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Earls of Paradise Hardcover – 7 Jan 2008
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‘A brilliantly imaginative and beautifully written coup of scholarship…Nicolson has written well about the English landscape before, but here he surpasses himself…fascinating…absorbing.’ Observer
‘Nicolson is a terrific writer. The countryside scenery essential to his drama is described with transcendent sensitivity.’ Independent
‘A beautifully written and finely balanced book…above all, it is a sensual, even rapturous tribute to the beauties of the countryside and a disarmingly readable contribution to the history of ideas…Earls of Paradise is an elegant, thoughtful, imaginative book…Nicolson's carefully crafted prose never strikes a false note. With its love of natural beauty, its affection for small communities, its trust in the past and its customs, his book will give abiding pleasure.’ Sunday Times
‘An elegantly written and intellectually adventurous lament for an England that has long since disappeared…as a past winner of the British Topography Prize, Nicolson might have been expected to write well about the Wiltshire countryside, but he surpasses all expectations here. His opening description of the rippling downs and shadowed woods around Wilton…is a miniature masterpiece…and since Nicolson's touch is just as sure with people as it is with places, we get a wonderful sense of everyday rural life in early modern England.’ Evening Standard
‘Immensely readable.’ Daily Telegraph
‘Fascinating…a rich, informative and original book…it weaves its three themes together in a deft and beguiling way.’ Sunday Telegraph
‘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…his wonderful, lyrical and contemplative book.’ Guardian
‘Brilliant *****’ Mail on Sunday
‘Nicolson does a brilliant job of showing us English rural society in the last throws of feudalism’
Guardian Summer Reading
‘There is much to savour in his keenly felt and delicately phrased descriptions of landscape and agricultural activity.’
Praise for ‘Men of Honour’:
‘His descriptions of the battle itself, and of the personalities of those who engaged in it, are seamanlike, assured and informative’ Independent
‘The story of the battle has been told before, but rarely with the literary aplomb and almost cinematic realism that are to be found in Adam Nicolson's new book.’ Sunday Telegraph
'Argued with vigour and written with grace, this is an illuminating piece of interpretive cultural history.' Sunday Times
‘Vividly clear…Vibrant…Compelling.’ Observer
‘Nicolson does not aim (to give)a blow-by-blow account of the battle. Instead he takes a philosophical and literary approach…In this he succeeds exceptionally well.’ Independent on Sunday
‘Sparkling … Adam Nicolson's account of Trafalgar is majestic, poetic and, at base, authentic.’ Literary Review
‘Of the hundreds of books written about Nelson and Trafalgar over the past two centuries, perhaps a dozen will be worth re-reading at the tercentenary. This is one of them' Spectator
‘Of the many books marking the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, Adam Nicolson's can claim to be one of the most original' The Week
'Strikingly original … Mr. Nicolson brings to life superbly the horror, devastation and gore of Trafalgar' Economist
'As the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar approaches, a tsunami of Nelson books can be expected, but few will be more thought-provoking than this one … Mr. Nicolson brilliantly characterises each navy – British, French, Spanish – as an expression of the countries to which they belonged. The picture is vivid' Country Life
Praise for Adam Nicolson and his books:
'Nicolson writes so well, with such modesty and deep feeling, that the book fairly sings in your hands.' Daily Telegraph
'Exceptionally well done, beautifully written, personal yet panoramic' Observer
'An extraordinarily outward-looking book… a truly passionate attention to detail…. A love-letter no one else could hope to write so well.' Sunday Telegraph
'A passionate evocation, a compression of observation and anecdote which catches you up in its intelligence as well as its enthusiasm, and fill you with homesickness for a place you've never been to.' Daily Telegraph
'Generous, exuberant and a vividly written narrative…. history, travel-writing and memoir of the best sort.' Spectator
'Sharply observed, a finely written work, one to be savoured, turned over and over like a good whisky.'
From the Publisher
A fantastic new title from award-winning author Adam Nicholson which looks closely at the prestigious Pembroke family and the upheavel and quarrel that began with the king at the on-set of the British Civil War.
* In 2004, Adam Nicolson won the WH Heinemann Award for his book `Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible'.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
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. Given that Nicolson himself discusses the Sidney-Pembroke plot to introduce George Villiers to James I in order to safeguard their own influence, the idea of Wilton as an `Arcadia' remote from politics, `modernity', court patronage and the struggle for power seems severely unsubstantiated. Far from rejecting court and crown, the Pembrokes ensured they were right at the centre of courtly circles wherever they might be physically located.
In any case, Philip Sidney's Arcadia in his texts of that name (The 'old' Arcadia,the revised Arcadia) isn't a safe, calm place of ease, harmony and repose: his prose works depict Arcadia as a dangerously politicised place where the king's abdication of authority leads to chaos and mayhem. It's a subversive space where men dress up as women; where wives try to seduce women who turn out to be men; where one daughter is almost raped; and where the other is seduced outside of matrimony. Even our heroes are almost executed and only the rightful restoration of the king gives order back to Sidney's Arcadian world.
There are many other places where Nicolson makes bold statements of fact with no evidence e.g. that Mary Sidney-Herbert commissioned Shakespeare to write his sonnets to her son William; that the middle-aged Shakespeare fell in love with young William Herbert and made his feelings publicly known in the said sonnets; that she commissioned or arranged a performance of As You Like It to send a message to James I that he shouldn't execute Walter Ralegh, Mary's ex-lover (really?) and succeeded in getting his sentence commuted to imprisonment solely by having James watch her/Shakespeare's play...
So this is a well-written book which gives an aura of knowledge but which is built on extremely shaky, even non-existent, foundations. It makes a nice Romantic idea, but sixteenth and seventeenth century aristocratic families were at home in both court and country and simply didn't divide the two in the way that Nicolson wants them to. Courtly palaces such as Hampton Court, Nonsuch (in Surrey), and Greenwich meant that the `country' was also part of the court, and the tentacles of Wilton, the Pembroke's supposed retreat, were deeply intertwined with the court in all its guises.
I'm afraid this is a book which falls into the pitfalls of a non-specialist writing about the complexities of sixteenth and seventeenth century social, cultural and literary history - ideas are not trans-historical and the pastoral genre from which the idea of Arcadia derives has always been deeply politicised from Virgil's Eclogues forward. An elegant book in terms of writing style - but one which is mistaken in its assumptions and unsubstantiated in its arguments.
The success of the first Earl in building up the fortunes of his family owed something to his ability to bend with the wind of change. Described by Nicolson as a `Welsh hardman' and `a bear with pretensions', William Herbert was fortunate in believing `in the religion which the king or queen of the day required him to believe in'. But by the time of the fifth Earl, a Royalist in his heart but a Parliamentarian in his head, such vacillation was no longer counted as virtue.
The Arcadian ideal espoused by the Pembrokes in their heyday also depended on the ability to ignore any inconvenient reality which might obscure the dream, such as the living conditions of the villagers who provided the labour to beautify the landscape and satisfy the material needs of the big house. Nicolson restores the balance by giving at least as much attention to the lives of the lower classes in and around Wilton as to their lords, making rich use of contemporary court records and petitions.
He is not always inclined to stick rigidly to facts, however, making several bold conjectures during the course of his book. The first is to wonder whether, in the daughter of Dr Moffet, `the most famous spider expert in England' and a frequent visitor to Wilton, he has discovered the identity of Little Miss Muffet, who so famously sat on a tuffet. There is nothing apart from the name to back up this identification, but it makes a nice story.
A more contentious suggestion is that the young Will Herbert, born to Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and the second Earl in 1580, may have been the inspiration for the first 126 of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Will Herbert was of `exactly the right age', according to Nicolson, for `an early middle-aged Shakespeare' to have fallen in love with him in the late 1590s. Perhaps, he opines, the Countess had even commissioned the poet to write the first 17 sonnets as a deliberate encouragement to her (then 17-year-old) son to settle down and get married. Well, maybe.
But Shakespeare was certainly a presence at Wilton, and Nicolson's next conjecture is far more convincing. This concerns the staging of As You Like It at Wilton in December 1603, in the presence of King James. Nicolson interprets the event as an attempt by the Countess to persuade the King to spare Sir Walter Raleigh - who, according to court gossip, was once her lover - from the executioner's block. The King got the message and Sir Walter was conveyed to the Tower instead.
Though for the most part this book is immensely readable, at times the author is unnecessarily obscure. What, for instance, does it mean to describe the Wiltshire Downs as `a place that feels like its own middle, the deepest and richest of arrivals'? And he does write with something of an agenda, assuming that all his readers will agree that `the world of the Pembrokes was one which none of us could tolerate now', and that `modern ways' are always best.
He also gives no sign of recognising, or being interested in, the ways in which Arcadian ideals influenced later generations of artists, musicians and poets, including the 19th-century Romantics and 20th-century composers of the English pastoral tradition (sometimes disparagingly referred to as `cowpat music'). W. B. Yeats, lamenting a dead friend as `our Sidney and our perfect man', also comes to mind. But Nicolson chooses not to explore any of this, implying instead that the `dream of perfection' vanished, never to return, dispelled by a mixture of Oliver Cromwell and market forces.
[An edited version of this review first appeared in The Telegraph in January 2008.]