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 


What the Hell is “Women’s Lit”? Garine Isassi Asks the Burning Question

Garine Isassi  start-withe-the-backbeat

When I was pitching my novel to agents, the first line of questioning after my initial one-sentence summary went something like this: “What is the genre of your book? Is it romance? Is it about the girl?” I would begin an answer, saying, “Well, yeah. It’s about a woman in the music industry, and I guess the romantic subplot means it has romance in it, but that’s not the main point of the story. . . .”

That is as far I would get before the agent would make an announcement on whether I could continue or not. Either they’d say, “Oh, then it’s Women’s Lit,” and we would keep talking, or, they would condemn my pitch with, “I can’t sell Chick Lit anymore.” End of conversation.

A few times, I tried to argue that the book has more to it. It’s about authenticity. It’s about race relations. It’s about the love of music.  The quickness to pigeonhole my work left me deflated. Here I think of myself as a modern woman in a world where women have come a long way away from being shoved to the side. The line of questioning was solely based on my gender and/or the gender of my protagonist, not on the level of writing talent or storyline. They had barely even heard my pitch – just that it was a story told from the point of view of a woman. The most disheartening part of that experience was that most of the agents I spoke with were women.

It wasn’t always like this for authors.

In 1847, the epic romance Wuthering Heights was published. The author listed at the time was Ellis Bell. The dramatic love story is complete with crazed jealousy, paranormal heroines, and mansions set under stormy skies. Later that year, Jane Eyre came out, supposedly penned by Currer Bell. It became a bestseller.  No genre was mentioned in the reviews.

As we know now, both of these books were written by women — Emily and Charlotte Bronte, respectively – and about women.  They were read, analyzed, reviewed, and praised. There was no doubt that the complicated romantic content was appreciated by the men of letters at the time. (Remember, at the time, novel writing as well as novel reading and reviewing, was a man’s endeavor.)  Hailed as classic masterpieces, these books have been a mainstay in literature class syllabi for a century and a half.

Today, it is highly likely that both of those books, and countless other classics written by women, would be placed directly into the Romance section of the bookstore and probably never reviewed at all by the current version of “the men of letters.” Why? Because the publishing industry has ventured so far into marketing categories that today these classics would be considered “Women’s Lit.” The category has become a catch-all label umbrella over all novels involving romance, family relationships between women, any mom, women’s friendships, or — my favorite — simply because it was written by a woman and includes at least one main character that is a woman.

I suppose that the sheer number of books that are published every year makes it necessary to classify them. Many categorizations make sense — Mysteries, Political Thrillers, Science Fiction, Paranormal Romance; these are somewhat specific genres where authors buy in to the idea that they are writing according to the genre’s standard.


I get it.

But, what if I’ve written a story that does not neatly fit into a genre? For the male author, there is no question — the book is categorized into General Fiction or maybe Literary Fiction. But if you are a woman? No way is it that easy.

Take, for instance, Jodi Picoult. Jodi is firmly entrenched in the “Women’s Lit” category as an author. She’s done well under that branding. But one of her recent novels, Nineteen Minutes, is about a school shooting and the havoc it wreaks on the relationships around a violent event. It got great reviews. It’s a bestseller.  On Amazon, the category is Women’s Lit. Compare that to another book about a school shooting and the havoc it wreaks on the relationships around a violent event, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (who is also a woman, despite the male first name). This novel is considered Fiction or Contemporary Fiction.  Both books are about the same thing. Both have a woman as the main character.

Consider this example: Chris Bohjalian. He’s written several novels, many of which center on women and what they do. They are great books.  His thrilling family saga, The Light in the Ruins, puts forth not one but two women protagonists, one of whom is a detective, set against the backdrop of World War II, and is categorized in Literary Fiction.  Meanwhile, The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, a family saga with two women protagonists, one of whom is a spy, set against the backdrop of World War II, is — you guessed it — Women’s Fiction.

This annoys the hell out of me.

Not only does this “separate but equal [maybe]” sham perpetuate the critical oppression of women’s talent, it doesn’t give the books a chance of making the sales impact that might be possible.  Men are half of the potential audience for fiction. Men don’t want to be seen reading a Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult novel no matter how great the story might be. The branding effect makes it like buying tampons for your wife at CVS — only the few and brave will even consider it.

Even in retrospect, the industry is applying this label. A novel about the lives of several Chinese women and their relationships, set in the mid-20th century, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, is now called Women’s Fiction on Amazon, while a book about the lives of several Japanese women and their relationships, set in the mid-20th century, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, is called Literary Fiction. They are both richly-written, best-selling novels with fantastic plots. Both were made into movies. At the time that they were published, these books were simply labeled Fiction. What changed? Did we suddenly discover that Amy Tan is a woman and Arthur Golden is not?

If we want to get even more indignant about the this last one, I would like to point out that Amy Tan has much more authority on her subject of Asian culture in this situation. Yet she is shoved into the realm of the soft world, the women’s section . . . but that is a-whole-nother rant on the nature of diverse voices in publishing.

Allow me to point out some classics that would fit neatly into a Men’s Lit category, if it existed. A Picture of Dorian Gray. The Catcher in the Rye. Anything by Ernest Hemingway.

The point here is that the labels all seem to be at the whim of the publisher and how they decide to market the book. The content seems to have little bearing on the label. At best, it’s a bit lazy on the part of the publisher and the readers. At worst, it is an attempt to relegate women and their talent to second-class status. The Bronte sisters, all those years ago, seemed to have it easier than we do. After all this time and great strides toward equality, we still have not reached the point where a woman doing the exact same thing as a man is not explained away somehow, as if there needs to be a justification for her existence in the arts. We stopped saying “a lady doctor” and “a female executive.” Why do we still say “a woman author”?

Although recent surveys show that most people working in the publishing world are women and most readers of fiction are also women, this is still happening. From the 10,000-foot view, we seem to be doing it ourselves. In order to buoy ourselves against losing confidence, we “women authors” buddy up and create our own spaces, practically authorizing the separation.

My publishing company is called She Writes Press. And guess what category my book is under? Yup. Women’s Fiction.

The irony is not lost on me.

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Garinè B. Isassi is the author of the novel Start With The Backbeat, available wherever books are sold.  Like her Facebook page and follow her on twitter @garineisassi.