The Dark Lady’s Mask by Mary Sharratt an Intelligent Look at an Accomplished Woman and Shakespeare’s Muse

Today, I have a review of Mary Sharratt’s The Dark Lady’s Mask for her release day (April 19, 2016)! See what I thought and stay tuned tomorrow for an exclusive interview with Mary which will delve more into the story and the life of her protagonist, Aemilia.

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The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, by Mary Sharratt, is historical fiction which explores the influence and relationship of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, a woman who would become the first female to publish a book of poetry. Sharratt takes one of the proposed theories which states that Aemilia had a love affair with Shakespeare, helped write/or wrote his plays, and is the inspiration for his dark lady sonnets. Though not much is known on this proposal, and many ward off the theory, Sharratt embraces the possibility and writes a story as only she can hypothesize, while also illuminating Aemilia and her contributions to society.

Mary Sharratt is the type of author that writes with a gift. Her descriptions paint a scene and her characters are deeply dimensional, layered, and authentic. Once you start reading The Dark Lady’s Mask, the cultivated and elegant prose ebbs you smoothly along and absorbs you into the novel.

This is no romp romance novel. This is a highly intelligent look at the life of Aemilia from her childhood to womanhood, with all she had to overcome, with a part of that possibly being a relationship to Shakespeare. However, Sharratt doesn’t present it as a tryst for the sake of creating romance or drama. That would have done an injustice to Aemilia and I am pleased she didn’t take that route, but instead, focused more on their collaboration and their deep emotions for each other. Sharratt presents Aemilia as more his equal, his inspiration, and as the highly educated and strong woman that she seemed. Sharratt truly has accomplished writing Aemilia back into history in a most fervent manner, showcasing the efforts of women from a time when women still weren’t appreciated for their brains or artistic talents (even though Elizabeth I herself wrote poetry).

We see through Sharratt how the relationship with Aemilia and Shakespeare might have worked. Perhaps, with minds equally matched, they wrote them together, or she wrote them and used him as a mask (since women could not sell plays at the time), or he wrote some of them interspersing her into them as various characters. All of them seem plausible scenarios, but even though there isn’t proof to point at,  I adhere to there being some truth buried with his writings of their relationship. It just seems to make sense. I love the thought process that Sharratt has placed into the novel, weaving their tale and giving Aemilia a voice.

Our  main focus within this book is Aemilia, with a supporting role by Shakespeare and a few others. As a reader, I was perfectly content to have Aemilia take center stage. I enjoyed being able to tune into her and not be distracted by too many side stories or characters. From allowing us to view Aemilia’s beautiful mind and creative spirit to giving us a glimpse into her hardships, her emotions, her grief, and her strength, Sharratt does Aemilia’s memory service. I wholly enjoyed immersing myself into this novel, letting it percolate, and taking thoughtful pauses to ponder of Aemilia, her writing, and her relationship with Shakespeare, as well as to herself.

Sharratt has given us a lovely, refined, astute novel that is well-researched and yet seeped in emotion and lively in dialogue. Her writing grace is hard to match as she writes beautifully and with purpose. The Dark Lady’s Mask is a keepsake for my shelf of books of amazing women in history by amazing historical writers. Highly recommended for the book collector.

02_The Dark Lady%27s MaskThe Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse

by Mary Sharratt

Publication Date: April 19, 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, eBook, Audio Book; 416 Pages

Genre: Historical Fiction


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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Advanced Praise

“An exquisite portrait of a Renaissance woman pursuing her artistic destiny in England and Italy, who may — or may not — be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.”
— MARGARET GEORGE, internationally bestselling author of Elizabeth I

“Perfectly chosen details and masterful characterization bring to life this swiftly moving, elegant story. As atmospheric and compelling as it is wise, The Dark Lady’s Mask is a gem not to be missed.”
— LYNN CULLEN, bestselling author of Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End

“Mary Sharratt’s enchanting new novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask, is a richly imagined, intensely romantic and meticulously researched homage to lauded poet, Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, an accomplished woman of letters who many believe to be Shakespeare’s Eternal Muse. Sharratt unfolds a captivating tale, a compelling ‘what if ’ scenario, of a secret union that fed the creative fires of England’s greatest poet and playwright.”
— KATHLEEN KENT, bestselling author of The Heretic’s Daughter

“Mary Sharratt is a magician. This novel transports the reader to Elizabethan England with a tale of the bard and his love that is nothing short of amazing. Absorbing, emotional, historically fascinating. A work of marvelous ingenuity!”
— M.J. ROSE, New York Times bestselling author of The Witch of Painted Sorrows

“I enjoyed this exciting fantasy of Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady.’ There was adventure, betrayal, resilience, and above all, the fun notion that Shakespeare might have had far more than a muse to help him create his wonderful plays.”
—KARLEEN KOEN, bestselling author of Dark Angels and Before Versailles

“Through the story of Aemilia Bassano, a talented musician and poet, Mary Sharratt deftly tackles issues of religious and gender inequality in a time of brutal conformity. The Dark Lady’s Mask beautifully depicts the exhilaration and pitfalls of subterfuge, a gifted woman’s precarious reliance on the desires of powerful men, and the toll paid by unrecognized artistic collaborators. Resonant and moving.”
—MITCHELL JAMES KAPLAN, author of By Fire, By Water

“In The Dark Lady’s Mask, Mary Sharratt seduces us with a most tantalizing scenario —that the bold, cross-dressing poet and feminist writer Aemilia Bassano is Shakespeare’s mysterious muse, the Dark Lady. Romantic, heart-breaking, and rich in vivid historical detail and teeming Elizabethan life, the novel forms an elegant tapestry of the complexities, joys, and sorrows of being both a female and an artist.”
—KAREN ESSEX, author of Leonardo’s Swans and Dracula in Love

“Mary Sharratt has created an enchanting Elizabethan heroine, a musician, the orphaned daughter of a Jewish Italian refugee who must hide her heritage for her safety. Taken up by powerful men for her beauty, Amelia has wit and daring and poetry inside her that will make her a match for young Will Shakespeare himself and yet she must hide behind many masks to survive in a world where women have as much talent as men but little power.”
— STEPHANIE COWELL, author of Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

“Prepare to be swept away by Mary Sharratt’s latest foray into historical fiction. Inspired by the true story of poet, Aemilia Bassano, THE DARK LADY’S MASK explores her relationship with William Shakespeare. Richly detailed and well researched, this lush tale brings Aemilia out of the shadows of history and let’s her emerge as one of the founding mothers of literature. Drama, intrigue, and romance will have readers racing through this brilliant celebration of the muse.”
— PAMELA KLINGER-HORN, Sales & Outreach Coordinator, Excelsior Bay Books

Mary Sharratt, Biography

03_Mary SharrattMary 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 12th century Benedictine abbess, composer, polymath, and powerfrau.

Winner of the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award, the 2005 WILLA Literary Award, and a Minnesota Book Award Finalist, Mary has also written the novels SUMMIT AVENUETHE REAL MINERVATHE VANISHING POINT, and co-edited the subversive fiction anthology BITCH LIT, which celebrates female anti-heroes–strong women who break all the rules. Her short fiction has been published in Twin Cities Noir and elsewhere.

She is currently at work on ECSTASY: A NOVEL OF ALMA MAHLER, exploring the life of one of the most intriguing women of turn-of-the-century Vienna.

Mary’s articles and essays have appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe Huffington PostPublisher’s WeeklyMinnesota Magazine, andHistorical Novels Review. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually riding her spirited Welsh mare through the Lancashire countryside.

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