THE DARK LADY’S MASK
THE DARK LADY’S MASK is the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanier (1569–1645), the first professional woman poet in Renaissance England, and her collaboration—and star-crossed love affair—with William Shakespeare, as his Dark Lady.
Shakespeare in Love meets Shakespeare’s Sister in this novel of England’s first professional woman poet and her collaboration and love affair with William Shakespeare
London, 1593. Aemilia Bassano Lanier is beautiful and accomplished, but her societal conformity ends there. She frequently cross-dresses to escape her loveless marriage and to gain freedoms only men enjoy, but a chance encounter with a ragged, little-known poet named Shakespeare changes everything.
Aemilia grabs at the chance to pursue her long-held dream of writing and the two outsiders strike up a literary bargain. They leave plague-ridden London for Italy, where they and begin to secretly writing comedies together and where Will falls in love with the beautiful country—and with Aemilia, his Dark Lady. Their Italian idyll, though, cannot last and their collaborative affair comes to a devastating end. Will gains fame and fortune for their plays back in London and years later he publishes the sonnets mocking his former muse. Not one to stand by in humiliation, Aemilia takes up her own pen in her defense and in defense of all women.
I love reading the historical novels written by Mary Sharratt. The depth of research and care she takes to develop her real life characters, to fill in the gaps and blanks that history has not recorded. The line between hard fact and supposition becomes shades of gray as her stories grow and weave their way across time and through the pages. Even the most jaded of historical scholars I have met, who have had the opportunity to read a novel or two written by Mary, glow in praise about the stories she builds and the total believability of her tales.
With this said, I come to this, Mary’s latest work, The Dark Lady’s Mask. As I was preparing to write the review for this interesting viewpoint on Shakespeare’s Muse, I chanced to have dinner with my parents. While we were visiting my dad, an amateur genealogist who has spent the last thirty-six years researching our family tree, told me he had discovered the newest link in our family tree. He had traced us to the court of Henry VIII of England. He told me that the ancestor was Edward Bessano, an Italian musician who served in the court, along with his brothers and their families. I took a deep breath and set back, for I had just finished The Dark Lady’s Mask. What a coincidence. That evening and the following days since, this book has floated through my mind. Knowing what I know now, I want and need to reread the pages again.
I know the story is based on supposition. I know that research has said that there were rumors and possibilities that Amelia Bassano Lanier could have been the dark lady. But was she? Taking the facts that I now have laying before me and meshing them with the story that Mary wove about Amelia Bassano Lanier and William Shakespeare, I find the connection totally plausible. Her telling of Amelia’s story and life is wonderful.
Once again Mary took a woman of note, who opened a door for generations to come, and allowed us to have a glimpse into her life. Granted the hard facts on this gentle lady are few are far between, but Mary has a gift to take the pieces of a puzzle and lay them out, then masterfully paint in the missing areas. Her work is so brilliantly accomplished, that we are left wondering where fact and supposition meet.
Her interweaving of masterful character developments from a different viewpoint of the accepted norm for public historical figures such as William Shakespeare created cause for some raised eyebrows as the pages turned. With fingers going to the keyboard looking for new information on the famed master of English literature. I found even Snopes speaking out on the matter of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. That was interesting.
The story itself was a well-told story. It was one that held the attention and I found myself, once again, losing sleep because I couldn’t find a place to put the book down. This was not because the plot was heart racing, but because the intrigue was different. This was a story about women seeking to find a voice in a world dominated by men. It was a place where they had no voice in where they lived or who they married. Amelia was brilliant. She had a brilliant mind. But she could not follow her heart and write or publish her work that she wrote. She was accomplished in music, writing, languages, math, and seemed to be able to learn most anything she attempted. But she was allotted to the world and role of “woman” and the woman’s role.
The idea that she utilized her creative genius to be able to get her work out there, even if it meant collaborating with a “second rate” playwright, was worth what it took to have her plays on the boards. It was pure genius on Mary’s part on how she took the facts of what was happening during the time, historically, the facts that were available about Amelia’s life, and the suppositions that have been put out about the Dark Lady and weave them into such a glorious, believable story. It is so believable, that I wonder how much is possible? Maybe not the places, necessarily, but what happened, possibly. It is all definitely meat on the bone to chew on. It makes me look at Shakespeare with new eyes and wonder.
It makes me proud to have had such a wonderful and accomplished woman in my family tree. Thank you, Mary, for writing about her and making her such a highlight in my life. If you hadn’t written about Amelia Bassano Lanier, then when I dad told me about Elizabeth Bassano (Lupo) Chandler, born to Edward Bassano (a musician in King Henry’s court) and Alice Austen (born 1596 East Greenwich, Kent, England); it would have just been another family tree fact. No big deal. You made it different. You made it real. Elizabeth Bassano Lupo migrated to Elizabeth City, Virginia Colony to accept a land grant from King Henry around 1619 from King Henry along with her husband Albiano Lupo. He died and she later married John Chandler (first Jamestown, Virginia Colony) in 1626.
I give this wonderful novel a full five stars for the in-depth creativity of spirit and writing, and the masterful spin Mary Sharratt used to take the given and provide us with a most believable story of two master literary giants from our past.
QUESTIONS WITH MARY
Who was Aemilia Bassano Lanier?
Born in 1569, Aemilia Bassano Lanier (also spelled Lanyer) was the highly cultured daughter of an Italian court musician—a man thought to have been a Marrano, a secret Jew living under the guise of a Christian convert.
After her father’s death, the young Aemilia Bassano was educated by high-minded Puritans. Later she became the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. As Carey’s paramour, she enjoyed a few years of glory in the royal court—an idyll that came to an abrupt and inglorious end when she found herself pregnant with Carey’s child. She was then shunted off into an unhappy arranged marriage with Alfonso Lanier, a court musician and scheming adventurer who wasted her money. So began her long decline into obscurity and genteel poverty, yet she triumphed to become a ground-breaking woman of letters.
Lanier was the first English woman to aspire to a career as a professional poet by actively seeking a circle of eminent female patrons to support her. She praises these women in the dedicatory verses to her epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, a vindication of the rights of women couched in religious verse and published in 1611. Her elegiac poem “The Description of Cookham” might be the first country house poem in the English language. Committed to women’s advancement and education, she served as tutor to the young Lady Anne Clifford, and she went on to found her own school for girls in 1617, a very progressive innovation in an era when girls were barred from most formal education.
What inspired you to write about this imagined star-crossed love affair between Lanier and Shakespeare?
My intention was to write a novel that married the playful comedy of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love to the unflinching feminism of Virginia Woolf’s meditations on Shakespeare’s sister in her essay A Room of One’s Own. How many more obstacles would an educated and gifted Renaissance woman poet face compared with her ambitious male counterpart?
In The Dark Lady’s Mask, I explore what happens when a struggling young Shakespeare meets a struggling young woman poet of equal genius and passion. If Lanier and Shakespeare were, in fact, lovers, would this explain how Shakespeare made the leap from his history plays to his Italian comedies and romances—the turning point of his career? Lanier, after all, was an Anglo-Italian trapped in a miserable arranged marriage. The names Aemilia, Emilia, Emelia, and Bassanio all appear in Shakespeare’s plays. His Italian comedies are set in Veneto, Lanier’s ancestral homeland. What if Shakespeare’s early comedies were the fruit of an active collaboration between him and Lanier?
These two poets had such radically different character arcs. We all know about Shakespeare’s rise to the glory that would enshrine him as a cultural icon. But there was no meteoric rise for Lanier. Though she eventually triumphed to become a published poet, she died in obscurity and has only recently been rediscovered by scholars.
I find it fascinating how the strong, outspoken women of Shakespeare’s early Italian comedies, such as the crossdressing Rosalind in As You Like It and the spirited Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, gave way to much weaker heroines and misogynistic portraits of women in Shakespeare’s great tragedies, such as frail, mad Ophelia in Hamlet. This change in tack leads me to wonder if the historical Shakespeare actually did have a bittersweet affair with a mysterious, unknown woman that cast a shadow over his later life and work.
In this novel I wanted to redress the balance by writing Renaissance women poets and playwrights back into history. In addition to Lanier, the novel reveals the work of her contemporary poet-dramatists Mary Sidney and Isabella Andreini.
Enough about Shakespeare. Tell us about the relevance of Lanier’s poetry. Given her possible Jewish ancestry, why did she write Christian religious verse?
As an Englishwoman aspiring to make her career as a poet, Lanier effectively had only one option—to write devotional Protestant verse. Her literary predecessors, Anne Locke and Mary Sidney, wrote poetic meditations on the Psalms.
But Lanier’s religious poetry is a radical tour de force. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews) describes the passion of Christ from the viewpoint of the women in the Gospels. Lanier recasts this grand narrative into a vindication of the rights of women—and of Lanier as a woman poet. In comparing the sufferings of women in male-dominated culture to the sufferings of Christ, she upholds virtuous women, such as her great patron Margaret Clifford, as Christ’s true imitators.
Most significantly, Salve Deus is dedicated and addressed exclusively to women, and is prefaced by nine praise poems dedicated to the royal and aristocratic women whose patronage Lanier sought. She also included a dedication in praise of all virtuous women.
Having established her female audience, Lanier attacks the theological roots of male domination, namely the blame attached to Eve—and by extension all women—for humanity’s fall from grace. In “Eve’s Apology in Defence of Women,” Lanier argues that the original sin was actually Adam’s for accepting the forbidden fruit. For he, unlike Eve, was fully aware of the consequences. Out of selfishness and desire for power, Adam let Eve take the fall.
If Eve did err, it was for knowledge sake,
The fruit being fair persuaded him to fall:
No subtle serpent’s falsehood did betray him,
If he would eat it, who had the power to stay him?
Not Eve, whose fault was only too much love.
Lanier contends that male culpability in crucifying Christ far exceeds Eve’s tragic misunderstanding. Therefore there is no moral or divine cause to justify women’s subjugation. Here Lanier explicitly champions gender equality:
Let us have our Liberty again,
And challenge to yourselves no Sovereignty,
You came not into the world without our pain,
Make that a bar against your cruelty;
Your fault being greater, why should you disdain
Our being your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weak woman simply did offend,
This sin of yours hath no excuse, nor end.
Lanier’s poetry lays claim to women’s God-given call to rise up against male arrogance, just as the strong women of the Old Testament rose up against their oppressors. While wooing her highborn female patrons, Lanier uses the scriptures to assert a sense of social egalitarianism that foreshadows the Levellers and the Quaker religious movement that emerged a few decades after her poetry’s publication. “God makes both even, the cottage with the throne,” Lanier writes in her dedicatory poem to Lady Anne Clifford, her former pupil.
Lanier’s book ends with “A Description of Cookham,” an elegiac ode to the country house where she lived for a time with Margaret and Anne Clifford, that blessed refuge where Lanier received both her spiritual epiphany and the confirmation of her vocation as a poet.
Farewell (sweet Cookham) where I first obtained
Grace from the Grace where perfect Grace remained,
And where the Muses gave their full consent,
I should have the power the virtuous to content.
Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is a corpus of poetry celebrating female and divine goodness, penned by a poet who found her own sense of salvation in a community of women who supported her and believed in her talent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Sharratt’s explorations into the hidden histories of Renaissance women compelled her to write her most recent work, THE DARK LADY’S MASK (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016), based on the dramatic life of the ground-breaking poet, Aemilia Bassano Lanier.
Born in Minnesota, Mary now lives with her Belgian husband in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers.
Previously she lived for twelve years in Germany. This, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write her award-winning ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, which explores the dramatic life of the 12th century Benedictine abbess, composer, polymath, and powerfrau.
Winner of the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award, the 2005 WILLA Literary Award, and a Minnesota Book Award Finalist, Mary has also written the novels SUMMIT AVENUE, THE REAL MINERVA, THE VANISHING POINT, and co-edited the subversive fiction anthology BITCH LIT, which celebrates female anti-heroes–strong women who break all the rules. Her short fiction has been published in Twin Cities Noir and elsewhere.
She is currently at work on ECSTASY: A NOVEL OF ALMA MAHLER, exploring the life of one of the most intriguing women of turn-of-the-century Vienna.
Mary’s articles and essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, Minnesota Magazine, and Historical Novels Review. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually riding her spirited Welsh mare through the Lancashire countryside.