Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady
History and magic, death and plague, a story of women and witches, with a heart-twisting passion and descriptions of plague pits that will stick in your head and gut long after reading. Sally O’Reilly spins an astounding tale in her debut novel, Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. The story concerns Aemilia Bassano, a historical contemporary of William Shakespeare, who began life as the illegitimate daughter of a court musician. She eventually became the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, the son of Mary Boleyn, a sister to the infamous Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry the Eighth. Upon becoming pregnant, Aemilia is hastily married to Alfonso Lanyer, another court musician, who proves to be handsome but a careless wastrel who causes her no end of grief.
The story spans the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, rolling into the reign of King James, and includes a large array of Shakespearean references. It’s even hinted that a misunderstanding between Will and Aemilia spurred the creation of his poems to a “dark lady,” and that the dark lady is Aemilia. From Moll Cutpurse and Richard Burbage, to a triad of witches and an eerie carter hauling off the dead, history, poetry, and magic combine in this tale to tell a hauntingly realistic story of the Bard, Elizabethan London, and Aemilia herself.
It’s easy to be skeptical of historical fiction, especially when it involves such a huge historical figure as Will Shakespeare. To write convincingly about such a speculated-about person could be done very poorly. In some hands the author might hang on the notoriety of the figure alone, without taking time to construct their own version of the person within the context of their story, which shatters reader believability.
But O’Reilly does no such thing.
In fact, her Will Shakespeare is flawlessly executed. Will is portrayed as a man, with complex, highly tempestuous emotions, who is susceptible to penning ill-thought out lines before being in possession of all the information, who can love and hate and forgive with a depth that is wrenching. Aemilia is an amazing narrator, full of a “proto-feminism” that makes her likeable, relatable, and yet thoroughly a creature of the sixteenth century. Readers will rage at her profligate husband and fear for her son’s life along with her. Readers also will meet Anne Hathaway Shakespeare, who is portrayed in a new light that makes her both daunting and strangely sympathetic.
The liberties that O’Reilly takes with history, both Shakespeare’s and Aemilia’s, are convincing and seem correct for the story. She gives a lovely description of each character’s history in the historical note, which was almost as interesting and fun to read as the story. This is a truly sumptuous read, with rich language, engaging characters, and vivid descriptions so ripe that the book practically oozes on the table. Aemilia’s voice carries the reader and story along, sweeping through the streets of Old London, making the sights and smells come alive with dramatic acuity. O’Reilly captures the sense of place as well as if she possessed the time machine she longed for while writing and researching the book.
Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly should not to be missed by lovers of historical fiction, magical realism, or exquisite storytelling.