Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly

Dark Aemilia Dark Aemilia is a fictional account of the life of Aemilia Lanyer, one of several women whose names have been suggested as possible candidates for the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She was also one of the first women in England to have a book of poetry published.

Born Aemilia Bassano, the illegitimate daughter of a Venetian musician at the court of Elizabeth I, Aemilia becomes the mistress of the much older nobleman Lord Hunsdon. When she discovers that she is pregnant, she is forced to leave court and is married off to another court musician, Alfonso Lanyer. However, the father of her child (according to Sally O’Reilly) is probably not Hunsdon, but a young playwright by the name of William Shakespeare.

Aemilia first meets Shakespeare at a performance of The Taming of the Shrew where she confronts him over his negative portrayal of women in the play. Not the best of starts to their relationship, but a brief affair follows – despite the fact that Shakespeare is already married. Aemilia finds a kindred spirit in William, a man who shares her love of poetry, literature and the theatre, before their affair comes to an end after a misunderstanding. Aemilia resigns herself to life away from court with Alfonso Lanyer and her beloved baby boy, Henry, but she is reunited with Shakespeare during an outbreak of plague in London. And when Henry becomes seriously ill, Aemilia is prepared to do anything to save his life.

My feelings about Dark Aemilia are very mixed. I would like to be able to say that I loved it, but that wouldn’t be true; in fact I came very close to abandoning it several times during the first half of the book. I felt that I was reading about nothing but Aemilia’s love affairs and at the risk of sounding like a prude, I thought the language was unnecessarily vulgar. I don’t always have a problem with that sort of thing, but in this case I didn’t feel that it was adding anything to the story. I kept reading, though, and somewhere in the middle of the book I found that I was finally being drawn in. The language remained bold and lively (and appropriate to the Elizabethan setting) but not as explicit as it was earlier on in the novel and the plot moved away from Aemilia’s love life to focus on other storylines.

As Sally O’Reilly states in her author’s note, the real Aemilia would not have been a feminist in the modern sense of the word, but her surviving poetry (such as the poem Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women) shows that she felt strongly about the roles of men and women. The fictional Aemilia speaks up on behalf of the female sex whenever she can, challenging the views of the men around her. As an intelligent and talented woman, she doesn’t have the opportunities that would have been open to her if she had lived today and she finds it very difficult to gain any recognition for her work. This leads to an interesting interpretation of the question of who actually wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare – there’s no evidence that Aemilia had any involvement in them, but Sally O’Reilly’s theories work in the context of this novel.

Aemilia is a fascinating character and I was left wanting to know more about the real woman. William Shakespeare, though, is not really shown in a very good light and the portrayal of his romance with Aemilia didn’t feel completely convincing to me. They didn’t actually have many scenes together and when they did meet I didn’t sense much love or passion between the two of them – not until very near the end. There were other characters in the book who interested me more than Shakespeare did; I was particularly intrigued by Simon Forman, the astrologer who was said to have cured himself of the plague. And this is where I need to mention another aspect of Dark Aemilia: black magic and the occult. I won’t spoil the story by telling you exactly how this is woven into the plot, but I think this will be something you’ll either love or hate!

While I did have my problems with Dark Aemilia, in the end my lasting impression of the book is of the wonderfully vivid portrayal of Elizabethan England. The writing is very atmospheric and there are some great descriptions of dark, dirty streets, crowded marketplaces, the sights and sounds of the Globe Theatre, the frozen River Thames in winter and a London ravaged by plague. I’m pleased I perservered and followed Aemilia’s story through to the end and I would happily read more books by Sally O’Reilly.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.

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7 thoughts on “Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly”

  1. I’m glad to know more about this book; it keeps coming up on Good Reads and I’ve been wondering about it’s plot and how well it’s written. Thanks for your candor. I’m not sure this is the book for me.

    1. In the end I think this book had more good points than bad, but it did take me a long time to really get into it and I could have done without all the explicit love scenes.

  2. I’m afraid I lose patience with novelists who try to fill in the background on Shakespeare. The plays are all we need. I’m glad Simon Foreman got a good word though. I’ve been reading some of his ‘scrap-book’ this summer while I was teaching ‘Cymbeline’ and theatre scholars owe him a lot because he left us first hand reports of some of the plays he saw.

    1. I can understand why you wouldn’t have much patience with fiction based on Shakespeare when you’ve spent so much time studying and teaching the plays. I have to admit I know very little about Simon Foreman, but I’m sure the scrapbook must be fascinating!

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