A historian’s low opinion of early feminist poet Emilia Bassano Lanyer, who may have been the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, prompted Charlene Ball to research and write about the woman. Although the writing was put on the back burner for many years, Charlene’s book, Dark Lady, recently won Story Circle Network’s Sarton Award for historical fiction.
That eye-opening lecture in the mid-1970s at the University of Georgia, Charlene says, brought together the two different sides of her life. “I was fascinated. Up until then, my feminism and my love of Renaissance literature were kept in separate areas of my world. Feminism was about marches and demonstrations for the Equal Rights Amendment and Take Back the Night; reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Our Bodies Our Selves, and Sinister Wisdom; listening to talks by popular feminists like Gloria Steinem; reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde; and talking with our very own resident radical feminist, Julia Penelope Stanley, who taught linguistics in the UGA English Department and whose mother ran a cool bookstore called The Hairy Hobbit.
“Feminism,” Charlene recalls, “was also about identifying as a lesbian, and going to softball games to cheer on lesbian friends who played on a softball team called The Hairy Hobbits — the bookstore sponsored the team.”
In her other world was Charlene’s course work for her doctorate in comparative literature, which involved attending classes and writing papers on medieval narrative, Shakespeare, European romanticism, French classical drama, and Renaissance narrative poetry.
“I loved it all. But there was a disconnect. My coursework did not overlap at all with my life,” Charlene says. “Writing about Emilia brought together those two strands.”
The author says she chose to write about Emilia as a woman struggling to survive in a time when her life would have been severely restricted and constrained by laws and anti-female beliefs, yet also a time of excitement and possibility. She chose to write Emilia’s story as historical fiction instead of a biography because she wanted more scope for imagination. But she also “tried to keep close to what actually could have happened or was likely to have happened. I don’t put her in places she was not likely to have gone.”
Her novel differs from others about Emilia, Charlene points out, because it shows her relationships and support of other women, particularly women writers.
Charlene taught English literature and composition for years in colleges and universities — and published articles and short stories. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Sinister Wisdom, The NWSA Journal, The Journal of the Short Story in English, and The North Atlantic Review. She also has written plays, one about Shakespeare and Emilia, and the other about Christopher Marlowe.
“In 2009, I retired from Georgia State University’s Women’s Studies Institute where I taught and served as program administrator. Since retirement, I spend my time writing, doing community work, digging in my garden, and selling books with my wife Libby Ware, a writer and antiquarian bookseller.”
Charlene shares, “Libby and I got married last May. We had been dating for 14 years, so we thought it was time. We don’t have plans to live together; we enjoy our independence and solitude too much. We spend time together on weekends, when we go out of town for book fairs, and when we go to community and congregation activities. Bookselling is a new world for me, and I enjoy learning about it.”
The author, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, belongs to a writers’ group that she founded, and to the Atlanta Writers Club, and the Georgia Writers Association, and frequently takes writing classes. She is also a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts.
Charlene and Libby, meanwhile, just finished writing a mystery novel about two female booksellers who try to solve a murder while searching for a missing book of magic spells. It’s called Murder at the Estate Sale, and the couple are hoping it will become a series.
Charlene says she has also started on her next historical novel, The Ballad of the Duchess, which is about Katherine Willoughby Brandon Bertie, Duchess of Suffolk, who appears briefly in Dark Lady.