Elizabethan Prose Fiction
Elizabethan Prose Fiction
The Elizabethan period is primarily known for its drama and poetry rather than its prose fiction, particularly since the advent of the English novel proper does not occur for another century. However, critics have increasingly stressed the importance of prose fiction in the seventeenth century and its role in the development of the novel. Several factors have played an important role in the emergence of the Elizabethan romance. One of the most significant factors in the development of the romance—the most popular form of prose fiction in this period—was the translation of ancient Greek romances into the vernacular. The popularity of these stories influenced members of the university-educated class to create their own stories, albeit with the same Greek plots, pastoral settings, and emphasis on literary wit. The first important milestone of the age was John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578). In this work Lyly developed euphuism, a style of writing which emphasizes rhythm over content and makes extensive use of alliteration, assonance, metaphor, and classical allusion. Many lesser authors imitated this style, which became a defining element of the period. In contrast to Lyly, Sir Philip Sidney in The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1590), generally thought of as one of the most significant and well-written romances of the time, attempted to create more natural dialogue. Despite this difference, for his plot, style, and setting Sidney is also indebted to Greek literature. Robert Greene, one of the most prolific writers of the period, took his plots directly from Greek romance as well. Sometimes basing his stories in part on his own experiences, Greene wrote more than twenty popular romances including Card of Fancy (1584). Thomas Nashe was influenced by a different source, the picaresque novels of Spain. In these stories the hero, or picaro, is a man of no social standing who is free to travel and engage in adventures. Nashe's most famous works are The Unfortunate Travelor or the Life of Jack Wilton (1594) and The Terrors of the Night (1594). Elizabethan society itself underwent numerous and significant developments during this period, including changes in the social structure of London, a rapid rise in literacy rates, a growing middle class, and the emergence of literate bourgeois tradesmen. These changes are reflected in the content and quantity of prose fiction that was produced during the seventeenth century. Aiming at the growing middle-class audience, many writers imitated best-selling authors and turned out formula romances. The works of the former tradesman Thomas Deloney, including The Pleasant History of John Winchomb in his Younger Years Called Jack of Newbury (1597), for example, were more realistic in plot and setting than other works of the period and probably, according to scholars, created a sense of familiarity among his readers. This focus on the emerging bourgeois class, both as an audience for and a subject of fiction, played a significant role in the emergence of the English novel in the eighteenth century.
Christopher J. Thaiss (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "Origins and Developement of the Novel before 1740," in Critical Survey of Long Fiction: English Language Series, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, Inc., 1983, pp. 3013-21.
[In the following essay, Thaiss traces the development of the English novel from the late sixteenth century to the publication of Samuel Richardson's Pamela in 1740.]
The English-speaking world has long considered 1740, the year in which Samuel Richardson's Pamela was published, pivotal in the development of the novel, a broad term which for several centuries has been applied to many different forms of long fiction. Richardson's first novel remains a convenient landmark in the history of the form because, at least in England, it went further than any previous work in exploring an individual character's "sensibility," that wonderful mix of perception, culture, logic, sentiment, passion, and myriad other traits that define one's individuality. Pamela has been called the first intellectual novel, that subgenre in which most of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have worked.
Nevertheless, while 1740 is an important date in the development of one type of novel, to see all earlier novels as primitive ancestors of Pamela would distort the history of this multivarious form. The novel...
(The entire section is 12605 words.)
Origins And Influences
Martin Hume (essay date 1905)
SOURCE: "The Picaresque and Peripatetic Novels in England," in Spanish Influence on English Literature, Eveleigh Nash, 1905, pp. 156–83.
[In the following essay, Hume argues that the development of the novel form in Spain had a direct influence on the development of the picaresque and peripatetic novel in England.]
… The special reason why the Spanish new realistic fiction should have been forced to adopt for its medium the representation of squalid scenes and thievish, cunning adventurers, is to be found in the invariable rule of reaction or revulsion when anything is carried to an undue extreme. The tone of the Spanish romances of chivalry had been so ineffably heroic, the personages so unselfishly noble, the surroundings so invariably regal, that the reaction had necessarily to be exactly the opposite. I shall point out to you presently that, as the romances of chivalry had not in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries caught hold of French and English readers to the same extent as Spanish, the picaresque and peripatetic novels, which afterwards became so fashionable in England and France, whilst adopting the same machinery as that used in Spain, had no need to mark reaction by insisting so much upon the background of the stories being squalid and the character of the hero dishonest. This point must be borne in mind, as marking the main...
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Style And Structure
Walter F. Staton, Jr. (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "The Characters of Style in Elizabethan Prose," in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LVII, No. 2, April, 1958, pp. 197-207.
[In the essay below, Staton discusses the doctrines of literary style popular in England during the sixteenth century and their application in the works of such writers as Sir Philip Sidney, John Lyly, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe.]
"Before we come to the precepts of garnishing an oracion, we thinke good, bryeffly to shewe you of the three kyndes of stile or endyghting, in the whych all the eloquucion of an oratoure is occupied. For that there be three sundry kyndes, called of the Grekes characters, of us figures, I trowe there is no man, though he be meanlye learned, but he knoweth, namely when we se so manye wryters of sciences, bothe Greke and latine, whych haue ben before tyme, to haue folowed for the mooste parte sundrye sortes of wrytyng, the one ynlyke to the other. And there hath bene marked inespecially thre kyndes of endightynge: The greate, the smal; the meane."1 So Richard Sherry prefaced his discussion of the characters of style in 1550. Similar discussions appear in Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique,2 Puttenham's Arte of Poesie,3 and Ben Jonson's Discoveries.4 Yet as William G. Crane has observed, sixteenth-century...
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Alwes, Derek B. "Elizabethan Dreaming: Fictional Dreams from Gascoigne to Lodge." In Framing Elizabethan Fictions: Contemporary Approaches to Early Modern Narrative Prose, edited by Constance C. Relihan, pp. 153-67. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996.
Considers the role of dreams in Elizabethan fiction, concentrating on the works of Thomas Nashe, George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge, and Sir Philip Sidney.
Ashley, Robert and Moseley, Edwin M. "Introduction." In Elizabethan Fiction, edited by Robert Ashley and Edwin M. Moseley, pp. vii-xx. New York: Rinehart, 1953.
Discusses the development of the novel in relation to philosophical and social trends such as humanism and the rise of the bourgeois class.
Carey, John. "Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Prose." In History of Literature in the English Language: Volume 2—English Poetry and Prose, 1540-1674, edited by Christopher Ricks, pp. 339-87. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1970.
Provides an overview of Elizabethan prose fiction, describing its major authors and characteristics.
Crane, William G. "The Sentimental Novel and the Romance." In Wit and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: The Formal Basis of Elizabethan Prose Style, pp. 162-202. New York: Columbia...
(The entire section is 649 words.)