Philip Sidney: A Double Life

by Alan Stewart

Hardcover, 2001



Thomas Dunne Books (2001), Edition: 1, 400 pages


"Courtier, poet, soldier, diplomat - Philip Sidney was one of the most promising young men of his age. Son of Elizabeth I's deputy in Ireland, nephew and heir to her favourite, Leicester, he received an exemplary education. On leaving Oxford University he was tipped for high office and even to inherit the throne. But Philip soon found himself caught up in the intricate politics of Elizabeth's court and forced to become as Machiavellian as everyone around him if he was to achieve his ambitions." "Against a backdrop of Elizabethan intrigue and the battle between Protestant and Catholic for predominance in Europe, Alan Stewart tells the story of Philip Sidney's struggle to succeed."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved… (more)

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LibraryThing member baswood
[Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet] - Katherine Duncan-Jones
[Philip Sidney: A double life] - Alan Stewart.
“Hope I die before I get old” wrote Pete Townsend of The Who in ‘My Generation’ or Its better to “Burn out than to Fade Away” chimed Neal Young, but these are pop stars who are still
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alive and well into their seventies today. Perhaps they were commenting on famous people who died young when they still seemed to have so much more to give. There are a number of them in the entertainment field and some from the arts. The age of 30 seemed to be the watershed for those celebrities dyeing before their time and Philip Sidney was 31 when he died of his wounds after a skirmish with Spanish soldiers at Zutaphen in 1586. He doesn’t feature in any of today’s online lists of people who died young, but in Tudor England he was a cause celebre:

“The extraordinary trouble that Walsingham took to make Sidney’s funeral a grand pageant affair indicates the social and ideological importance of aristocratic funerals in feudal and Renaissance England. In addition to the familiar rituals of bereavement, aristocratic funeral practices served as an important form of propaganda in support of the dominant aristocratic ideology and the existing social hierarchy.”
Ronald Strickland

One might ask the question: does the fact that a famous individual dies young make them more famous because of an early death. Sir Philip Sidney is an interesting case in point. He was a Courtier/politician/ambassador/soldier at the time of his death, but he never achieved high office during his short life, his fame today rests largely on his writing: poetry/pamphlets/letters , the vast majority of which were published after his death.

The two biographies by Duncan-Jones and Stewart are both very good examples of well researched histories into the life of Philip Sidney. Duncan-Jones gives more weight to Sidney’s authorial legacy, linking his life and character to his writing, while Stewart concentrates more on the political background. Reading both books concurrently made me appreciate how little divergence there was from the known facts by both authors. Yes their is a different feel and a different approach to Sidney’s character and life, but readers would gain much from reading either book.

Duncan-Jones looks towards the social aspects of Sidney’s upbringing, his respect for his wet nurse in later years and his comfort in the society of women. His friendship with his sister Mary to whom he dedicated the Arcadia; his major work, and the absence of misogyny in his writing. It would seem that the only woman with whom he did not feel comfortable was Queen Elizabeth. Philip Sidney was a handsome well educated aristocrat, he was an excellent linguist and he put his three years grand tour of Europe to good use: making contacts, networking with European princes and scholars, particularly those who were either sympathetic to the protestant cause or who practised tolerance to other religions. He was generous, willing to spend his money to “make a show”, but he also supported the arts and one gets the impression he was almost buying his way around the Continent. It would seem that Queen Elizabeth never fully trusted him. Back in England Sidney spent his days at court as cup bearer to the queen pressing his case for a more lucrative position, but she kept him at arms length. Duncan-Jones and Stewart both come to the conclusion that Sidney’s close links to Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester: one time suitor in marriage to the queen and his contacts on the Continent made her suspicious of him putting together a power base of his own. It could be said that what England lost in not recognising Sidney’s talents as a politician it gained by his services to literature, because Sidney was intelligent enough to realise that time spent away from the court would be more productively spent in his study.

Both Duncan-Jones and Stewart are sympathetic to Sidney’s plight while recognising that he could be impulsive. Examples are given of Sidney acting without the authority of the queen and Duncan-Jones goes as far as to say that he had an explosive temper. He was a man who stood on his dignity going as far as to threaten physical violence if he felt he had been slighted. I think Duncan-Jones is in danger of placing Sidney on too high a pedestal, because for her Queen Elizabeth becomes the enemy, the person who unjustly keeps Sidney down, squashing his talents. An example is her expression of her disgust at the emotional farewells and the public flirtation between Elizabeth I and the Duke of Alençon whom she says she will marry:

“the emotional farewells of these two bewigged and painted figures, whose splendid clothes could not conceal the fact that one was nearly fifty and the other small and ugly, were a grotesque spectacle.”

It was poor Sidney who had to wait on these two miscreants as cupbearer to the Queen and the reader gets the impression that Duncan-Jones really does not like the Tudors overmuch.

Alan Stewart is less emotionally involved with his subject, he is more concerned with placing Sidney in the political context of the time. His background story is a little more extensive. It is on the whole a colder harder look at his subject. He provides more depth to the St Bartholomew day massacre that Sidney witnessed in Paris as a young man and which both authors agree probably shaped his thinking on religious tolerance.

Both books take the theme of a “double life” in the title of the book. Duncan-Jones explores this more thoroughly with chapters on The Courtier Poet and The Coterie poet. She claims that Sidney in his Arcadia is obliquely commenting on his own disappointments. The Arcadia is an epic romance in five books with eclogues and songs and was dedicated to “my dear lady and sister the Countess of Pembroke from your loving brother” and Philip indicated it was a worthless product of his feminised sojourn away from Elizabeth’s court. It was not published during his lifetime and seems to have been distributed to a very small group of friends and family. This élite circulation has always encouraged the view that it hides some closely kept secret and Duncan-Jones is not the first author to tread down this path.

Two books which have enough detail and information to benefit the student, but are also of interest to the amateur historian and general reader. I prefer Alan Stewarts slightly more detailed analysis of the political background, but I am glad that I also read Katherine Duncan-Jones book which at times took me in a different direction with her thoughts on the links between life and art. I rate both books at 4.5 stars.
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Original language


Physical description

400 p.; 5.56 inches


0312282877 / 9780312282875
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