Emilia Bassano Lanyer: Was she the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets?



By Charlene Ball


Who was Emilia Bassano Lanyer, and why does she matter?

Emilia Lanyer lived during the time of Queen Elizabeth I and two other monarchs. She published a book of poetry in 1611 called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in which the title poem makes a strong argument for women’s equality. The book also contains the first country-house poem in English, and it is prefaced by dedications to nine prominent women, thus making Emilia the first woman in England to seek patronage and identify herself publicly as a writer. And on top of all this, she may have been the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

I was thrilled when I learned about Emilia. I was in graduate school, and I heard historian A.L. Rowse give a talk about his theory that she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. He “discovered” her when he was researching the casebooks and journals of the astrologer Simon Forman, and he decided that she must have been the woman Shakespeare describes. Copies of her book had been languishing for four centuries in several British and American libraries, but Rowse’s 1979 edition of her poems and his claim about her relationship with Shakespeare brought her into the public eye.

However, Rowse’s view of Emilia was basically misogynistic, even though he allows that she was the best woman poet of her age. He called her “a bad lot,” “no better than she should be,” and assumed that she was promiscuous, based on no evidence other than that she had been the mistress of one man, possibly the lover of another, married to a third, and obsessed about by a fourth. Most scholars followed Rowse’s view until the 1990s, when feminist historians and literary scholars began writing about her.

The facts we know about Emilia are these. She was the daughter of Baptista Bassano and Margaret Johnson. Baptista was the youngest of the Bassano family of musicians and instrument makers who were invited by King Henry VIII to come from Venice to be Court musicians in England. The Bassanos may have been secret Jews, converts who outwardly conformed to the Church of England but practiced their religion in secret.

We know from one of the dedications in her book that Emilia was educated in the household of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. From the astrologer-physician Forman’s casebooks, we learn that she was mistress for several years to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen. She married her cousin Alfonso Lanyer, a royal musician. She was mother to two children, Henry and Odillya. Henry lived to adulthood, became a Court musician, married, and had children. Odillya died in infancy. From Forman, we also know that Emilia visited him in 1598 and again in the early 1600’s for an astrology reading. Forman developed an erotic fascination with her and she seems to have had some sort of relationship with him that stopped short of sexual involvement.

Other things we know from Emilia’s book: she spent time at a country house called Cookham Dean with Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, and the Countess’s daughter, Lady Anne Clifford. Emilia probably served as a waiting gentlewoman or a music tutor. Her poem about the place called “The Description of Cooke-ham” describes her time spent there as idyllic. This poem happens to be the first country-house poem published in English. A country-house poem is a sort of bread-and-butter letter in verse, thanking one’s host for an enjoyable visit and praising their home. Until recently, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson has received credit for the first such poem, although Emilia’s predates his by five years.

Emilia published her volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in 1611, becoming one of the first women to publish a book in England. It contains the title poem (which means “Hail, God, King of the Jews”), “The Description of Cooke-ham,” and dedications to nine noblewomen, plus two more dedications: “To the Vertuous Reader” and “To All vertuous Ladies in generall.” She adds an afterword, “To the doubtfull Reader,” explaining how the title came to her in a dream. As far as we know, Salve Deus is her only book.

What makes Emilia unique as a writer is that, in dedicating her book to nine prominent women, she was seeking patronage the way a male writer would. Patrons would pay an author for a dedication if they liked the work (10 pounds was the going rate). It was rather like applying for a grant from a foundation today. Seeking patronage shows that she saw herself as a professional writer.

Being a professional writer didn’t mean what it does today, by the way; it was not necessarily a path to fame and fortune. Emilia asks the astrologer whether she will become a lady, not whether she will publish a book. Nobility circulated their writings in manuscript, not bothering to publish. Commoners who wrote sought patronage, often with an eye to employment. Shakespeare put considerable effort into acquiring a coat of arms and in buying up land and houses, and not so much into publishing his works. He seems to have wanted to become a gentleman of property, not a poor player and scribbler of public entertainments.

My novel, Dark Lady (She Writes Press, 2017), depicts Emilia and Shakespeare as having an affair. However, no proof exists that Emilia knew Shakespeare. But what if she did? But what if a bold, proto-feminist author also had a love affair with the most famous poet of all?

I wanted to write about Emilia from a perspective sympathetic to her as a woman of her time. So my novel shows her not only as mistress and lover to two important men—one the most famous writer in the world—but also as a thinker and writer concerned with serious issues who published a book when few women did so.

I portray her as a woman, a mother, concerned with economic survival, struggling against misogynistic attitudes and laws that restrict women’s lives. I show how the great events of the time affect her—the Armada, the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Gunpowder Plot. I show how her relationship with the poet from Stratford inspired her to write. And I show how her friendships with other women are central to her life, helping and sustaining her, giving her acceptance and the courage to write her truths.


Charlene Ball holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has taught English and women’s studies at colleges and universities. Although she has written nonfiction, reviews, and academic articles, writing fiction has always been her first love. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The North Atlantic Review, Concho River Review, The NWSA Journal, and other journals. She is a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts and held a residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She retired from the Women’s Studies Institute (now the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Georgia State University in 2009. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, author and bookseller Libby Ware. Visit her online at her website or Facebook.

Photo credit: Libby Ware 


Robin Antalek on Flipping the Gender Voice: When Women Write Male Characters

Robin Antalek

I had never done it before. My protagonists were always female. As a young writer, my female characters thought about things the way I did, and it was pretty basic stuff in the beginning. As I matured, the writing shifted, my concerns and, by default, my characters became less myopic. It was easy to write these women because in every single one of them I saw shades of myself, or someone I knew, or someone I wanted to be. Through draft after draft of short stories and early attempts at novels, the voice was consistently female.

It wasn’t until I was writing The Summer We Fell Apart that I even thought about a male voice. Here I had four siblings, two and two, and while I hadn’t planned to shift the point of view between the characters after I wrote the first section in Amy’s voice, her brother George was pretty much begging to be heard. Here’s the thing: maybe it was naiveté on my part – but I wasn’t stressed as much as I was excited by the possibilities. I wrote those first few paragraphs in his section and it was like slipping into someone else’s skin, putting on different clothes. It was among the most freeing things I have ever done. I wasn’t conscious of putting aside a feminine voice. Instead it was all about inhabiting the character, not over-thinking, that allowed the character to unfold naturally. If we are honest about the breakdown of male and female characters, at the very core there would have to be the belief that the memorable protagonists inhabit characteristics of each gender. When the voice is forced, or unnatural, it stops the entire narrative. If a writer restricts the character based upon the ideal feminine or masculine characteristics, then that character will fall flat.

From the Bible, to Shakespeare, to Dickens, on to Updike, Mailer, and Roth, men have long been speaking for women in fiction, with uneven results. What could be so wrong about women speaking for men?

In The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton writes achingly in the voices of a group of young men who are not much older than Hinton herself when she penned the book. Did it make the child-men any less realistic? Did it make Ponyboy any less a tragic figure? No, it had the opposite effect, and it remains one of the outstanding books about young adults in transition. Published in 1967, The Outsiders was banned from schools because of the gang violence, smoking, and drinking, but never was it criticized for not representing an authentic male voice.

Several recent examples point to women nailing the male voice. In Gone Girl, author Gillian Flynn holds nothing back in her portrayal of Nick and Amy Dunne. Nick’s POV was essential to Flynn’s successful narrative and necessary as a counterpoint to Amy’s. That Flynn created each character as a fully fleshed-out entity, regardless of gender voice, is a testament to her skills as a writer. There is never a moment where you could confuse one voice with the other. That speaks more to Flynn’s understanding of her characters than the need to write so she sounds like a man or a woman.

Then there is the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Whatever criticisms have been logged against the book, the one take-away is that Tartt knows her male characters, especially, achingly so in the portrayals of Theo Decker and his benefactor Hobie. For me those characters worked because there was empathy, a sympathetic core intrinsic to their nature that made them believable and compelled me to want to know their stories. I never heard Tartt speaking as Theo or Hobie. Again, as a writer, you know your character and it doesn’t seem to matter that you’re working out of gender.

During the course of writing The Summer We Fell Apart, I wrote in the voice of two male characters, George and his brother, Finn. They were as opposite as siblings could be – yet, there was darkness and light to each of them that as a writer I enjoyed exploring. The characters crystallized in those moments and flip-flopped any expectations that I had in not being able to write a believable male voice. In the end, to be successful I found that I nearly had to strip the character of gender. I am a woman writer, yes, who wrote a human voice that just happens to be male. Does a narrative voice have specific gender qualities? Are we to believe men and women really love differently? Hurt differently? Will the writer have to reach so far out of her [I don’t like the use of “their” in place of his or her] own experience to be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to gender crossover?

In my new book, The Grown Ups, I have a male narrator, Sam, who starts as a fifteen-year-old and is nearly thirty when the book ends. There is a tremendous period of growth during that arc that universally applies to both sexes – but again I found it helpful to not think strictly in terms of gender as the story evolved. It is just as complicated to create a male character, as it is a female character. I had moments where I knew there were gender choices to be made in terms of behavior and emotions specific to being a teenage boy, but they were more societal and cultural than anything else. I refused to allow them into the story, so that the voice of the novel evolved on its own. That’s something you can’t – or maybe I should say shouldn’t — attempt to control.

Fiction writing and reading is a leap of faith; we are asking the reader to hear our story, and it is the job of our narrator to make sure the reader stays. A voice, that precious voice that we writers long to hear, comes into our heads and we have to allow it to speak. Whether male or female, it is our job to tell the best, most compelling story that we can.

Robin Antalek is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010), which was chosen as a Target Breakout Book, and the forthcoming The Grown Ups (William Morrow 2015). Her non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings and The Nervous Breakdown and collected in The Beautiful Anthology; Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema; and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-1013. Her short fiction has appeared in Salon, 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, and Literary Mama, among others. She has twice been a finalist in Glimmer Train magazine, as well as a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York. You can visit her website, http://www.robinantalek.com, and find her at facebook.com/AuthorRobinAntalek.

Writer Alexander Chee on his three years reading only women

Alexander Chee

Readers of this blog should read Alexander Chee’s essay in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (October 12, 2014). “Gender Genre” describes the three years Chee spent in his early 20’s reading nothing but fiction by women. You can find it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/books/review/gender-genre.html?ref=review

Chee is a poet, essayist, and novelist who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Wesleyan University. He currently serves as associate fiction editor of the online literary magazine, The Nervous Breakdown. His first novel, Edinburgh, was published in 2002. His second, The Queen of the Night, is due from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015.



Spring Book Preview: Lots of great reading on the way!

It’s a cliche that spring is the season of fertility, a time for new beginnings and fresh starts. But for book lovers, it is indeed a very fertile time of the year. Tons of great books are scheduled to be published between March and June, and I’ve selected a dozen or so that seem most interesting. I’m looking forward to reading most (and possibly all) of these books. After you’ve reviewed my previews, leave a comment about which books you are most interested in reading.

Orchard of Lost Souls

Orchard of Lost Souls – Nadifa Mohamed (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, March 4)

Mohamed, recently named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, releases her second novel, a female’s view of the civil war in Somalia, particularly the price paid by women and citizens recruited into the “neighborhood watch.”

The Divorce Papers

The Divorce Papers – Susan Rieger (Random House, March 18)

A shy young lawyer finds herself drafted to help the daughter of the firm’s biggest client in her divorce case against her famous oncologist husband. This debut novel sounds like the kind of literary soap opera combined with biting social commentary that often equals a bestseller.

Frangipani Hotel

The Frangipani Hotel – Violet Kupersmith (Spiegel & Grau, April 1)

Kupersmith’s debut collection reworks Vietnamese folktales and ghost stories she learned from her grandmother. In doing so, she explores the clash between ancient and modern in this nation with a complex history. These nine stories are also thematically linked, an approach that is becoming increasingly common.


Casebook – Mona Simpson (Knopf, April 15)

When a young man overhears that his parents are separating, he decides to find out why. Miles and his friend Hector, already obsessed with Miles’ beautiful mother, turn amateur sleuths and soon discover far more than they bargained for about the adult world.


Thunderstruck & Other Stories – Elizabeth McCracken (The Dial Press, April 22)

Best known for the National Book Award finalist The Giant’s House, McCracken publishes her first collection of stories in 20 years. She can be relied upon for stories (and characters) that are quirky and compassionate, funny and imaginative.

The Bees

The Bees – Laline Paull (HarperCollins, May 6)

The publisher describes this debut novel as a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games, which is high praise. But the plot and characters certainly sound intriguing, more like the anthropomorphized rabbits of Watership Down than the human societies of the above novels. Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her hive. But her courage and strength provide her with opportunities to improve her station. As she gains access to restricted areas of the hive and its highest-ranking members, she learns the ominous truth about the hive and its Queen.

The Blessings

The Blessings – Elise Juska (Grand Central Publishing, May 6)

This novel follows the lives of a large Irish-American family in Philadelphia over the course of thirty years. Juska writes expertly and with great sensitivity of family dynamics, love, loss, dreams, and disappointments. Stewart O’Nan says her writing is reminiscent of the works of Elizabeth Berg and Alice McDermott.

The Possibilities

The Possibilities – Kaui Hart Hemmings (Simon & Schuster, May 13)

Sarah St. John is grieving the loss of her son Cully in an avalanche near their home in Breckinridge, Colorado. Her life is coming apart when a young girl arrives, carrying ully’s baby. Hemmings is best known as the author of The Descendants, which was made into an outstanding movie in 2011 by writer-director Alexander Payne that featured George Clooney.


Decompression – Juli Zeh (Nan A. Talese, May 20)

Decompression is the fourth novel by Zeh, who won the German Book Prize for her debut novel, Eagles and Angels. Sven Fiedler has walked away from his legal career for a life as a diving instructor in the Canary Islands; his girlfriend Antje sells real estate. When another German couple hires them for a two-week crash course in diving, the two couples soon become enmeshed in a web of attraction, jealousy, and passion.

Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun – Natalia Sylvester (Amazon/New Harvest, June 3)

Sylvester’s debut is the story of Andres and Marabella, a long-married couple living amidst the social and political upheavals of Lima, Peru. Andres thinks she has left him again, but he soon learns that terrorists have kidnapped her. How far is he willing to go to get her back? Is their troubled marriage worth saving? Andres works with a mediator to negotiate for her release, all the while caring for their two young children.

Home Leave

Home Leave – Brittani Sonnenberg (Grand Central Publishing, June 3)

The Krigstein family has lived a peripatetic existence, following husband and father Chris’s job to such far-flung locales as Berlin, Singapore, and Shanghai, before eventually settling in Madison, Wisconsin. Wife Elise has enjoyed the advantages of a clean slate every few years, while their daughters have developed an extremely close bond to cope with the constant change. When the family is rocked by a stunning loss, their lives and lifestyle are called into question.

Sixteenth of June

The Sixteenth of June – Maya Lang (Scribner, June 3)

Lang’s debut novel examines the intimately connected lives of a young married couple and the husband’s young brother over the course of one summer day in Philadelphia. Both a close observation of twenty-somethings and a satire of ambitions dreamed, thwarted, and abandoned, The Sixteenth of June pays tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses with its single-day time frame and the characters’ attendance at a Bloomsday party.

We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to Rise – Laura McBride (Simon & Schuster, June 3)

A wide cast of characters, whose lives are falling apart, struggle to survive in Las Vegas during its recent boomtown years. Seemingly unconnected, their paths eventually cross and change each other’s lives. As the title suggests, together they find a way to rise above their troubled circumstances and repair their damaged lives.

All Day and a Night

All Day and a Night – Alafair Burke (Harper, June 10)

The latest installment in the Ellie Hatcher detective series, All Day and a Night is Burke’s tenth police procedural thriller. When a Brooklyn psychotherapist is found murdered, her husband is the prime suspect. But an anonymous caller knows that her body was abused in a way that matches the trademark of a serial killer who has been imprisoned for 20 years. The killer maintains his innocence, and now it appears that the actual killer is still at loose. Of course, the plot is far thicker than a brief synopsis can convey. As with Burke’s previous thrillers, All Day benefits from Burke’s years as a prosecutor. Her work is also distinguished by the presence of strong and realistic female characters.