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Philip Sidney: A Double Life Paperback – 19 Apr 2011

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Product details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Pimlico (19 April 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1845951743
  • ISBN-13: 978-1845951740
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 2.8 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,765,144 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Philip Sidney was "the ultimate silver-spoon baby". Nephew to the Earls of Leicester and Warwick and son of the Lord Deputy of Ireland, he became a legend if not in his own lifetime, then certainly on his death. Alan Stewart begins Philip Sidney: A Double Life with his funeral and ends with his death but the life in between yields rich pickings. The "double life" ostensibly refers to his role as courtier and poet; it could equally apply to the mythologised biography that sprang up around him even as he breathed his last. When he died aged 31 at Arnhem in 1586 after receiving a wound in battle at Zutphen, he was being spoken of as the next ruler of the Low Countries, having shrugged off the label, Stewart puts it, of being "someone's nephew, someone's son". Certainly he was an excellent European, finding more common intellectual ground on the Continent than in Elizabeth's stifling court, and had he lived he may have been at the forefront of an English Protestant literature and even perhaps European political Protestantism. In fact, the "literary trifles" he wrote whilst away from court--chiefly the prose romance The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, the literary treatise A Defence of Poetry and the 108 sonnets of "Astrophil and Stella"--were not published in his lifetime (more poetry was published in his life about him than by him), yet within a few years his works were scarcely out of print. Today, you will not find them on the National Curriculum and he is read perhaps less than at any time since then.

Alan Stewart's cogent style is the very essence of modern history. Unflustered and unindulgent, he cuts a commanding swathe through the slippery manoeuvrings of the Elizabethan court and does much to correct the half-truths and rumours surrounding Sidney, unpicking the hagiographic knot by a painstaking trawl through the archives of innumerable European academic institutions. Philip Sidney: A Double Life is a remarkably assured debut by a young historian who brings fresh enlightenment to the Renaissance and does considerable justice to a deserving figure, who "slipt into the title of the poet" and of whom it was written at his death, "the very hope of our age seemeth to be utterly extinguished in him". --David Vincent --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A work of great scholarship." -"The Times" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Roman Clodia TOP 100 REVIEWER on 29 Oct. 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a marvellous antidote to the standard Katherine Duncan-Jones biography of Sidney which, somehow, made the man dull. Stewart restores Sidney to all his glittering, frustrated, enigmatic glory, and yet never obscures the extent to which Sidney is a man both self-fashioning but also fashioned by others to fulfil the roles he was forced to play.

Uncovering more details of the political Protestant machinations around Sidney and his family (his father was Henry Sidney, companion to Edward VI; his mother Mary Dudley, sister to Robert Dudley, later earl of Leicester and Elizabth's famous favourite) Stewart keeps a tight hold on the politics of both the English court and the rest of religious Europe but does it without ever descending to obscurities or detail just for the sake of it.

My only slight criticism is that Sidney the poet and writer (of the two versions of the Arcadia, of Astrophil & Stella etc) was slightly obscured, but I guess to some extent Stewart's aim was to reveal the other, shadowy and lesser-known part of Sidney's life so there was a logic to this.

So overall this is an excellent read for either the scholar or the interested reader keen to find out more about the man, the period or the Elizabethan court.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3 reviews
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
A so-so rendering of a fascinating life 22 July 2002
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Alan Stewart's book might not be great (and, indeed, Katherine Duncan-Jones's biography of Sidney is, in my opinion, much more engrossing and insightful), but it is not as hopelessly boring as a previous reviewer would have us think. According to the opinions expressed by that reviewer, it would seem that any life that is not well documented would not be worth writing a biography about. That is obviously not so, since lack of evidence has always added to a subject's historical fascination. This is especially true of everything Elizabethan. I believe that Philip Sidney was indeed an interesting character, not least because of his tolerance and compassion in a world where neither of these virtues was terribly commonplace. I also believe he was a gifted writer. He was also a member of a politically active family in a politically driven, factious age. Any of these elements alone justifies writing a biography about him. So there's no question of a "boring life" here. I think that the problem here is that Stewart gives a lot of facts, but little insight into what Sidney was really like. In regard to aspects of his emotional life, such as his real feelings for Penelope Rich and his wife Frances, this is probably due to lack of evidence. But, in regard to his more-than-documented public life, that can hardly be the case. I would have appreciated more interpretation together with the naked facts. Also, I think that the subject of Sidney as a writer was insufficiently addressed. Katherine Duncan-Jones's biography is much better at both these issues, and it is the book I would recommend to anyone interested in this remarkable man. Let me say, however, that all is not wrong: Stewart's attempt at depicting Elizabethan politics and power struggles is good enough. This is not what I'd call a gripping book, but it's not a bad one either. What is clear, though, is that in no way can any of its flaws be attributed to its subject. Philip Sidney was certainly a fascinating person in a weird, enthralling, fascinating age.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
More History Than Biography 29 Sept. 2012
By Reader 4 - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There is a difference between history and biography, although the line between them is not clear. A biography tries to paint a full, rounded picture of a person as much as possible, trying to make the world in which they lived come alive, often omitting details inconvenient to the narrative, and whose facts are usually the result of second-hand research. It is primarily a work of literature, striving for the usual goals of literature: writing style, character development and keeping the reader interested through the use of various devices. There is usually much conjecture about what the protagonist must have been thinking and what their motivations must have been.

A history, on the other hand, is concerned primarily with the impartation of information, the presentation of carefully researched and verified facts. Writing style and plot devices usually take a back seat. Undocumentable things like inner thoughts and motivations are generally omitted. While I found "Philip Sidney: A Double Life" to be quite readable, it definitely leans more towards history than biography. It contains in incredible number of facts and details.

Actually, it is more a history of the momentous events in which Sidney played a part than a biography of Sidney himself. This is a rather apt approach, since Sidney appeared as either the lead or the chief supporting actor in most of the affairs in which he participated. Due to the nature of these affairs, which embroiled every country from England and France to Bohemia and Hungary, the cast of characters in the book is large, comprising, besides his family (including Leicester and Walsingham), the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian II and Rudolf II, the Dutch freedom-fighter William of Orange, Sidney's mentor Hubert Languet, the botanists Johann Camerarius the Younger and Carolus Clusius, the painter Paolo Veronese, the explorers Francis Drake and Humphrey Gilbert, the activists Duplessis-Mornay and his wife Charlotte Arbaleste and literally hundreds of others.

Rather than dwelling on Sidney as a literary figure, as most of his previous biographers have done, Stewart concentrates much more on Sidney's familial and political activities. The "double life" of which he makes a thesis is the renown and high esteem with which Sidney was regarded on the Continent as contrasted with his public humiliation and the deliberate sandbagging of his career by Queen Elizabeth when he was in England.

The book takes a somewhat interdisciplinary approach, drawing on materials of all kinds, from his first biographies by Fulke Greville and Thomas Muffet to the most controversial theories of contemporary historians, as well as the poetic writings of himself and his friends. Perhaps the best represented source is letters, which are liberally quoted throughout the work, not only to and from Sidney, but between many of the other players. The book is amazingly complete: while Stewart misses (or deliberately omits, more probably) a few things, the book contains many factoids which have never appeared in print in English before.

"Philip Sidney: A Double Life" is essential reading for anyone interested the chronology of his life or the history altering developments surrounding the struggle of Protestantism to survive before the Thirty Years War.
5 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Philip Sidney: A Boring Life (Until the end, when he dies) 23 Mar. 2002
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Admittedly I've never read another biography of Philip Sidney, but this one was a tough read. The author choose a tough topic, the often venerated, seldom understood Sir Philip Sidney courtier during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. I decided to read this book because it received a good review in the Atlantic Monthly which said Philip Sidney has been considered a true life embodiment of Castiglione's Perfect Courtier. From what I could tell this was because he died long before he was old enough to do anything unlike a perfect courtier.
The "Double Life" suggests the different ways Sidney was appreciated in England and on the continent. At home, Sidney was constantly being stifled by the whims and maneouvres of the Queen. (Elizabeth's actions are not well justified in Stewart's portrayal.) On the Continent, Sidney is venerated,befriended, and appreciated by Protestants and Catholics alike, for reasons that are not well explained in the text.
The biography also struggles to portray Sidney as a person. I could never get a handle on his personality because it seems that there is not enough documentation to determine what he was really like. Everytime his life got interesting or controversial, records or letters are absent. Thus his story, while fundamentally uninteresting is compounded with a series of anticlimaxes. The only event which was well documented was his death. This was particularly frustrating (after 310 pages) as the reader does not know whether to weep or to cheer.
The problem with Pillip Sidney: A Double Life was whether it should have been written in this format at all. The text is much more useful as an academic reference than as a "good read," yet it is packaged and written as if it were filled with intrigue, controversy, romance and interest. It is not, and probably could not be written so, due to scores of missing letters or other substantive evidence.
I gave the book two stars because it did convey a great deal of information, uninteresting or otherwise. It also did not seem to fail for any reason on its own merits of argument or fact.
I question whether this book should have been published. While I'm sure the author knows a great deal about Elizabethan England, he did not know that there simply isn't enough information about Philip Sidney to either get excited or to write an entire book about.
It seems that the reasons Pilip was regarded as the Perfect Courtier will forever remain a mystery. Vain attempts to explain this will not succeed until more information is discovered.
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