Monday, October 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Dark Lady. A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer by Charlene Ball

I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. And then, I lost the book! I turned my house upside down looking in all the places I usually stash books, and couldn’t find it anywhere. It was one I really wanted to read, so I bought it. I’m glad I did.

Dark Lady. A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer by Charlene Ball is the story of a woman at the very fringes of Queen Elizabeth’s court who became the first, or one of the first, professional female poets in England.

Emilia’s position was always precarious. The daughter of a court musician, she was an exceptionally skilled musician herself. Her father died when she was seven, and her mother made the difficult choice to send her to be fostered at the home of a countess who had very liberal views on female education. Emilia learned Latin as well as court skills. A beautiful girl, she attracted attention but generally of the unwanted kind, since her rank was too low to interest any young lords in marriage. The early part of the book glides quickly over her early years setting up what is to come.

Eventually, Emilia’s patron remarries and she is cast back upon her family: her mother, dying of consumption, and a host of cousins, particularly the concerned, motherly Lucrezia, who explains to Emilia that she comes from a family of converted Jews, some more converted than others.

Emilia has another supporter as well. The generous-hearted (and significantly older) Lord Hunsdon, Henry Carey, the cousin of the queen, has known her since she was a child. He watched her grow up, continued to treat her kindly after she is essentially abandoned by her other court friends, and sends aid and a well-respected physician to her home to treat her mother. Emilia’s fondness for him grows and she agrees to become his mistress, after seeking counsel from Lucrezia. With his backing, she returns to court where she is accepted by many and shunned by others. The female intelligentsia of the court are particularly welcoming.

As time passes, Hunsdon, who is one of the queen’s top military leaders, must spend significant time away from London. Plus, he is aging. Emilia enjoys a great degree of independence because her status as his mistress is known. She meets William Shakespeare and is attracted to his intelligence, charm, and good looks. His flirtation excites her adventurous spirit. She becomes Shakespeare’s lover as well.

Emilia is a strong-willed, passionate woman, who fights for her right to be taken seriously despite her gender. She makes some bad decisions, but has a forgiving nature and generally manages to smooth troubled waters with graciousness.

Emilia is a bold, fascinating character and this novel does a lovely job imagining her story.