Dark Aemilia

Written by Sally O’Reilly
Review by Janet Williamson

Sally O’Reilly has presented a colourful, enthralling, erotic, magical and mysterious debut novel based on extensive historical research. She presents a fascinating woman in Aemilia Lanyer Bassano who, in 1592, enjoys a privileged position at the ageing Queen Elizabeth I’s Whitehall court as the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain.

Shimmering, beautiful, outspoken, impatient Aemilia is well-educated and highly intelligent and aspires to become a published poet, despite this being the preserve of males. When introduced to playwright William Shakespeare, neither of them can deny their feelings for each other. Forced to leave court when pregnant, she accepts an arranged marriage to a handsome court musician, Alfonso Bassano, and is housed near the court at Westminster, served by Joan Daunt, a skilled apothecary. Aware of her son Henry’s paternity, she ends her passionate affair with Shakespeare, who in the depression of betrayal writes and publishes his sonnets describing her as his Dark Lady.

Vengeful enemies use witchcraft against her, but she confounds them and emerges as a survivor. When plague threatens, she uses both orthodox and unorthodox methods to try to save her son’s life. A coincidental meeting with Shakespeare at the hour of her greatest need, and a brief meeting with the Queen after a ten-year interval had me questioning plausibility, but the author truly reveals insight into what Tudor life was like for Aemilia. The story contains realistic characters and is full of passion, and intriguing plot developments that enthral from start to finish. Historical notes, a chronology of background events, a glossary of terms, and short biographies of actual characters complete the book.

Aemilia’s story was so compelling I did not want it to end. It demands a sequel. Highly recommended.