The Dark Lady's Mask

The Dark Lady's Mask

by Mary Sharratt


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544944442
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/11/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 689,642
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

MARY SHARRATT, the author of seven critically acclaimed novels, is on a mission to write strong women back into history. Her novels include Daughters of the Witching Hill, the Nautilus award-winning Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen,The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, and Ecstasy, about the life, loves, and music of Alma Mahler. She is an American who lives in Lancashire, England.

Read an Excerpt

The Liberty of Norton Folgate, 1576  

Papa was a magician. No one was ever more loving or wise than he.
 Seven years old, Aemilia nestled by his side in the long slanting light of a summer evening. Friday, it was, and Papa was expecting a visit from his four brothers. This was a change in custom, for previously Papa had always gone to meet them at Uncle Alvise’s house in Mark Lane. But this evening was special, Aemilia thought, glancing at Papa’s expectant face. The air seemed golden, filled with blessing, even as from outside their garden walls came the cries of the poor lunatics locked up within Bedlam Hospital. From the west came the baying of the beasts held within the City Dog House. Drunken revelers sang and howled as they spilled out of the Pye Inn just down the road. Yet none of it could touch them here within the boundaries of Papa’s magic circle. Aemilia imagined his sweet enchantment rising around their family like fortress walls. This garden was his sanctuary, his own tiny replica of Italy on this cold and rainy isle.
      The pair of them sat beneath an arbor of ripening grapes, planted from the vine Papa had carried all the way from Veneto. Around them, his garden bloomed in abundance. Roses, jasmine, honeysuckle, wisteria, and gillyflowers released their perfume while from within the house echoed the music of her mother singing while Aemilia’s sister, Angela, played the virginals. Beyond the flower beds, Papa’s kitchen garden brimmed with fennel, haricots verts, and rows of lettuce that they ate in plenty. Papa even ate the bloodred love apples, though Mother swore they were poison and she would not let her daughters near them. It was an Italian habit, Papa said. In Veneto, people prized the scarlet pomodoro as a delicacy.
      Beyond the vegetable beds lay the orchard of apples, plums, and pears, and beyond that the chicken run and the small paddock for Bianca, the milk cow. Food in London was expensive, so what better reason to plant their own? Aemilia’s family never lacked for sustenance. While Papa was away, a hired man came to look after the gardens for him.
      They dwelled on the grounds of the old priory of Saint Mary Spital, outside London’s city wall. The precinct was called the Liberty of Norton Folgate, Papa told her, because here they were beyond the reach of city law and enjoyed freedom from arrest. Some of their neighbors were secret Catholics, so it was rumored, who hid the thighbones of dead saints in their cellars. But Papa’s secrets lay buried even deeper.
      When Aemilia begged him for a fiaba, a fable, a fairy tale, he told her of Bassano, the city that had given him and his brothers their name. Forty miles from Venice, it nestled in the foothills below Monte Grappa. Italian words, as beautiful as music, flew off his tongue as he described the Casa dal Corno, the villa where they had dwelled that occupied a place of pride on the oldest square in Bassano. A grand fresco graced the Casa dal Corno’s façade. Holding Aemilia close, Battista described the fanciful pictures of goats and apes, of stags and rams, of woodwinds and stringed instruments, and of nymphs and cherubs caught up in an eternal dance.
      Aemilia turned in her father’s lap to view their own house that had no fresco or any adornment at all, only ivy trained to grow along its walls. Loud black rooks nested in the overhanging elm trees.
      “Why didn’t you stay there?” she asked, thinking how lovely it would be to live in that villa, to be sitting there instead of here. She pictured white peacocks, like the ones she had seen in Saint James’s Park, strutting beneath the peach trees in that Italian garden.
      Papa smiled in sadness, plunging an arrow into her heart. “We were driven away. We had no choice.”
      “But why?” Her fingers tightened their grip on his hand. “It was so beautiful there. Bellissima!
      Aemilia believed that Italy was paradise, more splendid than heaven, and that Papa was all-powerful. How he could have been chased away from his home, like a tomcat from her mother’s kitchen? Aemilia’s father and uncles were court musicians who lived under the Queen of England’s patronage. They performed for Her Majesty’s delight and wore her livery. Papa was regarded as a gentleman, allowed a coat of arms. Though the Bassanos of Norton Folgate weren’t rich, they had glass windows in their parlor and music room. Their house boasted two chimneys. They’d a cupboard of pewter plates and tankards, and even two goblets of Venetian glass. A fine Turkish rug in red and black draped their best table. Their kitchen was large, and they’d a buttery and larder attached, and a cellar below. Battista Bassano was eminently respectable, a man of means. How could such a fate have befallen him?
      Papa cupped Aemilia’s face in his hands. “Cara mia, you will never be driven from your home. You’ll be safe always.”
      “When I grow up, I shall be a great lady with sacks of gold!” she told him. “I’ll sail to Italy and buy back your house.”
      With the red-gold sun dazzling her, it seemed so simple. She would grow into a woman and right every wrong that had befallen her father.
      Papa stroked her hair, dark and curling like his own. “How will you earn your fortune, then? Will you marry the richest man in England?” His voice was indulgent and teasing.
      Solemnly, she shook her head. “I shall be a poet!”
      “A poet, Aemilia. Truly?”
      Even at that age, it was her desire to write poetry exquisite enough to make plain English sound as beautiful as her father’s native tongue. Poets abounded at court, all vying for Her Majesty’s favor. The Queen herself wrote poetry.
      As Papa held her in his gaze, she offered him her palm. “Read my future!”
      He took her hand in his, yet instead of looking at her palm, he stared into her eyes. Aemilia imagined her future unfolding before his inner vision like one of the court masques performed for the Queen. Cradling her cheek to his pounding heart, he held her with such tenderness, as though he both mourned and burned in fiercest pride when he divined what she would become.
      “What do you see?” she asked him. “What will happen to me?”
      Before he could answer, her uncles slipped through the back gate, which Papa had left unlatched. She watched as Uncle Alvise carefully bolted it behind them. Her uncles were usually boisterous, making the air around them explode with their noisy greetings, but this evening they were as quiet as thieves. Aemilia’s heart drummed in worry. What could be wrong? Papa was old, already in his fifties, and her uncles even older, their hair thinning and gray. Giacomo, Antonio, Giovanni, and Alvise kissed her and patted her head before Papa instructed her to go inside to her mother and leave them to their business.
      The child wrapped her arms around her father’s waist. “No, no, no! I want to stay with you!”
      The garden at this hour was at its most enchanting, with moths and fireflies emerging from the rustling leaves. She could believe that the Faery Queen might step out from behind the blossoming rowan tree, her endless train of sprites and elves swirling round her.
      But there was no pleading with Papa. Stern now, he swept her up and delivered her into the candlelit music chamber. Without a word, he closed the door and left her there.
      “Come here, Little Mischief.” Angela held out her arms.
      At sixteen, Angela was already a woman. She hoisted Aemilia into her lap and positioned Aemilia’s fingers on the virginals keys. “You play the melody and I’ll play counterpoint.”
      Papa called Aemilia his little virtuosa, for she was nearly as skilled in playing as her sister was. Their fingers danced across the keyboard while Mother and Angela sang in harmony, as though to cover the noise of Papa and his brothers descending into the cellar.

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The Dark Lady's Mask 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
gaele More than 1 year ago
AudioBook Review: Stars: Overall: 4 Narration: 5 Story: 4 A fortuitous upbringing for a young woman, daughter of a court musician, was innovative and interesting in and of itself, as women, particularly those of less than noble birth, were commodities. But the young Aemilia was fortunate enough to be blessed with brains and determination, allowing her to make the most of her education and entrée into society her guardians provided. While still being constrained by the laws and customs of the time, she was obligated to, or reliant upon the men in her life, even as she was the first female paid poet in England. Sharratt takes us from the obvious loving and caring relationship with her father, her warm and nurturing time with the noblewomen who would foster her after her father’s death, seeing to her education and deportment. Here is where Aemilia’s life takes flight, reveling in all she could learn, manipulating words, developing her own sense of herself and her place. Never deterred (although often sorely tested) by low points, she even started a school for girls to keep herself from abject poverty. But a chance meeting with a “name on the rise” in the form of William Shakespeare, find these two in a collaboration as two poets at heart writing on the human condition, finding and poking at the issues of the day, enlightening and educating with the power of literature. Conversations with Shakespeare, as well as rather intriguing secondary characters (the Weir Sisters: 3 women herbalists) as well as many others pepper the text and add familiarity to a story that could have easily been focused only on the purported relationship. Aemilia’s resilience and struggles, not to mention the closely guarded secrets she keeps of her past. The story moves from tragedy to light-hearted moments clearly, with depth that intrigues rather than overwhelms. My only issue with the story as a whole is the modern feel to conversations, I felt the need to bring those conversations closer to the era, not just when sharing bits of poems and plays as the collaboration (and its dissolution) came to pass. While seeming to be a minor one, I couldn’t help but notice that discrepancy, and that made for a large disconnect for me. Narration for this story is provided by Jilly Bond, and she presented the story cleanly and clearly, with pauses, hesitations and tone changes that suited both the text and the emotional impact a moment would convey. Precise enunciation, clear diction and no over-reach for voices or moments, her narration moved the story forward that matched the pace of the text and provided a wonderful listen. I received an AudioBook copy of the title from the publisher via AudioBook Jukebox for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting historical novel highlighting the problems the Jews faced, and what women faced back then. Goes from England to Italy and back to England.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The fluid, elegant prose woven into the captivating and moving story of Amelia Bassano Lanier. Mary Sharrat draws a vibrant portrait of women during the Renaissance, who were restrained by their sex and yearned for more from life. Their struggles mirror many of the same issues women face today. "The Dark Lady's Mask" is as much about Amelia's doomed love affairs as it is a celebration of language and poetry, and the perseverance of the human spirit to never give up on one's dreams. A delightful read from beginning to end.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
The Dark Lady’s Mask is intriguing, especially because it is based on a true historical person who knew Shakespeare. Aemilia was a writer herself, a poet who could read Greek and Latin. Most fascinating of all is that she often wore male clothing and was well traveled. In Mary Sharratt's novel, the premise is that she was not only Shakespeare's lover, but also his muse. Although no one will ever know the secrets of their relationship. this book was a great imagining of a possible love story between the two writers. Mary Sharratt writes lovely, easy to enjoy, luscious prose which truly brought this period to life as I read along. I truly enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it to anyone who loves historical biographies or who are followers of the great Shakespeare! Thank you to the author and publisher. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for visiting my blog,, where the greatest historical fiction is reviewed! For fascinating women of history bios and women's fiction please visit
SherreyM More than 1 year ago
A look at the trials of Renaissance women FTC Disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in exchange for a fair and honest review. Opinions expressed are mine. *** Drawn to historical fiction for a variety of reasons, Mary Sharratt has touched on one topic I continue to applaud authors for bringing into the light: the voice that women lacked in periods such as the Renaissance. In The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, we meet Aemilia Bassano Lanier, a woman of strong opinion and fearless in the face of doing what she is forbidden because she is a woman. As a girl, Aemilia often dressed as a boy to get to do things girls weren’t allowed to do. She definitely was plucky! I like Sharratt’s development of Aemilia’s role and character. However, I was not so fond of the Shakespeare Sharratt painted for us. I get that he might have been ragged in dress. Writers have never been among the wealthy. Yet, the portrayal of him as a somewhat whiny, child-like man who appeared to use Aemilia disappointed me. Perhaps my love of Shakespeare interfered with my understanding his role in this particular book. Sharratt’s depiction of the times and place were well written and descriptive. Her characters were life-like and embodied the characteristics of the time. All in all, Sharratt is an excellent writer. Fans of historical fiction set in the 1500s and/or of the tale of Shakespeare’s muse and who she might be will definitely enjoy The Dark Lady’s Mask. There are several other books which have been written on the same subject which might give contrast and an interesting look at the varying opinions on just who Mr. Shakespeare’s muse was.
StephWard More than 1 year ago
'The Dark Lady's Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare's Muse' is a fascinating historical fiction novel that tells the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanier - the little known collaborator and lover of William Shakespeare. Not only does the book talk about Aemilia's writing, her love and then rejection by Shakespeare - it draws a vivid portrait of all women during the Renaissance era. I'm not a regular reader of historical fiction, but I do read some especially if the subjects are some of my favorites - Shakespeare being one of them. Being an English major throughout both my undergraduate and graduate studies, I took several courses focused solely on Shakespeare and his works. When I read the description for this novel, I was immediately intrigued because I had never heard of Aemilia Bassano Lanier or her relationship with Shakespeare - business or romantic. I was mesmerized from the opening words of the novel and didn't come out of my bubble until I had completely finished the book. The author's writing is nothing short of amazing - the vivid imagery and detailed descriptions brought the sixteenth century to life right before my eyes in a way I didn't think was possible. I felt as if I was transported back in time and got to experience everything right alongside Aemilia herself. This type of experience doesn't happen very often when I'm reading something I don't know much about - and it rarely occurs when the book isn't written in the first person. Surprisingly, the author's masterful storytelling skills allowed me to really connect with Aemilia and the rest of her world - despite being written in the third person point of view. Everything about the writing and the novel seemed to glide effortlessly together and flowed along so easily and naturally that I didn't get distracted once (another unusual occurrence). The plot itself was intriguing - I loved learning everything I could about Aemilia, her life, her dreams, writing, inspirations, and especially her connections to Shakespeare. I'm not sure if my English degree background or love for the Bard and his works had much impact on my reading experience - but I'm sure it did on some level. I can't think of anything negative to say about the book - every single aspect was incredibly well done and nearly perfect. I don't come across many novels that meet those criteria, so when I do - I know that I've stumbled across an amazingly talented author. That's definitely the case here and I fully intend to read all of the author's other books. I recommend this novel very highly to fans of the genre, along with readers who enjoy stories about famous historical figures, the Renaissance era, or those looking for an amazing book to get lost inside of for a while. Disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.