Warwick Collins: The Sonnets

Only the longest-standing readers of this blog will remember my previous encounters with Warwick Collins, early last year. I read his recently reissued novella Gents and his 1993 novel The Rationalist. You can catch up using those links, and then catch up further by reading the books, both of which I recommend unreservedly. Since his last novel, The Marriage of Souls (2000; a sequel to The Rationalist), Collins has been quiet, so I was keen to see his return to fiction, which I pre-ordered for its publication this month.

As the headless-woman-in-period-dress cover design suggests, with The Sonnets, Collins has returned to historical fiction. And as the title indicates, we’re in Shakespeare’s time; not only that, but Collins has taken a huge gamble and made William Shakespeare the central character and narrator of his novel. Talk about aiming high. (Talk about barking mad.) But do you know? He pulls it off.

This is Shakespeare as a young man, in his late 20s, from 1592-94. The threat of plague had closed the London theatres, and so the playwright was forced to rely on his poetry, and his patron, Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton and several years Shakespeare’s junior. The historical record shows that Shakespeare dedicated two long poems to Southampton, in sometimes fulsome terms (“The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end … What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours”). Obvious speculation has flowed from this over the centuries, augmented by Shakespeare’s series of sonnets about love for a “fair youth”, dedicated to “Mr W.H.”, which some have suggested was a coded version of H(enry) W(riothesley). It is these fluid notions, and the fluidity of known facts about Shakespeare’s person too, which Collins uses as his springboard.

He manages to convey a good deal of this future speculation within Shakespeare’s contemporaneous narrative without forcing it, but is not averse to more explicit explanations:

The sonnet itself had a complex history. According to a prevailing fashion, it was addressed by a poet to a mistress, often one who was out of reach, after whom he yearned, or at least affected to do so for the sake of the fulsome compliments he would bestow upon her. … I had one obvious difficulty in my own circumstances: my patron was a master, not a mistress. Yet precisely because of this, the convention imposed its own interesting construction. It reminded me of the convention in a theatre, where a man would play a woman’s role. By the same process, perhaps, it stimulated rather than repressed the imagination.

This stimulation is exemplified in the book itself, where Collins has given himself freedom to imagine, but within firm constraints: the most important of which are the sonnets themselves. There are 32 of them reprinted in full within the text, and Collins has set himself the task of undoing them, and slotting them into Shakespeare’s story. In seeking to create Shakespeare’s mind as he wrote the sonnets, he imitates the role of the playwright himself. Says Southampton:

‘You are too generous. You take every other’s part. I believe you’ – he struggled for words – ‘complicate matters.’

‘My lord, it is in my nature to seek for wider motive.’

My own foreknowledge of the sonnets was almost non-existent, save for the most famous few, so I was probably as open to fresh interpretation as it is possible to be. All I can say is that Collins spins a supportive web for the verses with consistency and delicacy, so that not only do they seem to fit into Shakespeare’s mindset at the time (though they are not presented in chronological order), but the invented story surrounding them actually enhances their effect. “Your hiding place should be language itself,” Southampton tells Shakespeare, urging ambiguity in his verses. But there’s no uncertainty when after a night of passion with a ‘dark lady’ (the other subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets), he produces one which speaks of lust “enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight.” It was with a frisson, and surprising keenness, that I found myself enjoying the sonnets themselves.

This is not, however, a book of lightly framed verse. It is a novel with a full cast of characters, the most intriguing of which is cleverly held offstage by Collins. Southampton’s legal guardian is Lord Burghley, a puritan type close to the Queen – “whatever he touches, becomes ice. If he walks through summer, winter follows” – and who has an interest in keeping closed the theatres he sees as breeding grounds of immorality.

The battle for Southampton’s soul drives the plot, along with Shakespeare’s romantic travails, and the story proceeds largely through dialogue, which, as those who have read Gents or The Rationalist will know, is a particular strength of Collins’. The language is kept in check, historical details are withheld, and the character of the young William Shakespeare is given appropriate attention. He is in his own words “both actor and observer,” or in Southampton’s, “detached from this world, yet always observing.” As he attempts “to pin the thought like a live thing to the page,” I could only admire how expertly Collins had pinned me to the book.


  1. I have to say, John, when I see books like this in the bookstores I cringe. All of the books attempting to use Jane Austen (or her characters) to make a buck have made the rare few that are worthwhile so difficult to find. Thanks for pointing out one that should make me rethink my aversion.

  2. I certainly appreciate John Self’s taste and opinion, but this is one that he can have to himself. Of course, that may mean I am denying myself a good book.

  3. John, I’m going for Jonathan Bate’s new study, ‘Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare’ which has just been published and was reviewed in the Guardian yesterday. That’s what I want for Christmas.

  4. I see publishers are working their way up the female body. A few years ago there was the image-cropped-at-the-knee craze; now it seems that every new hist-fic novel has to have the woman-with-no-head cover. Give it a few years and the lips’ll be out.

  5. As the publisher of the book I’d like to thank Mr Self for the great review and also to comment briefly on the choice of cover.

    What a publisher is trying, and admittedly often failing, to do with a cover is to sum up, in the time it takes a customer/reader/browser to quickly scan the image with his or her eye, what the book is about. It is an attempt to convey the contents, the tone and feel of the book, in an image.

    And, like it or not, we are trying to convince the retailer that this is a book with commercial potential that they should dedicate valuable shelf space to.

    So we could avoid the obvious visual cliches but, if we do, we are risking the book being ignored by the shops. I would be doing a disservice to the author if I limited his chances of finding an audience by giving it a cover that turned retailers off.

    Not an ideal situation, but it is the reality of things.

    All that being said, the image was chosen as it represents a key image from the book with Shakespeare extolling the virtues of a particular lady’s hands so it isn’t entirely without meaning.

    But covers are always going to be subjective. You can never please everyone.

  6. Thanks for the explanation, Scott. I do understand: with margins being as tight as they are and so many books jostling for the book-buyer’s attention, it’s understandable when publishers go for an image that says, ‘If you liked that other book, you’ll like this…’

    It was, however, the headless element of the cover that I was referring to. I’m not sure how that conveys the ‘contents, the tone and feel’ of the book, but I guess I’ll just have to read it to find out.

  7. I thought it was because the model’s face would end up with type all over it unless cropped. Faces, like sexual tastes, are just so … specific.
    Thanks, John for another great review. I read GENTS, thanks to your piece on it. I look forward to this one. I usually do like books that frame poetry or facts because the story keeps me reading, closely, what I might otherwise scan. (Edward Docx’s The Calligrapher is a good case in point.) I only rarely have the attention for poetry, never having learned to appreciate it. This one won’t be published on this side of the world until mid-December and then only in Canada, so I may have to wait a bit.

  8. I thought it was because the model’s face would end up with type all over it unless cropped.

    Or that the model wouldn’t have a ‘period’ face. They could avoid that by Photoshopping Alun Armstrong’s face onto all the bodices, though that may not be entirely the desired effect. When I was writing my post, I hoped Caustic Cover Critic had done a feature on headless-women-in-period-costume covers, but alas! Get on with it, man.

  9. Christopher makes a very good point with his reference to The Calligrapher. I remembered Donne dimly from university and I’m not a poetry reader — I did find that having it presented in the context of the novel (which I quite liked, although I think I liked Docx’s London more than I liked Donne — but I still liked both) helped me pay closer attention to it. I’m still not sure I’m up to reading The Sonnets in either 14 line (see, I still remember university) or novel form. More contributions on this site might sway me.

    As for the cover debate, I will also equivocate. More bodice than ripper I guess — although if I recall right the Arnold bodice cover did have a face. And if I were the publisher, I think that something more about “sonnet” and less about “bodice” might have tipped my decision. One of the things that I have found interesting about occasional reader reaction to Netherland here in Canada is how much people have liked the North American cover, which I would characterize as understated classic — John’s review was before he started posting both covers (a feature that I certainly salute) but you can find it on amazon’s NA sites.

  10. I like the cover very much – indeed, I like the book very much – but, as someone who’s published two books with headless women on their covers, I’m clearly biased. I must admit that this past year I’ve noticed just how frequently headless woman are used on covers and I wonder when the trend began. The idea that it was preceded by torsoless women is intriguing. Maybe we should start to allow a glimpse of chin.

  11. Maybe we should start to allow a glimpse of chin.

    Not on my blog, you filthy swine!

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that it was Philippa Gregory, or her publishers, who started the headless-woman trend, at least for period dress. Perhaps with The Other Boleyn Girl, published in 2001. Unless of course, as Esther Rantzen used to say, you know different…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s