Once again, Mary Sharratt captivates readers with a compelling tale of an extraordinary woman carving a place for herself in a man's world. THE DARK LADY'S MASK (available in paperback April 11) fictionalizes the life of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first Englishwoman to claim the title of professional poet. Lanier was also, according to many scholars, the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. Sharratt's Aemilia is, however, no mute object of the male poet's desire, but a full-fledged collaborator in the writing of his comedies. In fact, it is Aemilia's education, talent, and connections that secure Shakespeare the break that leads him to fame and literary immortality, even as he serves as her "mask," the cover conventions of the time require her to adopt in order to shepherd her work to stage without scandal.
Masks are a constant theme in this novel of self-discovery. Aemilia's relationship with Shakespeare, important as it is, occupies only half the book's pages. The novel's early sections dramatize Aemilia's childhood, the revelation of her Jewish roots, her humanist education, and her years at court as mistress to one of England's most powerful noblemen. Once she meets Shakespeare and begins writing in earnest, Aemilia realizes that she has only ever been "a mask with nothing behind it. An empty shell. A player in a tragicomedy uttering lines written by someone else." Her creative collaboration with Shakespeare moves her ever closer to her core, but inconvenient facts about her personal situation, her family background, and her gender still require disguise. It is only in the last quarter of the book, after her relationship with Shakespeare ends and she takes refuge in the company of learned women, that Aemelia discards her masks and reveals to the world her true self.
That self is, despite years of cross-dressing in search of freedom, wholly and unapologetically female. The theme of sisterhood, a favorite of Sharratt's, finds full expression in this novel. No matter their station, the female characters all suffer at the hands of men, and only by banding together in friendship do they overcome their oppression. It is through the affection and support of like-minded women that Aemilia achieves her dream of publication, and she uses that dream to advance women's cause. Spurred by the advice she received as a child from the humanist Anne Locke--"Remember this, my dear, you must cherish your own sex"--and by the experience of deep female friendships, Aemilia pens a poetic apology in defense of women, a proto-feminist religious poem that establishes her place in the cannon of English letters.
Drawing on her meticulous research, keen psychological insight, and deep familiarity with Shakespearean drama, Sharratt crafts an immensely readable and deeply satisfying portrait of an early modern woman who challenged boundaries and expanded the spectrum of acceptable female roles. Ironically, in Sharratt's hands Shakespeare continues to serve as Aemilia's mask--the Shakespearean angle of the story not only broadens the novel's appeal but provides some of its cleverest and most moving pages. Yet Sharratt never makes Aemilia's success dependent on her involvement with the Bard; Aemilia succeeds in spite of it. In its imaginative and emotionally convincing interweaving of the two poets' lives, THE DARK LADY'S MASK serves as an exquisite tribute to Aemilia Bassano Lanier and her courageous contribution to the world of letters.
To celebrate the publication of the paperback edition of THE DARK LADY'S MASK, available April 11, 2017, the author has generously offered to send a free copy to one lucky reader of this review. To enter the random drawing, please comment below with the title of your favorite Shakespearean play by eleven pm PST Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Winner will be announced Friday, April 21, 2017. US residents only. Good luck!