“Dark Lady,” by Charlene Ball

Charlene Ball

Reviewed by Joshua S. Fullman

Historians have long attempted to discover the identity of Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady,” the mysterious figure haunting many of his latter sonnets. Identified by A.L. Rowse in 1973 as the most likely contender,[1] Emilia Bassano Lanyer might possibly have served as the poet’s muse and obsessive love interest, and she becomes the focus of Charlene Ball’s most recent novel. While Shakespearean critic David Bevington asserts that there is little to no evidence that Rowse’s identification of Lanyer as the Dark Lady is accurate,[2] the effect of Rowse’s scholarship nevertheless drew attention to Lanyer’s poetic work and made a space for her in history.

Far more interesting than the fact that she knew Shakespeare—I imagine many people did—is her own literary work. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) was released the same year as the Authorized Version of the Bible, though to less immediate acclaim, and it provides a unique perspective on Christianity, the Fall, the crucifixion, and women. Yet the most surprising feature of Ball’s novel is that it contains so little directly relating to Lanyer’s posthumous eminence. Lanyer’s poetry distinguishes her as one of the few female writers of the Renaissance, and she is widely esteemed among critics today for her feminist interpretations of Christianity. But apart from depicting a few brief scenes of Lanyer’s all-female poetry club, Ball is more interested in the sensational, and mostly fictional, details of the poetess’ life.

Part 1 of the novel follows Lanyer’s childhood. This section is, in terms of technique and style, the most unrewarding part of the book, as we move far too rapidly through Lanyer’s adolescence for the story to be of much use. The first chapter in particular appears as a Who’s Who of English aristocracy, and in the span of seven years we meet so many characters that we connect with none of them emotionally. For instance, Maggie and Emilia reunite in Chapter 2 after three years apart; but when we did not come to know Maggie well in Chapter 1, it feels like a pyrrhic reunion—and we the readers are largely unmoved by the homecoming. The author’s obvious desire to justify Emilia’s importance in the Renaissance world through the other historical persons she encounters comes off as clumsy and uneven.

In Part 2 the pacing and storytelling improves as the narrative settles in with extended scenes and some engaging, if not altogether captivating, dialogue. Here we follow Lanyer’s three loves who will all have dramatic impacts on her life: her wealthy patron and paramour, Lord Hunsdon; her cousin and future husband, Alfonso Lanyer; and the genius playwright, William Shakespeare. But the narrative seems weighted down by the overt assumptions of a twenty-first century gender politics. Refusing to conform to social norms, for instance, Lanyer takes to cross-dressing and touring London unaccompanied by a man, while at the same time actively promoting an enlightened view of femininity. Exciting as it may seem, her actions appear weakly transgressive, and the influence of the Renaissance theatre reads like the eagerly delighted findings of a New Historicist professor attempting to prove her theories on gender rather than a more realistic characterization of a woman of the court. Similarly, it is in her boy’s clothes that Shakespeare seems to be most attracted to Lanyer, and readers intrigued by modern interpretations of Shakespeare’s sexuality will find much of what they expect.

As Part 2 ends and Part 3 begins, we are treated to Lanyer’s many experiences with loss: the affection of her husband, the trust of Will, her child, and even her own self. Lanyer meets the famous physician Simon Forman; through his evil influence, she flirts with sorcery and turns to opium. Because the historical Forman kept meticulous diaries, we know that the doctor attempted to seduce her, and it is plausible that he sold her any number of elixirs to dull her pain or loose her inhibitions; but there is nothing to indicate that she becomes an addict, and Ball’s insertion of this subplot is concerning. Yet despite our lack of historical evidence, perhaps the most touching moments of the novel occur in this section as we with Lanyer acutely experience her plunge into suffering.

Part 4 concludes with Lanyer’s attempt to cope with loss through art. Any reader of Renaissance literature has been anticipating this moment since the opening of the book, eager to learn the process and product of Lanyer’s poetry. Yet we only see brief moments of Lanyer’s literary club and the women who encouraged her to write, ultimately providing her with the necessary confidence to publish. Unfortunately, the novel abruptly concludes with Lanyer’s selection of a title for her book, which was garnered from a dream decades prior.

Several other aspects of the writing make this a challenging book to fully enter and enjoy. There is a flaccid feel to the language that lacks seriousness and animation. For one, the novel dispenses entirely with Elizabethan English and adopts a modern tone, perhaps to ease the twenty-first century reader’s journey through the dialogue. The author chooses, however, to give no such translation for the novel’s many epistles and written messages between the characters, and she employs sixteenth-century spelling and syntax. Between this discrepancy and surprisingly modern, clichéd words and phrases like “through the grapevine” (30), “any port in a storm,” (126), “blood and guts” (132), “I’ll tell you what” (188), and “all kinds of stuff” (296), the language feels unhistorical and ordinary.

As has already been mentioned above, the pacing of the story likewise feels jilted and unreal. Each section within the chapter begins identifying the month and the year. Yet these identification markers appear more conventional than truly historical—and ultimately unnecessary. One chapter begins a section with the heading, “September 1587,” and gives two paragraphs of exposition before jumping to November without a heading to indicate the shift in time (73). Thus, the need of the author to provide a sense of historical context is undermined by the stronger need of the reader for evenness and consistency.

Yet the most troublesome aspect of this novel is its treatment of historical details. A bibliography is provided at the end of the text to contextualize Lanyer’s world and biography, but I fear more poetic liberties have been taken than are justified. Most pointedly, we are treated to a scene where Shakespeare rapes Emilia. This storyline may play well in the era of #metoo where media is wont to view men as would-be predators, but the striking nature of the scene has this critic wondering. Is there any evidence that suggests the Bard was a rapist? Or is it just assumed that since few men would be prosecuted for such a crime that all men would feel empowered to rape women? A weak defense given in the novel’s afterword suggests that the story is entirely imaginative; however, no attempt is made to defend this particular detail. Yet if we are to maintain a charitably realistic view toward history, should we randomly insinuate in fiction or history that Benjamin Franklin was a thief or that Tennyson was a murderer? It may be that when Abraham Lincoln can be both president of the United States and a hunter of vampires that narrative freeplay is endless and this line of question superfluous. But historical novels should also endeavor, to the extent possible, to be historical. Good fiction must contain more than an element of truth to be believable, and, if it is to be taken seriously, should not be so cavalier with the facts.

All in all, Ball’s novel may prompt her readers to investigate Lanyer’s life. Better still, it may motivate them to read Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. As a historical novel, however, it fails to provide a compelling story in its own right.

[1] Shakespeare the Man. Book Club Associates, 1973.

[2] “A.L. Rowse’s Dark Lady.” Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon. Ed. Marshall Grossman. University Press of Kentucky, 1998. Pp.10-28.

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