The Dark Lady's Mask: Book summary and reviews of The Dark Lady's Mask by Mary Sharratt

The Dark Lady's Mask

by Mary Sharratt

The Dark Lady's Mask by Mary Sharratt X
The Dark Lady's Mask by Mary Sharratt
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  • Published in USA  Apr 2016
    416 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Book Summary

A novel of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first professional woman poet in Renaissance England, and her collaboration - and star-crossed love affair - with William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in Love meets Shakespeare's Sister in this novel of England's first professional woman poet and her collaboration and love affair with William Shakespeare.

London, 1593. Aemilia Bassano Lanier is beautiful and accomplished, but her societal conformity ends there. She frequently cross-dresses to escape her loveless marriage and to gain freedoms only men enjoy, but a chance encounter with a ragged, little-known poet named Shakespeare changes everything.

Aemilia grabs at the chance to pursue her long-held dream of writing and the two outsiders strike up a literary bargain. They leave plague-ridden London for Italy, where they begin secretly writing comedies together and where Will falls in love with the beautiful country - and with Aemilia, his Dark Lady. Their Italian idyll, though, cannot last and their collaborative affair comes to a devastating end. Will gains fame and fortune for their plays back in London and years later publishes the sonnets mocking his former muse. Not one to stand by in humiliation, Aemilia takes up her own pen in her defense and in defense of all women. 

The Dark Lady's Mask gives voice to a real Renaissance woman in every sense of the word.

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Media Reviews

"The many challenges of life in Elizabethan England, particularly for women, are expertly captured by Sharratt, who heretofore has brought similar life to another gifted woman, Hildegard of Bingen (Illuminations, 2012). An ambitious fictional biography burdened by an overly intricate plot." - Kirkus

"Sharratt's (Shakespeare's Muse) latest is a well-constructed historical novel set in Elizabethan England about the Bard of Avon, adopting the premise that Shakespeare relied on a female collaborator." - Publishers Weekly

"In her latest novel (after Illuminations), Sharratt delivers an immersive narrative of doomed romance. Certain plot and character choices may annoy Shakespeare purists though. Readers of Philippa Gregory and the like are sure to enjoy." - Library Journal

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Reader Reviews

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Linda J. (Ballwin, MO)

An Interesting Blend of Fiction and Non-Fiction
When I first started "The Dark Lady's Mask," I had some mixed feelings about how this book would go. I liked author Mary Sharratt's descriptions of life in 17th century England and Italy, and Queen Elizabeth's court.

Then, the writing seemed to get a little melodramatic, especially when Aemilia Bassano kept referring to Lord Hunsdon as "my love."

By then, however, I was caught up in Aemilia's story and I started overlooking some of the, what I thought, overly dramatic prose.

Sharratt has written a compelling story about a little known Renaissance woman who may or may not have been William Shakespeare's muse or "Dark Lady."

Born the illegitimate child of Battista Bassano, an exiled Jew from Venice who was a musician in in Queen Elizabeth's Court, Aemilia would listen to her father and brothers play music in the basement when they would visit.

While the family was far from well-to-do, Bassano made an adequate living and loved his family dearly, especially Aemilia.

She dreamed of being a poet like her neighbor, Anne Locke, who spent much time with 8-year old Aemilia, reading to her and encouraging her to be educated and continue her musical abilities on the virginals and lute.

Life begins to change when Aemilia's sister marries a cad who goes through what money the Bassano's have, and when Baptiste dies, Aemilia goes with Anne to live with Locke's family at their elegant country home, Grimsthorpe.

There, under Anne's tutelage, Aemelia becomes a well-educated young woman, but her idyllic life comes to an abrupt end, and she becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth's cousin....

[Edited for potential plot spoilers]

I read the story of the real Aemilia Bassano Lanier, and was impressed by how Sharratt weaved the fiction and non-fiction together, although one could see how Aemilia was, indeed, Shakespeare's "Dark Lady."

The term "Dark" was a term used to describe anyone with dark features, usually of Moorish/Italian descent. Aemilia's black hair and dark eyes caused many to look at her as "black."

One could say that Sharratt's Aemilia did "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," in her life.

Linda V. (Independence, KY)

The power of persistance
Though not my favorite time period, I soon fell in love with The Dark Lady's Mask. The flow of the main character's struggles kept me coming back for more. Ms. Sharratt's writing is fluid,descriptive and seems historically accurate both in language and place. Her interwoven connection with Shakespeare and "his" plays was thought provoking as well. The historical afterword helped me savor the depth of her knowledge and research. This was a jewel of a book!

Mary B. (Laguna Woods, CA)

Shakespeare & Women in Elizabethan times
As historical fiction is my favorite, I enjoyed this book very much. It showed how difficult it was for intelligent women to use their brains. The heroine was a real person who self published her poems. She, and all women, were at the mercy of their husbands financially & psychologically. It also showed a personal side of Shakespeare.

Carol S. (Pawleys Island, SC)

Shakespeare's Muse
There's a period in Shakespeare's life that's a mystery. From 1585 until 1592, when he is an established playwright and actor, it's not known how or where he made a living or how he got started in the theater. This has lent much historical speculation and several novels that attempt to recreate his "story."

I find Mary Sharratt's solution to his whereabouts and life one of the most creative and best that I've read. Her extensive knowledge of the 'Bard of Avon' and her historical research has made Aemilia a fascinating collaborator and muse for Shakespeare.

Aemilia Bassano's own life as a woman during the Renaissance in itself was fascinating. The similarities of some characters in the novel to those of Shakespeare's plays made this novel filled with comedy and tragedy. I loved it!

Barbara G. (Lisle, IL)

Masks for Everyone
The Dark Lady's Mask presents a feminist answer to the ongoing question of who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. No one in this novel acts exactly as they are presumed or claim to be. Aemilia Bassano, a gifted free-spirited English woman who dreams of becoming a poet, discovers her father, despite his Italian surname, is actually Jewish. Aemilia herself often dresses and acts as a young man. Aristocrats take common women as their lovers and treat them as aristocrats. Those thought dead are revealed to be alive. Men marry their wives for their wealth, not for love. And in this novel Will Shakespeare, an impoverished poet, is not above rejecting Aemilia, his lover, wife and mother of one of his children, recasting their collaborative comedies as solely his own tragedies, thereby raising his own status and wealth. There are twists and turns galore in this tale written in its own poetic language to bring the times, places and people to life, making a plausible argument for yet another possible author of Shakespeare's works.

Florence K. (Northridge, CA)

Dark Lady's Mask
A fanciful romp of offbeat characters late in the sixteenth century makes the DARK LADY'S MASK a delightful read. Recounting the adventures and tribulations of Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, an educated female poet (!), a rarity in her time, gives us insights into the customs and mores of five hundred years ago in England and Italy.

Whether she was or wasn't the muse, the inspiration, the collaborator, the lover of the penniless poorly-educated writer from Stratford who became the renowned William Shakespeare -- does it really matter? Suffice it to say: suspend disbelief, savor and enjoy the book. I did.

...18 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Mary Sharratt Author Biography

Mary Sharratt's explorations into the hidden histories of Renaissance women compelled her to write her most recent work, The Dark Lady's Mask (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016), based on the dramatic life of the ground-breaking poet, Aemilia Bassano Lanier.

Born in Minnesota, Mary now lives with her Belgian husband in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers.

Previously she lived for twelve years in Germany. This, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write her award-winning Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen, which explores the dramatic life of the ...

... Full Biography
Author Interview
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Other books by Mary Sharratt at BookBrowse
  • Illuminations jacket
  • Daughters of the Witching Hill jacket
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