If you were a female poet in Elizabethan England with the talent of William Shakespeare, what would it take for you to succeed?
Education, pluck, horsemanship, men’s breeches, and a cousin named Ben Johnson.
And even given all that, you still couldn’t publish under your own name.
Aemilia Bassano Lanier was Renaissance England’s most famous female poet you’ve never heard of. But Mary Sharratt’s latest novel puts an end to Lanier’s obscurity by fleshing out the theory, held by some Shakespeare scholars, that Lanier was not only the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets but also the co-author of some of his plays.
In “The Dark Lady’s Mask,” Sharratt transforms an academic debate about authorship into a tale bursting with the sounds and smells of Renaissance England, the political intrigues of the British royal court, and the appalling restrictions placed on people because of religion and gender. If all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players, then Sharratt reveals the people behind the masks in a novel that blends mystery, poetry, politics and prejudice. Atmospheric, well-researched, carefully plotted, this is an intellectual’s romance novel.
The illegitimate child of a Jew persecuted by both Italy’s Inquisition and England’s Protestants, Aemilia is an exotically dark woman who avoids destitution by running off with the future Lord Chamberlain. After she becomes pregnant, she is sent packing, but not before Lord Chamberlain arranges a marriage for her. Educated beyond her station, raising an illegitimate son with a man she does not love, Aemilia finds release by dressing as a man and riding about the countryside, much to the dismay of her three attendants, who concoct a potion to quench her restlessness.
Out and about incognito, Aemilia encounters a disheveled poet named Will. Much happens, all of it entertaining and complicated (as in a Shakespearean play). With the plague threatening and her husband away, Aemilia packs up her maids, her son and Will Shakespeare — despite his family back in Stratford — and sails to Italy.
Pale, Protestant England behind them, the characters enjoy an idyllic time in sensuous Verona where Aemilia runs a vineyard, marries Will (in an act of double bigamy), co-writes plays, and becomes pregnant. When Will’s son Hamnet dies back in England, the guilt-ridden playwright returns to England to write vengeful sonnets and unflattering characterizations that Aemilia assumes are about her. Returned to England herself, Aemilia raises her son, cares for her dying husband, tutors young women, writes her own poetry, and fights for her rights as co-author of Shakespeare’s plays.
Though the romance is at times clichéd (“Damn these weak tears”), the novel is full-bodied and intelligent, and, like Shakespeare’s plays, chock-full of equal parts mirth and pith to please all.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.