Golden Lads by Daphne du Maurier

When I was making my list for this year’s R.I.P. challenge last week, I remembered that one of the books I read for last year’s R.I.P. was Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. The title was from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust” – the same lines that inspired the title of Daphne du Maurier’s Golden Lads: A Study of Anthony Bacon, Francis and Their Friends, a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while. Having been reminded of it, I picked it up and started reading, knowing that I have to be in the right mood for non-fiction.

Golden Lads was published in 1975 and was followed a year later by a second volume, The Winding Stair: Francis Bacon, His Rise and Fall, which I may or may not read at some point. I love Daphne du Maurier and since discovering Rebecca as a teenager, I have read almost all of her novels and most of her short story collections, but only one of her non-fiction books, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë. I remember finding the Brontë biography almost as readable as her fiction, so I hoped this book would be the same. And it is certainly very readable – it only took a few days to read and was quite a page-turner at times, probably because, as stated in the introduction, du Maurier was writing this book with ‘her sort of reader’ in mind.

Anthony Bacon (born in 1558) and his younger brother Francis (born in 1561) were the sons of Sir Nicholas Bacon, who was Elizabeth I’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and one of the most powerful men in England. Their mother, Anne Cooke, was the sister-in-law of the Lord High Treasurer William Cecil, Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser. With such impressive family connections, the Bacon brothers were well placed to develop glittering careers of their own, but for Anthony that never quite happened, and for Francis not as quickly as he’d hoped.

After attending Cambridge University together at the ages of fifteen and twelve, their lives went in different directions with Francis entering Gray’s Inn as a lawyer while Anthony spent several years in Europe building up a network of contacts to send intelligence back to Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. During this period he became a friend of Henri of Navarre (later Henri IV of France) and the French essayist Montaigne. I was intrigued to find that another of his friends was Antonio Perez, whom I met just a few weeks ago in That Lady by Kate O’Brien! On his return to England in 1592, however, Anthony seems to have kept a low profile, which du Maurier explains as being as a result of his increasingly poor health (he suffered from gout and possibly other illnesses as well) but also due to a scandal which took place during his time in Montauban and for which du Maurier found new evidence in the form of archival records.

Francis is the best known of the Bacon brothers today, but most of the accomplishments in science, politics, philosophy and literature for which he is remembered are not discussed in Golden Lads as this book concentrates more on Anthony and only covers the period up to 1601. I didn’t mind this as I knew nothing at all about Anthony and was glad to have the opportunity to learn something new, but I didn’t feel that I got to know Francis very well at all. For that, I will obviously need to read The Winding Stair – although I’m not sure if or when I will get round to reading that book.

I found a lot to like about Golden Lads. As I’ve said, du Maurier’s writing style makes it easy to read and it’s obvious that she is enthusiastic about her subject. She includes extracts from letters and occasional bits of dialogue written in play format, which adds some variety, but readers who are hoping for an academic, scholarly biography might be disappointed as not everything is fully referenced (although she does include a bibliography and list of sources at the back of the book). I thought the first half of the book, which covers the Bacons’ early lives, was very enjoyable, but in the second half the focus switches to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and his military exploits in Cadiz and Ireland and this is where I started to get bored. I have read about Essex before and although I understand the important role he played in the lives of Anthony and Francis Bacon, I didn’t really want to read about him again in so much detail.

Golden Lads will not be a book for everyone, but I can definitely recommend it to readers who are particularly interested in Elizabethan England. I enjoyed it overall, but I’m not sure if I enjoyed it enough to want to continue with The Winding Stair. Has anyone read it – or any of du Maurier’s other non-fiction?