An early modern woman was required to be meek, silent and obedient, her domain was the home and publishing placed her in the public realm, which was the male preserve. However as the sixteenth century wore on an increasing number of aristocratic women, like the Countess of Pembroke, who turned Wilton House into a ‘paradise for poets’, were producing secular poetry and dramas for private circulation.
Aemilia Lanyer was born in 1569 to a family of renowned court musicians the Bassanos. There is circumstantial evidence that they were of Jewish heritage but Aemilia was baptised as a Christian. After the death of her father she was taken under the aegis of the Countess of Kent, who ensured that she received a humanist education, learning Latin. She also spent time in the household of the Countess of Cumberland as a tutor to her daughter, the diarist, Anne Clifford.
As a young woman she became the mistress of Henry Hunsdon, the first cousin of Elizabeth I, who was some forty-five years her senior. Hunsdon was a great patron of the theatre, and so Aemilia would almost certainly have been familiar with Shakespeare’s circle. Indeed, there has been much speculation that she was the ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets, though any evidence for this is at best sketchy. On becoming pregnant, probably with Hunsdon’s child, she was married to her relative the musician, Alfonso Lanyer.
I take up Lanyer’s story in my novel four years later, after she has been widowed and left penniless by her husband’s reckless spending. I imagine her coming across a manuscript written by Arbella Stuart when she was imprisoned at the Tower of London, telling of her life. Aemilia (or Ami, as she is known in the novel) is forced to reconcile herself with the tragic consequences of a period when her own past coincided with Arbella’s. Almost nothing is known about Aemilia Lanyer during this time and these events are the product of my imagination for the purposes of my novel. But what we do know about Aemilia Lanyer’s later life is that she fulfilled her ambition to set up a school near Covent Garden, though it was not without its problems. She finally died in 1645, aged seventy-six.
Ref: Woods Susanne, Ed. (1993) The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer & (1999) Lanyer, A Renaissance Woman Poet, Oxford UP