Writing historical fiction takes a certain amount of chutzpah. One has to take on nitpickers who will point out that this wasn’t in fashion at that time or that hadn’t been discovered yet. One also has to create room for characters in written history without turning them into Forrest Gump. The rewards, at least for readers, are absolutely worth it. Nothing else can bring history to life like a well drawn character living in a time and place that we only know from broad strokes in a textbook. The Vizard Mask, by Diana Norman, is both a brilliant story and a brilliant piece of scholarship about life and politics in post-Restoration England. Because of this book (and because of the noodling around on Wikipedia it caused), I finally understand the Jacobite claim to the throne, how England transformed into a constitutional monarchy, and what Aphra Behn was up against. I had no idea how far The Vizard Mask would take me when I started reading it. I confess I was suckered in by a synopsis that advertised a Puritan woman going to live in her aunt’s brothel in London’s rookeries just before the Great Plague.
The Vizard Mask opens with two passengers arriving in London. One is Penitence Hurd. She has come to seek her aunt in St. Giles, London because she no longer has a home in Massachusetts. The other passenger is Yersinia pestis. Penitence is a lot more noticeable in her Puritan garb. She gets even more noticeable the closer she gets to St. Giles; she is woefully out of place. When she learns that her aunt (who doesn’t tell Penitence who she is) runs a brothel, Penitence’s Puritan upbringing rebels. She’s downright unpleasant until she gets to know the inhabitants of the Cock and Pie and the rookery. This novel is as much about Penitence learning to compromise and unbend as it is about her getting caught up in history.
Divided into five parts, Penitence’s story reminded me a lot of medieval stories of Fortune’s Wheel. Penitence starts at a very low point. She loathes everyone around her until the plague takes hold, then she’s too busy taking care of everyone to preach at them. Just when things start to look up for her (an inheritance), Penitence is sent to Newgate (where she meets Aphra Behn) for debt. Then she reinvents herself, as an actress of all things. This is where Norman grew bold. Norman grafted Penitence’s story onto the life of actual seventeenth century actress Margaret Hughes.
As Peg Hughes, an actress in King Charles II’s company of players, Penitence lives on the periphery of the big events of her day. She lands right in the middle of them when she becomes the mistress of Prince Rupert. In subsequent parts of The Vizard Mask, we see Penitence trying to keep her freedom and keep her friends safe through the Monmouth Rebellion, the Bloody Assizes, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Penitence meets (and runs away from, spars with, sleeps with, or hoodwinks) a lot of famous people of the time. Thankfully, Norman had a deft touch with her erudition and none of it feels forced.
The Vizard Mask scratched two of my bookish itches. First, it answered a lot of questions I had about British history. Because I learn most of my history through fiction, I had a lot of gaps. Second, I had a blast watching Penitence grow up, struggle, and find a life and a place for herself in a hard world.