Dark Aemilia is my first historical novel. Previously, I wrote two contemporary novels, both black comedies about modern life. They were published (by Penguin Books), but didn’t sell in the quantities my publisher had hoped for. It was clear that if I wanted to sustain a writing career, a change of direction was needed.
My solution to this was to go back to first principles. I knew I couldn’t just write chick lit or romance to order. I was unsure about writing a thriller or crime novel. All of these genres seemed too prescriptive. Then, I saw the Roman Polanski version of Macbeth , which I first watched when I was doing O-level English many years ago. I was hooked. I remembered how fascinated I had been by that play when I first read it at 16, and I read it again.
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck – the brooding atmosphere of evil, the "blasted heath", the alien weirdness of eleventh century Scotland, the ruthless storyline, sweeping Macbeth from murder to murder with brutal efficiency. I loved it all. Most of all, I loved the depiction of miscreant and marginalised women: the three witches, potent, sinister and unpunishable, and the overwhelming presence of Lady Macbeth, whose lust for power burns so brightly and so briefly at the start of the play before she is plunged into madness.
This was my first inspiration. But though I was excited by the setting and the Celtic past, I couldn’t get my story going and began to fret about how to make this work. Then I began to research the Early Modern play world in London, the place where Shakespeare wrote and staged Macbeth. And I found the second source of inspiration for this book – Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, one of the first women to be published professionally as a poet in England.
Given the constraints on women in general at that time, this achievement is remarkable in itself. But the facts of her life make it truly astonishing. She was the child of Jewish Venetian musicians; her father was one of six brothers who came to England to play for Henry VIII. She was brought up and educated at court after the death of her father, and spoke and wrote Greek and Latin. At the age of 17, she became the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, and for six years she lived in a suite of rooms in Whitehall Palace. When she became pregnant, she was married off to a recorder-playing cousin, Alfonso Lanyer, who spent her dowry within a year.
The fall from being a Palace mistress to an impecunious housewife would have been catastrophic for her, but it was not unusual for pregnant mistresses to be married off. They would usually disappear from court and their lives would vanish from public record until their deaths were noted in the parish register. But Aemilia did not disappear – she published her work, as a man would have done, and she ensured that her name and her voice survived her death. (Her poetry collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is dedicated to a number of aristocratic women, beginning with Queen Anne, the wife of James I – this was how a male poet would present his work. It includes a defence of Eve and a retelling of the Crucifixion of Christ from a female point of view.)
Not only this, we also know more about her than we do about many women of her time because she became the client of the astrologer Simon Forman who recorded several of their meetings in his notebooks. From him we learn that she was not happy with Alfonso Lanyer, and that she was attempting to summon demons. (I actually shrieked with excitement when I found this fact; heads turned in the British Library.)
This was the second inspiration for Dark Aemilia and in some ways the greatest, though the spirit of Macbeth permeates the novel. Not only was hers a great story, and a remarkable life, here was someone who could be my invisible cheerleader in my struggle to write this third novel, find someone to publish it, and ‘prevail’, as she had done. She is an inspirational woman indeed.
Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly is published by Myriad Editions on March 27th and by Picador US in June.