Hardly a year passes without the appearance of a new biography of Shakespeare that professes to offer a fresh approach to organizing and rehearsing the narrative of the playwright's life and career. The bard's leading dramatic peers are generally well served by their own modern biographers: Park Honan and Charles Nicholl for Marlowe; Ian Donaldson for Jonson. With the exception of two recent Wyatt biographies and John Stubbs's life of Donne, the lives of early modern poets have attracted far less attention, and it is particularly remarkable that Edmund Spenser, author of the most important body of Elizabethan non-dramatic writing, has – until now – been all but ignored by modern biographers. Andrew Hadfield's magisterial new biography of Spenser – the first for nearly seventy years – will therefore be greatly welcomed by scholars of Tudor literature, textual culture, and sixteenth-century court and colonial politics, as well as by anyone interested in early modern life-writing and questions of how one approaches the relationship between an author's life and their literary output. This latter point is of great significance throughout Hadfield's book since it relates to Spenser's perceptions of the role his writings played in constructing a career (or really careers) for himself both through and beyond his published texts, and to the issue of how a biographer treats an author's literary outputs as credible, valid sources. Spenser's life-long, serious commitment to being a poet, and his interest in advancing himself through writing, plays a major part in determining this biography's structure. Cradle-to-grave narratives are now seen as rather unfashionable in some quarters, particularly in the trade market looking to audiences beyond academia; turning points and the life in fragments are the current vogue. Such approaches can be effective where the subject's life is already well documented (as with James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare) or when the subject is only known or defined by what they did at a particular moment. But where one's subject spends so much time telling the story of who they are, where their family comes from, what they hope to be and achieve, and of their experiences pursuing those goals, the biographer almost has a duty to variously follow, respond, annotate, and analyse that narrative, and the chronological approach remains an effective form for one to use.

Building on his extensive critical scholarship on Spenser's writings, Hadfield continues to prove himself an alert and highly sensitive reader of the place that the literary works have in establishing his subject's life. After defending his methodology of using Spenser's works as sources for biographical insight, Hadfield devotes chapters to the author's childhood, university education, the ‘lost’ years between 1576–79, and the appearance of The Shepheardes Calender, before providing a detailed re-examination of his life and career in Ireland, and the flourishes of publications that marked his (very few) trips back to England during the 1590s. Hadfield offers new investigations into many of the better-known moments and commonplaces of Spenser's biography. He considers again, for example, the author's claims of links to the Althorp Spensers and the role this may have played in establishing connections to the family of Spenser's second wife Elizabeth Boyle. Reasoned conjecture based on historical and topographical evidence also leads Hadfield to suggest that Spenser married Elizabeth in Youghal rather than Cork. Literary sources too are carefully read for autobiographical allusions and echoes, as when the December eclogue from the Calender is interpreted as an imagined recasting of Spenser's pedagogic interactions with Richard Mulcaster and Gabriel Harvey, Wrenock and Hobbinol to Spenser's Colin.

Two dominant features, and to a degree innovations, emerged from this book to the present reviewer. The first is the significance of Spenser's place in, and relationship to, multiple different intellectual, political, and literary communities and networks throughout his life. Hadfield begins by considering Spenser's proximity to Dutch humanist circles via Mulcaster's tutelage, and moves on to explore other circles centred on Harvey and Thomas Smith, Lodowick Bryskett, and William Ponsonby. Spenser's relations with his fellow planters and rival landowners in Ireland are also re-examined. Reconstructing networks of possible influence is, in part, a useful methodological practice for the biographer and allows one to establish context in the absence of direct or tangible evidence. While Hadfield cannot always explain exactly how Spenser responds to such networks, he shows us that when the author consciously signals affinity to a circle of apparent fellow-travellers, as he does in the 1580 Letters concerning the Sidneian ‘Areopagus’, this is as much the projection of a desired or imagined connection – a meeting of minds not men. Hadfield is equally as careful not to extrapolate evidence of a close friendship between Spenser and Sir Walter Ralegh from the author's strategic gestures of connections to the ambitious, if unpredictable courtier. The second key feature, and really the book's major thesis, is the challenge presented here to the perception of the author epitomized by Marx's well-known description of Spenser as ‘Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet’. Hadfield reveals instead a bold, independent figure who works hard at every stage of his life to distance and sometimes alienate himself from court-based patronage politics and networks, who attempts to forge a life and identity for himself as a published poet beholden to none but the discerning book-buying reader and those who might subsequently employ him for his intellectual merits rather than his powers of flattery. Spenser is never as openly contemptuous of patrons as, say, Thomas Nashe but we do see him at many points biting the hands that (might) feed him, as in his treatment of the Earl of Leicester in the Calender or the curiously scornful intimacy with Queen Elizabeth expressed in Epithalamion when he casts her as an envious voyeur, more the literary equivalent of a slapped face than a kissed arse. Subsequent critics will come to Hadfield's biography and explore the implications of Spenser's defiant stance on the poet's role for wider debates on the status of early modern authors. Hadfield reminds us of how hard Spenser worked in carefully constructing his works and, in particular, encourages renewed appreciation of the scholarship and ingenuity behind the Calender and the View of the Present State of Ireland. We also see how long Spenser worked on his writings and his tendency to rethink and revise older poems many years after their initial composition. (The concept of the early modern poet's notional ‘bottom drawer’ and the mechanics of preserving and reworking earlier compositions remains a much-neglected topic.)

Writing a successful literary biography is frequently a question of balance. One needs to balance reconstruction of the subject's life with criticism of the creative work that makes that life interesting or exceptional. Hadfield generally gets this balance right and Spenser's works are subjected to extended analysis only where they reveal or indeed constitute significant autobiographical evidence; hence the detailed treatment of the Calender and Letters and relatively short passages on The Faerie Queene. (Critical debates are largely confined to the extensive appendices and endnotes.) Reading for autobiographical insight is in itself a delicate process, and there is a danger in any literary biography that the creative works are read solely for the evidence that may lie beneath, to the cost of subtleties of poetic form, texture, and genre. Hadfield's book is quite balanced here too and draws attention to the playfulness, albeit rather serious play, evident in his subject's writings. A biographer also needs to achieve balance between focusing on the moments of greatness and publicity that attract us to the subject initially, and the more domestic, private, internal aspects that give us an indication of what it was like to have been in the subject's presence. These are the little, ordinary, everyday things that make the subject momentarily unexceptional, relatable, knowable. (One thinks of the opening vignette of the subject's soup getting cold in Charles Nicholl's Leonardo biography.) Availability of appropriate source material is obviously a factor here, but Hadfield's chapter on Spenser's castle – essentially ‘Spenser at home’ – went some way to presenting this kind of private, ‘off-stage’ figure. This book is revelatory in many other ways and provides us with a more nuanced, complex individual than was previously assumed and discussed. It represents a significant work of Spenser scholarship in its own right and subsequent readers will also surely use it as a starting point from which to continue the lines of speculation reflected upon in Hadfield's afterword concerning the implications of the revised portrait of the author established in this book.