Friday, April 21, 2017

And the Winner Is...



You have won a paperback copy of Mary Sharratt's


I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Thanks to all who entered!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review and Giveaway: THE DARK LADY'S MASK by Mary Sharratt

Once again, Mary Sharratt captivates readers with a compelling tale of an extraordinary woman carving a place for herself in a man's world. THE DARK LADY'S MASK (available in paperback April 11) fictionalizes the life of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first Englishwoman to claim the title of professional poet. Lanier was also, according to many scholars, the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. Sharratt's Aemilia is, however, no mute object of the male poet's desire, but a full-fledged collaborator in the writing of his comedies. In fact, it is Aemilia's education, talent, and connections that secure Shakespeare the break that leads him to fame and literary immortality, even as he serves as her "mask,"  the cover conventions of the time require her to adopt in order to shepherd her work to stage without scandal.

Masks are a constant theme in this novel of self-discovery. Aemilia's relationship with Shakespeare, important as it is, occupies only half the book's pages. The novel's early sections dramatize Aemilia's childhood, the revelation of her Jewish roots, her humanist education, and her years at court as mistress to one of England's most powerful noblemen. Once she meets Shakespeare and begins writing in earnest, Aemilia realizes that she has only ever been "a mask with nothing behind it. An empty shell. A player in a tragicomedy uttering lines written by someone else." Her creative collaboration with Shakespeare moves her ever closer to her core, but inconvenient facts about her personal situation, her family background, and her gender still require disguise. It is only in the last quarter of the book, after her relationship with Shakespeare ends and she takes refuge in the company of learned women, that Aemelia discards her masks and reveals to the world her true self.

That self is, despite years of cross-dressing in search of freedom, wholly and unapologetically female. The theme of sisterhood, a favorite of Sharratt's, finds full expression in this novel. No matter their station, the female characters all suffer at the hands of men, and only by banding together in friendship do they overcome their oppression. It is through the affection and support of like-minded women that Aemilia achieves her dream of publication, and she uses that dream to advance women's cause. Spurred by the advice she received as a child from the humanist Anne Locke--"Remember this, my dear, you must cherish your own sex"--and by the experience of deep female friendships, Aemilia pens a poetic apology in defense of women, a proto-feminist religious poem that establishes her place in the cannon of English letters.

photo credit

Drawing on her meticulous research, keen psychological insight, and deep familiarity with Shakespearean drama, Sharratt crafts an immensely readable and deeply satisfying portrait of an early modern woman who challenged boundaries and expanded the spectrum of acceptable female roles. Ironically, in Sharratt's hands Shakespeare continues to serve as Aemilia's mask--the Shakespearean angle of the story not only broadens the novel's appeal but provides some of its cleverest and most moving pages. Yet Sharratt never makes Aemilia's success dependent on her involvement with the Bard; Aemilia succeeds in spite of it. In its imaginative and emotionally convincing interweaving of the two poets' lives, THE DARK LADY'S MASK serves as an exquisite tribute to Aemilia Bassano Lanier and her courageous contribution to the world of letters.


To celebrate the publication of the paperback edition of THE DARK LADY'S MASK, available April 11, 2017, the author has generously offered to send a free copy to one lucky reader of this review. To enter the random drawing, please comment below with the title of your favorite Shakespearean play by eleven pm PST Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Winner will be announced Friday, April 21, 2017. US residents only. Good luck!


The author of five critically acclaimed novels, Mary Sharratt is an American who has lived in Germany and England for more than two decades. A passionate Shakespeare enthusiast, her explorations into the hidden histories of Renaissance women compelled her to write this book. She lives in Lancashire, England. Learn more about Mary's novels at her website.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Royal Frolics: Choosing the "Queen of the Bean" at Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany occasioned much merriment--and expense--at the French court during the Renaissance. The tradition of sharing a galette des rois--a cake containing a concealed bean--traces back to early sixteenth century celebrations of Twelfth Night. The person who found the bean in his or her piece of cake became the de facto ruler for the duration of the festivities. Whereas in England the choice of a "king," or Lord of Misrule, predominated, across the channel it was the election of the "Queen of the Bean" that evolved into an elaborate ritual.

According to Robert Knecht in his book The French Renaissance Court (p. 75-76), it was custom at the court of François I to chose not only a Queen of the Bean, but a bevy of eighteen ladies to attend her. The women wore beautiful new clothes, which the King provided: undergarments of crimson velvet with slashed sleeves held together by gold clasps and outer garments of grey satin fringed with velvet and lined with mink. Matching belts, necklaces and bracelets complemented the attire; the Queen wore a plumed bonnet atop a long golden or silver snood adorned with precious stones. When it was time for supper, the Queen of the Bean rose from her seat next to the true queen, Eléanore, and took the King's hand. The monarch led her and her ladies into the hall where two tables had been set. The Queen of the Bean sat above Queen Eléanore, the dauphin's wife Catherine de' Medici, and the King's sister Marguerite de Navarre at the shorter table; the King joined the eighteen attendants at the second table. During the meal, the Bean Queen was served with the ceremony normally reserved for the real queen, who surrendered any precedence during the twenty-four hours of her rival's reign.

One wonders just how random the choice of the Queen of the Bean was, especially since at the court of François's son, Henri, the king himself chose her name. In 1550, the Venetian ambassador describes how Henri II came into the queen's chamber to pick a name out of a hat. However, Henri discarded several names before announcing that of a "young, really beautiful and most charming" lady who belonged to the circle of his sister Marguerite. The young lady touched his hand and retired to dress "honorably." At dinner, Henri sat in the middle of the shorter table, flanked on his right by the Queen of the Bean and on his left by his mistress Diane de Poitiers. The real queen, Catherine de' Medici, sat next to the Queen of the Bean, along with the king's sister; the cardinal of Lorraine, the duchesse de Guise, and the Constable of Montmorency sat beside Diane. A ball followed the banquet. The next day, the King escorted the Queen of the Bean into Mass before the real queen; after Mass, everyone dined in the same order as on the previous evening, then watched a joust in the palace courtyard. The feast concluded with another banquet and a final ball, which brought the Queen of the Bean's short reign to a memorable end.

[Photograph courtesy of Gorrk, Wikimedia Commons.]

This article was originally posted on January 6, 2010.