The Dark Lady’s Mask

Written by Mary Sharratt
Review by Kristen McQuinn

It is not often that I read a novel that makes me want to do actual research on a person – in a good way, not a fact-checking way – and then blog about it. But Sharratt’s latest novel did just that. It is a wonderful take on an often-speculated theory that Aemilia Lanier may have been the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

In Sharratt’s story, Aemilia Lanier, historically the first professional woman poet in England, is the daughter of a Marrano (a Jew who was forced to convert to Christianity). She is educated from the age of eight in the home of the Countess of Kent after her father’s death. From there, she becomes the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, bears his son, is banished from Elizabeth’s court in disgrace, and married off in haste to Alfonso Lanier to mitigate the scandal. She eventually flees to Italy with a relative, taking with her the up-and-coming poet William Shakespeare. Lanier initially proposes a business deal with him to co-write plays together, since she knows she couldn’t publish them under her own name. The two fall in love and add their passion to their writing. Things go awry, and ultimately Shakespeare ends up publishing his sonnets as attacks against Aemilia, and she replies by publishing her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.

Sharratt creates a believable and delightful portrayal of Lanier and her possible role as Shakespeare’s Dark Muse. Her characters are rich and complex, and the intricacies, joys, and pains of their lives are realistic. The speculation within the novel works extremely well, because Sharratt works with historical fact and academic theory in the space between the documented facts of Lanier’s life, Shakespeare’s life, and their written works. Very highly recommended!