Five Points, Vol. 21, no.2

Sample Content

Alice Hoffman
The Dark Lady

My father, Baptiste Bassano, named me Amelia, an Italian name representing love and harmony, a winter’s tale in a single word, a name that was both a blessing and a curse. The men in my family were musicians from the town of Bassano, near Venice, until our people were expelled, as Jews were in nearly every country. My father came to England, where people of our faith were made to wear badges to mark them, for rumors swore that we killed children and unearthed bones in cemeteries and made pacts with the devil. We had been expelled from Britain by King Edward in 1292 and had not been allowed in again until 1656. Even then, we lived our lives in secret, and for good reason. My father once told me the story of a sea captain who brought a ship full of our people to the River Thames at low tide, then had forced them all to leave the boat, so he could watch them drown as the tide came in, as if they were rats. Those of us who settled here, like my father, who became a court musician, were baptized and pretended to be no different than their neighbors. Jews were forced to practice their true faith secretly, in cellars or attics, lighting candles that must never be seen. Because of this I learned early on what it might take others a lifetime to learn. Trust was for fools. But lessons can be forgotten and even the smartest girl can be a fool once she becomes a woman.

London was a city of 200,000 when I was born in 1569. It was not long after the Black Death had taken over seventy thousand lives, and we still lived in fear of the illness. People hid in their houses, afraid to breathe the air, and many claimed that my people were the cause of the illness, that disease ran in our blood, that we were unclean and cursed. What is different is feared, now and then. Perhaps my father should have returned to Italy, but things were no better there, and we were settled in London. Our family was made for music and all five of my father’s brothers were musicians; my mother’s brother wrote songs for theatricals. I was the only girl in my family, and perhaps my mother wished I had been a boy. I was difficult from the start with a mind of my own, so headstrong that she often beat me with a broom, thinking it would affect a change, when in fact every stroke made me stronger.

We lived near the theaters and as soon as I could, I hid outside the walls to listen to the players recite their speeches. The theater was a dream made real, magic for mortal lives. My desire to write arose before I knew it was there, lodging inside me and growing with each passing year. I wrote with a stick in the earth in Italian and Hebrew, letters my father taught me. The court had decided that knowledge was dangerous, and when bonfires were lit in the streets Jewish books and magic books were the first to be thrown into the flames. But my father was a dreamer, in love with the ability to create beauty, in words or in music, and so he taught me the magic of the theater as he might have taught a son, not realizing it would only break my heart to learn what I could never call mine. I could write and read, but when I told my father I had begun to write poems, he warned me that it was no more possible for me to be a writer than it would be for me to become a swan or a blackbird or a wolf. I was doomed to have a woman’s body and a woman’s life. Still, when we were alone, my father called me his star and whenever I read him my work he applauded me. I loved him completely because of his vision of me, a love so deep that despite all the warnings of what a woman’s life must be, I came to believe I could do whatever I pleased.

I was seven when my world ended. Upon my father’s death I was inconsolable, but soon enough my sorrow turned to fury. I made my mother’s miserable life even worse than it had been, begging for all she could not give me. I was greedy, it was true. I wanted books, music, love. My mother was a simple woman who had no knowledge of these things, and I often cried myself to sleep because I felt trapped inside my own life without a champion, without my father. I tore out my hair in clumps. I pinched my own flesh. When I took a knife and slashed myself, my mother slapped me, then made the decision that changed my life. She had me brush my hair and slip on a dress my father had bought during a visit to Italy. My mother wanted me to look presentable as she tried to find a suitable future for me. Long ago, our people had been silk-makers in Venice and my family’s symbol was a moth and a mulberry. I wore the silk dress, but I thought of myself as a moth kept in a jar. All I wanted was wings. I was ready to fly away and never look back.

Some would say I went into service when I was given up, but I considered myself to be adopted. My stroke of good fortune, my light in the darkness, my best and most beautiful luck, Lady Susan, Countess of Kent. Lady Susan was only twenty-two and widowed, with no children of her own. She had been brought up by a mother who believed that girls should be educated, and from the start my benefactress did what she could for me. When she saw the mulberry on my dress, she called me her trapped moth and vowed she intended to open the lid of the jar. I fell at her feet, grateful beyond measure, thinking of her as a sister and a soulmate. The countess offered me everything when she opened the door of her library. I walked inside her world it as if it were my own, not realizing the future is not open to everyone in equal measure. I was a dark girl of the wrong faith who possessed huge desires, and she was the lady who held the key to everything I wanted. I never once thought that she also possessed the ability to snatch it back whenever she pleased.

Willoughby House was a grand place, a palace to my eyes, with gardens that were unparalleled. Some of the oldest varieties of roses in the country grew there, in shades of salmon and pink. There was a peculiar black rose that I once picked barehanded, causing my fingers to bleed from the prick of the thorns. I thought it was worth the price and kept the rose under my pillow as a talisman. Upon each petal and each thorn, I wished that all I desired would come to pass. And so it came to be, or at least I thought so. I was treated as though I was a lady and I was innocent enough to believe it was true. Servants lowered their eyes when they spoke to me or brought me my clothes. I had a bureau filled with frocks bought at shops on the Strand in London, ink-colored silk or plum and scarlet linen, the colors of the roses in the garden. I was the rose and the moth, the girl who would become a woman who could open every door, read every book, be whomever I wished to be.

Peregrine falcons were kept in their own glass house in the conservatory, and I often spent time with them, feeding them from my fingers. Only royals were allowed to own and hunt with these great birds, and my lady’s brother, Peregrine Bertie, had been named for such marvelous creatures and was famous for his ability to communicate with birds. He was a hunter, and I didn’t realize that I might be considered prey. Once he came up behind me so quietly I didn’t hear him until he was upon me. He wrapped his arm around my waist and whispered that birds always recognized one of their own. Because I was dark, he called me the Raven. I was young enough to believe that his pet name for me was a compliment.

I was thrilled when I was brought to court, a dream within a dream. I knew enough to keep my eyes downcast when I met Queen Elizabeth, who was cross and didn’t care for pretty young women. She was the moon and the stars and the sun. By then, I had learned how to behave. I curtsied, I was silent, I was a shadow, invisible to the queen’s eyes, there to bask in her cool, silvery light. I wished I could tell my father I had come before the queen, that she had flicked her eyes over me and nodded, as good as a greeting from the one above us all. There wasn’t a day when I wasn’t grateful to the Countess of Kent, who had revealed the world to me and allowed me to follow in her shoes. Now when I spied myself in a looking glass, I saw something brand new. The books I’d read had changed me. I was no longer a moth in a glass jar; instead I was the girl who knew Latin and Greek, who understood that I must create the life that I wanted. Teach a raven to speak six languages, teach it art and history, then see if it will be satisfied in its cage.

Lady Susan’s mother, Catherine, the Duchess of Suffolk, came to Willoughby House and helped with my instruction. We studied the women in the bible, and I was drawn to those who’d been misjudged. Eve, who spoke to a snake and was blamed for the sin we carried. Claudia, married to Pontius Pilate and reviled not for her own deeds, but for his. I saw that they were women with no power and were despised simply because they weren’t satisfied with how small a woman’s life must be throughout history. I dreamed of Eve and heard her voice, but when I once called her a hero in conversation with Lady Catherine, the old Duchess shook her head sadly and took the time to instruct me as to the ways of the world. “We are never the heroes,” Lady Catherine told me. “We are judged by who we marry and who we ruin.”

Lady Susan often had her fortune told by a great astrologer, Dr. Simon Forman, and she brought me along as company. Enough time had passed for me to come to understand what I was to her, not a daughter or a sister, but a lapdog whose company she enjoyed. When she needed me, she called me to her, otherwise she had come to ignore me, as she did the hounds in the stables. Dr. Forman was a man of science, but I could see from the way he looked at me he was more a man than anything else. He had a sly look to him, and when he said he wished to speak to me alone I expected the worst. I was only thirteen, still I knew what men wanted when they had you alone. It was not conversation concerning the books you had read.

“Perhaps there’s something wonderful in your future,” Lady Susan said to me. “But of course, it’s your choice.”
The lady was kind-hearted and innocent, before long she would be married and would have no need for a companion such as myself, though she claimed to love me. I already knew that love never lasted, it came and went. All the same, I might have use of Dr. Forman one day. “Of course I’ll stay.”

“Perhaps there’s something wonderful in your future,” Lady Susan said to me. “But of course, it’s your choice.”

The lady was kind-hearted and innocent, before long she would be married and would have no need for a companion such as myself, though she claimed to love me. I already knew that love never lasted, it came and went. All the same, I might have use of Dr. Forman one day. “Of course I’ll stay.”

It was not truly a question, he wished to edify me, and tell me what foolish daring could cost a girl like me. To his surprise, I had an answer. I had read the Greek myths, and the Roman ones as well, and I laughed because I was certain I wasn’t Icarus, fated to burn. I was a raven and knew how to fly.

“You catch on fire,” I said simply. “Anyone knows that.”

I was a little more than a child, yet I had the nerve to speak to him that way. Simon Forman reconsidered his opinion of me then. Perhaps I was tempting fate, but isn’t that what people who wish to create their own fortune must do? Speak even when they are told to be quiet? Tell stories no one wants to hear? Later, the astrologer would write about me in his journal. He would say I was willing to do anything to get what I wanted, that I was riddled with ambition, as if he were any different. On the day of our meeting, he insisted he was my friend, and that if I were wise I would take his advice. Perhaps he saw something in me that reminded him of himself.

“There is a way to get what you want without being burned,” Dr. Forman told me.

The astrologer gave me a small black book made of deerskin, bound with silk.

“Write all you can,” the astrologer suggested. “Language opens the door to magic.”

I thanked him, and afterwards I returned time and again to his library, for Dr. Forman was a collector of ancient texts which interested me. I wrote down curses from Persia, love magic from Egypt, magic of revenge and sorrow, magic that was white as light, forbidden magic that was associated with the left hand, black magic used for selfish desires. The astrologer understood I would not allow him to have any part of me, but he was old, and as it turned out he wanted more than my body. He wanted to share his secrets so they would not disappear when he was gone. He wanted a disciple, and so he taught all that he knew. The dove’s heart stabbed with pins. The frog bone dried and kept close to one’s heart. Figures constructed from wax and clay. In this way I learned the secrets of alchemy, and I learned something more. Take what you are given and write it all down. I learned that I would never be anyone’s disciple. I wished to be the mistress of my own house and my own talents. I carried my book with me everywhere I went.

Later in that year, after a quiet, leafy summer when I wrote every day, jotting down the folktales my father had told me, my lady’s brother General Peregrine Bertie took me with him on a trip to Elsinore. It was a royal visit to the Castle where he was to learn about Danish waters, an occasion when he would present Frederick II with the Order of the Garter. Lady Susan wasn’t well, and so she had urged me to go in her place to attend dinners and parties alongside her brother. We had all heard about the wonders of that country in the far north, the fields of ice and snow, the clouds of birds that filled the sky so that noon was as dark as night, the green light in winter that portended magic. It was there in Denmark that I first learned falconry. I had never been happier than I was going out in the fields while Peregrine Bertie met with the military. People said I could communicate with the birds, and it was true, they came to me of their own accord. I had no fear of them, or of the rough countryside. I left off my silk dresses and traded them for trousers and boots like a boy.

My days in the countryside alongside the Danish falconers were glorious and sun-drenched, filled with natural magic. Among the group were Rosencrantz and Gyldenstierne, men from wealthy families who had come to court and charmed me with their humor. It was the time of year when the trees were golden. In the mornings the air was chilly, and every breath rose into the sky to become a cloud. I went out to the fields with the Danish lords who could send their falcons off with a nod or a cluck of their tongue. I began to think more about my future. I was grateful to Lady Susan for rescuing me, but I yearned for real freedom, a realm of my own. Left with time on my hands, I wrote more and more, always in secret. I wrote as if I were Eve, condemned to look at paradise from afar. I stood on the battlements of Elsinore’s towers and viewed the thousands of trees before me and thought it was the perfect setting for a theatrical. It was in this place of murdered princes and kings that I learned that everything could change in an instant, for this was the place where I was robbed of my last innocence.

Three witches tried to warn me, but I was too vain to listen. They were the women known for their healing arts that the falconers visited when one among them fell ill. We were far in the woods when the man could no longer walk, and so I accompanied them to see these women. When youngest of these sisters saw me, she gestured and brought me to her room.

“You are with them, but not of them,” she said of the royal household. She took a white candle and melted the wax, then tied red thread around a form she crafted from the candle. “That is your lady,” she said. “There will come a time when she doesn’t need you. Do what you must but remember what you put into this world will come back to you three times over, be it malice or love, pride or grief. Be careful who you trust and who you give your words to.”

The wax figure melted before my eyes, as Lady Susan’s love for me would fade soon enough. I should have listened to these omens, but I was enchanted with the beauty of Denmark and how much attention my lady’s brother paid me, and I thought I knew where my future would lead. Surely, the witch was wrong. Why should I not be considered one of the royal family? Was I not as good as they? Did I not have eyes to take it all in; blood that was the same color as theirs? A wax figure meant nothing; it was life that mattered, and I meant to have this royal life for my own. Peregrine laughed when he saw me dressed as a boy after I returned from the hunt; he grabbed me, wrestling with me until I couldn’t breathe. He whispered something in my ear that I thought perhaps I’d misheard. “I’ll be the one to teach you your lesson, for someone must sooner or later.”

He taught me this lesson that very night. I was his sister’s favorite, raised by her as though I were her daughter, but that didn’t matter to Peregrine. He came to my room while I was asleep so that I awoke with his hands on me. I knew right away what was about to happen, a flood would rise and I would drown no matter how I reacted. You cannot fight the tide, as my people had learned time and time again. Peregrine spoke to me all the while he ravished me and told me to hold my tongue. He was as frank with me as he was rude. The best I could hope for was to become a cortigiana onesta, as befitted my Italian heritage; a beautiful, educated woman who was a wealthy man’s mistress. It was an honorable calling, he told me as he pushed up my skirts. I felt his blood coursing through his body, and I felt mine as well. I told myself he could not ruin what would never be his. There was more to me than what he claimed, and he would never really have me. I wanted to say, Your mother the duchess would strike you down if she knew. I wanted to say, Eve was never guilty of sin. I was known for speaking my mind, and when I was a child people found it amusing, but that wasn’t true now that I was a woman.

“Don’t talk,” Peregrine said. “Don’t say a word.”

I did as he told me for I already had bruises on my throat. I didn’t speak, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t write.


My uncle composed songs for the theater and worked for a man called Sir George Carey. That was how I came to meet the man who loved me, George Carey’s father, the one man who didn’t need a cage to keep me. I was thirteen and he was fifty-three, one of the most powerful men in the country, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, a military and legal diplomat favored by the queen, educated at the French court by his aunt Anne Boleyn, the son of her sister Mary, and perhaps the son of a king. He was the most elegant man and the most charming, the one who could hurt me with a single glance. His wealth was so vast I couldn’t comprehend all he possessed. He owned Berwick-on-Tweed at the Scottish border where he was warden of the Marshes. In London he was head keeper of Hyde Park and lived in Somerset House on the Strand. We met when he had a party to thank my uncle for his songs. Carey was the queen’s patron of the Arts and Theater. It was on this night that he drew me into a corner and said he could change my life. You are not supposed to love those who own you, but I did, in those first few moments as we hid from all the other guests. Language was everything, and he knew how to talk to me; he could talk a bird into his hand, even if that bird was a raven. The fact that he was married meant nothing to him and never had; because of this, it meant nothing to me. A wife was a wife in name only for a man who wanted more. It was the way he looked at me that allowed him to claim me, as if he had never seen anyone like me before, as if I was composed of stars, as if he was interested in what I had to say and, more importantly, what I had to write.

He sent for me the evening he met me. I knew he would, just as I knew I would never have another chance such as this. Eventually, someone would claim me and support me, and I was happy it would be him rather than another. I was waiting in my chamber, dressed in grey silk with a silver cloak, my hands folded on my lap, not in the least surprised when his man in service knocked at the door. There was no talk about the fact that I was thirteen, at least not publicly, or that fact that I was dark, and was now called the Raven by everyone at court. Even though Lady Susan cried at my departure, she did nothing to stop it. If I had been the Lord’s wife, I would have outranked her, but I was nothing more than his darling and his desire, his dark lady who had not yet had her monthly bleeding, but who knew how to write and how to speak in six languages. As for the art of love, Lord Hunsdon had been raised in the French Court and was an expert. He was my teacher in all things, how to love as if the world would never end, how to be true to yourself and still hide yourself from view. Perhaps I was only there was for his amusement, but I believed what was between us. He gave me my own yearly annuity which made me wealthy in my own right, but that wasn’t why I was true to him for as long as I was. He listened, that was his gift and his charm.

“Read to me,” he would say on the nights he came to me.

He never said he wanted someone else’s words, so I wrote my own. We spoke French in bed, we never wore clothes, we kept the doors locked. When I read to him, he closed his eyes. Once or twice, I admitted that I wished to write plays. He oversaw all theatricals, for the public and the court, he was the man who could change my life in a thousand ways, and would and did, but a woman could only speak as I did in bed, where he applauded me and kissed me and called me his queen of words. He never answered when I spoke of writing for the theater. In the mornings, he went off to talk to men about subjects that mattered. Still, when he went, he left the door open.

The queen still refused to believe rats were the cause of the black death, and instead insisted it was a problem of the spirit, as if the diseased themselves were at fault. I lowered my eyes when I overheard her claiming the disease was the fault of the Jews with their filthy habits. My lord commanded all of London Theaters; for the entertainment of the court, he was obliged to procure six plays despite the threat of the black death. He had a man who he declared to be his best writer named Marlowe but called Kit, who had a company all his own, a theater people later said he named for me, for a time I was known as the Lord’s black rose. We were a secret that everyone knew about. At first Marlowe ignored me, then he snubbed me, then he did his best to get me alone. He was the cleverest man I had ever met, and two clever people cannot exist in the same space if one of them is a girl who is meant to stare at the other with liquid eyes, which I was happy to do. He was my downfall and my blessing, and I would have given up everything for him. He taught me the form of a theatrical, then laughed at me when I said I wished to do the same. But he didn’t laugh when he came to my bed. He was a specialist in the art of love, and I did my best to meet him as an equal. With my lord there was the issue of who was owned and who was the owner, but with my writer it was something completely different. I loved Kit Marlowe in a dangerous, mad way, and when I was with child, I did as he asked, not once, but twice, and did away with what might have been our son or daughter before it quickened. I loved him in a way that endangered my life with Lord Hunsdon. Worse, I forgot my own words when I listened to his. Two writers in one room will tear the house apart.

He was murdered when he was only twenty-nine. He was a rebel who saw through false morality and that is always a dangerous thing to be. People said he spoke my name before he died, but that no longer mattered once he was gone. I wept, for all the good it did. He talked when he should have listened. He was too clever for his own good. And still, I missed him as if he was the sun and all the world had now gone dark without him. I went to bed and said I was ill. My lord worried that I had the black disease, but it was simply sorrow. When I was still crying weeks later, Lord Hunsdon said he knew what would cheer me. He asked me to help another one of his writers, one who soon enough fell in love with me, unasked and unwanted. I could not love him if I tried. He called himself Will and he had willed himself to be a writer; he was earnest and wanted the same thing I wanted, though his talent was rough.

I had been taught by the great Marlowe and I shared what I knew. Later Will said I was his poet, his historian and his pet, his dark lady and his inspiration, but in fact I gave him his stories while he dreamed of taking me to bed. I shared my father’s folktales and my journey to Elsinore and the witches there. I gave him tales of Oberon and Hecate and of the royal court and the falcons and advised him that Jews bled as well as any other men. When we were apart, I wrote it all down for him, until my fingers burned. The cook in the kitchen made me a drink that helped me stay awake so that I could write all night long. I stood in the dark whenever I finished a story to present to him. I called characters after myself in a dozen secret ways, one woman named Emilia after another, a riddle only I knew the answer to. My life was woven into his pages, my history and my loves. The writer busied himself with poems about me without my help, wherein he both praised and murdered me with words. I was his inspiration, it was true, but never his love.

I went to my uncle who wrote a song for me, Come Away Hecate, for he knew of my interest in magic, a tune I gave over freely to the writer. Words were magic all on their own, and perhaps Lord Hunsdon would see what mine were worth when his writer met with great success, for I could tell my lord was tiring of me—but in the end, I gave my words away for nothing and got nothing in return.

When I was with child and the babe was the lord’s, he married me off to my husband, a musician not a fifth as good as my father had been. The lord gave me jewels and gold; he still wished to have me in his bed, but not as often. There were younger women, ones he didn’t have to listen to. I was told that women who want to write grow tiresome, and he no longer asked me to read to him in bed. One morning as I was leaving, I spied his wife in the corridor. Her gaze met mine and held it. I wished I had thought of her long ago, perhaps I should have spoken to her years earlier, but it was too late. When I named our child after the lord, he was unhappy and told me I was a fool, he had a wife, and had all along. I thought of the way she had looked at me in the hallway. I didn’t understand her expression then, but I did now. It was pity, plain and simple. We were women in a world of men. We both had no choice but to do as we were told.

Now when I looked in the mirror, I no longer saw the dark lady. Still, I remembered what I had learned. Trust was for fools. Love came and went. Language was everything. Will was famous, filled with my stories; by now I think he believed they were his own. As for my husband, that untalented man had me leave when the black death returned. There were riots in London and people were sick in body and soul, starving and furious that their queen did nothing for them and protected herself while they died. I took my little boy Henry and went to live at a farmhouse on Lady Susan’s property. By then she had married, and I meant little to her, still she let me stay. There was no one to tell me not to write now, and in the year when I was forty-two, my book of poems was published, the first by a woman in England.

Lady Susan had a party for the women to whom I dedicated my book. Those who had raised me, educated me, taken an interest in me, looked the other way, and who had helped my son, who would be a musician like the men in my family. It was spring and we were in the garden at Willoughby House. There were swans in the pond and the table was set with cakes. Even the clouds were beautiful that day, illuminated from the inside out, both white and blue, casting shadows in the woods, but leaving us in the light. The women gathered round, all with lives much finer than my own. Still, they were proud of me. I had written my way out of brokenness, with a poem of two hundred stanzas. I dedicated my book to women of power, ladies who cared about poetry. My book defended Eve, who had paid a terrible price simply because she craved knowledge. I knew that I was writing about myself, just as I knew that in the world we lived in, Eve could never win.

“You’ve done what no woman before has done, and everyone who follows will sing their gratitude,” Lady Susan said, so proud and thrilled for my accomplishment.

I was grateful for the kind words, but I still felt that if life was a game, I had lost. I went into the garden where the hedges were shaped like animals. I noticed there was a raven among the topiary, trapped and motionless in a cool shade of leafy green. My heart nearly broke. I went around to the rose garden and sat on an iron bench and wept even though I had what I wanted.

Lady Susan came after me, concerned. “My sister, my daughter, my dearest friend.” Tears fell down her face, as if my distress was her own. “Please don’t cry. Consider your achievement instead.”

My benefactress wore a pale blue silk dress, and her hair was braided atop her head; her earrings were blue pearls from the other side of the world. I had walked through every door, and this is what I’d found, a book and a garden. This is what happened when you were a raven who pretended to be tame. Everywhere you went, you found a cage.

Amelia Bassano 1569–1645*

*Amelia Bassano, also known as Emilia Lanier, was the first woman in England to publish a book of poems and be considered a poet. Some people believe she was the Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s poems, and her vast knowledge and personal history have convinced others that she either contributed to his work, or, perhaps, was the the writer of the plays.