Life Mask follows the lives of the Edward Stanley-Smith, twelfth Earl of Derby; Eliza Farren, Queen of Comedy of the London stage; and Anne Damer, a widowed sculptor, through 1787-1797. There are political upheavals and personal scandals, friendships are made and broken. At the start of the book, Derby is courting Eliza, who refuses to actually become his mistress, despite being an actress. He introduces Eliza to his old friend Anne, and then the book sort of goes from there.
It's hard to give a decent plot summary of this book. There doesn't seem to be a driving narrative force, but all the same, it's not a boring book. It's somewhat slow in parts, but only because Donoghue takes the time and effort to establish all the details of the world Eliza, Anne and Derby live in, and I loved having that level of detail, especially after reading so many romances set in a similar time period.
I very much like that while the personal is the central focus of the book, it also touches on the characters' political ideologies, with discussions of art and literature and all that. The characters feel real because of this; Donoghue's research ensures that I believe that these people have lives that extend before and after the book. I'm sure it also helped that almost everyone in the book is a historical personage, but all the same, I think the book is so good because Donoghue doesn't just capture aspects of the characters, but rather, their lives.
I also liked that while some of the major plot points involve rumors of lesbianism (or "Sapphism" in the book), the focus really is on female friendships. I like that they include exchanges of jewelry and much intimacy, I loved the letter exchanges. All of it rang true to the period, though it's rather useless of me to say that since I really don't know much about the period at all. But it did remind me a great deal of the close friendships between women during the Victorian era.
I also loved that there were snippets from the gossip rags and sundry, that there was the consistent backdrop of political events like the American Revolution and the French Revolution. I loved that while Anne and Derby are liberals, their political views are very much colored by their stations in life and their society; they don't read anything like a modern liberal would. I loved the notes on fashion, on raised waistlines and the new Grecian style becoming more popular.
(also, I had a lot of fun googling images of Eliza and Derby and actually being able to see images of the very same satirical cartoons that Donoghue writes about)
All in all, totally worth it, despite the slow start. I'd even argue that the slow start is necessary because one of the strengths of the book is how all the little details accrete to form a portrait of people and a specific world. I feel like I've been immersed in an entire world and now have to drag myself back to the twenty-first century. Must pick up Slammerkin now.