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Arcadia: England and the Dream of Perfection Paperback – 19 Feb 2009

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (19 Feb 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007240538
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007240531
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 315,746 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


'A brilliantly imaginative and beautifully written coup of scholarship. Nicolson has written well about the English landscape before, but here he surpasses himself. Fascinating and absorbing.' Observer

'A superb book, beautifully written, subtle, passionate, questioning, mind-altering and wise.' Daily Mail

'Absorbing…Nicolson recreates, with admirable vigour and a sure control of complicated details a country in crisis…wonderful, lyrical and contemplative.' Guardian

'Fascinating…a rich, informative and original book…it weaves its three themes together in a deft and beguiling way.' Sunday Telegraph

'Immensely readable.' Daily Telegraph

'Nicolson is a terrific writer. The countryside scenery essential to his drama is described with transcendent sensitivity.’ Independent

‘Rich in details and atmosphere with some lush nature writing.’ Guardian

About the Author

Adam Nicolson is the author of many books on history, travel and the environment. He is the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, the British Topography Prize and the WH Heinemann Award. He lives on a farm in Sussex. This is his fith book for HarperCollins – his previous four being ‘Men of Honour’, ‘Sea Room’, ‘Power and Glory’ and ‘Seamanship’.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Roman Clodia TOP 100 REVIEWER on 13 Dec 2012
This is a well-written book - but one based on a sweeping, loose and unsubstantiated idea. Nicolson builds his whole story on the ideological notion of `Arcadia' as an idealised locus for anti-court, anti-crown politics, and allocates it to the Earls of Pembroke or, rather, the extended Sidney-Herbert family primarily under the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. Wilton, he claims, the Pembroke's prime seat, epitomises the values of a harmonised, independent England, free from `courtly' values and politics. The problem with this is that nowhere in any of their writings do any of the sixteenth or seventeenth century Sidneys or Pembrokes express ideas anything like this; nor do their actions bear witness to this idea.

On the contrary, Mary Sidney who married into the Pembroke family, was immensely proud of her Sidney-Dudley heritage. Her father was companion to Edward VI; her mother was a Dudley and one of Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting; her brother was Sir Philip Sidney; their uncle was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's most famous `favourite'. Mary Sidney-Herbert always maintained her contacts with the English court and with European Protestant circles, and ensured that her sons had places at first the Elizabethan and then the Jamesian courts.

For all Nicolson's claims that Philip Sidney was a `disappointed' courtier, he travelled all over Europe as far as present-day Prague and Poland as Elizabeth's ambassador, and was governor of Flushing, a position which his younger brother later took over after his death. Mary's second brother, Robert Sidney, served as Lord Chamberlain to Anna of Denmark, wife of James I, and was replaced by William Herbert, Mary's son, after his death.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Didier TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 13 Jan 2010
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Until recently, Arcadia denoted to me what it does perhaps to many of us: a once paradisiacal place of unending pleasure, refinement and high culture, with happy shepherds playing their flutes in the background, that is now lost to us. I had no clue how profound this notion affected in real life a certain class of people in a certain period, and how - in Renaissance England at least - it was linked with deeply-embedded traditional notions about the good and proper government of a manor (and, by extension, the country).

Adam Nicolson has written a very well-researched and insightful book on this subject, using a particular family (the earls of Pembroke) and their estate at Wilton as subject. He does so taking into account not only the earls and their aspirations, but their tenants as well (to whom living in this Arcadia could, at times, be rather nightmarish). Also, Nicolson argues and amply illustrates how this whole notion of Arcadia had profound political consequences in Renaissance England, with James I and (especially) Charles I defaulting on the traditional principle of mutuality whereby the king, as master of the collection of manors which England was felt to be, was supposed to esteem, protect and nurture his nobles (as they in their turn were supposed to do towards their tenants).

This is the kind of history book I tend to appreciate more and more: not just a catalogue of kings, princes, generals and battles, but 'social' history granting insight not only into the motivations behind the political/military events, but also granting equal importance to the consequences of these events for 'the ordinary man'. Brimming with small but telling details, and written in a fluent style, I found this a very enjoyable book about a subject I for one knew next to nothing about.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By J C E Hitchcock on 20 May 2010
"Earls of Paradise" is a book which can be read on three different levels. On one level it is a family history of the Herbert family, Earls of Pembroke, from the 1520s to the 1640s. On another it is a social history of the ordinary people who lived on their extensive estates around Wilton in Wiltshire during those years. On a third it is an intellectual history of the concept of Arcadianism as it affected English society during that period.

As Adam Nicolson points out, the original Arcadia in ancient Greece was no "country for easy livers" but a hard, tough mountain country whose inhabitants were admired for their honesty and the simplicity of their way of life. In later ages, however, "Arcadia" came to mean an idyllic, pastoral landscape whose inhabitants led lives of indolent ease. For some reason it was shepherds rather than any other type of agricultural labourer who were thought to lead particularly carefree lives; the very word "pastoral" is derived from the Latin for "shepherd". (I have often wondered what real shepherds must have made of this particular conceit).

In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the age when Purcell could sing of nymphs and shepherds, when Watteau could paint idealised bucolic landscapes and the Meissen factory could turn out all those porcelain shepherdesses, Arcadianism was to become a purely decorative style, but at a slightly earlier date it was also a political ideology.
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