Book Review: The Dark Lady's Mask by Mary Sharratt
Author: Mary Sharratt
First line: The hunger to know her destiny enflamed Aemilia's heart, driving her to Billingsgate on a scorching afternoon.
Review: Aemilia Lanier is credited as one of the first Englishwomen to publish their poetry with the intention of profit.
The daughter of one of Queen Elizabeth's Italian court musicians, Aemilia received a fabulously deep education at the hands of two noblewomen, becoming well-versed in Greek and Latin, as well as other contemporary languages. Through her wit and beauty, she becomes mistress to Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain before an accidental pregnancy sends her into a miserable arranged marriage.
Happiness, an escape from her life, and a moderate income are found, however, in her collaboration with a poet, William Shakespeare. From friends, to lovers, to seeming enemies, their words bind them together, and both find inspiration in their failed loved affair -- yet Shakespeare, as a man, has far more opportunities to profit from his bitterness, and Aemilia yearns to both set the record straight and earn her own income.
I delighted in this novel from the first page. I confess I had intended to read this book with an eye toward craft, hoping to learn, but instead got lost every single time I opened it up. The word that keeps coming to me is "effortless", from the articulation of setting and era, the small details that make a scene blaze brightly, to the captivating way time passes without being obvious or distracting. And of course, the characters.
Her characters have depth and nuance, and as soon as I decided I could safely hate someone, Sharratt managed to make me feel sympathy and fondness for them. Aemilia anchors the story, a smart and creative woman who wants what so many of us want -- satisfaction in life and vocation -- and she faces the challenges of her life with admirable determination (and not a tiny bit of shocking, but delicious, ambition!). (And speaking of shocking, I looooved Sharratt's articulation of Shakespeare in this book. I'm not a fan of Shakespeare-as-a-love-interest but she sold me on this arc one million percent.) When there are so many "strong" female heroines who are depicted in rather flat ways, I found Sharratt's Aemilia -- and her friends -- to be truly strong and admirable. (And at risk of going on way too long, how much do I love that Sharratt included, and lingered on, Aemilia's wonderful friendships with other women?! I j'adore.)
In addition to the fabulous writing, I was especially delighted by Sharratt's imaginative exploration of what-if: what if some of Shakespeare's most beloved plays were co-written by someone? What if his most scathing, bitter, and unfortunate plot twists, characters, and sonnets were the result of real life insult and injury? What if his constant use of Italian locale in his works wasn't just an attempt at fashion, but the influence of a real life sojourn there? Her answers to these questions feel so real and possible, I'm letting myself imagine a world in which they happened!
I could go on and on, clearly. (And I did: have you seen the chapter dropcaps? So much detail in this book!) Bottom line: this is a marvelous read -- intense and fun in equal part -- and one of my top reads for 2016. So grateful for and appreciative of Sharratt bringing this intriguing figure to life in such a compelling, gripping way.
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 16th Century / 17th Century / Aemilia Lanier / Historical Fiction Fictionalized / Poets / Shakespeare / Love Affair / Patronage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (4/19/2016)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
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I'm thrilled to offer a paperback copy of The Dark Lady's Mask to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only; giveaway closes 9/5. See additional rules on my Giveaway page.