Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Interview with Mary Sharratt, author of The Dark Lady's Mask

Today I'm speaking with Mary Sharratt about her newest work of historical fiction, The Dark Lady's Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare's Muse, which delves into the life and times of Aemilia Lanier, England's first professional woman poet, and imagines her relationship with William Shakespeare.  I've known Mary for many years through the Historical Novel Society and have spoken with her twice previously for this blog, in 2010 (about Daughters of the Witching Hill) and in 2012 (for Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen).  She always has interesting insights into writing historical fiction, specifically about women's lives.  The Dark Lady's Mask is published today (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416pp, $26 hb/$12.99 ebook).

How did Aemilia Lanier and her work first come to your attention, and later compel you to write a novel about her?

My motto as a historical novelist is “writing women back into history.” I’ve long been frustrated by the fact that the average intelligent, literate person can’t name a woman writer before Jane Austen. The Dark Lady’s Mask is my love letter to literary pioneer Aemilia Bassano Lanier, England’s first professional woman writer. I want to draw her out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

I first discovered her when researching the lives of Renaissance women. The daughter of an Italian court musician who may have been a Marrano, or a secret Jew living under the guise of a Christian convert, Lanier was one of the most highly educated women of her era. She certainly had the talent and expertise to write plays or secular poetry. However in England at that time, the only genre considered acceptable for women was religious verse. Lanier’s female literary predecessors like Mary Sidney wrote poetic meditations on the Psalms.

But Lanier turned the tradition of women’s devotional writing on its head. Her epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), published in 1611, is nothing less than a vindication of the rights of women couched in religious verse. Dedicated and addressed exclusively to women, Salve Deus lays claim to women’s God-given call to rise up against male arrogance, just as the strong women in the Old Testament rose up against their oppressors.

The possibility that Lanier may also have been the mysterious Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets only adds to her mystique.

My intention was to write a novel that married the playful comedy of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love to the unflinching feminism of Virginia Woolf’s meditations on Shakespeare’s sister in A Room of One’s Own. How many more obstacles would an educated and gifted Renaissance woman poet face compared with her ambitious male counterpart?

In The Dark Lady’s Mask, I explore what happens when a struggling young Shakespeare meets a struggling young woman poet of equal genius and passion.

In the afterword, you mention the research you did on site in Venice and in Bassano del Grappa. What insights did you take away from your visits there?

My Italian visit was absolutely essential for me in both understanding Aemilia’s character and Shakespeare’s “Italian” plays. Italy was the cultural epicenter of Europe. Shakespeare’s comedies owe a huge debt to the commedia dell’arte. Many of his most popular plays are set in the Veneto region of northern Italy—Aemilia’s ancestral homeland. In Romeo and Juliet, the nurse’s plea, “Give me some aqua vitae,” (Act 3, Scene 2) is a direct reference to the famous strong spirits distilled in Bassano del Grappa, the birthplace of Aemilia’s father. Italy was literally her patrimony.

My novel explores the scenario that Aemilia and Will traveled through Italy together and fell in love.

But, alas, Italy is not all romance. There’s strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that Aemilia’s father and his brothers were banished from their hometown of Bassano because they were Jews. Fleeing to Venice, they assumed the guise of Marranos, or Christian converts, which was an uneasy and not particularly safe existence. Deliverance came in the form of Thomas Seymour, brother to Jane Seymour, that short-lived queen. The highly talented Bassano brothers became royal musicians for King Henry VIII and later for Elizabeth I.

I believe that Aemilia’s double identity as an Italian Jew compelled her to write so boldly in defense of the oppressed. Her Italian background also provided creative female role models that her English sisters lacked. Italian women enjoyed much greater artistic freedoms—they acted on the public stage, unlike in England where boys performed the female roles. Italian women wrote in a wide variety of literary genres. There were even women playwrights, such as the famous and successful Isabella Andreini whose patrons were the Medicis.

You’ve brought a number of historical characters to life in your novels, but William Shakespeare must be the most famous. Did you find it at all daunting to imagine his personality and part of his life on the page?

Daunting doesn’t even begin to describe it! Readers can get very, very contentious when you write fiction about a historical icon like Shakespeare. Because, in essence, writing believable fiction means taking great cultural icons off their pedestals and humanizing them, giving them the same yearnings and foibles as the rest of us mortals. I hope I’ve also made him damn sexy.

Beautifully incorporated into the novel was the possible background to the writing of many of Shakespeare’s plays. Do you have favorites among them? 

I adore Shakespeare’s sunlit Italian comedies with their strong, free-spoken heroines. I never get tired of following the adventures of Rosalind in As You Like It, or listening to Beatrice and Benedict spar in Much Ado About Nothing.

For me, as an educator, it was refreshing to read a novel that celebrates not just women’s learning but a humanist education and the value of the liberal arts. Did you have this contemporary resonance in mind as you were writing? 

Yes, indeed. I’m very saddened by the funding crisis at your university and the way good teachers in the UK are being pressured to tick government boxes instead of pouring their soul into educating and inspiring their students. In Aemilia’s day, education was the preserve of the elite. Let us not allow it to become so again. The foundation of Western civilization was built on the liberal arts. Yes, vocational training and business studies are important, too, but if we don’t teach our children to love literature, art and theatre, we have only ourselves to blame if they never put down their iphone or read a single unassigned book.

For a good part of the novel, Aemilia’s observations on her environment are those of an outsider, whether she’s either being educated or serving as a teacher in noblewomen’s homes, or when paying a visit to Italian relatives. Did your own experiences living outside your home country inform your writing of Aemilia’s experiences?

Very much so. Being a lifelong expat made me a writer. I left the USA to study in Freiburg, Germany in 1986 and never came back to live permanently in the US. Now I’m a dual US/UK citizen. I will always be an outsider wherever I live—even if I return to the US. I’ve lived abroad so long that I’m forever changed. I believe those who are “foreign” glean insights on a culture that its native born inhabitants might miss—we tend to take the familiar for granted.

As an Anglo-Italian, I’m sure Aemilia felt the same. I imagine she stood out as different and “foreign” wherever she went. Her father’s secret Jewish identity would have weighed on her heart, as well. In my novel, when she visits the Venice Ghetto and disguises herself as a man to go inside a synagogue, she feels even more exiled from her father’s culture and religion when she realizes that she could never truly fit into this world either. Caught between faiths and cultures, she is fated to be eternally betwixt and between.

This is why masks play such a huge role in the novel. Everyone in the book is wearing some kind of metaphorical mask. But because Aemilia is the eternal outsider, she can see through these masks in a way that others can’t.

Religion was a central part of daily life in history, yet this aspect is often neglected in mainstream historical fiction. As was the case with Hildegard von Bingen in Illuminations, I admired how you recreated your characters’ religious lives in a way that makes them feel spiritually rich and authentic to the era yet relevant for modern readers. How did you delve into the religious beliefs of Aemilia as well as her later-in-life mentor, Margaret Clifford?

First of all, thank you very much for the compliment. I agree that it’s impossible to truly get inside the mindset of people who lived before 1900 if you don’t address their religious beliefs as part of their core life experience. But how do you do that without alienating modern, secular readers? It’s a huge challenge, especially for someone like Aemilia. A Jew’s daughter, she was educated by Puritans, lived her life in what was essentially a Protestant police state, and wrote devotional Christian verse. Where did her true spiritual loyalties lie?

Her great friend and literary patron, Margaret Clifford, was an intensely devout Anglican who lived estranged from her abusive husband. She devoted the last years of her life to fighting for her daughter Anne’s inheritance after Anne was disinherited because of her sex, although she was her father’s only child.

Aemilia’s love for Margaret and Anne and her anger at the injustices they faced are the bedrock of her poetry. In Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, she describes the passion of Christ from the viewpoint of the women in the Gospels. In comparing the sufferings of women in male-dominated culture to the sufferings of Christ, she upholds virtuous women as Christ’s true imitators.

Aemilia’s protofeminism is inseparable from her religious sensibilities. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is essentially 17th century liberation theology—a corpus of poetry celebrating female and divine goodness, penned by a poet who found her own sense of salvation in a community of women who supported her and believed in her. 


  1. Wonderful interview! I'm very much looking forward to reading this book because I love Aemilia Lanier's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. I've taught it in my Major British Authors course along with Milton's Paradise Lost. Lanier's poem is a wonderful feminist antidote for Milton's misogyny. (It's a bit of a stretch to call Lanier a Major British Author, but I sneak her in there anyway!)

    1. Sorry for the late reply - I was away for a few days - but glad you liked the interview! How wonderful that you've taught Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum in your course. I haven't read it myself in full, but should. I hope the students are appreciative, too!