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Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England

This story of aristocratic rural idyll turned sour by modernity is not entirely convincing, argues Christina Hardyment, but it paints a rich, fascinating picture of a dynasty and community

Published: August 6, 2009 at 6:27 am

Reviewed by: Christina Hardyment
Author: Adam Nicolson
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Price (RRP): £8.99 (cultural)


Nicolson specialises in richly researched and perceptive histories of place. Arcadia makes
the story of one family a history of an age. It is both a pageant of aristocratic personalities and a down-to-earth survey of the commoners who sustained them.

It begins with Henry VIII’s gift of Wilton abbey, its 50,000 acres of fertile downland and the title of Earl of Pembroke to his bullish sidekick William Herbert. By the 1600s, the second earl had made Wilton “the comfortablest part of his owne life” and “a theatre of hospitality”. His wife Mary Sidney was a muse not just for her brother Philip, who wrote his pastoral idyll Arcadia at Wilton while out of favour with Elizabeth I, but for Walter Raleigh, John Donne and George Herbert, to say nothing of Shakespeare, who quite possibly penned his famous sonnets to their son William Herbert.

Wilton’s zenith was in 1634, when Van Dyck painted a family portrait to celebrate the culmination of the Pembrokes’ magnificence, the marriage of the heir Charles Herbert to Mary Villiers, daughter of the Duke of Buckingham, the royal favourite. But personal and national tragedies followed. Charles died soon after, and civil war broke out in England. Arcadia became hell, as brother fought brother and villages, churches and great houses were ransacked. The Pembrokes rode out the times by the adroit trimming typical of their line and ruthless exploitation of their tenants.


Nicolson’s projection of the steady march of selfish individualism over an idyllic tradition of commonwealth is a little forced, ignoring as it does realities every bit as brutish as those he unearths in the fascinating Wiltshire Quarter Rolls. In truth, Arcadia has only ever existed in the idealist’s mind’s eye. But his book is an enthralling portrait of a family and a sensitive evocation of the countryside around it.


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