on 1 October 2011
The Earls of the title are those of Pembroke, Adam Nicolson tracing their story from William Herbert, the first Earl (who married the sister of Katherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII) through to the fifth, Philip Herbert, who died, more or less ruined, in 1669. Their paradise was centred a few miles to the west of Salisbury on the great estate of Wilton in the rolling Wiltshire Downs, where Philip Sidney, the epitome of Renaissance man, wrote his pastoral idyll Arcadia, and his sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke and wife of the second Earl, reigned over a circle of artists, writers and musicians, all dedicated to creating a heaven on earth, in which artifice would improve upon nature, happy shepherds would frolic in bosky groves, and the social order - everyone in his rightful place and mutually dependent - would reflect the harmony of the spheres. It was a dream rudely shattered by the English Civil War.
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.]