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Who was Emilia Bassano Lanyer Anyway?

Who was Emilia Bassano Lanyer, anyway? We don’t know much about her life, and we don’t even have a picture of her, even though there is a miniature painting that some think might be her. We know she published a book of poetry in 1611 called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Her name on the cover is “Mistris Aemilia Lanyer” and she is identified as the wife of Captain Alfonso Lanyer.

Other things that are known about her:

-She was the daughter of Baptista Bassano and his “reputed” wife Margaret Johnson. Baptista was the youngest of a family of musicians and instrument makers who were invited by King Henry VIII to come from Venice to be Court musicians in England.

-She was in the household of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent, for a while when she was young.

-She spent time at a country house called Cookham Dean with Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, and the Countess’s daughter Lady Anne Clifford.

-She was mistress to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen.

-She married Alfonso Lanyer, a royal musician, who was either the son or stepson of her first cousin Lucretia Bassano Lanyer. (In Dark Lady, Alfonso is Lucretia’s son and younger than Emilia.)

-She was mother to Henry and Odillya Lanyer. Henry lived to adulthood, became a Court musician, married, and had children. Odillya died in infancy.

-She visited Simon Forman, astrologer and physician, in 1598 and early in the 1600’s. Much of what we know, or think we know, about Emilia comes from Forman’s casebooks.

-She published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum in 1611, and was one of the first women to publish a book in England.

-She dedicated her book to women at Court, thus implicitly seeking patronage. (Seeking patronage then was a little like applying for a foundation grant today.)

She also sued her husband’s Lanyer relatives for income from his part in a patent to weigh hay and straw; she ran a school for 2 years; she lived to be 76 years old; she died, after the theaters were closed by Cromwell, in Clerkenwell, a then northern suburb of London. (This information isn’t in Dark Lady; my book ends with the publication of Emilia’s book.)

Historian A.L. Rowse speculated that she was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets and that she was part of a love triangle between Shakespeare, the Earl of Southampton, and herself. He also represents her as a cruel, grasping, promiscuous woman who was “a bad lot” and “no better than she should be.” My book is indebted to Rowse in that I follow many of his suggestions as to what may have happened. It differs in the interpretation placed on these events and the motivations of Emilia and others.

Recent scholars in English and women’s studies have focused on Emilia’s being an early woman author, the first woman to seek patronage in England by writing a book and dedicating it exclusively to women, and an early feminist. Most of these scholars do not accept Rowse’s theory of her relationship with Shakespeare. These two camps seem to have no common ground with each other. Either you believe that Emilia was a serious author or you believe that she was a whore. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.*

But what if they both are right? What if a bold, proto-feminist author also had a love affair with Shakespeare?  What if Rowse’s negative view of her character is clouded by misogynistic stereotypes? What if Emilia Lanyer’s story were to be told from a perspective sympathetic to women and specifically to her?

Actually, several works of fiction have been written with Emilia as the main character or as playing an important supporting role, and two recent ones have been entirely sympathetic to Emilia, as is mine.

However, Dark Lady differs from other books about Emilia in that I place her squarely in the life of her time, the life of a middle-class wife and mother who happens to have connections to Court, to the theater, and to women important in political life and in Protestant reformist circles. I show Emilia as connected to a circle of women who are interested in literature, who write themselves, who believe in reform, and who are connected to one another by blood and/or religious/political sympathies.

So Emilia may have been kept as a mistress by a nobleman, had a hot romance with a player and poet, settled down into married respectability with her cousin, and then been pursued by an unscrupulous astrologer, yet also may have had friendships and connections with a number of important, titled, literary women.

Why couldn’t all these be possible? Well, in fiction they can be, and in Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, they are.

Another post will introduce Emilia’s Court connections and show their connections to one another.

 

*Even how you spell her name indicates where you stand. “Aemilia” is her name as it appears on the cover of her book and is the preferred spelling of those who see her as primarily a serious writer—and not involved with Shakespeare. “Emilia” is Rowse’s spelling and the spelling of most of those who accept his arguments and his judgements about her character. Rowse uses “Lanier,” following Forman; “Lanyer” is used by Susanne Woods and other scholars and appears on Woods’ biography of Emilia and her edition of Emilia’s works. I use “Emilia” because I started out thinking of her as having that name. I used “Lanier” at first and then changed it to “Lanyer.” I also tried to change my spelling of her first name, but “Aemilia” just didn’t suit the character I was creating. So her name in my book is a hybrid: “Emilia Lanyer.”

 

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