Life Mask by Emma Donoghue (Harcourt, 2004) takes its title from the artistic technique that allows a sculptor to make a cast of a living person’s face in preparation for creating a sculpture. In the novel, Donoghue defines it as “An image made by taking a plaster mould of the face of a living human subject” (156). But the term has a secondary meaning in her work, as the epigraph reveals: “How tired I am of keeping a mask on my countenance. How tight it sticks–it makes me sore. There’s metaphor for you” (quoting from William Beckford’s Lisbon Diary, 27 May 1787). It refers to the double lives of many of the characters, who hide self-doubt, love affairs, fears, and unspoken sexual identities behind the faces they present to society.
Using the historical record as the ground for her art, Donoghue depicts the social world where the masks are worn, especially the Devonshire House set and the group centered at Strawberry Hill and its owner, Horace Walpole. At the same time, she investigates the interior selves behind the masks.
Anne Damer, the central character, was a distinguished sculptor in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who faced many obstacles in her life: the suicide of her husband, the social attitude that considered female sculptors to be unfeminine because their art required hard physical labor, and persistent rumors that she was lesbian. Donoghue uses these and other contemporary events, people, and artifacts to create a world that encompasses both the complicated social structures of England on one hand and Damer’s inner life on the other.
Her lesbianism has never been definitively established. Andrew Elfenbein declares that “[f]or recent historians of lesbianism, Damer has been a pivotal figure, in some cases appearing as virtually the first modern lesbian” . The Dictionary of National Biography is less assertive; it documents the “passionate and lasting friendship with Mary Berry,” whom she met in 1789, and notes the public remarks during her marriage about her “Sapphic nature,” rising from close friendships with women. But apparently her contemporaries considered her “reticent;” for example, she ordered that her private papers be destroyed after she died . It is this very reticence that allows Donoghue’s speculation on her life, although it requires the utmost delicacy.
In writing a biographical novel, Donoghue must negotiate between the novelist’s license to invent and biography’s commitment to the historical record. Thus, she does not turn Damer into “the first modern lesbian”; she does not even allow her to admit her own orientation publicly. Both scenarios are false, to history and to the general mores and values of the period. On the other hand, had she left the question as vague as the information contained in the limited number of surviving documents, the novel would be unsatisfying. Instead, Donoghue, as historical novelist, fills in the gaps; the result is the portrait of a woman coming to terms with her own sexuality in a society that considers it disgusting and ludicrous.
Donoghue portrays the relationship between Anne and Eliza as an intense friendship that is destroyed by the publication of a piece of anonymous doggerel that claims that the connection is sexual . This squib is deeply hurtful to Anne, but is perilous for Eliza. As an actress, a profession not held in high regard in the period, Eliza must be much more protective of her reputation than the aristocratic people who form Anne’s circle. Not surprisingly in a novel filled with artists and their subjects, a portrait plays a critical part in illuminating the friendship and its rupture . Donoghue enhances the background to the creation and presentation of Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Farren to reveal the conflicts that class and sexuality cause.
The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1790 and made Lawrence’s reputation as a painter. Before the 1790 Exhibition, he had been better known for his works in pastel, but he “seemed to arrive fully formed as a painter in oils” at that event . In the episodes in which Lawrence paints the portrait, Donoghue speculates on how he might have achieved the expression on Farren’s face. According to A. Cassandra Albinson, visitors to the studio felt that “Miss Farren’s look met you as you entered” . Lucy Peltz notes the “complicity between artist and sitter” in the “playful glance Farren shoots across her shoulder to her appreciative viewer” .
Donoghue explains the gaze as a mixture of flirtation and annoyance. The pose emerges from Eliza’s arrival in a rush at the studio: “She pulled off her muff to hand to her mother; she tugged off one glove and reached to unclasp her fur-lined pelisse. Lawrence raised one finger. ‘Don’t do that’” (251). She does what he says, but she is “smil[ing] through her irritation.” She thinks he is young, arrogant, and callow; he doesn’t seem to care, which makes it worse. What is more, she is puzzled by his method; as an actress and thus a public person, she expects to pose as some kind of allegorical figure, or a famous woman in history, and not as Eliza Farren, a private woman (253). When she sees the finished portrait, she realizes he has produced an entirely unexpected image: “This wasn’t Miss Farren of Drury Lane, this was a private person, rushing across a summer landscape in winter clothes. How had Tom Lawrence seen such a tentativeness in Eliza’s eyes as she posed for him in his studio with a worldly confidence? How had he glimpsed the fears that she carried around like tiny pebbles in her mouth?” (262).
When she points out to the painter that she still looks very thin–she had asked him to add “a pound of flesh”–he refuses: “‘You couldn’t be more beautiful,’ he said and she didn’t know whether he meant her or the Eliza in the picture” (262). But she is frightened by the idea that there are two Elizas, the private self and the public object of desire that appears on the stage. The need to protect the private self from being tainted has caused her to break with Anne and the suggestion that she could be equally objectified by the portrait increases her insecurity. These are the fears that Tom has revealed.
In dealing with the controversy over the naming of the picture, Donoghue takes a position that is more determined than the historical record. It was originally to be titled Portrait of a Lady, an anonymous, class-registering designation, but was hung at the Exhibition as Portrait of an Actress, a title, as Peltz comments, “that without any honorific qualification was synonymous with ill repute.” In what is described as a “long and obsequious letter” to Farren, who was furious and dismayed, Lawrence blamed the Academy for the change . Peltz does not give any independent confirmation for Lawrence’s version of events, but Donoghue accepts it, producing a dramatic scene in which Anne views the painting for the first time and questions the title.
Anne’s reaction to the painting tells us how much it resembles the sitter: “The pose was startlingly spontaneous: there stood Eliza Farren with one glove off, as if interrupted in the middle of a rapid journey. She was as thin as a silver birch sapling; Lawrence had caught all her serpentine grace” (265). It also reveals the resonances of its title. Donoghue’s shaping of history is revealed when Anne demands an explanation and the Academy official tells her that the decision was made by the Academy (because it is impossible for an actress to be a lady) and that Lawrence made a terrible fuss about it. Anne responds, “How dare they?…Portrait of an Actress sounds as if she’s no better than any other strumpet who ever walked the stage. They might at least have added an adjective: Distinguished, or Celebrated” (265-266). As an aristocratic woman, Anne understands the nuances of class and realizes how much more serious it is for Eliza than for a woman of her own status, who would never actually be in that situation. Her comment also suggests her own attitude towards actresses: “any other strumpet who ever walked the stage.”
The angry confrontation the two women have at the gallery, immediately after Anne has defended her, emphasizes the tragedy of their distance; they clearly still respect each other but Eliza is afraid to be seen with her and Anne is too deeply hurt to be polite. In this scene, Donoghue comments on the complexity of human sexuality and its effect on friendship, employing the portrait to ground her narrative in history.
 Alison Yarrington, “Damer, Anne Seymour (1749-1828),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition, January 2008. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7084.
 See the online readers’ guide to Life Mask, which contains specimens of the attacks on Anne Damer, including the libel about her friendship with Farren: “Companion Guide to Life Mask by Emma Donoghue,” rebeccarriverslitblog, http://rebeccariverslitblog.wordpress.com/. Accessed 13 May 13, 2013.
 In this discussion, I am using “Anne” and “Eliza” to refer to the characters in the novel and “Damer” and “Farren” to refer to the historical record.
 A. Cassandra Albinson, “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women,” Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, ed. A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz, Yale Center for British Art and the National Portrait Gallery, London. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 34.
 Lucy Peltz, “Elizabeth Farren, Later Countess of Derby, c.1759/62-1829, Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, ed. A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz, Yale Center for British Art and the National Portrait Gallery, London. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 98.