Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays growing up, not for the candy but for the chance to dress up as whatever character I chose. I was a medieval lady (complete with steeple hat with veil), Maid Marian, Lady Jane Grey (the year I’d first gone to England), a colonial girl (in 1976). Admiring the imaginative costumes of the kids out trick-or-treating this past week, I thought about the fascination of pretending to be someone else. A wonderful game when you’re a child, that often becomes a more serious game in fiction.
For many of the characters in “Secrets of a Lady” masquerading is second nature. Mélanie’s whole life has been a masquerade for so many years she isn’t sure who she is anymore (“Charles had accused her of lying for so long that she couldn’t know herself anymore, and he’d been more accurate than she cared to admit”). In the course of the book, she and Charles tell different stories and play different parts with the different people they approach for information. One of the people they encounter, Hugo Trevennen, is an actor who still lives his life changing from character to character even in the confines of hte Marshalsea prison. His niece Helen Trevennen, who holds to the key to the mystery of the Carevalo Ring, has changed her identity more than once, just as Mélanie has.
The third Charles and Mélanie book, “The Mask of Night”, begins at a masquerade ball. Most of the characters in the book are wearing a mask in one way or another, whether they are masquerading as another person or keeping a part of themselves hidden from their friends or loved ones. It’s a theme I love as both a writer and a reader. Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford of Lymond, who I blogged about last week, is brilliant at masquerading. In one of books (“Queens Play”), he plays a part for the majority of the novel, and almost loses himself in it. “Niccolò Rising”, the first book in Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series begins with a hero who slowly emerges from behind the mask he has been wearing since childhood (and, as with Lymond, one spends the series trying to decipher who the hero really is). One of the delights of the Scarlet Pimpernel stories is watching Percy go from disguise to disguise, all the while living his whole life behind the mask of Sir Percy Blakeney, the agreeable fool. Marguerite is a French actress who has, in a sense, donned the mask of a fashionable English society wife. Chauvelin’s blackmail forces her into a more dangerous masquerade. (One thing we’ve discussed in the comments on my prior Scarlet Pimpernel posts is how it would have been fun to see Marguerite don more disguises in the subsequent books in the series). Sherlock Holmes is also a master of disguise both in the Conan Doyle stories and in Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, where he teaches Russell to be every bit as adept at playing a part. Holmes and Russell usually assume multiple disguises in the course of an investigation.
A character being disguised as someone quite different can reveal unexpected things about that character and those around them (as in Holmes’s reaction to Russell disguised as a flirtatious debutante). Literary disguises range from a persona assumed for an evening (as with Russell playing the debutante) to a masquerade that lasts the length of a mission (as with Holmes and Russell in other stories or Lymond in “Queens Play”) to living one’s whole life behind a mask, as Percy does in London society, as Nicholas does when we first meet him in “Niccolò Rising”, as Mélanie has been doing in “Secrets of a Lady”. Or, without being an agent or an invesitgator, a character can be masquerading simply by playing different parts in different aspects of his or her life, as to a certain extent we all do.
Do you like stories where characters masquerade, whether briefly or over the course of a novel? Any thoughts on the books I’ve mentioned? Any other favorite literary masquerades to mention?
This week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is Evelyn Mortimer’s reply to Gisèle’s letter of last week. As you will see, Evie’s take on Charles and Honoria is slightly different from Gisèle’s.