Did you write your novel about Emilia Bassano Lanyer because you disagreed with a professor?
Well, I heard a talk about Emilia by A.L. Rowse, a British historian who gave a lecture at UGA when I was in graduate school. Rowse was convinced that she was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It thrilled me to think that not only may she have been Shakespeare’s girlfriend, but was a poet herself—and an early feminist! Writing about her brought together two strands of my life that had been separate: my love of the Renaissance and Shakespeare and my feminism.
But Rowse had a low opinion of her character, based (I thought) on his misogynistic attitude. I wanted to question that attitude, so I decided to write about Emilia from her own point of view, as a woman struggling to survive in a time when her life would have been severely restricted and constrained by laws and anti-woman beliefs, yet also a time of excitement and possibility.
What do we know about Emilia?
We know her family were Court musicians, and that they were probably secret Jews, that is, they converted outwardly but practiced their religion secretly. We know she was one of the first women to publish a book in England, in 1611. And she is one of the first women to call for women’s equality. Her book of poetry, SALVE DEUS REX JUDAEORUM (Hail, God, King of the Jews) was published in 1611. She also wrote the first “country house” poem written in England, and she dedicated her book to nine prominent women, some of whom were writers or patrons of writers. So she created a community of women who wrote and supported the arts.
Do you think that Emilia wrote Shakespeare’s works?
No! I don’t believe it for a second. Their writing is too different, and besides, I’m convinced that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, for many reasons.
You obviously feel strongly about both women’s writing and about Shakespeare. How did you come to be so interested in both?
I taught English literature and composition for years in colleges and universities, and I’ve always been a feminist. I was reading Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan and marching for the ERA as well as going on Take Back the Night marches in the 1970s.
At the same time, I loved the Elizabethan theater, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others. There didn’t seem to be a way to connect them at first. But when feminist scholars began to research about early women writers and discovering that there had been many women who wrote, I was delighted to discover their work and read an alternative version of Emilia.
Do we have any proof that Emilia and Shakespeare had a relationship, as they do in DARK LADY?
There is no proof that they knew each other, but they moved in the same circles (of theater people, professional musicians, and the Court).
In most universities, do people study her, on her own, not in relation to Shakespeare?
Emilia has been studied since the 1990s when feminist scholars began to write about her. She is not studied in relation to Shakespeare at all, as English literature and feminist scholars believe she should be studied in her own right as an Early Modern woman writer. Susanne Woods wrote a biography correcting some of the anti-woman statements made by her “discoverer” A.L. Rowse, and also put together new edition of her works.
Why did you write a novel about Emilia instead of a biography?
I wanted more scope for imagination. I’ve tried to keep close to what actually could have happened or was likely to have happened. I don’t put her in places she was not likely to have gone.
Other novels have appeared recently about Emilia Lanyer. How is your novel different?
My novel differs from the others in that it shows Emilia’s relationships with other women—particularly other women writers. It shows her love of her women friends and her support and defense of women.
I also show her relationships with her family: her husband (a musician and her cousin), her mother-in-law, and other family members and musicians. I show her relationships with the noblewomen who befriend and employ her. I include her relationships with her servants, as they show her loyalty and care for those who depend on her, as well as her worries about her everyday life and economic realities. And I give her a friendship with Moll Frith, a well-known underworld character and cross-dresser known as “Moll Cutpurse.”
What are you working on now?
My wife, Libby Ware, and I just finished writing a mystery novel about two women booksellers who try to solve a murder while searching for a missing book of magic spells. It’s called MURDER AT THE ESTATE SALE. We hope it will become a series.
I’ve also started on my next historical novel, THE BALLAD OF THE DUCHESS, about Katherine Willoughby Brandon Bertie, Duchess of Suffolk, who appears briefly in DARK LADY.
Libby and I also sell antiquarian and collectible books. Bookselling is a new world for me, and I enjoy learning about it.
You got married last year, didn’t you?
Yes, Libby and I got married last May. We had been dating for fourteen years, so we thought it was time. We don’t have plans to live together; we enjoy our independence and solitude too much! We spend time together on weekends, when we go out of town for book fairs, and when we go to community and congregation activities.
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.