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Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer Paperback – June 27, 2017
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“Sweeping you away with its vivid, poetical writing, Dark Lady is a novel about a brilliant Elizabethan woman, a musician, commoner, and secret Jew who was barred from working as a musician because of her sex. Emilia Bassano Lanyer loves three very different men: the aging Lord Hunsdon who treasures her, the young Shakespeare who enchants her, and the man she marries, musician and soldier Lanyer. Her writing arises from her experience as a gifted woman in a world ruled by men. Dark Lady is a beautifully drawn portrait of an exceptional woman in a time of plague, war, and political danger.”
—Stephanie Cowell, author of The Players, Claude and Camille, and Marrying Mozart
"Emilia Bassano Lanyer emerges in this sweeping historical novel as more than the elusive Dark Lady of William Shakespeare's sonnets. She is an artist in her own right, mysterious indeed but also strong, resourceful, and intelligent enough to maneuver her way through a turbulent, dangerous world. Politics and poetry collide in this suspenseful tale of love, lust, and literature in Elizabethan England."
—Sarah Kennedy, author of The Altarpiece
“This isn’t a book about court intrigue so much as the simpler human desire for self-expression, and the limits placed upon that. Accompanied by an engaging cast of secondary characters, Emilia is brought to appealingly vivid life and the book teems with the sights, sounds and scents of Tudor England. It’s so hard to make Shakespeare feel like just another character in a book: the man has a historical aura that can completely derail a scene. But Ball manages, and the words she puts in his mouth are convincingly playful and fanciful. It’s a well-written, engaging read and some of the prose is so beautifully crafted that you get a truly sensory appreciation for the setting.”
—The Idle Woman
About the Author
Charlene Ball holds a PhD in comparative literature and has taught English and women’s studies at colleges and universities. Although she has written nonfiction, reviews, and academic articles, writing fiction has always been her first love. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The North Atlantic Review, Concho River Review, The NWSA Journal, and other journals. She has reviewed theater and written articles on the arts for Atlanta papers. She is a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts and held a residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She attends fiction workshops by Carol Lee Lorenzo, and she belongs to a writers’ group that she helped found. She retired from the Women’s Studies Institute (now the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Georgia State University in 2009 and has been busier than ever with writing and bookselling. She also volunteers with her congregation and other social justice groups. She and her wife, Libby Ware, an author and bookseller, were married in May 2016.
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Ball's strict adherence to chronology provides the warp of her creation. The novel opens in 1576, as seven-year-old Emilia Bassano must leave her recently widowed mother to live at Queen Elizabeth's court. It ends in 1611, when Emilia finally completes her book of feminist/religious poetry for publication. Frequent time markers help orient the reader as Emilia lives through such familiar events as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the death of Queen Elizabeth I, and the Guy Fawkes plot to destroy the English Parliament. The novel chronicles actual and fictionalized events: Emilia's early education at Court, her sexual relationships, marriage, and children; her Jewish heritage; her friendships with various women; and her love of writing.
Memorable characters and well-wrought language provide the weft of this lush tapestry. The men in Emilia's life are a mixed lot. Lord Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth's cousin, initially escorts Emilia from her mother to Court and later becomes her lover. Married and thirty-five years her senior, he treats her with respect, though his family despises her. Emilia comes to love Will Shakespeare, who encourages her to explore London disguised as a young man and nourishes her passion for literature. But he too is married and, pregnant by either Hunsdon or Will, she marries her lackluster younger cousin. However, the most destructive man in her life, a doctor, addicts her to drugs.
Most of the women Emilia knows have a positive impact: her mother, her beloved teacher Lady Suzan, her faithful maid Jenny, and Lady Cumberland, who helps Emilia break free from her addiction and encourages her to write. Mary (Moll) Frith, a cross-dressing lesbian, helps her remove the malignant doctor permanently from her life, and Queen Elizabeth serves as a positive role model.
Ball's vivid descriptions and figures of speech make this story come to life. Queen Elizabeth has chalk-white skin with bright-red cheeks, bare breasts, and loves for her partner to "swing her high" when she dances the volta. Before Emilia leaves her mother, she feels her mother's corset, "hard under the thick wools of her dress." Her mother's shoulder is "warm and soft, curving and encircling." She hears her "mother's pulse beat in her neck" and smells her hair: "lavender, rosemary," and something uniquely her mother. Hunsdon is "A royal bear," his eyes dark "under bushy brows," with "a gentle, rumbling voice." In contrast, Hunsdon's disapproving son later turns "like a figure on a clock" after he rebukes her.
Some of Ball's most memorable symbols occur at the end of a scene or a chapter, such as after Emilia begins to realize she is falling for Will Shakespeare. She goes to the window, raises the curtain, and in "the ice-encrusted garden," an icicle falls, shattering. In contrast, when their relationship ends, she dreams of "dead rosebushes lying uprooted, leaves and petals scattered."
Ball's elaborate verbal tapestry consists of muted colors, silk and even gold threads shining from its woolen base. She makes the Elizabethan age seem alive, its people's fears of war, plague, and strangers as familiar to us as their modes of attire and food are foreign. Dark Lady, an inspiring story of one woman's arduous journey to self-fulfillment, is well worth the read.
by Shelley Thrasher
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
Her family were the court musicians for Queen Elizabeth and that gave them access to Court but the family was not wealthy. Emilia’s father died young and left her to care for her ailing mother. There were issues as to whether her dowry was still there for her or not but that became moot when she was purported raped and her value as a wife was all but destroyed (’cause you know it must have been her fault and all.) She then became the mistress of the Queen’s cousin and this allowed her to support herself and her mother – until she become pregnant. This created a whole new level of problems that forced her into a marriage with her cousin.
Emelia was always a curious woman, looking to read as much as she could. She was also a talented musician in her own right. It was supposedly through her family connections that she encountered Shakespeare. As to the true nature of their relationship – that is the basis of this fictional tale. I will note that Master Shakespeare does not come off smelling like a rose by any name. He rather comes off like a rat fink.
I will admit that at times the tale wore on me for the stupidity of some of the actions of a “woman in love.” Emilia seemed at times too much a leaf in the wind, unable to do a thing to help herself. Perhaps that was the way of the times, perhaps it was too many shifts in the wind without the slightest twist from the leaf. I don’t know. Overall though it was an interesting – and far different – look at the life of a woman who did do something no other woman had done before her. It was a feat that should be honored and remembered for too many of these bits of women’s history are lost to time.
I received a free copy for my honest review