Collins Warwick

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.

Warwick Collins: The Rationalist

I was delighted by Warwick Collins’ slim novel Gents recently, and so I leapt at the chance to discover some of his more substantial fare. Prominent among these are the two novels in his unfinished trilogy set in his home town of Lymington at the close of the 18th century, The Rationalist (1993) and The Marriage of Souls (1999). My general low tolerance for historical fiction meant I approached The Rationalist with fingers crossed in trust.

It concerns Dr Silas Grange, an ascetic man of reason and controlled appetites. He treats his patients, he lives comfortably with the assistance of his housekeeper Mrs Thompson, he gazes out over the Solent to the Isle of Wight beyond. His life is orderly, like the calm and quiet Hampshire landscape on which the story rests. A man of the Enlightenment through and through, he is (as he puts it) ‘not devout’ – or to put it another way, his polemic on religion would put Richard Dawkins to shame:

‘Reason does not proceed by confirmation, but by contradiction. We know nothing of our arguments until we have heard the opposite. That is, sir, where I disagree with the religionists, who in the main are infuriated by any statement which is the opposite of what they themselves choose to believe. If I may draw a difference between myself and them, it is not simply a case of my believing something else, but the methods I use to ascertain the truth of what I believe.’

(And the relevance today of references to the battle between reason and religion can hardly be missed, perhaps even more so than in the fourteen years since the novel was published.)

But Dr Grange is about to find that when it comes to reason against emotion, the body has a mind of its own. This is achieved through the medium of Mrs Celia Quill, a lady of ‘grace’ and ‘very fine intelligence’ who has recently moved to the area. The extraordinary transformation in Grange’s behaviour which she not so much persuades as seduces him to undertake, cannot be revealed without spoiling the story, though fans of Alan Bennett will have seen his Miss Fozzard experience a similar awakening in Talking Heads.

There are two features of The Rationalist which particularly impress. First, Collins eschews the usual pastiche of language of the period, preferring a plain style which better reflects both the serene beauty of the ever-present landscape, and the calm expansiveness of Grange’s mind. And yet what’s remarkable is that this detached and cool prose twists its way into the reader’s soul with almost embarrassing ease. The early scene of crude surgery will have you clenching the pages in tightened fists, and when Grange sat down to his meal of ‘rich bloody beef’ with his colleague Hargood, I had a piercing hunger by the end of their gluttonous feast.

Hargood is the second outstanding quality of the book, or rather his combative relationship with Grange is. The two are fast friends, and sworn foes on philosophy, ethics and even branches of medicine. And it is their long conversations, inevitably over those endless banquets of blood-dripping meat, which provide the greatest intellectual food of the novel. They balance one another out:

‘Think of it, Hargood, to conduct one’s life by means of logic, rather than the emotions. If that were only possible. To be driven by the intellect, rather than the senses.’

‘But without the senses, there is no intellect. That is the mistake of those revolutionaries on the other side of the Channel. The intellect alone is a loose gun. It ends up by destroying those who would deploy it.’

I could easily have devoured another book’s worth of this fine combination of ideas and energy. And, with The Marriage of Souls awaiting, I hope I shall have the chance to do so very soon.

Warwick Collins: Gents

Warwick Collins is the author of a couple of superior (I gather) 18th century pastiche novels, The Rationalist and The Marriage of Souls. Those two form part of a trilogy which, so far as I can tell, has yet to be completed, though the second volume was published in 1999. But he has come to my attention for a novella entitled Gents – you can read an extract on the Amazon page – first published in 1997, and which was recommended by Scott Pack recently on his blog.

It tells the story of Ezekiel Murphy, known as Ez, a Jamaican man living in London, who gets a job in an underground public toilet. Two other West Indians, Jason and Mr Reynolds, work there, and the three while away their time mopping and polishing and replacing cakes of disinfectant. Collins imbues the toilets with an otherworldly air, full of resonant silences and “flowing, bouncing light.”

The plot comes from Ez’s discovery that the toilets are used by men for more than one kind of relief. And scenes of illicit encounters have never been dispatched with greater economy:

When Ez looked again there were two pairs of shoes in the nearest cubicle, facing each other. As he watched, one pair of shoes turned the other way.

And so Ez, Jason and Mr Reynolds come under pressure from the council to reduce the amount of ‘cottaging’ in the toilets, otherwise they will be closed down. But when they do, this brings the problem back from another angle.

It’s impossible to summarise how brilliantly Collins evokes the underground world of the men, and the laconic poetry (and I do mean poetry) with which he imbues their actions and contemplations. In 140 pages of wide type with lots of dialogue, he brings a Fetherlite touch to thoughts of sin, racism, prejudice, family, society and sex. He has some sort of negative witchcraft going on whereby the fewer words he uses, the more powerful and evocative the dialogue and descriptions become. I have quite genuinely begun seeing my workplace toilets (all white reflective tiles and shuddering pipes, just like the ones in Gents) in a new light since reading it.

Gents is one of those rare little gems, like Ben Rice’s Pobby & Dingan, that punches so far above its weight that it will effortlessly knock you out.