Book Review: "The Gentleman Poet" by Kathryn Johnson
Elizabeth Persons’ blinding headache while on board the Sea Venture is an ominous sign, one she knows well as a warning of danger. The young servant girl is one of 150 passengers on the ill-fated ship, her worst fears are soon realized as they are tossed mercilessly in a hurricane on the final leg of their journey to the Americas. As the storm calms, the passengers can hardly believe they have survived, and that the Bermudas, rumored home to evil spirits and dangerous natives, may be their only chance of salvation.
Despairing of rescue, Elizabeth and the others struggle to make the uninhabited island their home for nine long months while they build a new ship to complete their voyage to Jamestown, Virginia. As the months pass, friendships form, crew members revolt and love blossoms between Elizabeth and the ship’s young cook. Elizabeth forms a fast bond with the ship’s historian, a man she comes to know as William Strachey. But Will is not the man he portrays—he is in fact William Shakespeare—and they share a dangerous secret, a secret that could cost them their lives if they ever return to Protestant England.
After many months, their new ship is ready to sail and the surviving company finally lands in Jamestown, only to find that life there is hard and dangerous. When Elizabeth’s headaches return, she despairs of a threat to her young husband and their child, due later that year. Her world falls apart, but it is her good friend Will who gives her a chance for a new and independent life, by offering her the chance to return with him to live with his family in Stratford on Avon where they both must confront their past, face the risk of possible persecution, and start their lives again.
As you know, I am a really big history and historical fiction fan. Also, even though I studied American history, I LOVE everything British especially their rich history which, don't tell anyone, I think is FAR more interesting than most American stuff. This book actually manages to combine both of these interests. The story is a wonderful blend of early American history, British history and the inspiration for one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, The Tempest.
The story is from the point of view Elizabeth, a servant girl, and gives a wonderful insight to how classes don't seem to matter once everyone is shipwrecked. I really loved her character as she struggles with her past identity and begins to create a new one in the New World. There is a lot of historical talk about the relationship between Catholics and Protestants and Elizabeth's loyalty to her parents but at the same time wanting to start afresh. Also equally as important is her being able to find love amid everything else that is going on. I adored that part of the story of watching the relationship grow even as everything else around them was uncertain.
For some reason when I started reading this book, I kept thinking it was going to be about Twelfth Night. Therefore for the first few chapters, I was horribly confused and kept wondering where people who represented Viola and Orsino. Then I finally realized "Doh! Wrong Shakespeare comedy that starts with a T!". After that it was smooth sailing (har har) from there. I really enjoyed having Shakespeare's character in the actual story. I kept picturing Joseph Fiennes, who played Shakespeare in Shakespeare in love, moving throughout the island and befriending Elizabeth. It was very interesting learning about his history and how the author perceived his relationship with his wife and children. Also interesting was the brief talk about the possible identity of the Fair Youth of his sonnets.
Even if you take away any reference to Shakespeare or "The Tempest" the story stands alone as a wonderful interpretation of what life was like for early colonists. Therefore if you don't know the plot of "The Tempest" at all, you won't be lost when reading this book. There is a lot of historical detail that makes the setting and characters come alive. It was interesting to see how the upper class, such as Mistress Horton, desperately tried to cling to their status even though they were now at the same level as the lowest servants. There are recipes in the book based on the dishes that Elizabeth made for the settlement, but as the author notes in the back, don't attempt to make them! It's quite interesting how much food was able to be made just using the natural resources on the island plus the meager offerings from the ship's supplies. This is the ultimate Survivor where the reward is not a million dollars, but just the knowledge of staying alive for another day.
This book was absolutely lovely to read. The story is beautifully written. There is humor in this book as well as deep emotional drama. There are scenes where I felt so incredibly sad for the characters and others where I cheered at their discoveries. Even though there is an abundance of Shakespeare related movies already out there, I could easily see this book being made into a movie as well. This book is going to be one of my top 10 historical reads of the year. VERY highly recommended.