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In The Shadow Of Arcadia

The allure of Philip Sidney’s masterpiece

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia is a sixteenth-century work which, as one nineteenth-century critic drily noted, ‘all have heard of […] but that nobody reads.’ A complex romance, full of knights and ladies, it was wildly popular for centuries, running into multiple editions; and then it faded away. Today, many have heard of Sidney’s sonnets, but hardly anyone seems to have heard of the Arcadia, and still fewer have read it. This is a great shame, as the book stands proudly amongst the most enchanting, elaborate fictions in the English language. I live my writing life in complicated awe of it, wishing, and striving, to fashion something from its materials both in keeping with its Elizabethan nature, and yet accessible to modern readers; that would, in a spirit of friendly rivalry (one of its major themes), seek even to do better. And so far, I have consistently failed.

I first read Sidney’s book at Oxford, at the turn of the century. When I look back on the three years I spent reading Classics and English, it seems an Arcadia; a time softly lit with summer light (although of course, like all Arcadias, that is an illusion: et in Arcadia ego…). It was one of the first texts on my reading list, and I was immediately entranced. The confessional, emotional culture of the twenty-first century demands what is so often termed authenticity (but which is so very often not); Sidney is nothing if not artificial. The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia is like a clockwork bird: charming, dazzling, yet also a little disturbing.

Sidney creates a chivalrous, courtly universe where obscure allusion and decorous rhetoric are prized, and yet where comical shepherds abound. It bursts with exciting scenes of fighting, shipwrecks, hunts, interwoven with long, ornate speeches and poetry contests. Its lapidary prose style is immaculate, foreshadowing and influencing the comic stylists of the twentieth century, and yet it contains tragedies. It exists on the borderlands between the lances, quests and fluttering pennants of King Arthur’s knights, and the emotional complexity and philosophical musings of Shakespeare. It is, in short, a chimera.

The textual history is complex. Sidney first composed the ‘Old’ Arcadia, a comedy set in a never-never pastoral world. This was followed by the ‘New’ Arcadia, in which Sidney lengthened the text considerably, and fashioned the comic plot into something heroic. He never finished it. He died, at the battle of Zutphen, at the age of thirty-one. He is said to have refused a drink of water, on the grounds that another soldier deserved it more than he did, exhibiting the same kind of glamorous nobility as his characters.

The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia is a patchwork of the unfinished ‘New’ Arcadia spliced onto the ending of the ‘Old’. The Countess of Pembroke herself, Philip’s sister, Mary Sidney, had a hand in the patching up; others inserted bridging passages and fixed up loose ends. Though motley, it yet appears to have unity: rendering it both so compelling and so hard to grasp. When I re-read it, which I do often, I sense the workings of a powerful, bright intelligence, manoeuvring all these disparate pieces into something whole: the same kind of mind that fashioned Middle Earth and Middlemarch. And what’s more, Sidney wrote it without the aid of computers, writing workshops, mind maps or (dread phrase) beta readers. Would that his notes had survived.

Where the ‘Old’ Arcadia has a (relatively) conventional structure and plot, the Countess of Pembroke’s is constructed from dozens of interlinked stories, glittering and glancing off each other, like threads in a spider’s web. The characters populating the hybrid work are legion, mostly drawn from a series of royal and aristocratic families, along with helots, pirates, eloquent shepherds and rude country folk. Almost everybody is related to one of the others – you cannot move without stepping on somebody’s cousin – and almost every single one of them is in love with someone they shouldn’t be, or imprisoning somebody for love, or fighting somebody for, well, probably, love. And there’s a water spaniel, too (who turns out to be crucial to the plot — or at least, to one of them.)

So, what of the plot, or rather, plots? I will keep it brief. There are two princes, shipwrecked near Arcadia; one disguises himself as a girl, another as a shepherd. Meanwhile, the king of Arcadia, his wife, and his younger daughter, all in retreat from their royal lives, all fall in love with the prince disguised as a girl; the other daughter falls for the false shepherd. Trouble, inevitably, ensues. These amorous conflicts are played out as wars are fought, tournaments joined, princesses captured, quests undertaken. There are many shipwrecks. People thought ruinously injured are healed; those believed dead reappear, alive; there are black and white coaches, processions of paintings, a weeping stag, a beheaded lion. Poems, letters, epigrams stud the text. On every page is a marvel, a jewel; a line to enjoy and linger over, as if it were a fine piece of silk.

Every time I read it, I feel a creative spark, that suggests to me that it could become something greater, a flame, perhaps even a vast ocean of light. It is, partly, Sidney’s sense of generous and courtly order, which is so glaringly absent from our own age, which prefers things to be untidy. It is partly the multiplicity of the plots: the sense that everything in the world is important, has a reason, a purpose; an ability I yearn to have in my own fiction, to imbue each moment, though seemingly unimportant, with thrilling luminescence. And it’s also the glamour of knights and ladies, the thunder of hooves, the glint of sunlight on armour, the richness of tapestries: the white hart in the woods, the shattered spear on the forest floor.

And so I begin notebooks, noting characters and their relationships to others. These are never completed. About three years ago, in a frenzy between novels, I started a card index, summarising and cross-referencing the sub-plots. This, though begun with ardour, ended with a fizzle. I have tried to categorise everything in it (jewels, emblems, armour); done pretty much everything, scheme-wise, bar composing a family tree. My desk is littered with abandoned folders labelled ‘Arcadia Project’, ‘Arcadia Project?’ or even ‘Arcadia Project!’ My thoughts leap from possibility to possibility. Could I fillet the text for a series of knightly children’s books? Could I take the characters and move them into the present day for a literary novel, substituting helicopters for ships, drug lords for pirates? How would I deal with the disguises? How would I deal with Sidney’s use of Providence? I have never quite found something that works as a whole.

In a sense, even when I’m writing about other things, I’m always thinking about my Arcadia project: an elusive creation so near, yet always out of reach, like a glass of water in a dream. I always find myself drawn, again and again to Sidney’s world, to the paradox of wanting to create and being paralysed by the act of creation. It is as if there are too many cogs in that clockwork bird: too many parts that need to come together.

I hope that there, somewhere, in that gap between desire and action, one day that spark might catch fire. Until then, there is plenty of space on my desk for another folder. And I haven’t yet made that family tree…

Philip Womack is a critically acclaimed author of children’s fiction infused with myths and legends. He’s also a journalist and writes non-fiction for adults. His latest book, How to Teach Classics to Your Dog, was published in 2020.

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