The Gentleman Poet: A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Written by Kathryn Johnson
Review by Patricia O’Sullivan

After a violent storm separates their battered ship from a fleet carrying settlers and provisions to Jamestown Colony, the one hundred and fifty passengers of the Sea Venture take refuge on the island of Bermuda. Among them are Elizabeth Persons, a lady’s maid with a gift for cooking, and Will Strachey, a gentleman who claims to be the ship’s historian, but who does little more than sit on the beach scribbling in his journal while the other men labor to build a new ship from the wreckage of the old one. Despite the difference in their station, Elizabeth and Will become friends, and Elizabeth discovers that they share a dangerous secret, one that drove Will from England and ruined Elizabeth’s family. But, with Will’s encouragement, Elizabeth begins to build a new life in Bermuda with the ship’s cook. However, now there are new dangers such as mutinous sailors and, when they finally arrive there, life in Jamestown, which has been decimated by Indian attacks and starvation.

Based on the true story of the shipwreck of the Sea Venture and theories that William Shakespeare was one of her passengers, The Gentleman Poet is a delightful novel full of surprising twists. Johnson does a splendid job incorporating the events and personalities that may have inspired Shakespeare’s writing of The Tempest and even includes, in Shakespearian style, the play within the story. However, my favorite parts of the novel were the Dinner Impossible-like scenes in which Elizabeth must prepare full- course meals for over one hundred people using only ingredients found on the island and cooking them over a fire pit on the beach. This lively and well-written narrative skillfully combines religion, literature, history, and culinary craft into an action-packed story.