they would have agreed with at least partly.
Did Anne and Mary maintain their platonic relationship for many years before they acknowledged their deep feelings for each other, or was that part of the fiction?
It's so hard to know what went on between people sexually - for Derby and Eliza as much as for the other characters. All I know is how much Anne and Mary loved each other, and the rest - and the timing of the various changes - was my best educated guess.
I find well-researched, well-written historical fiction a powerful, often visceral tool in understanding human behavior from another perspective. Your previous novel, Slammerkin, also addresses women's place in a male-dominated society. Is this a recurring theme for you?
Yes, not just because of my own feminist views but because it's always fascinating to try to tell stories that haven't been told before, and we're really only beginning to write women into history. (The same goes for slaves, the poor, and other despised groups.)
Are you currently working on another project? Can you share anything about it?
I'm back on contemporary fiction now, and it's a delightful change, because you don't have to draw up a list of twenty research queries for every page you write!
Have you any wise words for aspiring writers?
I know from my own experience that if I'm writing about the wrong thing - a project I've got bored with, or that depresses me, or that has some fundamental flaw like a lack of plot - then the words come only very sluggishly, if at all. So rather than simply trying to write a certain number of words a day, it's worth spending the time trying to find a story you really, passionately want to tell.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Emma Donoghue, author of Life Mask (see accompanying review), about her book via email for curledup.com.