‘Anyone who has loved two men at once knows that it’s not an abundant feeling, but mean and sweaty and undignified.’
Aemilia Bassano is an extraordinary woman in an ordinary time. Well educated and witty, possessing a sharp and brilliant mind, yet at the mercy and limitations of her gender. The story is set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a time when men wore entitlement like a cloak, ruling their wives and mistresses with iron fists. Reared in the court environment and a favourite of the Queen, Aemilia is in a privileged position for someone of humble origins. This is courtesy of her role as mistress to Lord Hunsdon, cousin to the Queen and a married man, who has treated Aemilia favourably for six years.
Aemilia is outspoken, talented and beautiful, attributes that are rare, making her unforgettable and highly sought after. When she meets William Shakespeare, after initial resistance, a tumultuous and all-consuming love affair begins. The result of this is a pregnancy which changes everything for her. Lord Hunsdon, unable to keep Aemilia at court and under the illusion the child is his, sets Aemilia up with a gambling husband and small house to rear the child, bringing her love affair with Shakespeare to a premature end. Aemilia refuses to tell Shakespeare that Henry, her son, is his own flesh and blood and they live separate lives until fate brings them together.
The events that follow centre around a mother’s love and devotion to her son, the downfalls of desire, and also serves as a cautionary tale to the consequences of anger. There is a strong feminist narrative throughout with Aemilia constantly questioning society and her place in it. The story often referred to throughout is of Lililth, said to be Adam’s first wife, who was created equal and refused to be subservient to Adam. There are many comparisons to Aemilia and Lilith; a woman scorned but also a woman determined to do anything to get what she wants.
The language is coarse yet poetic, the imagery visceral and honest, painting a devastating picture of Tudor London and the struggles of women of that time.
This is a story of witchcraft, women’s liberation, love and loyalty. Aemilia is loosely based on a real individual whose poems were said to be the first published by a woman. It’s an interesting story with many twists and turns that you don’t see coming. If you’re a fan of historical fiction with a twist this book is for you.