About five years ago, I decided to write a historical novel about Lady Macbeth. I began by researching eleventh century Scotland, but I also read about Shakespeare’s London, and the players, theatres and chaotic streets. As the story was inspired by his play Macbeth, this seemed logical. I didn’t know it at the time, but a sixteenth century poet was looking for me, lurking in the internet ether, between the pages of obscure books on seventeenth century writing and in Shakespeare’s sonnets. A female poet, a woman born out of her time. Her name was Aemilia Lanyer.
Born Aemilia Bassano in 1569 , she was the illegitimate child of a Jewish Venetian musician. Her father died when she was about seven, her mother ten years later, and she became the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey at the age of seventeen. Henry and Aemilia seem to have been happy together, and the relationship lasted until she became pregnant in 1593.
At this point, Aemilia Bassano was married off to her cousin, Alfonso Lanyer, a recorder player at court. He spent her dowry within a year of the marriage and Aemilia was impoverished for the rest of her life. However, rather than disappearing from the pages of history completely, as countless other cast-off mistresses have done, she triumphed over adversity, poverty and the Early Modern patriarchy.
In 1611, against all the odds, Aemilia Lanyer became the first woman to publish a volume of poetry in a professional manner, as a man would have done. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum told the story of the crucifixion of Christ from a female point of view and included a poem suggesting that Adam should be blamed for the Fall of Man rather than Eve.
I’m fascinated by Aemilia’s life story: she is an amazing inspiration for 21st century women. Although we know so little about it, her courage and determination are demonstrated by what she achieved. To become a published poet was an almost impossible goal for any seventeenth century woman. But not only did Aemilia have her gender to contend with, she was poor, illegitimate and saddled with a useless husband.
Researching my novel, I found that one of her great advantages was that she was unusually knowledgable for a woman of her time. Some historians have concluded that Aemilia was educated at court, that she spoke and wrote Latin and Greek, and was widely read. It has even been suggested that her high level of education, her sophistication and her knowledge of Venetian culture might have enabled her to write all of Shakespeare’s plays, though there is no evidence to support this.
Neither is there any evidence to support the other myth associated with her name: that she was ‘the Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare’s collection of sonnets were published in 1609. While the more tender poems in the collection seem to address a handsome young man, ‘the Fair Youth’, the later sonnets are a different story. These are thought to have been inspired by the Dark Lady, and they express ambiguous and jealous feelings. Not so much love poetry as anti-love poetry: an exploration of sexual addiction and despair. I wondered what Aemilia would have made of being the target of such ambivalent and hostile feelings? As a fellow-poet, she might have disliked being the object of poetry, rather than the author of it.
Aemilia Lanyer is one of several candidates for the Dark Lady title. The list includes Jacqueline Field, Lucy Morgan, Penelope Devereux, Mary Fitton, Marie Mountjoy and Jane Davenant. With the exception of Penelope Devereux, an aristrocrat, very little is known about these women. Other writers have been inspired by other candidates, and their role in Shakespeare’s life is a fascinating area to explore.
My choice was Aemilia because she was an artist herself, which makes her a timeless role model not only for women artists, but for any woman who wants to be treated as the equal of a man. Unfortunately, there is nothing dated about the fact that men dominate the arts, or that we primarily see the world through male eyes. This was the point made recently by Jude Kelly, who set up the Women Of the World festival after becoming artistic director of the Southbank Centre, just a stone’s throw from Shakespeare’s Globe. The festival celebrates the creative achievements of women across the world. Aemilia, a Jewish Venetian of Spanish descent, would be proud to be one of them.
Sally O’Reilly is a former journalist and author of How to be a Writer. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. Sally’s first historical novel, Dark Aemilia, is published by Myriad Editions on 27 March
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