From an early age, women are taught that beauty is currency. It can open doors, especially when it comes to marriage and the availability of potential husbands. But what happens when a woman seeks more out of life than marriage and children?
Alma Mahler (nee Schindler) was a gifted composer and had the drive to potentially succeed. But in turn of the century Vienna, a gifted woman who wanted a career outside of the traditional world of being a wife and mother was an anomaly.
Alma’s story is told in the new novel, Ecstasy: A Novel, by Mary Sharratt. The books starts when Alma is in her late teens. Renowned for her beauty, Alma is sought out by men who are as artistic and passionate as she is. Though she lives in a world in which women are denied career opportunities because they are women, Alma is determined to be known as a composer. After receiving several offers of marriage, Alma married the much older Gustav Mahler.
Though Gustav loves her, he makes one thing crystal clear: Alma must give up her music. Though Alma is in love with Gustav and greatly admires his ability to compose music, she knows that must make a choice: her art or the man she loves.
I didn’t know what to expect of this book. Up to the reading of this book, I had not heard of Alma Mahler. I was not only impressed with the book, I was also impressed with the story of the book’s subject. It takes a strong woman to remain true to herself and her ambitions in a world that would deny her both.
With every successful writer, there are questions of where they got their initial plot ideas from and whom they encountered as they developed the plot and the characters. When it comes to William Shakespeare, there are myths that he might have not written some of the work that we identify him with.
One of the myths is that Aemilia Lanier (nee Bassano) had a hand in writing some of Shakespeare’s most famous works.
Mary Sharratt’s new book, The Dark Lady’s Mask, shows us the world of Elizabethan England through Aemilia’s eyes. For her time, Aemilia was unusual. Educated, smart and not averse to cross dressing when needed, we first meet Aemilia when she is a young girl. Her father is Marrano Jew who escaped Italy and the Inquisition as a young man. While he publicly lives the life of a good Christian, he has never forgotten his faith. Her mother, who found herself abandoned and pregnant by her first husband, married Aemilia’s father and raised her daughters as if they were full blood sisters.
Aemilia’s life is one dramatic turn after the other. After the death of her father, she is taken away to be educated. In her teens, Aemilia becomes the mistress of one of the most powerful men in England, who is old enough to be her father several times over. Finding herself pregnant by her lover, she is married off to Alfonse Lanier. Then she meets William Shakespeare and that is where the story takes off.
I liked this book. Writers of historical novels, especially when there is more fiction than fact, walk a fine line. They must honor the history and the known facts while writing a novel with an engaging narrative and characters that the audience will want to follow. What the author was able to do very well was meld fact and fiction is a story of a very strong woman in an era when women were simply chattel to the men around them. Aemilia is a character who is very strong, but understands her world and how to survive in it while remaining true to herself.