Sunday, April 5, 2009
Arcadia : The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England by Adam Nicolson
At first glance this book looks like an exercise in stately home fetishism as Nicolson (who lives at Sissinghurst Castle) waxes lyrical about the Pembroke estates at Wilton from the 1520s to the 1640s. Yet Nicolson is not wholly in thrall to the English ruling class, and sympathises with the yeomen, husbandmen, labourers and shepherds who led lives of intense hardship, making regular payments to the lord of the manor for the privilege, while the landowning classes pursued fanciful dreams of Arcadia, a lost world of ease and contentment, beauty and bliss. He even reminds us that the trespassing menfolk of Washern were hunted and slain like animals by the 1st Earl of Pembroke in the very park where Sir Philip Sidney later fantasised about Arcadia. Rich in detail and atmosphere, with some lush nature writing, Arcadia is destined to sell well in National Trust bookshops throughout the land, but it is not so much the strict, hierarchical know-your-place conservatism of the Arcadian ideal that fascinates Nicolson as its fragility in the face of an implacable, levelling modernity.