Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post ~ Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady, by Sally O’Reilly

28 March 2014

Special Guest Post ~ Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady, by Sally O’Reilly

A tale of sorcery and passion in seventeenth-century London
where witches haunt William Shakespeare and his dark lady,
the playwright's muse and one true love

Available on Amazon US and Amazon UK

One of the great delights of historical fiction is that you can transport yourself into the past.  Both as a reader and a writer, I love the feeling of being immersed in another reality, which is vivid and believable.  But there is a downside to this: it can be tempting to overload your narrative with period detail.  My inspirations are Sarah Waters, who pays just as much attention to the intricacy of plot as she does to historical accuracy, and Hilary Mantel, who uses a hybrid of fact and imagination to convey the experience of Thomas Cromwell.

Dark Aemilia’ was written as part of my PhD thesis. It’s the story of the doomed relationship between William Shakespeare and Aemilia Lanyer, one of the first female poets published in England and (possibly) the mysterious Dark Lady who inspired the later sonnets.  I spent many months researching the historic setting, but also studied genre and narrative form, and looked at the way that character can drive plot as well as the seminal work of writers like Umberto Eco.

I wanted to create a strong female protagonist in a world in which women officially had no power. This was quite a conundrum, and I was influenced by the views of the writer and historian Ian Mortimer who warns against imposing 21st century psychology onto characters from the past. I struck a compromise with this – I am sure that no Early Modern woman would really have thought like ‘my’ Aemilia, any more than they would have spoken as she does. But I did make her deeply superstitious, and her world view is informed by this. I also used the play ‘Macbeth’ as a template for the story, so that elements of its dark plot are woven into Aemilia’s experience.

Sally O'Reilly
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Dark Aemilia

London, 1593. The daughter of a Venetian musician but orphaned as a young girl, Aemilia Bassano grows up in the court of Elizabeth I, becoming the Queen’s favourite. She absorbs a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a striking young woman with a sharp mind and a quick tongue. Now brilliant, beautiful and highly educated, she becomes mistress of Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain and Queen’s cousin. But her position is precarious; when she falls in love with court playwright William Shakespeare, her fortunes change irrevocably.

A must-read for fans of Tracy Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring) and Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus), Sally O’Reilly’s richly atmospheric novel compellingly re-imagines the struggles for power, recognition and survival in the brutal world of Elizabethan London. Dark Aemilia is published by Myriad Editions in March 2014, and by Picador US in June.

About the Author 

Sally O’Reilly has a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Brunel University, and is a lecturer at the Open University. She is the author of How to be a Writer and (as Sam O’Reilly) two novels published by Penguin, The Best Possible Taste and You Spin Me Round. She has also been shortlisted for the Ian St James short story award and the Cosmopolitan short story prize, and is a former Cosmopolitan New Journalist of the Year.

You can follow Sally on Twitter at @sallyoreilly, read her blog on and find out more about Dark Aemilia on 

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