The plot of "Dark Aemilia" could easily be compared to the 1998 movie "Shakespeare in Love"... if it were rewritten by George R.R. Martin to include sorcery, Anglican practices, rape, and pestilence.
The novel's premise is the same as the movie. Will Shakespeare falls in lust with the woman who becomes the muse for sonnets 127 - 152, the "Dark Lady." The woman of his obsession is Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, England's first published female poet. Though fictional, the novel is an account based on historical fact of Bassano Lanyer's struggle to overcome systematic ignorance, sexism and poverty in 17th Century London while reconciling her love for theatre's most famous playwright.
"Dark Aemilia" is a fast, entertaining read. O'Reilly puts the reader in Queen Elizabeth I's London: Good health, cleanliness, and peace are a luxury that only the rich can afford. Women are illiterate as a rule, and the church regularly teaches that women are the downfall of society. O'Reilly's descriptions of the city streets and its denizens evoke strong emotions from the reader. Amidst the frequent depictions of vivid violence, gore and sex, O'Reilly quotes lines from Shakespeare's sonnets and plays. We are also introduced to Lanyer's less famous, proto-feminist writing. O'Reilly strikes a fine balance between relaying historical research and entertaining her audience.
The book is formatted like a play, beginning with dramatis personae, and ends with a further reading section subcategorized into historical notes, a timeline of events, a suggested reading list and a glossary of terms. Those ignorant of the facts will surely become educated.
It should be noted that while this novel is based on facts (the accounts of Bassano Lanyers life are as accurate as the historical documents that preserve it), this book is not a primary source for thesis development. It shouldn't be taken literally. Bassano Lanyer and Shakespeare lived in the same time period, but it is unlikely that they were lovers. Rather, "Dark Aemilia" is thoughtful, heartily written fanfiction with an edge. More than just a summer beach read, it is a pleasant diversion for Bassano Lanyer and Shakespearean devotees needing a break from their studies.
"Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady"