Charlene Ball weaves a majestic Renaissance tapestry in Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer.
Ball's strict adherence to chronology provides the warp of her creation. The novel opens in 1576, as seven-year-old Emilia Bassano must leave her recently widowed mother to live at Queen Elizabeth's court. It ends in 1611, when Emilia finally completes her book of feminist/religious poetry for publication. Frequent time markers help orient the reader as Emilia lives through such familiar events as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the death of Queen Elizabeth I, and the Guy Fawkes plot to destroy the English Parliament. The novel chronicles actual and fictionalized events: Emilia's early education at Court, her sexual relationships, marriage, and children; her Jewish heritage; her friendships with various women; and her love of writing.
Memorable characters and well-wrought language provide the weft of this lush tapestry. The men in Emilia's life are a mixed lot. Lord Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth's cousin, initially escorts Emilia from her mother to Court and later becomes her lover. Married and thirty-five years her senior, he treats her with respect, though his family despises her. Emilia comes to love Will Shakespeare, who encourages her to explore London disguised as a young man and nourishes her passion for literature. But he too is married and, pregnant by either Hunsdon or Will, she marries her lackluster younger cousin. However, the most destructive man in her life, a doctor, addicts her to drugs.
Most of the women Emilia knows have a positive impact: her mother, her beloved teacher Lady Suzan, her faithful maid Jenny, and Lady Cumberland, who helps Emilia break free from her addiction and encourages her to write. Mary (Moll) Frith, a cross-dressing lesbian, helps her remove the malignant doctor permanently from her life, and Queen Elizabeth serves as a positive role model.
Ball's vivid descriptions and figures of speech make this story come to life. Queen Elizabeth has chalk-white skin with bright-red cheeks, bare breasts, and loves for her partner to "swing her high" when she dances the volta. Before Emilia leaves her mother, she feels her mother's corset, "hard under the thick wools of her dress." Her mother's shoulder is "warm and soft, curving and encircling." She hears her "mother's pulse beat in her neck" and smells her hair: "lavender, rosemary," and something uniquely her mother. Hunsdon is "A royal bear," his eyes dark "under bushy brows," with "a gentle, rumbling voice." In contrast, Hunsdon's disapproving son later turns "like a figure on a clock" after he rebukes her.
Some of Ball's most memorable symbols occur at the end of a scene or a chapter, such as after Emilia begins to realize she is falling for Will Shakespeare. She goes to the window, raises the curtain, and in "the ice-encrusted garden," an icicle falls, shattering. In contrast, when their relationship ends, she dreams of "dead rosebushes lying uprooted, leaves and petals scattered."
Ball's elaborate verbal tapestry consists of muted colors, silk and even gold threads shining from its woolen base. She makes the Elizabethan age seem alive, its people's fears of war, plague, and strangers as familiar to us as their modes of attire and food are foreign. Dark Lady, an inspiring story of one woman's arduous journey to self-fulfillment, is well worth the read.
Charlene Ball, Ph.D. in comparative literature, has published both nonfiction and fiction, as well as reviews and newspaper articles. Retired from the Women's Studies Institute at Georgia State University, she currently volunteers with various social-justice groups. She was married to Libby Ware, author and bookseller, in 2016.
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