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This article is taken from PN Review 209, Volume 39 Number 3, January - February 2013.

Speaking Truth to Power: The Courage of Edmund Spenser Mark Nicholls
Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford Uni­versity Press) £25

On the first page of his welcome and very important new study of Edmund Spenser, Andrew Hadfield reminds us of the pleasure that biography brings to a historian. Reconstructing the skeletons and putting flesh on the bones of past lives can indeed be an enjoyable task, and Hadfield's book certainly satisfies the inquisitive reader as well, but the challenges and frustrations in making sense of a Tudor career are also illustrated in every succeeding chapter. The absence of the bones themselves, of biographical milestones - Spenser's place and year of birth, the names of his parents and siblings, the date of his first wife's death and the dates of their children's birthdays are unknown - is a particular problem for the storyteller. We do not really know what Spenser looked like: there are doubts over the authenticity of every surviving portrait. John Aubrey passed on a recollection that he was a small man who wore his hair short, but this is late evidence, and none too precise. We can but guess at Spenser's movements, we know little of his financial circumstances, next to nothing about his shadowy first wife with the wonderful name, Machabyas Childe, and even though some records survive for his second wife Elizabeth Boyle her only likeness, a headless stone effigy in a vandalised Irish church, captures the elusiveness of Hadfield's quarry.

As with Shakespeare, Marlowe, and many lesser men of letters from this ...


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