Sir Philip Sidney - courtier, gentleman, scholar, poet, soldier - is one of the most fascinating figures to have made his mark on Elizabethan England. The nephew of Elizabeth's favourite, the Earl of Leicester, he was born into a family of huge political influence: exceptionally well travelled by the standards of his peers, he spent time in Hungary and Poland, as well as Paris, Venice, Frankfurt and Vienna; and, as an ambassador and royal intimate, he was courted by a succession of European grandees. But he died at the age of 31, a fatal Englishman cut down in his prime, destined to be remembered for his role in the Elizabethan court and, more lastingly, for his marvellous sonnets and forthright defence of the imagination.
Alan Stewart's new biography seeks to locate Sidney at the centre of a world of dangerous, sometimes sinister, political machinations. In this respect it is vaguely reminiscent of Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning (Jonathan Cape, 1992), in which Sidney's near contemporary Christopher Marlowe is pictured amid the complex deceit and paranoia of Elizabethan espionage. After this fashion, Stewart offers a biography concerned more with Sidney the politician, and with the history and political culture of Sidney's age, than with Sidney the writer. But while Nicholl explicitly avoided terming his book a biography, preferring to see it as a piece of detective work, Stewart is avowedly a biographer, and at an early stage he declares his ambition to depict "the Philip Sidney to whom European Protestantism looked as its greatest hope".
This, it must be said, is not the Philip Sidney one would necessarily expect or, indeed, hope to find, and it appears that both Stewart and his publishers are unsure of their true audience. Seductively packaged, complete with suggestive subtitle, it is often quite racily written. The first sentence of the opening chapter informs us that "With his first breath, Philip Sidney was thrust into politics", and before the paragraph is out he is described as "the ultimate silver-spoon baby". Yet this is an indisputably academic study: there are over a thousand footnotes and 25 pages of bibliography, the latter providing scrupulous detail of the manuscripts that the author has consulted in such diverse centres as Padua, Washington and Antwerp. The pages brim with names, facts, dates and quotations; the result is an informative but sometimes overloaded narrative in which colloquialisms seem to be intended as compensations for the bulk of detail.
The best section is on Sidney's schooling at Shrewsbury. His steward Thomas Marshall left behind a variety of ephemera; somewhere he records having to spend sixpence "wiping and making clean" the boots of Philip and his companions, and fourpence for a false scabbard for his rapier.
Sidney lodged in Shrewsbury with a merchant by the name of George Leigh, and ate at a table known as the "Dogpole". He was counselled by his father to take vigorous exercise to "enlarge" his breath. And when he left, aged 13, it was to go to Oxford and lodge with the vice-chancellor, Thomas Cooper, a man whose wife apparently "proved too light for gravity".
Details such as these make biography accessible. They hint at the subject's daily life and naked needs. But here there are too few of them. In Katherine Duncan-Jones's Sir Philip Sidney: courtier poet (Yale University Press, 1991), we learnt that his sister, Ambrosia, had a tutor by the name of Lodo-wick, who was on more than one occasion rewarded for his efforts with a two-pound box of marmalade. Stewart's account has no room for two-pound boxes of marmalade; he is interested in Sidney's career, not his mind. Accordingly we learn little or nothing of his adult private life, his leisure time or his actual (as opposed to implied) sexuality.
Bearing in mind this book's gestures towards popularism, it seems strange that Stewart shows so little interest in Sidney's creative output. His reputation, after all, rests on his literary achievements, not his political ones. Even if Arcadia is not to modern tastes, it and Sidney's Defence of Poesie are key texts in their assertion of the golden possibilities of art. The exquisitely melancholy sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella is deemed Sidney's "most enduring poetical work", "a dazzling play with language, metre and imagery".
But Stewart refuses to use the sonnets as biographical vignettes, arguing that "the attempt to identify individuals in Philip's work can diminish its complexity and multiple resonances". He then undermines himself by wondering whether, since the real-life Stella, Penelope Devereux, had "strong connections" with Huguenot France, "what appears on the surface to be a simple, unrequited love story" may in fact prove "of more political consequence". The conjecture may be framed as a question, but to a degree it is typical of a work that at times feels too speculative.
Anyone not familiar with Sidney (Stewart does not seem to invite such a reader) would be forgiven for assuming, on the basis of what the book contains, that he was, and is, a minor figure in the annals of literature but a major figure in the annals of political history - which surely can't be so.