Who was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets? Like so much of the Bard’s life (even his identity, depending on who you talk to), it’s a mystery. Sally O’Reilly used what historical evidence exists about Aemilia Lanyer, William Shakespeare, Simon Forman, and others to construct a shockingly bold tale in Dark Aemilia. In O’Reilly’s version of events, Lanyer is not only the Dark Lady, she’s also the model for all of Shakespeare’s heroines.
Aemilia Bassano, when we meet her, is the mistress of Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Henry Carey. He is much older than her, but they share a deep affection. Aemilia enjoys her place at court, though she chafes at the restrictions placed on her as a woman and as a mistress. When the Court attends a production of The Taming of the Shrew, Aemilia loses her considerable temper with the playwright. Like many women after her, she is enraged at the way Katherine is treated and portrayed in the play. Aemilia and Will’s relationship starts out as a battle of words and wits before evolving into a consuming passion.
The two have to meet in secret, for fear of ruining Aemilia’s already suspect reputation. When Aemilia becomes pregnant, Carey marries her off to a Court musician. Carey suggests that Lord Burghley might patronize her, but Aemilia is waylaid by a lord who fancies her. Will catches the two of them at the worst possible moment. He refuses to listen to her and the next she hears from him is in the form of a blistering series of sonnets.Within a year of her marriage, Aemilia’s dowry is spent. She tries to make money by publishing her own work, but no one will print her work. They tease her about her verse and ridicule her subjects. Every chance encounter with Will is agonizing and angry. Aemilia’s husband sells her house (built for her by Carey) and brings the spectre of their lecherous landlord into Aemilia’s life. Years pass. The only joy in Aemilia’s life is her son, Henry, who bears a striking resemblance to Will’s own son Hamnet. When the plague breaks out, O’Reilly’s story begins to take a strange turn.
All her life, Aemilia has been haunted by the appearance of three witches. They hint at a deal her father reneged on before he was murdered. They claim to be owed a soul. Aemilia does her best to keep her son safe, but the boy comes down with the disease. Almost out of her mind with grief and desperation, Aemilia tries to deal with Simon Forman, who claims to have cured himself of plague. Instead of giving her the cure, Forman gives her a grimoire and shows her the homunculus he grew in his cellar. In extremis, Aemilia summons the demon Lilith—though there is some doubt whether this really happened or she dreamed it. In exchange for a cure, Lilith has Aemilia write The Tragedie of Lady Macbeth.
Most of the action in this book, including some rather spectacular scenes of (possible) madness, is in the last third. Aemilia seeks revenge, but repents. She loses her confidante and protector to a mob. She almost loses her own life to witchhunters. She does become a writer, though not an Immortal like Shakespeare. Time passes and the book ends shortly after Aemilia is summoned to Stratford in April 1616. As I read the last chapters (or scenes, as O’Reilly calls them), I compared the taming of Aemilia to the taming of Katherine. In the end, Dark Aemilia is a revision to that old slight of a play.
I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 27 May 2014.