Jinny Webber is a longtime college teacher of English—at SBCC and now in the extended learning program of Cal State Channel Islands. Dark Venus, the second installment in a trilogy, is a novel of love, poetry, and theater set in Elizabethan England.
Can you tell us a bit about Alexander Cooke and her friend Amelia Bassano Lanyer, the protagonists of your new novel?
They’re both historical persons, including “Sander” as Cooke’s nickname. Alexander Cooke is listed in Shakespeare’s First Folio as one of the “Principall Actors in all these plays.” In 1611, Amelia Bassano Lanyer published her own book of poetry, a first for a woman in Elizabethan England.
But Sander is born female.
There’s my fictional twist. She runs away from home disguised as a boy and eventually makes her way to the London stage, where boys play the female roles. The complications of her disguise create the plot of volume 1, The Secret Player. Amelia, the presumed “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, is a friend of Sander’s.
Some critics argue that the sonnets are not autobiographical.
True, but for my purposes it’s a wonderful story: The object of Shakespeare’s intense verses turns out to be a poet herself! Dark Venus shows the love affair from Amelia’s perspective, including her reactions to the sonnets, some of which are pretty terrible to women. In my version, Amelia’s book of poetry, published some 18 years after her affair with Will Shakespeare, is a kind of revenge. Rather than being about love, it’s a vindication of all women, beginning with Eve.
One of the first things a reader of your series notices is the meticulous attention to detail: it feels like you’ve been dropped straight into Shakespeare’s London. How did you manage that?
I do love London, though most of the city of Shakespeare’s day is long gone. Still, it’s there in street names and in spirit, plus there’s the reconstructed Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames with plays produced as they were in his day. I’ve spent a great deal of time in London and environs, researching the places, people, and atmosphere.
Obviously, your story bears at least a passing resemblance to the film Shakespeare in Love. Yet I understand you actually began work on this idea well before the movie came out?
Yes, that was an unfortunate coincidence for me. One summer in England, I read a magazine interview with the actor Simon Callow about his upcoming movie, and I was devastated. The Secret Player, then called Stage Secrets, was finished, edited, and in the hands of a literary agent. Even though the plot of Shakespeare in Love is unrelated to mine, the girl-playing-a-boy-actor motif prompted one editor to say we needed to wait at least five years before pursuing publication.
The first book in the series was also published in Turkey—in Turkish. How did that come about?
Apparently there’s a market in Turkey for historical fiction set in England. My New York agent sold translation rights to Artemis Press in Istanbul, and a very attractive book it is.
So what can we expect in the final volume?
It’s called Bedtrick, after a plot element in two of Shakespeare’s plays. My plot is a variation on the switch of presumed partners. Alexander Cooke’s brother Johnny impregnates Frances, a friend of Sander’s, and refuses to marry her. The seemingly simple solution would be for Sander to marry Frances. Can a woman of the time get away with being a husband? You’ll find out next year.