It could be argued that Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485; the death of Arthur) marks the beginning of the English novel, followed closely by Sir Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551). Scholars of the genre, however, have usually excluded these works. Le Morte d’Arthur, somewhat inaccurately titled, is an English translation of selected and condensed romances from the French. The plot is rambling and unfocused, unlike the novel as a form. Utopia is a much more unified work of prose, but it is composed in Latin and therefore technically, and literally, not a work of English literature.
Whereas the French novel underwent constant refinement during the century and a half preceding 1740, with French writers producing masterpieces at intervals throughout the period, the English novel flowered briefly before 1600 and then lay dormant for more than a century until it was revitalized by Daniel Defoe. The seventeenth century in England produced but one work of genius in the form, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), a novel ignored by Bunyan’s contemporaries in literary society because of its style and theme.
Although overshadowed by the unsurpassed drama of the Elizabethans, the 1580’s and 1590’s saw an outpouring of original fictional narratives, including one voluminous work and a host of shorter works in the pastoral and satiric modes. Like the French one decade later, English writers were heavily influenced by translations of the late Greek romances as well as by the satires of the humanists, the pastorals of Jacopo Sannazaro and Jorge de Montemayor, and the tragic love novelle of Matteo Bandello. Other influential sources were the manuals of courtly behavior and noble ethics written by the Italians Baldassare Castiglione (Il libro del cortegiano, 1528; The Book of the Courtier, 1561) and Stefano Guazzo (La civil conversazione (1574; Civil Conversation, 1581-1586). These inspired similar guides in England and provided a format of learned discourse imitated by writers of fiction.
The most distinctive feature of the English novels of that time is their commitment to moral improvement of the individual and of the state as a whole. Since, with the exception of Sir Philip Sidney, the principal novelists of that time were sons of the middle class, much of their writing was suffused with middle-class values: hard work, thrift, cautious ambition. As the period advanced, fictional works became more overtly addressed to the middle class, with more middle-class characters taking principal roles. In the 1580’s, this bourgeois appeal typically took the form of the romance intended to instruct the upwardly mobile reader in courtly ways; later, satire held sway, a satire moved by the spirit of reform rather than by the resigned contempt of the Spanish picaresques.
The most influential fiction early in this period was John Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578), actually less a novel than a moral handbook for wealthy, budding scholars. In it, bright young Euphues exchanges academic arguments with wise old Eubolus on the issue of worldly experience versus the codified wisdom of the ages. Euphues fails to heed Eubolus’s sage advice and decides to taste the world, only to become the emotional captive of Lucilla, a courtesan who strips him of his money and his dignity. A chastened Euphues vows to spend the rest of his life contemplating philosophy and warning the young. Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit was a continuing hit with a wide audience, and Lyly’s peculiar style established a fashion that persisted for a decade. Called euphuism, this style features the culling of exotic lore from the pseudohistories of the ancients, primarily the Roman scholar Pliny. In euphuistic argumentation, these strange bits are used as evidence for or against certain courses of action. That euphuism succeeded where other linguistic experiments such as marivaudage failed shows the hunger of Lyly’s audience for a mode of discourse that would make them appear learned.
Lyly’s most enthusiastic follower, Robert Greene, was a highly original novelist in his own right who composed an amazing variety of euphuistic romances between 1580 and 1587. In Greene works such as Mamillia: A Mirror or Looking Glass for the Ladies of England (1583, 1593), The Mirror of Modesty (1584), Morando: The Tritameron of Love (1584, 1587), and Euphues, His Censure to Philautus (1587), one can see clearly the amalgamation of sources—Italian novelle, the Bible, Castiglione, Greek epic—in Elizabethan fiction. Unlike Lyly, however, Greene brings to these romances a spirit of comic realism that invests his characters with greater fullness and sympathy than Lyly’s characters demonstrate. Greene’s later romances (such as Menaphon, 1589, and Greene’s Never Too Late, 1590) reject euphuism in favor of a more colloquial conversational style better suited to his more realistic characters.
When Greene turned away from Lyly in 1588, he was responding to the new fashion for pastoral love stories established by Sidney’s huge romance, Arcadia, which had been circulating in manuscript since 1580 but was not published until 1590 (revised in 1593 and 1598). Arcadia, an aristocratic work similar to Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astrée (1607-1628, 1925; Astrea, 1657-1658), shows the blending of the Greek...