Paint is the fictionalized story of real-life Emilia Bassano Lanier, a member of the family of Elizabethan court musicians, the first Englishwoman to publish a book of poetry, and quite possibly the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Orphaned and painfully shy, Emilia artificially darkens her hair and skin with elaborate potions in order to assume an Italian persona, so that she might hide in the background at the queen’s court. She achieves the opposite, her dark, exotic beauty attracting the rich and influential, including the Lord Chamberlain and William Shakespeare. Repeatedly used and discarded by powerful men, Emilia must use her wits to carve out a life of her own.
Tiffany, a professor of Shakespearean and Renaissance literature, is clearly an expert on the times. She weaves Italian phrases and period details throughout the book, including a fascinating look at the cosmetics of the era. Emilia is portrayed as a savvy survivor, and yet remains one of her own worst enemies. Shakespeare, Raleigh, and others are portrayed unsympathetically, as men who only want to use her for their own ends. The real shame is that Emilia’s poetry is treated almost as an afterthought, mentioned only in passing until the last third of the novel, and only intermittently then. If you are looking for an overview of who Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” may have been, this is a good place to start, but a portrait of the woman as a writer remains elusive.