Author Explores ‘The Secret Lives of Elizabethans’ with Help from Internet Archive

After 34 years as a successful commercial real estate attorney, Dorothea Dickerman is spending her second act writing about the Elizabethan era. She’s long been fascinated with the English literary renaissance—the politics of the time and the whole cast of characters, including William Shakespeare.

Author Dorothea Dickerman

As she works from her home office, Dickerman often relies on the Internet Archive. While she enjoys paging through rare books at the Folger Shakespeare Library or Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Dickerman said it’s more convenient to go online. Also, the digitized materials allow her to enter keywords to refine her search and save time.

“I regard Internet Archive as an ever ready and highly patient librarian who is there for me,” Dickerman said. “I can go back as many times as I want, and it is open 24 hours a day.’

Many of the books she wants are out-of-print and hard to find in their original version. When text has been updated through the lens of an editor, she said, the language is sometimes changed to be more relevant to contemporary readers. Dickerman is often searching for historical primary sources – sometimes materials from the 1500s (letters, court records, diplomatic reports) that have been preserved by the Archive. “For that purpose, the Internet Archive is amazing,” she said.

Since retiring in 2017, Dickerman has been immersing herself in the Elizabethan era and sharing what she’s learned. She recently created a website (Dorothea, writes a blog, Secret Lives of Elizabethans, and is active on Instagram. Dickerman is a guest lecturer, sometimes giving talks about places where Shakespeare set a play, such as Italy. She also speaks at conferences as a Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. On the monthly podcast, the Blue Boar Tavern, she is a panelist discussing all things Shakespeare, which appears on YouTube. 

Her long-term project is a series of historical novels looking at the lives of women at the time, without whom there would be no Shakespeare. Dickerman said she likes examining the layers of Shakespeare’s stories, including the political satire and underlying messages that she finds through details such as pseudonyms and book dedications. Dickerman said she searches for lost and hidden stories of the era to weave into her novels. Rather than inventing tales about the Elizabethan court, she wants her stories to be firmly grounded in fact.

“I regard Internet Archive as an ever ready and highly patient librarian who is there for me. I can go back as many times as I want, and it is open 24 hours a day.”

Author Dorothea Dickerman

Although she is not a trained scholar, Dickerman said she uses her legal research skills and curiosity to look for direct or circumstantial evidence to confirm information. When she makes a discovery or identifies a pattern in a document: “It’s a thrill!” Reading an historical account of a feast in 1575, for instance, provides her with rich details for her to write an accurate scene in her novel. Many of those ah-ha moments are thanks to the Internet Archive.

 “Almost anything I am looking for is there [in the collection]. That’s what’s so terrific about the Internet Archive,” Dickerman said. “The world has gone on to the web and everyone from children to serious scholars need to be able to find the material and read it for themselves to make their own decisions.”