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On the Trail of Shakespeare’s Hidden Partner

By Nancy Bilyeau

dark ladyMary Sharratt’s talent for creating richly imagined worlds of the past, in novels such as Vanishing Point, Daughters of the Witching Hill and Illuminations, has won her multiple literary awards. In her new book, she brings to life a little-known woman of Elizabethan England named Aemilia Bassano Lanier, who was the first professional woman poet. As the world celebrates Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death, THE DARK LADY’S MASK takes readers on a suspenseful journey that asks: Was this woman his secret lover and collaborator?

What drew you to the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanier?

Aemilia Bassano Lanier (also spelled Lanyer) was the first professional woman writer in England. She was such a strong woman and her life was so filled with drama, suspense, tragedy, and triumph that she completely swept me away.

Born in 1569, she was the 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, Aemilia was fostered by Susan Bertie, a high-minded aristocrat who gave her the kind of humanist education generally reserved for boys in that era.

Later young Aemilia Bassano 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.

In England at that time, the only literary genre considered acceptable for women to write was Protestant religious verse. Lanier turned this tradition on its head. Her epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), published in 1611, is nothing less than a vindication of the rights of women couched in religious verse. Dedicated and addressed exclusively to women, Salve Deus lays claim to women’s God-given call to rise up against male arrogance, just as the strong women in the Old Testament rose up against their oppressors.

What I’ve stated above are the documented facts about her life. The theory that she may also have been the mysterious Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets only adds to her mystique.

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 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.

Why do you think so few people know about her?

Lanier’s audience of educated women who could afford to buy books was small and select. In an era when books were expensive luxury items and when literacy was not the norm, Lanier’s poetry could simply not attract the same mass audience as Shakespeare’s plays.

The theatre was cheap, popular entertainment—admission to stand in the courtyard with the other groundlings was only a penny. And even the illiterate could enjoy a good play.

Sadly, Lanier and her work vanished into obscurity. She was only rediscovered in the late 20th century.

What do you think of the raging controversy over Shakespeare’s identity as the true playwright?

I absolutely believe that Shakespeare wrote the work attributed to him and I don’t embrace any of the anti-Stratfordian theories stating otherwise.

And yet there are so many tantalizing coincidences that appear to link Aemilia Bassano Lanier’s story to Shakespeare’s—it was impossible for me not to explore them in my fiction.

Shakespearean scholars acknowledge that some of Shakespeare’s plays were collaborations with other playwrights and that Shakespeare’s plays were altered over time. Some earlier versions of his plays originally published in quarto form underwent significant revision before they were published in the First Folio of 1623. What if Shakespeare worked with a collaborator on some of his early comedies? And what if that collaborator was a woman, his lover and muse?

If Lanier and Shakespeare were indeed lovers, would this explain how Shakespeare made the leap from his history plays to his Italian 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.

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 tactic 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 Illuminations and Daughters of the Witching Hill, you created authentic worlds that are detailed and alive. How difficult is it for you to “world build”? How would you advise beginning writers to do so? 

L.P. Hartley said it best: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

When writing a historical novel, I do my utmost to truly inhabit that other “country,” to immerse myself in its worldview.

When writing Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, I listened over and over again to Hildegard’s music. I also made a special research trip to visit all the sites associated with Hildegard around Bingen on the Rhine.

With Daughters of the Witching Hill, it was a bit easier, because the searing story of the Pendle Witches took place almost literally in my backyard. I inhabit the same landscape as these women did. The ancestral memory in the land still whispers back the words of Mother Demdike, the cunning woman and healer accused of being the ringleader of the other so-called witches. I realized I had to write her story first person, in the local Lancashire dialect, something I found quite intimidating as an American expat. But once I surrendered the voice of the story to Mother Demdike, the pages just flowed and flowed. I felt I wasn’t making it up, just listening to her tell me her tale.

For beginning writers, I would advise trying to live inside your research as much as you can. It’s not just about reading books to research the dry facts. It’s about visiting historic locations and soaking up the vibes—or traveling there in your mind if you can’t afford the plane ticket. Have fun with it. Listen to the music of that era, learn its dances, recite its poetry, watch its plays. Even try wearing the kind of clothes your character wore. My one attempt to eat while wearing a wimple gave me so much insight into the strictures Benedictine nuns faced. If you keep immersing yourself in your characters’ day-to-day experience, the voice of your story will rise by itself.

This novel is very suspenseful. How do you infuse a story of people who actually lived with suspense?

First of all, thank you! It’s a wonderful compliment to hear from the editor of ITW!

There’s so much about William Shakespeare’s life that we just don’t know—his enigmatic “lost years,” etc. Though the greatest corpus of literature in the English language has his name on it, the documented facts about Shakespeare as a man are so sparse. Some of we do know about him seems so riddling. In his will, why doesn’t he mention any books or papers? What happened to his unpublished manuscripts after he died? These gaps and omissions naturally lend themselves to suspense and speculation.

The same goes with Aemilia Bassano Lanier. Her life feels so rife with contradiction. The daughter of a secret Jew, she founded her literary reputation by writing about the passion of Christ. She was educated by Susan Bertie, a devout Protestant, and yet instead of marrying respectably and living a life considered “virtuous,” young Aemilia plunged herself into a long, heady affair with Henry Carey, a man more than twice her age. Then, after years of unhappy marriage, poverty, and decline, how did she find the inspiration, in midlife, to become such a ground-breaking poet?

Trying to connect the disparate threads of her life and to weave them together with Shakespeare’s created the tension and suspense.

Would you define this book as a “historical thriller”? If so, what do you think of that genre—are most of the books more historical novel or thriller?

I certainly hope readers will embraceTHE DARK LADY’S MASK as a historical thriller. Unless a book has suspense and mystery, something to keep us turning the pages, why read it? There has to be something that pulls us in and draws us breathlessly along. Otherwise a novel would seem too self-indulgent. A book should be thrilling on all levels.

I hope that all my novels are historical and thrilling in equal measure. My intention is to bring the past to life in as visceral a way as possible, and to take my readers on a dramatic and passionate magic carpet ride. I certainly aim to provide the full package.

You use fairy tale archetypes to inspire ideas. How did you discover their power?

My first brush with authentic, uncensored fairy tales took place over twenty years ago when I was teaching English to Japanese children in Munich, Germany.

Intending to stock up on children’s literature, I discovered a whole section of the Munich City Library was devoted to fairy tales from different cultures. It contained literally thousands of volumes, some of them ornate and leather-bound, as beautiful to hold as they were to read. The tales held me in their thrall and would not let me go. They got under my skin and rooted themselves in my writing and my life.

The original fairy tales were not romantic children’s stories. In their unadulterated state, they’re raw and ominous. A thriller writer’s dream.

These old stories bristle with wild and sometimes terrifying women who possess amazing powers. The witches who inhabit the dark forest offer a stark and startling contrast to the innocent maiden protagonists.

What I find most fascinating about fairy tales is not the young girl’s encounter with the prince, but with the witch. Baba Yaga is a sorceress of intimidating dimensions. She eats human flesh and flies around in a cauldron. Her house dances on hen’s feet.

I believe that Baba Yaga is an ancient archetype of female sovereignty originating from an old, lost mythology. Ironically Baba Yaga lived on in fairy tales even after the old beliefs that honored her were banished, precisely because fairy tales have been dismissed as children’s stories. Fairy tales’ deep magic lies hidden in their deceptive simplicity.

The naive young girl must go into the woods on the darkest night to face Baba Yaga. Once the young heroine encounters the sorceress, she will be completely and utterly transformed–a girl no longer but a woman with secret powers of her own.

Fairy tales are full of images of women who challenge and empower other women. They give us back our superpowers!

How do you feel about the role of supernatural in the thriller?

The supernatural and historical fiction go hand in hand! Throughout most of human history, people of all social classes believed that magic was real.

Shakespeare’s play Macbeth had such terrifying impact because it’s the first depiction of a witches’ coven in English literature. The Weird Sisters appearing to work their magic on stage would have been absolutely hair-raising to the audience. Macbeth was written under the patronage of King James I, himself a notorious witchhunter. While still King of Scotland, before he ascended to the English throne, James personally persecuted the so-called Witches of North Berwick. His fanatical belief that a vast cabal of satanic witches was seeking to undermine Britain drove him to write Daemonologie, a witchhunter’s handbook.

As a reality check against King James’s paranoia of women convening in secret to work magic to tear down his monarchy, I present Aemilia’s servants, the three Weir sisters, who practice folk magic and herbal healing. The Weir sisters in THE DARK LADY’S MASK are my fictional invention, but later in the novel we meet Margaret Clifford, Aemilia’s real life friend and patron, who was, among other things, an alchemist.

In my mind, it would be the greatest anachronism for a historical novelist not to include the supernatural.

How much do you outline your novels ahead of time?

I always set out with the best intention to outline in an orderly fashion. But when my creative juices really start cooking, the outline gets shredded and my characters show me what the real story is.

What is the last film you enjoyed seeing?

I actually go out to see theatre plays more often than I go to the movies, but the last DVD I really loved was Song of the Sea, a beautiful animated Irish film about a lighthouse keeper’s mute daughter who turns out to be a selkie and can shapeshift into a seal. It’s a magical film in every way, delving deep into the shimmering Celtic otherworld of faeries and spirits.

Thank you for a fascinating interview!


mary sharrattMary Sharratt is an American writer who lives with her Belgian husband in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed 2010 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 most recent novel, 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 2005 WILLA Literary Award and a Minnesota Book Award Finalist, Mary has also written the acclaimed novels SUMMIT AVENUE (Coffee House 2000), THE REAL MINERVA (Houghton Mifflin 2004), THE VANISHING POINT (Houghton Mifflin 2006), and co-edited the subversive fiction anthology BITCH LIT (Crocus Books 2006), which celebrates female anti-heroes–strong women who break all the rules. Her short fiction has been published in TWIN CITIES NOIR (Akashic Books 2006).

Mary writes regular articles for Historical Novels Review and Solander on the theme of writing women back into history. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually riding her spirited Welsh mare through the Lancashire countryside.


Nancy Bilyeau
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