Emma Donoghue finds intrigue among the 18th-century rich and famous
Usually it's the diva author who breezes in late for an interview. This time it's the interviewer, offering a multitude of apologies, who calls 40 minutes late. In the face of myriad technical difficulties, Irish novelist Emma Donoghue couldn't be more sympathetic and generous. "No problem!" she says in her lilting accent, adding almost apologetically, "but can we be done by 10:30? I have a photographer coming to take a picture of me."
With a new book hitting the shelves, a media whirlwind is already disrupting Donoghue's routine. The interest in her latest work follows the critical and popular success of her third novel Slammerkin. Reviewers called it "a roller-coaster ride through the 18th century" (The Baltimore Sun) and "an intelligent and mesmerizing historical novel" (Publishers Weekly). Thousands of readers were drawn to the provocative cover, making the book into a word-of-mouth bestseller.
In Slammerkin, Donoghue turned the true story of Mary Saunders, a poor servant girl who turns to prostitution, into absorbing fiction. With her latest book, Life Mask, Donoghue returns to 18th-century London, but this time her characters are the wealthy and privileged. The author says she enjoyed delving into the world of lords and ladies "after writing about chamber pots" in Slammerkin. "These characters wouldn't even have noticed the servants of Slammerkin," she says.
Like the story of Mary Saunders, Life Mask is based on real-life events. The author found a snippet of gossip about three famous characters of the era Lord Derby, a supremely wealthy but ugly aristocrat; Miss Eliza Farren, a popular comedic actress; and Anne Damer, a widow, sculptor and rumored Sapphist and couldn't resist piecing together their story. History tells us that Anne Damer and Miss Farren, despite differences in ages and rank, became fast friends. Their close relationship revived the old gossip about Anne's sexuality, and the ensuing scandal threatened Miss Farren's career on the public stage and, more importantly, her long, chaste courtship with Lord Derby. "I was fascinated by the love triangle," says Donoghue. "I'm not sure why I'm drawn to stories based on real people. I guess I enjoy filling in the gaps."
She also uses that talent to create rich, full characters. Stifled by the rules of propriety, even the era's richest lords and ladies often hid their true thoughts and feelings. However, these "life masks" are not necessarily a bad thing, says Donoghue. "I enjoyed peeling back the layers of the characters." She felt a special affinity for Anne Damer's struggle to accept her sexuality. "I related to Anne's fear of people finding out," says the author, who had her own coming-out in Dublin in the 1980s. Despite having loving family and friends, Donoghue says there was always a "what if they find out?" fear that hung over her youth. The author now lives in Canada, a country she says is a "very safe place for gay couples," with her partner and nine-month-old son, Finn.
Donoghue's empathy for the characters gives the novel added depth, but it is her love of research that recreates the time period with astonishing detail. The author admits she has a hard time dragging herself out of the library to sit down and write. Donoghue immersed herself in the turbulent decade of 1787 to 1797, an era of extravagant balls, social intrigues, cockfighting and, perhaps most of all, cutthroat politics. The reader gets a front-row seat inside an English Parliament threatened by the bloody French Revolution. Fearing a similar revolt among English peasants, the government had cracked down on civil liberties.
Threats of attacks hung over the country, and the word terrorism was first coined. The similarities to today's political climate are hard to miss, something that surprised Donoghue. "I never set out to do that," she says. "But I've also never been as interested in politics as I am now." After Life Mask, Donoghue has decided to give modern-day interests her full attention. Next up? A contemporary novel set in Ireland and Canada.