Emilia: The Guilty Feminist
The Guilty Feminist’s Deborah Frances-White shares her love for Emilia Lanier, Britain’s first female published poet
Emilia Lanier is my favourite historical guilty feminist and Elizabethan girl-crush. She was a poet, a class warrior and a champion of women – but she knew how to party and she really went the distance.
She died neither virtuous nor young. It was said she broke the record for a woman who had given birth, by living till 76. Apparently, her closest rival died at 57. Putting it into perspective, Shakespeare, her contemporary, died at 52 which wasn’t especially young.
Some critics say that Emilia Lanier had an affair with Shakespeare and that she was the dark lady he wrote about in his sonnets. But I don’t care if that’s true or not. Why do women always have to be defined by the most famous man they’ve slept with? I don’t want to be defined by Jon Hamm or John Stewart – both men I assume I will have an important sexual relationship with before I die. I want to talk about Emilia Lanier on her own merits. Did she know Shakespeare? For sure. The population of London then was around 86 and 49 of those people were poets and playwrights, because there was more funding for the arts under a bloodthirsty monarchy than there is under the current Tory government. Did they get it on? Probably – because things were really boring before the Internet, so people had to make their own entertainment which usually consisted of word games and sexual intercourse. I’m pretty sure both Emilia Lanier and Shakespeare shagged loads of people. They just didn’t go on about it because they both had awesome careers.
‘Some critics say that Emilia Lanier had an affair with Shakespeare and that she was the dark lady he wrote about in his sonnets. But I don’t care if that’s true or not. Why do women always have to be defined by the most famous man they’ve slept with?’
She was born and christened in St Botolph, Bishopsgate in 1569. Now it’s near Liverpool Street Station but then it was where ‘foreign musicians and theatre-folk lived’. Think Stoke Newington – coffee houses, fingerless mittens and acoustic lutes.
Her father, Baptista Bassano, a hot Italian musician, died of being Elizabethan when Emilia was seven and her English mother, Margaret, couldn’t afford to keep all her children because she was on only twice the benefits single mothers are given under our Tory government. So Emilia was sent into service at a country house called Cookham, owned by Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent.
Susan was quite bohemian in as much as she thought girls should be schooled and was educating her own daughters. I like to think Emilia was so charming and witty when she brought in the tea and buns, Susan thought she would be a good influence and upgraded Emilia to the position of student and foster daughter. It was certainly there that she learned writing and languages and without that could never have become a poet.
Here’s where it all goes a bit Love Island. Emilia became a WAG to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. Henry’s mum was ‘the other Boleyn girl’ and he was said to be Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. She was 18. He was 61. He was also Shakespeare’s boss. He became The Lord Chamberlain of ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’ – Will’s theatre company. Henry gifted Emilia 40 pounds a year and you could buy a lot of corsets and designer ruffs with that. These were her Hello! magazine years, rubbing shoulders with celebrities such as Queen Elizabeth I, Marlowe, Sir Francis Drake. When she was 23 she got knocked up, which was one of the most ill-mannered things you could do in the court. Henry dropped her like a pregnant brick. He was married and almost 70, after all. Like many women before and after her, she was ousted from all that was glamorous and he carried on like nothing had happened.
It was at this point I like to think she realised how superficial the world of the court was and decided to follow her heart. Enter Alphonso Lanier. He was her age. In fact, he was her cousin – but once removed, so relax.
He was also a rock star of his day. He played the most phallic instrument you can imagine. The recorder. Yes, like the one you played at school but back then that was the equivalent of the electric guitar. I imagine she was with the groundlings in the mosh pit laughing with her friends: ‘He doth play such a lusty melody. Verily, I would blow his recorder.’ Alphonso’s biggest gig was when he played at Elizabeth I’s funeral a few years later. Think Elton John and Candle in the Wind.
She married him when she was pregnant with another man’s child, like many a rock and roll A-Lister, and it was then that she started visiting a therapist and astrologer called Simon Forman. She wanted to know whether her husband would ever make any money because he was busy spending all of hers. Simon Forman fancied her, of course. He exclusively saw female patients and wrote down in his notebooks whenever he ‘haleked’ them. It wasn’t Elizabethan slang. It was his own made up word for shagging. When she ‘would not halek’ he called her a ‘succubus’ (nymphomaniac demon) and a lesbian in his notebook. He was a Jacobean troll. We know a lot about her because he kept terrific misogynistic records.
When her husband died of being Jacobean, Emilia did lots of things to survive and support her son. She opened a school, and ran a hay-weighing business. She often sued men over business disputes and always won. She defended herself in court and referred to herself as an ‘oratrix’, a word I intend to bring back for myself.
‘Emilia was the first English woman to become a professional poet. Other women had written for vanity, but she published for cash. Her most famous poem was so feminist as to be blasphemous’
The most exciting of the jobs she took up, in what was very much a gig economy, was writing. She was the first English woman to become a professional poet. Other women had written for vanity, but she published for cash. Her most famous poem was so feminist as to be blasphemous. She got away with it by claiming she’d dreamed the title. The ‘divine dream’ defence was one used by women through the ages because no-one could argue with what God had told you in your sleep, but I love the fact that she was only prepared to give God credit for the name. The rhymes were all hers. It was called Salve Deus Rex Judӕorum and its thesis is wild: stop blaming women for the Fall. Eve was seduced. Adam knew better. And even if women did get us kicked out of the garden of Eden, you men killed Jesus. The introduction to the poem contains this reckless and glorious defence of women.
As also in respect it pleased our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ… from the time of his conception, till the houre of his death, to be begotten of a woman, borne of a woman, nourished of a woman, obedient to a woman; and that he healed woman, pardoned women, comforted women: yea, euen when he was in his greatest agonie and bloodie sweat, going to be crucified, and also in the last houre of his death, tooke care to dispose of a woman: after his resurrection, appeared first to a woman, sent a woman to declare his most glorious resurrection to the rest of his Disciples.
So lads, if you don’t love women, you don’t love Jesus. All this when being the wrong religion was one of the leading causes of death. What a woman. I drink to Emilia often when I think of how much she’d enjoy the #MeToo movement and how much I’d love to have her guest on my podcast. I couldn’t be more intrigued and excited to spend some time with her as the Globe resurrects her spirit and imagines her into being once more. She is the answer to the question, what would have happened to Shakespeare’s sister? And Virginia Woolf was wrong. She wouldn’t have died in the gutter from syphilis. She’d have been a magnificent successful poet, business woman and personality. We just wouldn’t ever learn about her in school. Tonight, we remember her vividly and the Globe will make sure we never dare forget her again.