|Apr/May 2000 Book Reviews|
Chatto & Windus (February 2000) 400 pages
ISBN: 0 7011 6859 5
Philip Sidney has shone through four centuries as England's hero, its shepherd-knight, its greatest courtier poet.
For a man who died at the age of thirty-one, this is a notable achievement. And even as I questioned the truth of this claim, I came across an article in then latest weekend magazine which held Sir Philip Sidney up as a standard of excellence in a way which presumed that modern British readers would know him and understand. Yet most people who recognise his name, think of him as a poet. Few know him as the learned, well-travelled, much-praised, brave soldier and skilled diplomat Alan Stewart's new biography shows him to have been.
Stewart's "Introduction" sets the scene. He describes a room-length, rotating scroll depicting Philip Sidney's funeral procession in February, 1587. Mounted above a parlour chimney, this scroll impressed the nine-year-old John Aubrey so much in 1635, that he could remember it in old age "as if it were but yesterday".
The procession was grand. The Lord Mayor of London walked in it, together with some three-hundred other dignitaries and armed citizens. The coffin, surrounded by heraldic banners, was carried by fourteen men. And all was paid for, so the scroll's commentator noted, by Sidney's Father-in law, Sir Francis Walsingham, who was Principal Secretary of State to the Queen. But, according to Alan Stewart, such grandeur was "strangely out of proportion to Sidney's status and reputation." Working closely from relevant documents of the period, Stewart concludes that it was all a "propaganda exercise" initiated by Sidney's uncle, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to elevate the (lost) battle of Zutphen (in which Sidney got the wound which eventually killed him) to a "glorious victory", to bolster his own standing as Governor of the Netherlands, and to reinstate the Dudleys (himself in particular) in the Queen's favour.
Such political manoeuvring as this is typical of the story Stewart tells of Sidney's life. Powerful family connections were both advantageous and dangerous to him. The bloody history which brought Elizabeth to the throne, her awareness of her own precarious position, and the constant pressure of religious and political changes in England and Europe, all made her suspicious of her noble followers. All these things shaped and controlled Sidney's life and he appears to have dealt remarkably well with such constraints.
Stewart handles the complexities of his story clearly and well. The wars in Europe, the political intrigue in England and abroad, Sidney's extensive and adventurous travel and his contact with notable diplomats and scholars, kings and queens, are clearly presented. And Sidney does come across as a remarkable young man. Clearly, he loved learning and travel, had a mind of his own and was not afraid to express dissenting views, even to his Queen, nor, in the end, was he afraid to follow his own judgement against the direction of his powerful uncle, Leicester.
Stuart's presentation of Sidney is as exact as his sources allow. He does not speculate or embroider, and he does correct a few errors made by other biographers. Unlike most recent biographers, he declines to comment on such things as Sidney's sexual orientation, noting only that his lifelong friend and mentor, Hubert Languet, could appear to today's reader as an infatuated older man (which he does), and that Sidney himself wrote his famous love poems, "Astrophil and Stella" to Lady Penelope Devereaux, who had once, before the superior wealth and status of Robert, Lord Rich dictated otherwise, been his intended bride. Once his own status was sufficiently established, he wed Frances Walsingham. He was twenty-eight: she, a marriageable fifteen. Their only child, Elizabeth, was born two years later and Philip, apparently, never saw her.
Perhaps because of Stewart's careful objectivity, Philip Sidney, excellent and talented as he clearly was, fails to come alive. The events he lived through were dramatic but we feel nothing of the dangers; his life at court and in Ireland and various parts of Europe was unusual, and the people he met and became friendly with were important and influential, but it is facts rather than atmosphere which are conveyed. There are good endnotes and an extensive bibliography for history-lovers, and the book is attractively illustrated. Extracts from Philip's own letters, and the discussion of his plays, show a sharpness of wit and a skill with language which I enjoyed. But only in his final chapter, as in his Introduction, does Stewart let himself go, describing there, in vivid and gory detail Philip's wounding in battle, the myths and stories which grew up around this, and his painful, bravely borne death.
Sadly, I was left with the unjustified feeling that nothing in Sir Philip Sidney's life became him like his leaving of it.
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