As the literary world marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death this month, a Minnesota-born novelist is raising the possibility that a woman of the bard's time knew him, influenced him and maybe even collaborated with him.
And possible ties to Shakespeare aside, Mary Sharratt's novel "The Dark Lady's Mask" aims to raise the profile of a forgotten female writer.
The story opens in 1593, as a young woman makes a discreet visit to an astrologer in London. Before he creates his star charts, he quizzes Aemilia Bassano Lanier about where she lives and where her money comes from.
"Now tell me how you came to receive the income of forty pounds a year. Is it your inheritance?"
She looked at the astrologer wonderingly and struggled not to laugh. Was there truly a soul left in London who didn't know her history?"
Mary Sharratt didn't set out to write about Shakespeare. She just wanted readers to be able to name any female writer before Jane Austen. While researching female writers of the Renaissance, she came across the real-life story of Aemilia Bassano Lanier.
"She was England's first professional woman writer," said Sharratt.
And Lanier lived an extraordinary life. Born in 1569, she was the daughter of an Italian musician in the court of Queen Elizabeth. Her father was believed to be Jewish, but had to worship in secret because England at the time was what Sharratt describes as a Protestant police state. Lanier's life took the first of several major twists after her father died when she was young.
"She was fostered by an aristocratic woman, the dowager countess of Kent, who gave her the kind of humanist education generally reserved for boys of that era," said Sharratt. "So in that aspect she was very privileged. She learned Latin and Greek, philosophy and rhetoric."
When the countess remarried, however, Lanier had to move on. Still a teenager, she became mistress of the powerful Henry Carey, lord chamberlain to the queen.
"As his paramour she enjoyed this brief period of glory in the royal court, where she was celebrated for her beauty, her wit, her Italian flair," continued Sharratt. "But this all came to an abrupt and inglorious end when she was 23 and pregnant with Carey's child. So basically he dumped her, pensioned her off at 40 pounds a year."
She was thrust into an unhappy marriage of convenience to a man who was only interested in her money. And that might have been that — except she decided to pick up the pen. At the time, only devotional writing was considered appropriate for a woman. But, Sharratt says, Aemilia Bassano Lanier turned that on its head and wrote what has become known as her best piece.
"Her 'Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum' — 'Hail God, King of the Jews' — is nothing less than a vindication of the rights of women, couched in religious verse," she said.
In "The Dark Lady's Mask," Sharratt uses parallels between Lanier's life and Shakespeare's to weave a story in which they meet, fall in love and begin writing together. She builds on speculation that Lanier may be the mysterious "dark lady" Shakespeare refers to in his sonnets.
Sharratt stresses the story is fiction. She's not claiming, as others have done, that Shakespeare didn't write all of his plays. However, she says, he was known to collaborate. She points to the striking change after his early historical work, when Shakespeare suddenly began writing very differently.
"These early Italian comedies, where you have really strong, free-spoken characters like Rosalind in 'As You Like It' and Beatrice in 'Much Ado About Nothing,' they're really his strongest female characters," she said. "And then later on, when you get to his great tragedies, like Hamlet, there are no strong women at all."
Sharratt will read from "The Dark Lady's Mask" at 4 p.m. today at the University of Minnesota Bookstore in Coffman Union in Minneapolis. The book is a historical romp, but Sharratt hopes it will raise interest in Aemilia Bassano Lanier.
"Because whether or not she was Shakespeare's lover or collaborator, she certainly was his literary peer," Sharratt said. "And I think she deserves a much wider audience."
Our perceptions of history keep changing, Sharratt says, as our understanding of the world changes today. Historical novels can help us cast a new light, she says, on what we thought we understood.