Few sexual liaisons among the gentry went unnoticed in 18th-century beau monde England—the gossip papers of the era make our own tabloid culture look respectful—and though fleeting same-sex affairs were somewhat fashionable, suspected homosexuals were condemned to public humiliation and criminal punishment. Offering a fictionalized account of real-life scandal, Donoghue (Slammerkin ) tells the story of three minor historical personages: the actress Eliza Farren, the Earl of Derby and the widowed sculptress Anne Damer. Famously ugly Lord Derby has been pursuing chaste young Eliza for years, hoping to marry her when his estranged, invalid wife dies. In the meantime, Eliza meets Derby's friend Anne and the two strike up a close, platonic friendship. Though she denies them vehemently, rumors of Sapphism haunt Anne Damer and endanger the reputations of everyone around her. Spanning the decade from 1787 to 1797, the novel follows this cast of characters through their complicated romantic and political entanglements. All the while, the French Revolution rages, causing major upheaval among the British nobility. Even as Derby and Anne befriend common folk like Eliza and support the liberal Whig party, hoping to topple mad King George, the mounting wave of European democracy threatens to extinguish their life of indolent leisure. Donoghue, who has written a historical examination of 18th-century British lesbian culture, Passions Between Women , has an extraordinary talent for turning exhaustive research into plausible characters and narratives; she presents a vibrant world seething with repressed feeling and class tensions. Agent, Kathleen Anderson at Anderson Grinberg. 8-city author tour. (Sept. 4)
Forecast: The sensational thrills of bestselling Slammerkin aren't on offer here—there are many more earnest conversations than sex scenes—but readers who appreciated Slammerkin's emotional and historical depths will enjoy Donoghue's latest.