Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Walking in London in Search of Emilia Bassano Lanyer: Guest Post by Charlene Ball, Author of Dark Lady

Please join me in welcoming Charlene Ball to Let Them Read Books! I'm thrilled to have Charlene here today talking about her new book, Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer. Charlene embarked upon a walking tour to follow in her heroine's footsteps, and she's detailed some of the places she's visited below. Read on, and be sure to add Dark Lady to your shelves on Goodreads!

Emilia Bassano has four strikes against her: she is poor, beautiful, female, and intelligent in Elizabethan England. To make matters worse, she comes from a family of secret Jews. When she is raped as a teenager, she knows she probably will not be able to make a good marriage, so she becomes the mistress of a much older nobleman. During this time she falls in love with poet/player William Shakespeare, and they have a brief, passionate relationship--but when the plague comes to England, the nobleman abandons her, leaving her pregnant and without financial security. 

In the years that follow, Emilia is forced to make a number of difficult decisions in her efforts to survive, and not all of them turn out well for her. But ultimately, despite the disadvantaged position she was born to, she succeeds in pursuing her dreams of becoming a writer--and even publishes a book of poetry in 1611 that makes a surprisingly modern argument for women's equality. 

Walking in London in Search of Emilia Bassano Lanyer
By Charlene Ball

“It’s not much farther,” I call back to Libby, who gamely follows me as I trudge under the massive structure known as the Barbican. We are following the London wall towards Aldersgate Street, where we will turn north towards the Charterhouse.

The beginning of my walking search for Emilia Bassano Lanyer, the main character of my novel DARK LADY: A NOVEL OF EMILIA BASSANO LANYER, begins back at Bishopsgate, one of the gates in the old Roman London Wall. Emilia was christened in St. Botolph’s Without Bishopsgate, a church just outside the wall. Here also, her father and her infant daughter Odillya were buried. This was the church that Baptista Bassano and Margaret Johnson, Emilia’s parents, attended. As a converso, or a secret Jew, Baptista would have outwardly conformed to the English Church.

The church has been redone over the years, so its interior walls are not those Emilia would have seen. Dark and shadowy, it looks more like a late 19th or 20th century church than a Tudor-era structure.

From St. Botolph’s, we follow the Roman-built London Wall toward Aldersgate Street. In the late afternoon, clouds have massed overhead, and rain is beginning to fall. I stride along confidently, my only guide being the map in my head based on the A TO Z MAP OF ELIZABETHAN LONDON. This fascinating book, compiled from several Tudor-era maps, chiefly the Agas Map, was my reliable source for locations of streets, roads, and buildings while I wrote DARK LADY.

I have a great affection for the Agas Map, with its drawings of cows and sheep grazing, dogs and people walking along the roads outside the city (obviously not drawn to scale), archers shooting at targets, men fighting with staffs, and laundry drying on the ground, and in the City, tiny streets and drawings of box-like houses with pointed roofs. But the remembered Agas Map might not be the best guide for our trek through modern London.
As we walk along the bits and pieces of the London Wall, we find ourselves engulfed by a huge edifice of concrete that looms over our heads. We realize from the signs that this is the Barbican, a multi-use complex containing housing, schools, performance space, arts venues, and businesses built to replace the Cripplegate section of the City that were destroyed by bombing  during World War II. From underneath is obviously not the best vantage point to see the modern-day Barbican. No trace remains of the medieval Barbican, once a fortified watchtower, or of Willoughby House, where the Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine Willoughby Brandon Bertie (a character in DARK LADY), lived when in London.

We emerge from underneath onto Aldersgate Street and hike north as light rain is falling.

And there it is ahead on our left—the Charterhouse. The parking lot in front of the walled buildings looks very much like the open space in front of the buildings on my Agas Map. The buildings have been renovated several times since the map was drawn, but the tall brick wall still stands.  
The Charterhouse was a Carthusian monastery that Henry VIII took over when he declared himself head of the Church in England and seized control of the religious houses. Henry drove out the monks and executed some of them for treason when they refused to accept his authority as head of the Church. The king confiscated the monastery’s holdings: wealth, buildings, and all. When he invited the Bassano family of musicians to England, he housed them at first in the Charterhouse. Baptista, Emilia’s father, would have lived here with his brothers, each in a small two-room apartment with its own little walled garden.

From the former monastery, we walk back toward the City on Aldersgate Street. I had hoped to see the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell (or Muggle) Street, site of the Mountjoy headtyre shop where Will Shakespeare rented a room. But that corner is long gone. In the growing dusk, we see several men standing around outside a bar or restaurant, wearing suits and ties and holding drinks.

As we continue south on Aldersgate Street, we find ourselves, to my surprise, at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I have somehow not expected it to be within walking distance of the Charterhouse. We walk around the huge edifice, trying to imagine it as the largest cathedral in Europe, with open doors where sheep were once driven through, and a courtyard where semi-permanent, two-story bookstalls stood where people once strolled through the stalls, reading the latest broadside ballad or poring over a newly printed play.

Then darkness is falling, so we find the tube back to our B&B in Ealing.

Another day, we take the tube to Westminster and debark under the statue of Boadicea galloping over the Thames bridge in her chariot. It’s sunny and warm as we walk to St. Margaret’s Church, just across a courtyard from Westminster Abbey.

St. Margaret’s was Emilia’s parish church when she lived on King Street in Westminster. When we go inside the lovely, light-filled church, we look at the monuments along the sides of the interior. I stop and exclaim, “It’s Peregrine!” A couple of people turn to stare. We are indeed standing before the tomb of Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby, one of Queen Elizabeth’s most respected military leaders, and a minor character in DARK LADY.

At Westminster Abbey, we admire its golden stone walls, and I am delighted by the gargoyles. In the novel, Emilia looks up at one of these carved figures and imagines how it would feel to pet the plump, spiky, fanged, little creature.

During our stay in London, Libby and I go to Southwark to visit the modern Globe Theater: “Shakespeare’s Globe,” completed in 1997 and built along the lines of what we know of the original Globe from the vision of actor-director Sam Wanamaker. This is the third theater called the Globe located near this site. The first was built by Shakespeare’s acting company (later the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), who, when they learned they were going to be evicted by their landlord from the Theater in Shoreditch, tore it down, floated the timbers by barge across the Thames, and erected a new theater on the south bank, calling it the Globe. It opened in 1599. The second Globe Theater was built after the first one burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII (a play Shakespeare collaborated on). The fire started when a cannon was shot off onstage and caught the thatched roof on fire. Everyone got out unhurt, although one man’s pants caught on fire and someone put out the flames by dousing them with a bottle of ale. A ballad was written about it.

The playhouse was rebuilt in a year—this time with a tile roof—and ran from 1614 until it was pulled down by Cromwell’s Puritan government in 1644. The third Globe, the present theater, does not actually stand on the site of the original Globe but a couple of blocks away. Also a short walk from the Globe stand the ruins of the Rose Theater, built and managed by the theater entrepreneur Phillip Henslowe and featuring plays by Christopher Marlowe.

People would take wherries across the river to see plays at the Globe and the Rose on the south bank. A wherry was a water taxi, propelled by skilled watermen. These small boats crossed and traversed the river and were often the quickest, most convenient way to get from City to Court, from St. Paul’s to Bankside, from Westminster to the Tower.

Emilia probably lived her entire life either within the City of London, or in its environs, as she moved from her childhood home in Bishopsgate to the Court at Whitehall, then from her house in Westminster back to Bishopsgate. In her later life she lived in Clerkenwell, a district north of the London wall, not far from the Charterhouse.

So Libby and I didn’t do too badly in tracing Emilia’s footsteps, even though we were following a 400-year-old map that we didn’t even have with us.


The A to Z of Elizabethan London. Compiled by Adrian Prockter and Robert Taylor. Introductory notes by John Fisher. London: Harry Margary, Lympne Castle, Kent in association with Guildhall Library. 1979.

Charlene Ball holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has taught English and women’s studies at colleges and universities. Although she has written nonfiction, reviews, and academic articles, writing fiction has always been her first love. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The North Atlantic Review, Concho River Review, The NWSA Journal, and other journals. She is a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts and held a residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She retired from the Women’s Studies Institute (now the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Georgia State University in 2009. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, author and bookseller Libby Ware. Visit her online at her website or Facebook.


  1. Thank you, Jenny, for letting me be a guest blogger on Let Them Read Books. I love the design and layout of your blog!

  2. Interesting walk. I enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks, Mystica! There were more locations I could have included but lacked space.


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