Occasionally, entirely by chance, you come across a book so delicious, so full of serendipity, that you can hardly believe your luck. I bought The Vizard Mask entirely on the title and the précis – I haven’t read any of Diana Norman’s other books, nor her popular Mistress of the Art of Death series written under her pseudonym Ariana Franklin. It turned out to be a rare gem: a sprawling, meaty, bawdy slice of Restoration drama underpinned by one of the most wonderful romantic pairings I’ve come across in fiction. The overall flavour made me think of Forever Amber crossed with Stage Beauty, finished off with liberal dashes of Much Ado About Nothing (rather appropriately).
Penitence Hurd and the Plague arrived in London on the same day.
Penitence was eighteen and carried a beaded satchel. The Plague
travelled by fur-lined carriage and was as old as sin.
The book had me at the first line, and it goes on to immediately plunge you into London in 1664: a swarming, ambitious, gritty, lighthearted city. Charles II has returned from exile, to be greeted by an adoring populace, proud of his peccadilloes and his harem of mistresses. The darkness is over; the Cromwells have gone; and life can begin again, in all its lust and glory. It is a dizzying experience for Penitence, who has travelled alone from America, hoping to track down her estranged and scandalous aunt, Margaret Hughes. She is ill-equipped to face the rowdy blast of London: a devout Puritan, she is cursed with a stutter that leaves her virtually mute; but she has determination and courage, and is resolved not to let anything stand in her way. Such resilience is necessary, as Patience follows her aunt’s trail deep into the notorious neighbourhood of the Rookery in St Giles (it’s nice to visit it again, after Slammerkin). But here the track grows cold. There is no sign of Margaret Hughes, but there is the Cock and Pie – a rambling old house transformed into a high-class seraglio – and its enigmatic owner, Her Ladyship, with her troupe of tamed wildcat girls.
With nowhere else to go, Penitence adopts the Cock and Pie as her home, and struggles to adapt to this world of flesh and wine and rampage, which is so different to the false piety of her Puritan childhood. It is the first step in a dazzling progress, which takes in a sweeping panorama of 17th-century England. The book embraces the Plague, the Great Fire and Monmouth’s Rebellion, and the setting moves from Newgate to the Somerset Levels; but everything is tied together by Penitence’s quiet, steadfast soul. Of all her experiences, however, nothing affects Penitence quite as much as a few long evenings in her room at the Cock and Pie during the Plague year. Confined and quarantined, she becomes a project for a bored actor lodging across the street in another quarantined room, who decides to cure her stammer. Giving her a vizard mask to hide her face, dubbing her ‘Boots’ and asking her to read the role of Beatrice to his Benedick in Much Ado, the mysterious Henry King finds the key that unlocks Penitence’s tongue – and her heart.
They hadn’t known they loved each other; everybody else thought they hated each other; the ludicrous devices with which their friends tricked them into declaring love … but the author had reached over and, in the battle of words between Beatrice and Benedick, had said to Penitence: ‘You and I know their attraction, even if they don’t. Let us watch them fall off the knife-edge of passion they teeter on.’
The prose is simply gorgeous. Norman writes with a light touch and her tongue always slightly in her cheek; her bantering dialogues are delightful. But her descriptive writing is wonderful too. On her first sight of London laid out before her, the young and naive Penitence thinks it ‘a splendid, muscled adult, a coiled, silver-scaled dragon of a city‘. Later, the interior of a Bristol townhouse is ‘a puzzle of black wood, redolent with beeswax and old wine‘. Every word counts. But the beautiful writing is also backed up by a story that ticked so many of my boxes I scarcely know where to begin. Ever since watching Stage Beauty I’ve been intrigued by the Restoration stage, and The Vizard Mask offers an alternative perspective on the story told in that film, of the pioneering actress Peg Hughes and her career-defining Desdemona.
Actually, this brings me on to another reason why I feel compelled to recommend the book. It’s one of the rare cases where the author manages to throw in a whole galaxy of historical figures without once triggering my Good Morning Dr Johnson reflexes. Just off the top of my head, Patience rubs shoulders (at least) with the Earl of Rochester, Aphra Behn, Judge Jeffreys, Ned Kynaston, William of Orange and, one of my abiding historical crushes, Prince Rupert of the Rhine. If you take all those historical figures, plus the Shakespearean references, and a profoundly unsaccharine romance, you have a concoction that makes me very happy indeed.
Ultimately this is a marvellous book. It’s a fairly hefty size, but it’s so beautifully crafted that it feels like an indulgent treat, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone fond of the 17th century, or indeed of London. Full of humanity and sympathy, it’s a novel that deals with questions of religion, gender and race, the slave trade and the rights of women. And yet, at its heart, is the story of its headstrong protagonists, who stumble their way towards one another across the years, almost despite themselves, both far too stubborn and proud to give in easily. I loved it. Hopefully there are other people out there who also loved it; and if you haven’t read it, then I do hope you might have been persuaded to give it a go. But now the next question is: what else has Diana Norman written? And which of her books, in your opinion, should I seek out next?