Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Guestpost: Sally O’Reilly – Dark Aemilia


Please join me in welcoming Sally O'Reilly to JustOneMoreChapter today.  I was able to pick the topic for this guestpost and here it is -


"With so many books out there about the major players in that time period it is nice to read something about lesser known people.  Why did you pick Amelia?  I'd love to hear about your research, how hard is it to dig up information about someone that isn't part of the court."

My original idea when writing ‘Dark Aemilia’ was to set the story in eleventh century Scotland. The novel was going to be told from the point of view of Lady Macbeth. But I found it difficult to understand the mind-set of a woman in the eleventh century – it all seemed very alien and remote. So I researched Shakespeare’s London (in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century) and found I could identify more easily with the people at this time.

However, the Early Modern period is very popular with historical fiction writers, and I was keen to find a new area that I could explore.  I was excited to discover Aemilia Bassano (later Lanyer) largely because she has been almost forgotten by history. The facts that we do know are startling: she was illegitimate, of Venetian/Jewish descent, the cast-off mistress of the Lord Chamberlain and she was the first woman to be published professionally as a poet in England. Add to this the possibility that she could be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and you have a story that is waiting to be told.

Hilary Mantel has said that when writing ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ she operates ‘in the gaps in history’ and that she writes about ‘what is said behind the hand, and on the back stairs’. She does this brilliantly by somehow getting into Cromwell’s point of view without using the first person voice. But he is a major historical player, and it suited me to find someone who was anything but, someone who was in close contact with influential people, but had no real influence of her own. (In formal terms, at least; Aemilia actually had a lot of power sexually and emotionally, as I hope the story demonstrates.)

To me, writing good historical fiction is about being accurate where you have to be – about major historical events, about the context, the details of everyday life, and so on. But it is also about letting your imagination run free when you find the sort of gap that Hilary Mantel is talking about. And life outside the court is a very big gap indeed – no one even kept a diary that we know about until Samuel Pepys in the mid seventeenth century. I worked within the known facts about Aemilia’s life – date of birth, dates of her relationship with the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hunsden, date of her marriage and so on.

In addition to this, I looked for facts about women’s domestic lives, fashions, superstitions, information about the raising of children, where and how they did their shopping, the kind of books they would read (if they were literate) and so on. I found that this really bought the period alive, and allied to what I knew about his extraordinary woman, it helped me to paint a picture of her life that I found credible, and that I hoped other people would also believe in.  The places I looked were contemporary social documents, such as chapbooks about childbirth and household remedies, and physical places like museums, ancient houses and churches.

I tried to find out about the tactile reality of life: I even tried on a crinoline in the costume museum in Bath, because I thought the way it hangs and gets in the way would be very like the farthingales that were fashionable in Aemilia’s time. (And why on earth are women’s fashions so cumbersome and impractical?)

Research is a strange business – you don’t know what you need to know till you are quite far into the narrative, and until you get to that point it can feel as if you are assembling a huge pile of weird facts that you don’t know what to do with. I am at this stage with my new novel now, and I have to remind myself that I have been there before, and it is all part of the process.

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