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.