A tale of sorcery and passion in seventeenth-century London—where witches haunt William Shakespeare and his dark lady, the playwright’s muse and one true love .
But now I want to tell you my story. About Aemilia, the girl who wanted too much. Not seamed and scragged as I am now, but quick and shimmering and short of patience. Abut my dear son, whom I love too well. About my two husbands, and my one true love. And Dr Forman, that most lustful of physicians. The silk dress I wore, the first time I went to ask for his predictions. Yellow and gold, with a fine stiff ruff that crumpled in a breath of rain. How my skin was set dark against it; how the people stared when I rushed by.
Published by Myriad Editions in March 2014
Pages – 434
The daughter of a Venetian musician, Aemilia Bassano came of age in Queen Elizabeth’s royal court. The Queen’s favourite, she develops a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a young woman known not only for her beauty but also her sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemilia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, but her position is precarious. Then she crosses paths with an impetuous playwright named William Shakespeare and begins an impassioned but ill-fated affair.
A decade later, the Queen is dead, and Aemilia Bassano is now Aemilia Lanyer, fallen from favour and married to a fool. Like the rest of London, she fears the plague. And when her young son Henry takes ill, Aemilia resolves to do anything to save him, even if it means seeking help from her estranged lover, Will—or worse, making a pact with the Devil himself.
Reviewed by Sophie Duffy for Serendipity Reviews 4th April 2014
Aemilia is a woman born out of her time and yet she is a woman for all seasons. She is beautiful and beguiling, sought after by men – but what happens when a woman gets older and her looks fade? The novel is pitted with hags and harridans, pox-faced doxies with powdered clown faces, like good Queen Bess herself. Aemilia knows she must use her looks while she can.
But Aemilia is far, far more than her beauty. She is classically educated, quick-witted, intelligent, and fully self aware that she, as a woman, holds a precarious position in life, balanced on the whims of the men she is dependent on, and a life that can be struck out by plague, fate and God himself. Life is about bargaining – with landlords, publishers, lovers, and even the Devil. Rent for sex, a plague cure conjured up by magic, Eve’s apple for the Fall of Man. Aemilia understands this only too well.
From a modern perspective, Aemilia is a Feminist. She believes women are born equal to men but knows that they are blamed for Eve’s temptation (how does Adam get off so lightly?) and must therefore live a life of servitude, where hopes, dreams, passions and talents are quashed at every turn. Despite this, she becomes the first published female poet in England.
O’Reilly blurs fact and fiction in a most believable way. Her atmospheric descriptions and realistic characterisation pull the reader deep into the story, puts us right there beside Aemilia, feeling what she feels – anger, hopelessness, fear, passion, overwhelming love for both her son and lover. (There is a wonderful scene when the dying Queen calls Aemilia to see her.)
The novel is set out like a Shakespeare play – the dramatis personae, the acts and scenes, the characters, the magic and mayhem, comedy and tragedy, love, hate, revenge, and a message that speaks of all time. Its language crackles with intensity and the words are so vivid and vibrant that they dance in your head long after you’ve put down the book. And Aemilia, the dark lady, lives on.
A fantastic novel that could make an amazing film…