This week sees the publication of His Dark Lady, the latest novel by Victoria Lamb, author of The Queen’s Secret, which introduced us to Lucy Morgan, a young black singer and entertainer at the court of Elizabeth I. In His Dark Lady, time has moved on a few years to 1583 and Lucy, now one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, meets and falls in love with William Shakespeare, an up and coming playwright. Lucy is Shakespeare’s famous ‘Dark Lady’. But this is a time of danger and not only centered upon Elizabeth’s prisoner Mary Queen of Scots. Lucy has a secret and if the Queen were to discover it there would be hell to pay.
To mark the release of His Dark Lady, I’m delighted to host a guest post by its author, Victoria Lamb. I have always been interested in the efforts that a writer of historical fiction must undergo to fill his or her novel with that sense of accuracy and truth that is so important for a reader wanting to immerse themselves in the past. In His Dark Lady this would seem an extra difficult task because not only is William Shakespeare a loved and very familiar figure to us all, he’s also extremely unknown. Aside from a few documentary references and dates, a signature or two and some very attractive buildings in Stratford-upon-Avon, we know very little about him. I am intrigued about how a novelist can build on such bare bones, not to mention the bravery or audacity to tackle such a character! And then there is Lucy herself. A young black woman in the royal court. I really wanted to know more about that.
So with no further ado…Fiction versus History by Victoria Lamb
I’m one of those who try to steer a middle course between the ‘it’s fiction’ and ‘it’s history’ camps of historical writing. Although some characters and plot lines are fictional, the historical background is as accurate and plausible as I can get it. For instance, there’s no proof that Shakespeare was in London by the mid-1580s. But equally there’s nothing to prove he was in Stratford. Some believe the birth of twins Judith and Hamnet early in 1585 indicates that Shakespeare was still in Warwickshire. Yet one visit home while on theatrical tour would have been enough to achieve their conception – and that fits the dates.
Frankly, to write in Shakespeare’s voice was more daunting than accounting for his whereabouts during the so-called lost years. I had to suspend my inner critic and let my instincts take over. To my eternal gratitude, my parents had an extensive literary library, and I was given free run of it from an early age. I grew up reading and memorising Shakespeare, so in a poetic sense at least his ‘voice’ and its rhythms are in my blood. All I had to do was trust the writing process and let them emerge.
To have gone into the novel over-awed by Shakespeare’s presence would have been disastrous. Instead, I bore in mind that William Shakespeare as a young man – instances of witty bravura aside – did not see himself as England’s greatest poet, but as a jobbing actor and writer, at that point unaware of the true extent of his talents. That Shakespeare was a much easier narrative prospect than the one we revere today.
Nonetheless, I studied many academic and biographical works about his life and oeuvre, re-read his plays and poems, made research trips to Stratford and London, and became a frequent visitor to the reconstructed Globe Theatre on Bankside. But my research kept leading me back to the elusiveness of the man himself. Judging by the lack of contemporary anecdotal evidence we have about his life and personality, even his appearance, it seems likely to me that Shakespeare’s greatness was almost entirely contained in his writing. On the surface, he might have struck most people as an ordinary man – albeit a quick-witted one!
The same elusiveness applies to the figure of Lucy Morgan, my black heroine in these books. In historical terms, she is only a name in a few court records, suggesting her status as one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, yet she has been fought over as a candidate for Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ by several historians, including the controversial Leslie Hotson. In truth though, no one has any proof who Lucy Morgan was, or even if she was black as some have claimed, linking her to a ‘Lucy Negra’ who lived in the same area of Clerkenwell later in Elizabeth’s reign.
That black people at the English court were not unheard of during this time is underlined by a fascinating portrayal of black musicians and dancers performing before Elizabeth I, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts in 1575. Indeed, by the turn of the century, there appear to have been several thousand black people in England. Still, a beautiful and talented black singer would have been a great novelty at Elizabeth’s court, and this is how I have envisaged the controversial figure of Lucy Morgan. But of course I make no claim that her particular story is based on historical fact, and clarify this in my Author’s Notes. Now we’re back to the fiction versus history dilemma. To some my portrayal of Lucy Morgan will be heresy; to others, it will make no difference to their enjoyment of this otherwise accurate Tudor novel.
The Blog tour Continues! Click on the poster below for details of past and present stops.