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Margaret P. Hannay, Mary Ellen Lamb, and Michael G. Brennan, The Ashgate Companion to the Sidneys
by Stefanie Lethbridge

The Ashgate Research Companion to The Sidneys, 1500-1700. Edited by Margaret P. Hannay, Mary Ellen Lamb, and Michael G. Brennan. Vol. 1, Lives, Ashgate, 2015. xliv + 388 pp. ISBN: 978-1409450382. $110.00 cloth. 

The Ashgate Research Companion to The Sidneys, 1500-1700. Edited by Margaret P. Hannay, Mary Ellen Lamb, and Michael G. Brennan. Vol. 2, Literature, Ashgate, 2015. xliv + 351 pp. ISBN 978-1409450405. $108.00 cloth. 

It is like reading a scholarly version of Game of Thrones (sans the dragons): involvement in major battles (from Flodden to the Battle of the Boyne), entanglements between major houses (like the Dudleys, Herberts, Percys, Cecils, Talbots or Howards), supportive family networks, a powerful queen and manipulative courtiers, executions, betrayal, secret marriages, (near-) incest, adultery, as much as loyalty, lasting ties of friendship, the exploration of forbidden cultural and social opportunities and, perhaps not least of all, a strong sense of place in the Sidney houses as well as in their engagement with foreign spaces. The Ashgate Research Companion to The Sidneys lives up to the series’ promise to offer “a comprehensive and authoritative state-of-the-art review of current research” (ii). It is also a whirlwind tour through the lives and writings of a family at the nub of political as much as cultural life between 1500 and 1700, starting with Sir Henry Sidney, in whose arms the boy king Edward VI died, all the way to Henry Sidney, Earl of Romney, who was instrumental in establishing William, Prince of Orange, as new king in 1689. The Companion reaches “outwards” as well as “inwards,” as Mary Ellen Lamb puts it at the end of volume 2: it expands its perspective to give scope to cultural, political and literary developments on the Continent and it returns to a renewed interest in the texts themselves and their material condition, calling repeatedly for more detailed close readings and more study of layout, text production and distribution.

A central concern of the collection is to redirect the gaze of researchers away from the canonical Sidneys (especially Philip Sidney) to the more neglected family members—and gloriously, this rescue mission (reaping the fruits of scholarly efforts since the 1970s, work by scholars like Margaret Hannay, Josephine Roberts or Paul Salzman, to name only a few) is not a desperate effort to draw attention to female members of the Sidney clan, who are by now pretty much established in the critical canon. Instead, it concerns minor male writers like Robert Sidney (Philip’s brother) or William Herbert (Mary Wroth’s cousin and lover). Along the way, the Companion presents a panorama of Renaissance aristocratic life from political involvements to home design and leisure pursuits as well as a critical history of Renaissance scholarship over the last 100 years up to very recent developments. It will be an invaluable starting point (and welcome short-cut) to any research project related to the Sidneys in years to come. Though it also leaves a few lacunae that could, perhaps, have been avoided.

Between them the two volumes offer nearly 800 pages (including prelims) of overview, critical discussion and bibliography. Each volume opens with a detailed chronology of Sidney family events interlaced with general historical information between 1500 and 1700, followed by a Sidney family tree. Given the intricate connections of the Sidneys with other families, the family trees at least of the Herberts and Dudleys would also have been extremely helpful, especially given that the Companion devotes fairly extensive discussion to  members of other families, like William Herbert, Lettice Knollys (mother-in-law of Frances Walsingham on her second marriage after Philip Sidney’s death), or Lucy Percy Hay, Countess of Carlisle (sister to Dorothy Percy Sidney, wife of Robert, second earl of Leicester).

Volume 1 (Lives) presents the lives of various Sidneys between 1500 and 1700, and also discusses their writings (especially when they are not treated in detail in volume 2), their roles as public and private patrons, and other artistic interests like fine arts and music (in contributions by Arthur Kinney, Lisa Celovsky, Elizabeth Goldring and Katherine Larson). The Sidneys are introduced in their international networks: in their travels and political functions on the continent (Roger Kuin and Michael Brennan) and in the impact they had as administrators and colonizers of Wales and Ireland (Willy Maley, Philip Schwyzer and Thomas Herron). The volume manages to give an almost three-dimensional rendering of these Renaissance lives: here are not just political or artistic activities, but concerns with the builders and how to pay them, moments of missing your wife, people who impress foreign kings (like Philip Sidney) or are rude to them (like Algernon Sidney), or Mary Sidney Herbert having a good time abroad trying out tobacco, and possibly the charms of her young physician. Here are people who live, fret, fight wars and tournaments, buy presents, get dressed up for court masques, commission maps, and build bridges to commemorate themselves.

The Companion is particularly proud of the extensive work it can offer on female members of the Sidney family: we encounter not just the usual suspects Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and her niece, Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth, but a host of other—and impressive—women who as courtiers, wives, mothers, estate managers or mistresses made the Sidneys what they are. These include Mary Dudley Sidney, Penelope Rich, Dorothy Perrott Percy, Frances Walsingham, Barbara Gamage Sidney, Dorothy Sidney Spencer  among others. Oddly, women are let loose on the world only in same-sex cohorts, while the men are afforded single entries, even where little information on them is available: while the male Sidneys almost all get their own chapters, women are treated in gaggles of twos and threes. Partly as a result of such gender division, there is a fair amount of repetition. By the time, for instance, one reaches the section that Barbara Gamage Sidney is given in the chapter she shares with Elizabeth Sidney Manners and Lady Mary Sidney Wroth (by Margaret Hannay), one is already familiar with most of the material from the chapter on her husband Robert Sidney (by Robert Shephard). Of course a Research Companion is designed to be dipped into rather than read from front to back and so it makes sense to reuse some of the juicier quotations: for instance, Henry Sidney’s unsettling remark that on his return home he found his wife Mary Dudley “as fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her” (1: 34 and 1: 59) or Edward, Lord Denny’s attack on Mary Wroth as “Hermophradite in show, in deed a monster,” and Wroth’s reply describing Denny as “Hirmophradite in sense in Art a monster” (2: 128 and 2: 260). Cross-references rather than repetition would have been an option. Things are more problematic when apparently (or actually) conflicting information in different articles is not cross-referenced: such, for instance, when Helen Hackett seems to suggest that Mary Wroth’s letter to Buckingham, offering the withdrawal of the Urania, was written in response to Lord Denny’s attack (2: 129-130), while Paul Salzman’s contribution on Wroth’s poetry refers to Rosalind Smith to point out that the Buckingham letter actually predates the Denny mud-slinging campaign (2: 261). Smith is not cited by Hackett.

Apart from the broad perspective on the Sidney friends and relations, another strength of the Companion is the attention devoted to social networks and material conditions. In response to critical interest in material culture the Companion investigates the social uses of space, for instance in the building activities of the Sidneys, not only in their family seats (Susie West on Penshurst Place and Leicester House) but also on the monuments they left behind in Ireland (Thomas Herron). In the context of this focus on material, volume 2 (Literature) starts off with a detailed overview of the circulation of the Sidney works in manuscript and print (contributions by Noel Kinnamon, H.R. Woudhuysen, Garth Bond and Ilona Bell). The social uses of text are explored in conjunctions between private and public meanings of texts—an exploration that is pushed by the writers who merge private with political concerns, by the printers and booksellers who discover private texts as commodity, and by critics who approach the texts with varying agendas, some of them explicitly political. But Sidneys do not intervene in their cultural moment only as writers or politicians. They emerge as collectors of texts, commentators, translators, imitators, patrons, recipients of patronage, and as producers and participants in public spectacle (writing for and performing in masques, tilts, shows), and thus enmeshed in the production of culture in multiple roles. The contributions in volume 2 open avenues and critical approaches to the Sidney romances, non-fictional prose works, dramas, secular poetry and the Psalm translations. Often neglected, the role of religious poetry and the religious dimension of the Sidney lives are stressed repeatedly. Danielle Clarke goes so far as to claim that the Sidney Psalter  “encapsulate[s] much that is essential to the Elizabethan age” (2: 295). Sadly, while Jonathan Scott’s article on Algernon Sidney whets the appetite for further exploration of Algernon’s political prose, there is only an article on “Tudor Political Theory and Sidneian prose” (by Joel Davis) and nothing on the Stuart connections.

What all this shows is that lives happen in intricate entanglements with other lives and literature does not happen separate from politics and lives—something that of course we knew, but that always bears fleshing out with more detail. And while the Companion works very hard to integrate a large number of different Sidneys into the overall canvas, it keeps reverting to the dazzling array of Philip Sidneys that have shaped, and are still shaping, our perception of the family’s activities: Philip Sidney the soldier and the poet, the militant Protestant and Crypto-Catholic, the prodigal and the failure, the defender of liberty and the propagandist of sectional interests, the hero, the martyr, the monarchist, the early republican, the friend, the brother, the lover.

Almost in passing, the Companion also presents an enlightening cross section of 20th-century critical history, tracing the developments from biographical readings through new critical close readings, politicizations under the influence of new historicism, cultural materialism, cultural studies and gender criticism, as well as recent trends in a turn to ethics, a turn to religion, and a turn to material culture, down to a new formalism (pushed in several contributions) and a return of rhetorical scholarship.

The value of a Research Companion also lies in the readiness with which it makes information accessible.  In this context, the index provides a valuable tool, alongside the chronology. Nevertheless, it passes up some unique opportunities to be useful to researchers outside the immediate Sidney-field. Anyone looking for connections between Shakespeare and the Sidneys, for instance, would find only an entry under “Herbert, William – Shakespeare, possible connections” (1: 332) in volume 1. That is to say, one would already have to know what the connection might be in order to find it. In volume 2 Shakespeare has no index entry at all, despite the declared focus on “Sidney texts in terms of contemporary authors, in particular Shakespeare” (2: xix). Other index decisions seem to be random. Thomas Newman, publisher of the first print edition of Astrophel and Stella (1591) is indexed (2: 225); however, Mathew Lownes, mentioned on the same page as the publisher of the third quarto edition which restores some of the poems Newman’s second edition had removed, is not indexed here. On the other hand, Lownes does receive an index entry for page 71 (spelled Matthew Lownes) where he is also mentioned only briefly. Similarly puzzling decisions have been made for index entries on Donne, George Herbert, and a host of other writers—few people are going to read over 700 pages of Sidney material in the hope of finding a chance mention of Donne, Herbert, or even Shakespeare. It is precisely for such quick access needs that a well-thought out index could make an invaluable contribution.

Catching all the mistakes in voluminous collections like this one is notoriously difficult, if indeed possible. There are mistakes that perhaps the copy-editor should have caught, like the fairly frequent missing or doubled words, especially in volume 1, the confusion in spelling names (for example Epsilius/Espilus, 1: 245 or “Hapsburg” 1: 33), or somewhat infelicitous syntactical connections (“Edward died in Henry Sidney’s arms, and apparently on her father’s instruction … ,” 1: 32). Alarmingly, the comment following a slander poem that all but explicitly compares Lady Carlisle’s husband’s penis to a “decimo sexto” which is “too small a print,” explains that she “seeks a format she can get her teeth into” (1: 136). Joseph Black gives “1574” instead of 1557 as the date for Richard Tottell’s “pioneering collection of lyric poetry Songes and Sonettes” (2: 5). A few layout decisions are also surprising: there is a title and headnote to the bibliography stranded at the bottom of page 107 and the subtitles are spaced so economically that the downstroke of the first line actually runs into the upstroke of the second line (for instance on 2: 7 or 2: 135).

Gripes aside—comparatively minor in the context if its tremendous achievement—this Research Companion offers an invaluable entry into the field and beyond. For each area it gives detailed information on primary sources, including the relevant archives, secondary sources, and past critical approaches as well as suggesting research gaps that should be filled. While some suggestions are unlikely to impress funding bodies (along the lines of “one cannot help but be confident that the critical project … will continue to expand and diversify,” 2: 237, or simply proposing that one unearth more undiscovered manuscripts, 1: 118), other proposals are concrete and intriguing, exploring the opportunities provided by newly available digital resources, mining the new editions of letters or the list of the Sidney library, examining the texts of the more neglected Sidneys, and much more.

Claims that are made for the Sidneys are not of the modest type. The Sidneys impress, not just as major movers in Renaissance England, but as lasting influence in our culture. Philip Sidney does no less than “reimagine and rethink the predicament of humanity” (2: 107), Henry Sidney, through his friendship with the Prince of Orange, defines “the future of the British monarchy for his own and succeeding generations” (1: 175) and Algernon Sidney is among “the most widely read English sources in eighteenth-century America … particularly John Adams and Thomas Jefferson” (1: 165). The Sidneys “remain with us” (1: 165).


Stefanie Lethbridge
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Germany




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Cite as:

Stefanie Lethbridge, "Margaret P. Hannay, Mary Ellen Lamb, and Michael G. Brennan, The Ashgate Companion to the Sidneys," Spenser Review 46.2.9 (Fall 2016). Accessed May 16th, 2021.
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