Terrorism. Liberty. Necessary war. Weapons of mass destruction. What is this? A bundle of leftover flashcards from the recent presidential debates? No, these are terms bandied about, oddly enough, in "Life Mask," Emma Donoghue's lively novel set in 18th-century London.
"It's a necessary war," the duke of Richmond tells the more liberal Lord Derby in 1793. "I suspect you know that, deep down, beneath all your talk of the rights of the people. . . . This is our civilisation's stand against an enemy of a kind we've never encountered before. The French revolutionaries have an infinite thirst for blood."
That's right, we're back in the good old 1790s, when the evildoer is France. In London, the mob is content for now with tossing bricks and calling the prince of Wales "Fatty," but aristocrats like the duke of Richmond cannot help wondering if the next draft they feel on their necks will be the whoosh of the guillotine. Even Whig reformers, such as Lord Derby, who pin their hopes on regime change via the death of George III fear that domestic discontent, emboldened by the example of revolution abroad, may shatter their own privileged world. Not, we hope, before the actress Eliza Farren has a chance to join it -- by marrying Derby, of course.
One of the stars of 18th-century British theater, Eliza is also one of the novel's heroines. The other is Anne Damer, wealthy widow, celebrated sculptor, and -- the gutter press insists -- a "Sapphist" who seduces the ambitious young actress. Inspired by the historic lesbian scandal, Donoghue wisely allows it to fester unresolved for much of the novel as she portrays the era's social and political turmoil with wit and intelligence, creating fine sketches of the leading writers, actors, and politicians of the day, among them Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Horace Walpole, Anne's godfather.
National unrest threatens to undermine not only the aristocracy but also Eliza's precarious position as Lord Derby's chaste companion (until his estranged wife dies . . . but then?) and as London's favorite comedienne. "Her whole life since coming to London at fifteen had been aimed like an arrow at the ranks of Beau Monde," Eliza reflects as she weaves herself "a tough and glittering web" that may be temporarily shaken by her intimate friendship with Anne but remains sufficiently intact to snare Derby.
Donoghue is most convincing when she describes the meaner passions: Derby backstage proposing an arrangement to Eliza, for example. "Arrangement," she fumes. "It was a petty, sneaking, shopkeeping sort of word." Anne's love affair with Mary Berry, by contrast, seems lifeless, mummified by sanctity. Inspired descriptions of clothes, food, of Walpole wearing "the limp remains of his own hair," or a politician's stockings "sagging like an old man's skin" hold our attention whenever the story flags.
Those "weapons of mass destruction" do turn up, by the way, in a House of Lords speech. Donoghue's sudden lapse into Pentagon-ese is jarring but not as annoying as Richmond saying "It's not about Whigs and Tories any more" or Anne concluding that "it was all about surfaces."
Christine Balint sets her heroine adrift in the same London theater world some 40 years later. Harriet Smithson, born in 1800 in western Ireland to theatrical parents and raised by the local priest, conquers the London stage in 1827 with her performance of Ophelia and repeats her triumph in Paris, where she finally settles. Harriet also inflames young Hector Berlioz, inspires his Symphonie Fantastique, and marries him after a seven-year courtship that reaches its crescendo when Berlioz tries to kill himself in Harriet's drawing room in front of her family.
"Do not let them tell you I am melancholic," Harriet writes to her son, Louis, in 1838. "My mind is not lost, it is merely wandering the passages of my life." "Ophelia's Fan" does the same, moving back and forth between Harriet's childhood in Ennis, her early struggles in London, her glorious years in Paris, and the twilight of her marriage and of her health.
Where Donoghue is showy, Balint is modest, concentrating on Harriet, on her art, and on a lifetime's accumulated grief. Having the characters of Ophelia, Desdemona, and other tragic heroines narrate some chapters is her only false step. By resisting such flourishes, after all, Balint has already made Harriet more interesting than any of the roles she inhabits.
In Alberto Manguel's slim novel "Stevenson Under the Palm Trees," Robert Louis Stevenson declares war on the literary flourish. "He had once remarked to Henry James that what he wished to do was starve the visual sense in his books. . . . He made a note of his two literary aims: 1st. War on the adjective. 2nd. Death to the optic nerve."
Living in Samoa, Stevenson is assailed by exotic sights and smells but returns to Scotland in his writing and in his conversations with Mr. Baker, the Scottish missionary whose arrival coincides with the rape and murder of a local girl. Stevenson, who was captivated by the girl's beauty at a village feast, quickly becomes a suspect, and the fevered atmosphere intensifies until the novel becomes a miniature Gothic horror story that Stevenson himself -- and even Henry James -- would have found chilling.
Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times.