Donoghue’s latest, another fabulously entertaining historical (Slammerkin, 2001, etc.), illuminates three intertwined 18th-century lives.
Eliza Farren has carved a place for herself in London’s beau monde,thanks to the brilliance of her comic performances at the Drury Lane Theatre, the love of the Earl of Derby, and the resolute virtue that keeps her from becoming the married earl’s mistress. Eliza begins a warm friendship with the widowed Anne Damer, who takes advantage of her aristocratic background and financial independence to pursue her art as a sculptor. Anne and Derby, both firm Whigs, spark Eliza’s interest in politics, and she too becomes an adherent of the party that opposes the policies of George III’s autocratic prime minister, William Pitt. The Whigs’s generous, ramshackle leader Charles Fox, unscrupulous yet charming Drury Lane manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and witty, garrulous literary man Horace Walpole (Anne’s godfather) are among the historical figures who come to brilliant fictional life as the narrative unfolds at a leisurely pace over the stormy decade 1787–97. Donoghue does equally well with her three protagonists, also fleshed-out from real-life personalities. Derby and Anne are appealing, genuinely liberal people who nonetheless would never dream of giving up their inherited privilege. Eliza, who depends on the public favor, is necessarily more calculating: she renounces Anne when rumors of her friend’s “Sapphist” tendencies endanger her livelihood, and she keeps Derby at a platonic arm’s length until his invalid wife dies and they can marry at the close. The author explores her characters inner lives in the context of rich details about 18th-century theater, the brutal hypocrisy of aristocratic society, and the ferocious debate over the British government’s repressive policies at home in response to the excesses of the French Revolution abroad. Donoghue underscores contemporary relevance with untypical clumsiness through anachronistic references to “weapons of mass destruction” and “homeland security”; in general, her touch is light but probing as she guides her characters toward the middle-aged wisdom that “everybody wears a mask . . . to persuade ourselves as much as others.”
A little slow to start, but readers who give themselves over to its unhurried rhythms will be rewarded: a full-bodied tale that satisfies the head and the heart.