Warwick Collins has set himself a difficult task in this novel. He not only attempts to provide a convincing fictional backdrop for the writing of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, he also attempts to have the Bard himself tell that story.
You can perhaps see the problem here. If you’re going to attempt to write in the voice of Shakespeare, your prose needs to breathe, to jump, to leap off the page. It has to feel inventive and playful, and it must not feel ordinary. Collins’s prose, while perfectly adequate, sometimes even quite nice, is mostly ordinary.
But let me go back and tell you more about what Collins is up to here. In The Sonnets, Collins offers a suggestion of what Shakespeare might have been doing during the time the theatres were closed because of plague and how his activities during that time might have inspired him to write many of his sonnets. I don’t know much about what scholars have learned about the writing of the sonnets, but I know about the young man and the dark lady believed to be the subjects of many of the poems. Collins identifies both of these figures. In the novel, the young man is Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, who plays host to Shakespeare when he leaves London during the plague. The dark lady is actually two women, Lucia Florio, the wife of a scholar living at Southampton’s home, and Emilia Bassano, who visited briefly with her husband. A little online searching has verified that all these people are considered likely candidates.
The story Collins puts together is plausible, as far as the facts within the story go. (Whether it fits the known history is for someone else to weigh in on.) In the world of the novel, the events themselves make internal sense. But I’m not sure the story makes emotional sense. Here, again, is where the lifeless prose is a problem. The only time I was convinced Shakespeare felt the feelings he said he felt was when he expressed those feelings in a sonnet. The most vivid and exciting chapters of the book are those that are mostly one of Shakespeare’s sonnets after another, with only a paragraph or two of Collins in between. But the juxtaposition of Shakespeare and Collins works against Collins. Consider the contrast here:
That night I lay on my bed, the flame of the candle beside me. My mind was filled with the images of my love, and the peculiar circumstances by which, having attempted to prevent her husband from being dismissed, I was now the victim of my own charity. Meanwhile, I had struggled to express my own feelings through the only means that seemed open to the expression of my thoughts. I had begun the poem in fierce anger and exasperation at my plight, but what emerged in the course of a night of labour was more like pleading. Beside me, on the board, another page had been filled with verse.
Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather’d creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatch
In pursuit of the thing she would have stay;
While her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
To follow that which flies before her face,
Nor prizing her poor infant’s discontent:
So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;
But if thou catch thy hole, turn back to me,
And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind.
So I will pray that thou mayst have thy Will,
If thou turn back and my loud crying still.
This is one of Collins’ better segues into a poem, and one of Shakespeare’s less vivid and interesting sonnets, but I still have a hard time seeing them coming from the same person. (Although to give Collins credit, he did make up two Shakespearean sonnets for the story that were convincing enough.)
Collins’s prose is perfectly fine, and much of the voice problem could have been resolved by having a third-person narrator. But it wouldn’t resolve the way some of the poems feel shoehorned in. The inspirations behind the poems make sense, but the way they’re arranged, usually written shortly after the inspiring incident, feels too tidy. Something happens, Shakespeare feels something, he writes a poem. Again and again. There’s no going back and reworking, unless it happens in the initial writing. The only line he see him fiddle with is “If music be the food of love, play on!” and that’s not so much a struggle as a random arrangement of words with no context until he finds the line.
I did, however, love the way Collins used Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true mind admits impediments”). I’ve watched the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility so many times that I have a hard time reading the poem without Marianne Dashwood’s sort of steadfastness in mind. But here, it’s a poem about steadfastness in friendship, not romantic love, and it’s a beautiful way to read it. I love it when new settings of literature I thought I knew well open up the text to new-to-me readings, so I’m grateful to this novel for doing that.