Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly

Aemilia Bassano was born in 1569, the illegitimate child of a musician in the court of Queen Elizabeth. She was raised – and educated – in the household of the Countess of Kent. When she grew up she became part of the Queen’s household, and the mistress of Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain. Aemila kept those positions for many years, but she lost them when she fell pregnant; she was cast off and married off – to the lowliest of court musicians. He – Alfonso Lanyer- was quick to spend the dowry that his bride brought him, and within a year the couple were poor and struggling ….

…. and yet – somehow –  Aemilia Lanyer became the first woman have a volume of poetry published ….

But surely Adam can not be excused,
Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame;
What Weakness offered, Strength might have refused,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpent’s craft had her abused,
God’s holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Who being framed by God’s eternal hand,
The perfectest man that ever breathed on earth;
And from God’s mouth received that straight command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having power to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple won to loose that breath
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

(From ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’ by Amelia Lanyer)

Such a woman, such a life …. and such a gift to a historical novelist.

Sally O’Reilly has spun a story around the known facts of Aemilia’s life wonderfully well. And she adds in a hypothesis of her own which, though unlikely, she makes so very believable. What if Aemelia was the ‘Dark Lady’ of William Shakespeare’s sonnets ….?

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The sixteenth century lives and breather from the first word, with a wealth of details and such colour in the rich, lush prose. The Elizabeth’s court is painted with such bright colours, and I was utterly captivated, but it was when the story moved to the dark and dirty streets, and the gaudy world of the theatre, that the story took flight.

It was easy to see that Aemilia’s beauty, charm, wit and intelligence made her a favourite at court – and a particular favourite of the Queen; and it was equally easy to see that in a male dominated society, with little limited means to determine her own fate, even those qualities would not make her life secure.

It was Aemelia herself who pulled me through the story. She was fascinating, she was infuriating, and she was a real, fallible woman who was prepared to fight for the things she wanted. And most of all she fought for the son she loved so dearly.

That took her to some very dark places – and at time it veered dangerously close to melodrama, but the stark reality of Aemilia’s situation and the choices she had to make, and the cleverness of the plotting, saved it.

And that brings me to William Shakespeare. Sally O’Reilly painted his character so well, giving him the intelligence and wit he needed to write as he did, the charm to court Aemilia, and also making him vulnerable and fallible. The doubts about whether he wrote all of the work attributed to him are used very cleverly in the plot, and there’s a very nice explanation of the matter of the ‘second best bed’.

The portrayal of the dying Elizabeth I is very done too, balancing queenly regality and human vulnerability; and though I doubted that she would have summoned Aemilia, who had been assent from court for some years to her side, I was captivated by their dialogue and by the vivid storytelling.

The twists and turns of the plot – many of then so very clever – held me from start to finish.

There are one or two liberties taken – and a few times when the story was a little darker, a little more explicit than it needed to be. But in the end that didn’t matter.

I was pulled right into Elizabethan England.

I met a fascinating woman.  I am so, so pleased that we met.

And I do believe that she might have inspired a poet ….

“Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madman’s are
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night”

(William Shakespeare – sonnet 147)

4 responses

  1. O’Reilly isn’t the first person to suggest Lanyer as the Dark Lady, although there have been several other suggestions made by those academics who study these things. Because this touches on one of my research areas I tend to steer clear of fictionalised versions of the period but this sounds as though it was a really good read and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. I have a copy of this book but haven’t had a chance to start it yet, so I’m pleased to hear you’ve enjoyed it. I love reading about Elizabethan England and I’m looking forward to meeting Aemilia!

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