Review: Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly

I read this one courtesy of Carole Rae, a lovely girl and one awesome blogger. I had won it in a draw organized simultaneously on Carole’s and  Bloddeued’s blogs; mind you the giveaway was supposed to be international, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. Still the publisher somehow forgot about their promise and didn’t send the book. They also didn’t contact me with any kind of explanation. I think they were put off by the sad fact that, as I don’t live either in the USA or in Canada, it would cost them more (it is only my theory).  Anyway Carole intervened; they sent the book to her (imagine that!) and she shipped it abroad to me – at her own expense. Thank you, Carole, you rock! Shame on you, Picador – it is not the right way to promote your products!

A short bio of Aemilia Bassano Lanyer instead of synopsis:

Aemilia/Emilia/Amelia Bassano Lanyer/Lanier (at that time the English spelling rules were rahter vague so I include all possible variations) was the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet.  She was born out of wedlock in 1569 or 1570 to Margaret Johnson and Baptista Bassano, one of the numerous Venetian Bassano family many of whom worked in London as musicians for the Tudor and Jacobean courts and the theatres. Their family crest included the mulberry tree and silk moth whose Italian translation, “mora,” means both “moth” and “moor” and in heraldic terms can be interpreted as a pun on their Mediterranean/Jewish dark appearance.

Anyway because of his father Emilia Lanier was a striking young woman who undoubtedly stood out from the crowd in pasty-faced London. She was left without means upon her father’s death but her head was full of ideas. She  was apparently educated in the household by Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent and knew Latin well enough to read Ovid and Aristotle in original. She was exotic, intelligent, ambitious and determined at a time when the ideal of female beauty was fair-haired, rather simple, domestically inclined and temperamentally mild.

A portrait of an unknown dark beauty, allegedly Emilia Bassano, by Nicolas Hillard.

Teenage Aemilia became the mistress of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, the first cousin of Elizabeth I of England, an influential man 45 years her senior. Allegedly it was the happiest and the most prosperous period of her life. Their affair lasted several years but after getting pregnant for appearances’ sake Aemilia was married off to her first cousin, Alfonso Lanier, a recorder player employed at the court. At that time Emilia became a regular visitor to the surgery of Simon Foreman/Forman, a popular doctor/astrologer/analyst of his time, a man well-known in Shakespeare’s theatrical circle. Here she would seek career advice for her husband in order to restore the family finances, seek reassurance that she would eventually become a Lady and, it seems, occasionally fall into Foreman’s bed. Foreman, who found her fascinating, tells us a very odd detail about her. She had “a wart or mole in the pit of the throat or near it.” He must have had a good look at her. He would later refer to her as an incuba – from the Latin incubare “to lie upon”. Perhaps it was a highbrow variation on calling her a “mattress” or “a good lay”. Or were these words reflecting just his secret fantasies? His later ungracious predictions for her prosperity would also deem her unworthy of the advancement she so craved –  was it a revenge of a spurned lover?

Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon

Scholars have constructed Aemilia’s biography by relying on sparse church, court and legal records which mention her name and activities. As you can imagine it wasn’t an easy task; still we know about her as much if not more than about William Shakespeare, go figure. Aged 41 in 1611, she published a series of her own spiritual poems called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail to God, King of Judaea). Alfonso and Aemilia remained married until his death in 1613. Forman’s diary entries suggest Lanier told him about having several miscarriages and being generally unhappy with her marriage of convenience but he can hardly be called an unbiased source.

After the death of Alfonso, Aemilia supported herself by running a school. She rented a house from Edward Smith for her students but, due to disputes over the correct rent price, she was arrested on two different occasions between 1617 and 1619. Because parents weren’t willing to send their children to a woman with a history of arrest, Lanier’s dreams of running a prosperous school ended. She also led a twenty-year legal battle against her husband’s relatives to get the rights to his income from a tax on hay (a battle she took to the Privy Council and won). She died a natural death in 1645 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Simon Foreman/Forman, elizabethan astrologer

Unfortunately little of that info can be found in the book.

My impressions:

I liked Aemilia in the first part of the book – a feisty, educated and intelligent woman who, despite being reduced to a kept mistress, wanted to carve herself a place at the court of Elizabeth I . I loved her dabbling in forbidden magic. I loved the references to Macbeth, one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. The cover is also pretty amazing. Still there were more things I had problems with.

My biggest carping: the book presented a very limited number of facts taken from Aemilia’s life. The nearer the ending, the less real the whole story became. I understand it is a fictionalized biography but still with such an interesting woman I would stick as close to facts as I could. Unfortunately after the middle of the book it  felt as if the author became completely bored and tired with the plot and the main lead, taking unnecessary shortcuts and supporting herself with more and more fantasy elements. Gilding the lily – that’s what comes to my mind.

Aemilia herself as a character lost my sympathy completely during the illness of her only son who caught the plague. SPOILER: highlight to read or skip Will Shakespeare, allegedly the father of little Henry and her former lover offered Aemilia his money and keys to his house. She refused. It was so completely out of logic and out of character: one moment she was the frantic mother, willing to bed the Devil himself and all his demons, dabble in black witchcraft to save her precious boy’s life (quite understandable) and the very next minute she was refusing a very generous assistance offer, so much needed in her reduced circumstances, pouting like an offended teenager. Why? You see, after they had a misunderstanding *rolleye* and split up Will wrote some ugly sonnets about Aemilia and she’s been hating him ever since. Still I suppose a mother so hell-bent on saving her only child from the plague would have forgotten any past animosities for her son’s sake. It almost made me stop reading the book. I regret I waded through it to the very end as in the second half everything went firmly downwards. There were more and more incongruities piled one on another like a completely botched, senseless revenge of Lilith during a theatrical performance (can’t a demon see through a simple theatre costume?) or an interrupted execution/lynch of Aemilia who was saved miraculously (by whom? Why?) from being hanged as a witch.

Also the romance story arc with Will Shakespeare, including bad sex scenes, left me snorting with disgust. Was it really needed at all? I doubt it.

Final verdict:

I can’t recommend this novel to anyone because I am seriously disappointed. I suppose my expectations were too high. Witches, demons, romance and magic are good but a real story of a woman is better. It is sad that even a Wikipedia entry contains more interesting facts about the life of Aemilia than this novel. I wish somebody did Aemilia Bassano Lanyer a justice – she was an original, compelling historical figure and she deserves something better.

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8 Responses to Review: Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly

  1. carolerae20 says:

    It did fall apart bc the author was trying too much at the end. The real story is much more entertaining…I honestly did not like the magic aspect. IDK. But great review!
    Thanks for being so patient with me. It took a long time, but I managed to get it to you. :3

    • Thank you for the effort and perseverance, Carole – I am really disgusted by the way the publisher went back on their word.
      The book would indeed work better without the supernatural condiment added. I decided to research Aemilia Lanier a bit and my jaw dropped when I realized what a great life story the author managed to waste!

  2. blodeuedd says:

    Ohh pooh :/ But then you are you 😉

    I also liked the first part the best. it did get freaky later on

  3. rameau says:

    Supernatural stories have their place but why use them to ruin reality? It’s not like there’s a dozen books already written about this one woman and the author had to struggle to come up with something original.

    • Exactly. With such a fresh, original, real-life heroine the author should have had a field day, just filling the gaps in her life in a creative way. Instead I got demons and witches. Eh, life.

  4. heidenkind says:

    That happened to me with a giveaway once too! It is annoying and disappointing and not a great marketing strategy. I still haven’t read a book by the author, not that it was her fault.

    • The funniest thing is that if anybody contacted me offering an e-book instead of the expensive hardback they had promised I would be more than glad to accept. It seems (again my theory only) that such an important task as planning a decent internet marketing strategy is usually given to e.g. interns or some low-paid employees because their bosses still think in medieval terms. If any mistakes are made nobody cares enough to rectify them and then they are surprised the sales volume goes firmly down.

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