Emma Donoghue, Life Mask (Harcourt, Inc., 2004)
Ross King, Domino (Walker & Company, 1995)
Christopher Whyte, The Cloud Machinery (Victor Gollancz, 2000)
Wesley Stace, Misfortune (Little, Brown and Company 2005)

Over the last several months, I read these books without any grand plan. I certainly wasn't thinking about reviewing them while I read them. Then, as I began to reflect about them, I realized they had a lot in common. So I decided to review them as a group in this omnibus. That they are all historical novels comes as no surprise to me. I usually read historical fiction. While I have a tendency to prefer fiction written in the historical period that it's about, that's no hard and fast rule. Each of these books was written in the contemporary period about characters living in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They all address themes related to gender identity and expression of sexuality that probably would not have occurred to writers living in that period.

Of the four, Emma Donoghue's Life Mask provides the richest historical detail, and for that reason alone would be the one I'd recommend most enthusiastically to anyone who asked for my opinion. I also found the plot complex enough to keep me fully engaged, and yet intelligible enough to navigate without constantly turning back pages in an effort to tie up dangling ends.  Life Mask takes place in London during the late eighteenth century period often called the Beau Monde (the exact time span of the story is 1787-1797). Its principal characters are three: a widow named Anne Damer, a woman of gentle breeding who has earned a reputation as a sculptress; the famous comic actress Eliza Farren, who works hard to overcome her humble origins and support herself and her mother; and the wealthy and aristocratic Earl of Derby, whose devotion to Miss Farren knows no bounds. As Donoghue explains in her notes at the end of the book, these and most of her secondary characters are based on historical persons. 

The primary plot explores relationship dynamics among the three main characters. Mrs. Damer and Miss Farren become close after Farren guest-directs a group of Derby's friends in an amateur theatre performance. Of course their social class differences present some challenges to this relationship. More significantly, Farren feels compelled to terminate the friendship abruptly when an old scandal involving an alleged sexual liaison between Mrs. Damer and another woman resurfaces in the gossip sheets. The life mask that gives the book its name, by the way, is a sculpted portrait that Damer makes of Farren. It becomes a rather painful reminder of their onetime intimacy. Derby, in the meantime, longs to make Farren his mistress (he is reluctant to divorce his estranged wife), but Farren, once again concerned with propriety, keeps him at arm's length, using her mother as a very effective chaperone. 

As we follow these characters around, Donoghue introduces us to their milieu. From Damer's life, we learn about sculpture as physical labor and about the art world of the period. Farren's life revolves around Richard Brinsley Sheridan's theatre company at Drury Lane. Donoghue is particularly skilled at bringing this culture to life -- we spend quite a lot of time with the members of the company and learn a lot about the ups and downs of the theatre business. Sheridan was also a Member of Parliament (House of Commons, Whig Party), so one of the side plots involves late eighteenth century British politics, when George III was King and the Tory William Pitt his Prime Minister. Derby is a member of the House of Lords, and like most aristocrats of the period, spends a lot of time talking politics and even more time attending to his properties and (in his case) racing horses. 

Donoghue's use of third-person narrative interspersed with letters, song fragments, and excerpts from real broadsides and the fictitious Beau Monde Inquirer varies the text nicely. She allows the story to unfold at a just the right pace, not revealing too soon or withholding too long any of the surprises that await the reader. A list of characters at the end of the novel helps the reader to deal with the complexity of all the secondary players and their relationships (blood, marriage, political and sexual) to each other. 

The title of Ross King's Domino refers to a type of face covering worn by people attending the masquerades that were a popular form of entertainment during the Beau Monde period. Disguise becomes the dominant theme in this novel, sometimes to the point that the reader can't tell who is who -- or what. The primary action takes place in London and Bath during the 1770's, with a significant portion of the story told in flashbacks that refer to events that took place in and around Venice many years before. With the exception of an occasional name-drop, e.g., Alexander Pope or William Hogarth, none of the specific situations or characters in this book has a historical basis. However, I think King has done a fine job of conjuring up the period in his descriptions of costumes, street scenes and interiors. He provides one of the best (if most dismal) descriptions of Bath I've ever encountered.

Our narrator for the primary story is George Cautley, who initially appears as an old man at a masquerade in 1812, recalling the strange experiences he encountered upon his arrival in London as an aspiring portrait painter. The strangeness begins when young Cautley attends a masquerade with a friend from home. There he has his first encounter with the enigmatic and elusive Lady Petronella Beauclair and the elderly castrato Tristano. In case you can't determine from context the meaning of the word 'castrato', it refers to a male who is castrated before he achieves sexual maturity, typically as a way of preserving his silvery soprano voice. Imagine the Vienna Boys' Choir as middle-aged adults. . . .

Lady Beauclair becomes the narrator of the flashback story, which relates Tristano's history. She tells the tale in parts while Cautley is painting her portrait, using a canvas that hides another portrait beneath its white coating. At the same time, Cautley becomes an assistant to the established painter Sir Endymion Starker and makes the acquaintance of Sir Endymion's mistress and model, Eleanora. With the possible exception of Cautley, all of these characters have complex and intertwined and somewhat occluded histories. As the story of Tristano starts to get entangled with events happening in Cautley's present-day story I experienced increasing disorientation. There is a scene in the book where Cautley is pursuing a mysterious man inside a maze constructed out of dense shrubbery. I felt like I was in that maze as I tried to work my way through the plot of this novel.

An elderly castrato also appears in Christopher Whyte's The Cloud Machinery. This one lives in a secret room tucked away in the upper reaches of a theatre building in Venice. The action takes place during carnival season in the year 1761, with some flashbacks to earlier periods. The theatre has been closed for several years following a disastrous performance that left the former owner gruesomely murdered on the stage. The property has finally been settled on a distant relative, who has decided to use the space for performances once again.

The novel's protagonist is a penniless young conductor, Domenico, who arrives in Venice from Bologna to join the newly-forming theatre company. He has a few secrets of his own that are revealed as the plot unfolds. But most of the story is about the theatre and the resident castrato who knows how to operate the so-called cloud machinery. This is the only novel of the four in this review that employs magic in resolving the plot, with an evil sorcerer playing a key role. Whyte makes good use of 18th century Venice as his setting, but does not refer to historical persons or events. I found this novel entertaining and enjoyable, but wished it had been longer. The climax builds to a nice crescendo, but the story ends without a real denouement. The reader is left wondering what happened to the several interesting and sympathetic characters after all the pieces of the theatre puzzle finally settled into place.

I left my discussion of Misfortune to the end because this novel is somewhat of an outlier in terms of this review -- and probably in other ways, as well. Do you remember that in my first paragraph I told you all these novels address themes related to gender identity and expression of sexuality? Did you notice that in the preceding reviews I didn't exactly tell you how the stories deal with those themes? That's because by telling you I would give too much away. Trust me. The issues are present in all of them. But they emerge gradually within the stories.

In Misfortune, on the other hand, the issue of gender identity is front and center right from the beginning. In 1820, a very wealthy and eccentric English gentleman rescues a baby from a London rubbish heap and declares the child his heir. There's just one slight problem. The baby is male and Lord Geoffroy Loveall of Love Hall desperately wants it to be female. Because everyone around him indulges his eccentricities, the child, named Rose, is raised as a female. Obviously this situation cannot persist as Rose enters puberty. The narrative, written in the first person by an older Rose, tells of his eventual discovery of this truth, and of his struggle to declare himself the rightful and even legitimate heir of the Loveall name and estate.

Yes, this is a really strange premise for a book. I fully expect that some people will read the plot synopsis on the flyleaf and put the book back on the shelf. I will admit that I had to exercise quite a lot of patience to read through what seemed to be interminably long chapters about Rose's childhood and the rather extreme precautions his caretakers exercised to avoid his making the obvious discovery. The other problem with this part of the book (which lasts nearly 300 pages!!) is that virtually all the action takes place on the estate, where time seems to stand still and historical events have absolutely no relevance. The story could have been set in Prussia in 1880 and no one would have known the difference.

If you can bear with the tedium for this long, the last 200 or so pages of the story actually work quite well. Rose leaves Love Hall, sees a bit of the world, and figures out how to express his personhood in a way that works. In his first novel, Wesley Stace (also known as the musician John Wesley Harding) has rendered a couple of truly brilliant passages, descriptive writing that would make Dickens proud. One of these is at the start of the novel, depicting the baby's journey to the rubbish heap. The other is an absolutely priceless scene in the office of a publisher of broadsides, a room that is literally lined floor to ceiling with printed materials.

As I write these words in July 2005, Life Mask and Misfortune are still quite readily available in bookstores and on the usual websites. A trade paperback edition of Life Mask is due out in September. I picked up my copy of Domino in a remaindered bookstore -- it appears to be cheap and easy to find in both cloth and paper editions. While The Cloud Machinery seems to be the most obscure of these, I found 26 copies in both cloth and paper bindings listed on ABE today. If you're interested, you can find them all.

[Donna Bird]