April 19, 2016
I’m excited to share the news of my friend Mary Sharratt’s new book with you. Her research on Hildegard of Bingen brought us together online in 2011, when she was kind enough to give me travel and research tips just as I was preparing for my own trip to Germany to see my longtime bestie and traveling companion, Brandi! (I’ve long desired to be a Hildegard-of-Bingen-Pilgrim!)
My longtime blog followers might also recall that Mary also made a guest appearance on my blog when her book Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard of Bingen was published.
And now she has written a compelling new book on Aemilia Lanier, an author who fascinated me last year in my “Women in Literature” class at Sierra College!
In honor of Mary’s new book, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, which has come out today, I have designed a custom scent called “The Dark Lady.” The ingredients have been taken directly from a Shakespearean-era aromatic recipe for a sweetbag (sachet) that has been magically transformed into a botanical perfume by yours truly. It will be the prize in a forthcoming contest Mary will have on Amazon, in keeping with her new book…
Follow her on social media, below, to stay tuned on the contest details!
And now — over to Mary!
Unmasking the Dark Lady
by Mary Sharratt
April 23, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with worldwide celebrations to mark his legacy. But what about the women?
My motto as a novelist is “writing women back into history.” I’ve long been frustrated by the fact that the average intelligent, literate person can’t name a woman writer before Jane Austen. The Dark Lady’s Mask is my love letter to literary pioneer Aemilia Bassano Lanier, England’s first professional woman writer. I want to draw her out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
I first discovered her when researching the lives of Renaissance women. The daughter of an Italian court musician who may have been a Marrano, or a secret Jew living under the guise of a Christian convert, Lanier was one of the most highly educated women of her era. She certainly had the talent and expertise to write plays or secular poetry. However in England at that time, the only genre considered acceptable for women was religious verse. Lanier’s female literary predecessors like Mary Sidney wrote poetic meditations on the Psalms.
But Lanier turned the tradition of women’s devotional writing 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.
The possibility that Lanier 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.
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.
I hope that The Dark Lady’s Mask can redress the balance and give Aemilia Bassano Lanier the accolades she deserves. Whether or not she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, she was certainly his literary peer.
Mary Sharratt’s novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, is released April 19 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For a chance to win a free copy, “like” Mary Sharratt’s author page on Facebook and leave a comment on any post there before June 21. Five winners will be announced on Midsummer’s Eve, 2016.
Mary Sharratt, author of
THE DARK LADY’S MASK: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2016
“An exquisite portrait of a Renaissance woman pursuing her artistic destiny in England and Italy.”
-Margaret George, internationally bestselling author of Elizabeth I