Book Tour Review: The Dark Lady's Mask by Mary Sharratt

Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Title: The Dark Lady's Mask
Author: Mary Sharratt
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 416
Published: April 2016
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 4/5

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.

The second historical fiction invention of Mary Sharratt's that I have read and The Dark Lady's Mask was the well-crafted, detailed, obviously researched, and creative novel I had anticipated. It's an evocative read that cleverly explores the known history of the historical figures and events shown combined with innovative and plausible storylines to connect the dots. Aemilia Bassano Lanier is often viewed through the lens of who or what role she played in William Shakespeare's life or plays, but The Dark Lady's Mask is concerned with far more than that one period and delves deeper into this remarkable woman's long and tumultuous life. Lanier was a woman who aimed high and accomplished much, but this proto-feminist faced her fair share of struggles along the way. 

No matter your thoughts on the true authorial mind behind Shakespeare's plays -- that he wrote them all alone, that he was an amalgam pen name for a group of writers, or that he had single collaborator, etc. etc.-- Mary Sharratt sells this version of the past with Aemilia as his equal partner, inspiration in writing, and as his lover. Together, as friends, lovers or enemies,  they have undeniable spark and chemistry; their banter is full of bon mots and quips that end up in his comedies and tragedies. Sharratt makes Aemilia breathe and feel like the obvious inspirations for not only the Dark Muse of Shakespeare's sonnets, but also for parts of Ophelia, and Emilia, and Desdemona. Their artistic collaboration brings out the best and the worst in both characters at times over its lifelong course, but it definitely makes for fascinating and believable reading through its many stages. 

In truth, though he looms large over her legacy, Will's influence is a small part of Aemilia's life or development as a person and as a writer. Far more than the men in her life, Aemilia was a woman who was impacted and helped by fellow women. These are the relationships that anchored her when abandoned by both of children's fathers or married to a drunken sot; these are the people that stayed true -- from Susan Bertie when she was a child to Olivia Bassano as young mother to the Weir sisters for decades, and to Margaret and Anne Clifford when she most needed a refuge. Aemilia was a woman who had success directly because of the effect of the other women in her life. She was an open-minded, free-willed, cross-dressing minor noblewoman who lived her own terms and fought for her own happiness and success... but she didn't do alone as the author is careful to show. These characters are rather lesser well-known but still compelling;  Sharratt makes them shine in their limited roles and appearances and in their impact on Aemilia's story.

Aemilia Bassano Lanier's life and times makes for good reading because it was an unpredictable and because it is well rendered and retold here. Her true self was one she always had to hide from someone in her life, be it one facet (religion, pregnancy, nationality, lovers, cross-dressing, and more!) or another. She had many highs in her seventy-five years - personal, professional, big and small - but Sharratt doesn't shy from showcasing the numerous woes that plagued her from a young age into adulthood. The research that went into creating The Dark Lady's Mask is evident; the details both large and small build atmosphere and interest. Mary Sharratt is a talented historical fiction writer with the ability to spin new life into known tales and history. The small liberties taken with timelines and names don't matter, especially because this story is hard to resist.

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