Already a prolific novelist at 34, Emma Donoghue is distinguished by her generous sympathy for her characters, sinuous prose and an imaginative range that may soon rival that of A.S. Byatt or Margaret Atwood. "In my 20s, I wanted to try every literary genre I was drawn to," admitted the Irish native, who has supported herself as a writer since graduating from the University of Dublin at 23. But after producing two contemporary novels, two scholarly works and a Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation about 18th-century women, a collection of modern fairy tales, and several plays by the age of 30, she found that "fiction is what does it for me most. It's great to try lots of genres, but it would be a shame to divide one's reputation between them."
Though Donoghue has "about five novels planned out," she's currently consolidating her reputation as a historical novelist who's at ease with both extremes of the social scale. Where her breakout novel Slammerkin (Harcourt, 2001) drew considerable suspense from destitute 14-year-old Mary Saunders's attempts to survive in 1760s England, Donoghue's latest, Life Mask (Harcourt, Sept.), invites readers to wander through the lives of Georgian aristocrats with concerns that are more worldly, but less mortally threatening. "That's the irony," she observed, in an Irish brogue softened by years spent in England and Canada. "Because they're these idle, rich bastards, they could engage with the ideas of their time, but Mary couldn't get beyond her anger at her employer and wanting a better life."
Speaking by phone from her home in London, Ontario, shortly before the start of her 10-city tour, Donoghue says she found the inspiration for Life Mask while researching her first book, the groundbreaking study Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668—1801 (HarperCollins, 1995). "I've been promising myself for years that someday I'd write a novel about Mrs. Damer," she says, referring to the member of the beau monde she first discovered in a salacious epigram published in 1795.
Set in London under mad King George, with cameo appearances by scores of historical figures—like Richard Sheridan, politician and theater proprietor; actress Mrs. Siddons; and writer Horace Walpole—the resulting tale of romantic politics and shifting political alliances is her most ambitious yet. It centers on the erotic yearnings of three historical figures: the earl of Derby, the richest peer in Parliament who resembles a "Velázquez dwarf"; London's reigning queen of comedy, Eliza Farren; and Anne Damer, the only female sculptor of the age, who is dogged by rumors of Sapphism.
Though Donoghue says she approached her characters with an "outsider's curiosity"—quipping that "these people would have ground my peasant ancestors under their carriage wheels"—she found herself identifying with them as she studied their surviving papers, satirical pamphlets and other records. "It was quite modern the way these men and women sat around talking about politics and sex scandals, trying to balance their careers and their pleasures and their endless social obligations. And their lives were so urban."
Having begun the novel in 2000, Donoghue was later "astonished by the correspondences" between her characters' struggles with the violent reverberations of the French revolution and the contemporary effects of the September 11 attacks. Although Mrs. Damer and Lord Derby are Whigs, who support the power of the people, "when they're being gossiped about in the papers, it brings out the fascist in them. Suddenly, they want to clamp down and send the mob packing," Donoghue says. "My sympathy is with Anne Damer, who's a political optimist," she adds, "but my head is with Horace Walpole, who says it will all end in tears."
Life Mask brings Donoghue's decade-long career full circle, bridging the gap between her early novels—Stir Fry (HarperCollins, 1995), and Hood (Alyson, 1998), which were modeled on her own life as a lesbian in Dublin—and her works of literary history. "In Life Mask, I'm writing about the same things I wrote about in Passions Between Women," she explains. "I started with something relatively close to my own experience, and then began telling stories farther and farther from my experience. Now, I'm coming back to that early subject matter with a broader and more mature vision of what's going on."
The person perhaps most instrumental in steering her career along its circuitous course is London agent Caroline Davidson, who landed her first two-novel deal with Penguin U.K., and with HarperCollins in the U.S. Now, Donoghue's "influential gang" of advisers also includes Virago (U.K.) editor Lennie Goodings, U.S. agent Kathy Anderson and Harcourt's editorial director, Ann Patty. Together, they persuaded her to publish three consecutive works of historical fiction—Slammerkin, the story collection The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (Harcourt, 2002), and Life Mask—because they suspected that was where her most receptive audience lay. So far, the strategy is working: Donoghue received the best reviews of her career for Slammerkin, which became a bookseller favorite and paved the way for prominent positioning of Life Mask, a September Book Sense selection.
But this versatile author won't restrict herself to just one genre. "I'm writing a contemporary novel again now, and that's a liberation," Donoghue says. "You don't have to go to the library with 25 queries per page. With contemporary fiction, you can write a page out of your head."