Excerpt from Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Dark Aemilia

A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady

by Sally O'Reilly

Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly X
Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly
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  • First Published:
    May 2014, 448 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2015, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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He makes his Katherine bold, only to call her 'Kate' and starve her of both food and her right name. 'What, did he marry me to famish me?' she asks, and I see that it is so. A beggar is better treated than a scolding wife. If a woman is wise, she knows when to speak out and when she must be silent. Even the Queen herself plays a careful game, hiding behind paint and posture. Me? I am never quiet enough.

There is a rustling all around me as courtiers shift and make way. The consort divides like the Red Sea, and one of their number, my pretty cousin Alfonso Lanyer, drops his recorder. He catches my eye and winks at me, and I pretend not to see him. Alfonso is distinguished not by his playing but by two bad habits: womanising and losing money at dice.

The cause of the commotion is the arrival of my lover, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, a man whose very tread makes all around take notice. Upright and soldierly, as this was his profession for many years. He does not suffer fools; he does not suffer anyone. Excepting only the Queen (who is his cousin) and me. He is forty years older than I am, so some may think we are like May and December in the old stories. Yet we were lovemaking this afternoon. Afterwards, he washed and clothed me with his own hands in the fine new dress I am wearing now. The farthingale is even wider than I am used to, so it seems I have a whole chamber swinging round my hips. The skirts are Bruges satin, of popinjay blue, and the sleeves are tinselled silk, stitched with narrow snakes of silver. As a final gift, he coiled my hair into a caul of sapphires. When I looked in the mirror, my reflection was so perfect that it made me afraid. I, who am not afraid of anything.

I kiss him when he sits beside me.

'God's blood, this is a rum play, by the looks of it,' he whispers. 'What's it all about? Can't he find a better jade to please him?'

I put my fingers to my lips. 'She won't obey him, sir,' I mutter into his ear. 'He is hooked in by her haughty ways, and then sets out to punish her.'

'What nonsense,' says Hunsdon, rather loudly. 'A man must choose a woman that suits his fancy, not seek to change some baggage that does not. Fellow must be a barking fool.'

'Hush, my lord,' I say. There is laughter and I cuff him lightly on the shoulder. He seizes my hand and holds it in both his own.

But then I am caught by Katherine's voice.

'Such duty as the subject owes the prince,

Even such a woman oweth to her husband,

And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour…'

She speaks the words of a woman beaten, or pretending to be beaten, which is much the same.

'And not obedient to his honest will,

What is she but a foul contending rebel,

And graceless traitor to a loving lord?'

'I have another gift for you,' whispers Hunsdon, pulling me closer. 'A waistcoat of quilted silver sarsanet.' For a soldier, he has a cunning eye for fashion.

'My lord! Another present?'

'I will give it to you when you come to my rooms. Tonight?'

'If you like.'

He squeezes my hand.

*   *   *

After the play is finished and Kate is crushed and made the most obedient of wives, there is much clapping and cheering. The Queen raises her hand. She is smiling, but her eyes are cold.

'We want to see the playwright!' she commands. 'Where is he? Let him step forward!'

He comes from behind a pillar, slightly hesitant. 'Your Majesty,' he says, with an actor's bow. He is tall, lean and watchful, with deep-set eyes. And artful in his dress, with gold earrings and fine gloves.

She regards him for a moment, her smile in place. 'A bawdy tale, more fit for a country inn than for a monarch and her great Court, would you not say?'

Excerpted from Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly. Copyright © 2014 by Sally O'Reilly. Excerpted by permission of Picador. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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