At the annual ISS Members’ Luncheon in Chicago, Vice-President Graham Hammill presented the Isabel MacCaffrey Prize for 2013 to Andrew Hadfield (in absentia) for Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford, 2012). The Isabel McCaffrey Award, named after the distinguished author of Spenser’s Allegory: The Anatomy of Imagination (Princeton, 1976), is given in alternating years to the best book or the best article written during the preceding two-year span. Theresa Krier and Ayesha Ramachandran, judges for the competition, announced their decision with the following statement:
The judges for this competition would first like to express their gratitude for the range and quality of books engaged with Spenser’s work in 2011 and 2012. There were so many. They were inventive, curious, passionate, surprising. We wish that there could be more prizes to go around, and we hope this luncheon celebrates the authors.
The International Spenser Society is almost inordinately pleased to award the Isabel MacCaffry Prize for 2013 to Andrew Hadfield, for his book Edmund Spenser: A Life, published in 2012 by Oxford University Press.
This is the first large-scale biography of Spenser in nearly 70 years, so it was high time. Perhaps such a biography couldn’t have been written earlier, because scholars needed to live through recent decades of vigorous, polemical, provocative debate and discovery about politics, Ireland, class and status, gender, courtiership. Andrew’s book could only have been written with those debates and with a complex perspective on them, as he says; he brings to those issues a remarkable gift for calibrating judgments, for being open-eyed and unflinching, for openness to a Spenser who is complicated, surprising, elusive to us even as his poetry can seem so intimate to us.
Hadfield’s wide patience with detail evinces itself in his attunement to the networks of friends and associates possible in Spenser’s England and Ireland. Thomas Herron’s review of the book refers to Hadfield’s “deft understanding” of social, legal, intellectual, religious networks, and to his “wide web” of literary and administrative associates. Hadfield loves the thicknesses of relationships and social practices; his book is remarkable for its limning of mobile lines of intimacy and distance between Spenser and his fellows.
Above all, we’d like to praise Andrew’s book for its reflections on conjecture, speculation, and the absence of a rich field of solid facts for the biographer of pre-17th-century figures. The first paragraph on the first page fashions a witty catalogue of things we do not know: “we cannot be sure … We know very little about … We do not really know … We do not know … We do not know.” Nothing daunted, this biographer spiritedly defends the need for such biographies. He defends Natalie Zemon Davis’s speculative biography of Leo Africanus, another figure about whom we know little but a story of whose lifelines must be hazarded in order to stretch our minds toward his age. Andrew constructs his biography, he says, from “a series of traces and contexts,” and context itself “always remains a contingent entity … never something that can exhaust or definitively end enquiry.” The book’s Introduction and Afterward amount to a beautiful essay on the unknowing of the biographer. The ease with which this biographer dwells in uncertainties and finds creative energy there is worthy of the poet who so loves epistemological romance.
We love this book for its generosity, its ease, its wit, its warmth, and its reflective tone.