The Gentleman Poet
By Kathryn Johnson
Release Date: September 7, 2010
I love a good title, so The Gentleman Poet: A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest caught my attention and my imagination immediately. The story is set in 1609. It opens with the protagonist on board the Sea Venture, a ship on its way to deliver supplies, soldiers, and more settlers to Jamestown. Caught in a powerful storm, the ship is forced onto rocks in the legendary Devil’s Isles (Bermuda), thought to be inhabited by spirits and beasts. Instead, the motley group, led by Governor Gates and Captain Newport, discover a tropical paradise and find themselves forging a new community that must work together if they are to survive and find a means of reaching the mainland.
The protagonist is Elizabeth Persons, the daughter of an apothecary. Having lost family and home to politics and plague, she is left destitute and is forced to work as a servant to a wealthy, self-centered old woman who has invested heavily in the Virginia Company. She is on board the ship because she is accompanying her mistress to the New World to check on her investment. When the ship’s cook falls ill, the Governor secures Elizabeth’s help to feed the survivors. Using native herbs and vegetables and knowledge taught by her parents, Elizabeth creates wonderful dishes for the castaways and ends up giving cooking lessons to the recovered cook. Elizabeth also develops a friendship with William Strachey, a mysterious man who’s always writing in his journal. As she discovers an unexpected bond of commonality with him and as Strachey casts her as Miranda (Elizabeth’s middle name and her new identity) in a play he has written, their friendship deepens. Strachey even fosters the romance between Elizabeth and the recovered cook, Thomas Powell, and Elizabeth begins to learn who Will really is.
The Gentleman Poet lives up to the promise of its subtitle. It is a story about many kinds of love—parent and child, man and woman, friend and friend and also about love for what one creates with truth and purpose, be it a poem or a dish. It is a story about the dangers of sea, of land, and within the human heart. It is a story about Shakespeare’s The Tempest, an alternate history that places Will Shakespeare himself on the island he used as Prospero’s sanctuary, a place of marvels and voices and “a thousand twangling instruments.”
From the novel’s opening line, “A storm is coming,” through the closing line, “I could believe even that kind of happiness might visit me again,” I was fully engaged with the story and with the character of Elizabeth, the voice of the story. I have a special affection for alternate histories, and I taught The Tempest more often than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, so from the beginning, the book held strong appeal for me. The appeal strengthened as Elizabeth’s story captured me intellectually and emotionally. I believed in Elizabeth, in her struggles and her strength.
Two passages that I’ve gone back to reread more than once serve to show the author’s prose is one more reason to delight in this book.
The first brings William Shakespeare to life for me in a fresh way:
He was a delicate man with thin wrists and long fingers, holding his quill as if it were an artist’s brush, drawing swift, decisive strokes across the pages of his journal. More gray showed through the red gold hairs of his beard than when we first arrived in the Bermudas. His eyes seemed to me sad, or perhaps just distant and thoughtful. As I approached though, they shone as a young man’s, alert and bright and blue as the azure water lapping the beach.
The second shows Elizabeth’s growth as she listens to the degrading comments of her mistress:
There was a time when I easily would have agreed with her. But that time had passed. I was clever with my herbs and stirred magic into my pots. I knew the names of birds and flowers and creatures of our island. I had loved a man and made him happy with me. I felt near to bursting with joy even as she scowled her displeasure with me.
I recommend this book without reservations to fans of historical fiction, to lovers of Shakespeare, and to anyone who enjoys a compelling, well-researched story. I do caution romance readers to remember that this is a novel with strong romantic elements and an uplifting conclusion rather than a conventional historical romance. I found the ending lovely and satisfying, but it is not a traditional HEA.