Elizabethan Prose Fiction Overviews - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 followed substantially different lines of development in Spain, France, and England, three countries notable for their contributions to the early growth of this form in Europe. Moreover, different types of novels exist side by side in every period, each type appealing to a different taste, much as different types of the novel flourish today. Finally, certain earlier works have exerted as profound and lasting an influence on the novel in Europe as that attributed to Pamela.

The Novel in England, 1580-1740

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, 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 contemporary literary society because of its style and theme.

Though 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 a 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 Sannizaro and Montemayor, and the tragic love novelle of Bandello. Other influential sources were the manuals of courtly behavior and noble ethics written by the Italians Baldassare Castiglione Il Cortegiano (1528, The Courtier) and Stefano Guazzo La civile conversazione (1547, The Civil Conversation). 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 by the individual and by 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 the resigned contempt of the Spanish picaresques.

The most influential fiction early in this period was John Lyly's Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1579), 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' 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 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 was Robert Greene, a highly original novelist in his own right, who composed an amazing variety of euphuistic romances between 1580 and 1587. In such Greene works as Mamillia (1583), The Myrrour of Modestie (1584), Morando, The Tritameron of Love (1587), and Euphues His Censure to Philautus (1587), one can see most 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 does. Greene's later romances (such as Menaphon, 1589, and Greene's Never Too Late, 1590) reject euphuism in favor of a some-what 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 which was not published until 1590 (revised in 1593). Arcadia, an aristocratic work similar to Honoré d'Urfé's L'Astree (1610), shows the blending of the Greek romances, with their pastoral and heroic elements, and the intensely emotional love pastorals of Sannizaro and the Elizabethan sonneteers, including Sidney himself. There is a good deal of the chivalric spirit present here, too, as knightly combats, with armor and emblems vividly described, are the primary means of settling disputes. Amid the shipwrecks, the kidnapings, the heroic rescues, and the seemingly endless love laments of the sexually frustrated heroes, Musidorus and Pyrocles, two genuinely sympathetic characters emerge, Amphialus and his wife, Parthenia. Theirs is a tragic tale, the Homeric conflict between a soldier's sense of duty and his regard for his wife, whose desire for his safety leads her to endanger herself and ultimately lose her life. The power of this story within the Arcadia derives from Sidney's almost Shakespearean refusal to take sides—his willingness to let the story unfold and allow the reader to judge. Had the novel's main plot, his heroes' often silly attempts to win the favor of a pair of princesses, been exchanged for a serious investigation of ethical issues, Sidney might have produced a work of the stature of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615).

Among the traits that limited Sidney as a novelist was his contempt for the common people, as shown in Arcadia in several episodes that caricature plebeians as stupid, greedy, and bestial. Since the future of publishing in England meant appealing to the powerful London middle class, it was inevitable that novels would emerge with middle-class heroes and heroines. Greene's later romances are of this category, as are the works of Thomas Deloney, a silk weaver, whose Jack of Newbery (c. 1596) and Thomas of Reading (c. 1597) feature romanticized artisan heroes within vividly authentic backgrounds of English town and rural life.

Deloney's contribution to English literary history has been much disputed by scholars of the twentieth century. Although some have considered him "an astonishing genius" and others have disregarded him entirely, most current critics and historians take a middle view of Deloney's significance as a prose writer. While not a genius, Deloney was one of the first English authors to write for and about the rising middle class. His perceptiveness of the prevailing literary climate, whether educated or merely fortuitous, was accurate, for his popularity among the middle class was unsurpassed. His works, within only a few years of their publication, were literally read out of existence. The twentieth century's debt to Deloney is substantial, for his portrayal of middle-class values, concerns, and language are the roots of the modern novel.

That Deloney became a spokesman for the middle class was only a portion of his accomplishment. Another reason for the popularity of his works was that they were written in prose. Prior to Deloney's time, written works were composed in verse or dramatic form, making the exploration of rising social issues a laborious chore. Less artificial, prose fiction better addressed such subject matter, and Deloney proved himself a more talented master of the form than most prose fiction writers of his time.

What makes Deloney's fiction outstanding are his skillful use of dialogue and his excellent characterizations. Presenting three-dimensional middle-class characters drawn from his hard-working colleagues, Deloney engages them in dialogue fit for the stage. Instead of the lofty language familiar only to kings and nobles, however, he captures the idiomatic speech and straightforwardness of the common people of his day.

Deloney's plot development is less remarkable, although it should not be dismissed lightly. Jack of Newbury, considered his most unified prose work, is a tale about a young man who works for a wealthy clothier and eventually becomes the master of the business when the owner dies, leaving the conscientious young Jack (known as John) to marry the widow. The majority of the work centers on John's adventures after his wife has died and he has become a wealthy man. Thomas of Reading is a less unified work, yet reaches a level of plot sophistication higher than that of Jack of Newbury. In it, King Henry I is made aware of the value of the clothing industry in England, and by deliberately supporting the clothiers, he enables them to raise their social positions. Such a change in social status was finally an attainable goal for the working class, and thus a tale of this type appealed to a wide audience.

While many of Deloney's characters typically grasp the beneficent hand of capitalism, Deloney does, however, ensure that they do not succumb to the snobbishness common to those who already enjoy aristocratic freedoms. After diligently earning their wealth, these protagonists liberally distribute it, thus allowing the entire community to prosper from their good fortune. Despite such indirect moralizing, Deloney was accepted as the militant spokesman for the middle class, and the political disjunction between his views and those of Sidney gives evidence of the social rift that would lead to civil war in the next century.

Already, class and religious tensions, the fires fanned by economic decline, were sparking sharp satires, some obviously political, others less partisan in their scourge of social abuse. In the latter group are Greene's tales of "connycatching" (1591-1592), which purport to expose the methods of actual thieves and con artists so that decent citizens may beware. These contribute to the development of fiction in England, because Greene's reproving tone is a thin veil for his real interest in exploring the romantic, sympathetic side of the criminal stereotype. Such characters as Ned Browne, Nan the whore, Laurence the cutpurse, and Cuthbert Connycatcher blend the picaros with the courageous imps of the medieval jestbooks. The candor and colloquial discourse of these stories created a fashion for rogue books that persisted through the seventeenth century and influenced Defoe.

Brilliantly capitalizing on the connycatching fad was Greene's boon companion, Thomas Nashe, one of literature's sharpest tongues and quickest wits. After achieving notoriety through vicious anti-Puritan pamphlets and personal attacks on literary foes, Nashe penned the age's premier satiric novel, The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton (1594). Lacking the fellow feeling of a Lazaro, a Gil Blas, or even one of Greene's connycatchers, Nashe's Jack Wilton astounds the reader with the range of his amoral exploits and the depth of his depravity. He satirizes through deeds, not only words: he outcheats the greatest cheats, plots the deaths of murderers, tortures the heartlessly cruel. Though he makes a perfunctory repentance at the end of the novel, Jack is a thorough villain, who satirizes not from a sense of moral outrage but because his clever foes are so gullible or have the audacity to be as villainous as he. His attacks on Italy, for example, are inspired by the Italians' allegedly unquenchable thirst for vengeance, a trait which Jack has much reason to fear.

Just as outrageous as Jack's character is Nashe's cast of minor figures: King Henry VIII, Thomas More, Erasmus, and most other notables of the early sixteenth century. Jack spends a good deal of the novel as the servant of Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey, and together they romp through dangerous escapades. History as rewritten by Thomas Nashe is a pageant composed for Jack Wilton, poor in birth but inexhaustibly rich in wit. The plot and the person are incredible, but Nashe so deftly appeals to the cynical reader that it is easy to see this book as a realistic fiction rather than what might more accurately be described as a fantasy of revenge. The dark tragedies of Cyril Tourneur, John Webster, George Chapman, and Thomas Middleton in the Jacobean years partake of this same spirit and were surely influenced by The Unfortunate Traveller.

Because satiric fiction of the next decades returned to the pattern and subject matter of the connycatching works, prose writers who followed Nashe perhaps found his brilliance inimitable. The best of these writers, Thomas Dekker, presented collections of jests and stories carefully describing the shifts of London thieves and beggars in his The Bellman of London (1608) and Lanthorn and Candlelight (1608), both heavy-handed condemnations of the outlaws from the perspective of the outraged citizen demanding protection. Dekker affects neither Greene's sympathy nor Nashes's worldly-wise cynicism. Because his works create no real characters, they cannot really be said to be novels.

Just as the French religious wars of the sixteenth century precluded the growth of the novel in that country, so the strides in English fiction taken during the Elizabethan years were halted in the seventeenth century as the economy worsened and religious tensions increased. Though novel readers continued to demand reprints of Elizabethan fictions, no significant works in this genre were produced in the country until well after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The appetite for novels during the first two-thirds of the century was satisfied by translations of contemporary French works, with L'Astrée and the heroic novels of Madame de Scudéry enjoying great popularity. Ironically, when the century did produce a great English novelist, John Bunyan, he was ignored by the readers of French novels because of his allegorical method and his Puritan views.

Bunyan's masterpiece, The Pilgrim's Progress, was partly written during his second imprisonment for unauthorized preaching, some six years after his first imprisonment (1660-1672), during which he had written his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), an intensely moving study reminiscent of Augustine's Confessions. It would be misleading to say that The Pilgrim's Progress was influenced by any literary source except the Bible, since the uneducated Bunyan is not known to have been familiar with any other of the seminal works noted earlier. This partly explains why Bunyan's style avoids affectations that make most fiction of this period undigestible for modern readers. Also, Bunyan wrote for an audience as simple as himself, one not demanding the veneer of learning applied by aristocratic writers.

If the Bible did influence Bunyan's masterpiece, one can find in Revelation the source for his use of the dream-vision framework, as well as such features as the castlelike heaven, the goal of Christian's journey. The allegorical hindrances the pilgrim encounters on his trek, such as the Castle of Despair and the Hill of Difficulty, seem original with Bunyan, though certainly the mode of the allegorical journey is familiar from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), a work probably known to Bunyan. Undeniably original are Bunyan's characters, such as Timorous, Mistrust, and Talkative, who not only embody the vices for which they are named but who also talk as authentically as actual people in whom one recognizes these dominant traits. The arguments of these characters are so plausible that the reader sympathizes with Christian's frequent doubts about how to proceed and whom to believe. Moreover, Bunyan's characterizations are so concise, his observations so exact, that a character's presence for one or two pages is sufficient to keep him or her sharply defined in the reader's memory. Though Christian is accompanied by Faithful, for example, through only a small portion of Part I of The Pilgrim 's Progress, one builds up enough sympathy for this character to feel shocked when he is murdered by the citizens of Vanity Fair.

Bunyan as a novelist works so economically, so unself-consciously, that the reader quickly loses the sense of artifice, even though the work is in an unorthodox form. In other words, The Pilgrim's Progress is one of those rare works of fiction that readers usually do not regard as fiction because they apprehend it as truth. Passing directly into the cultural mainstream of the people without having been authorized, as it were, by literary society, Bunyan's allegory can be said to have influenced most English writers since the mid-eighteenth century, although its traces are often hard to mark because it has been so well assimilated.

Beginning just after the appearance of The Pilgrim's Progress, though in no way inspired by Bunyan's work, the novelistic career of Aphra Behn appealed to the aristocratic and city audience to which Bunyan gave no thought. Predictably, her novels and stories follow the French heroic pattern, with its idealized, beautiful characters and exotic settings. In her best work, Three Histories (1688), a collection which includes the notable Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave, Behn adds a wrinkle which makes her heroic works irresistible: the stories purport to be true, and she includes sufficient London names and places to make the assertion believable. At a time when London society craved gossip about the fashionable, and saw the roman á clef as a way to satisfy that craving, readers preferred to accept the illusion of allegedly actual people performing impossibly heroic acts rather than explicit fiction attempting the accurate portrayal of reality. In Oroonoko, for example, a pair of African lovers (with ideal European aristocratic manners) are swept across continents and oceans from one harrowing scrape to another, until both are murdered. Despite the implausibility of the events, readers accepted Behn's claim that the incidents actually occurred.

Behn's popularity occasioned many imitators. In competition with them were the writers of sensational accounts of authentic voyages to exotic places. Both forms appealed to the taste, present in every age, for examples of individual survival or death in the midst of calamitous events. It was to suit this taste that the most famous adventure novel of modern times, Robinson Crusoe, was written. Drawing on numerous accounts of travelers' shipwrecks, isolation, and survival, Daniel Defoe created a study of the individual in collision with environment that surpassed in realism any previous English fiction, except perhaps The Pilgrim's Progress. Robinson Crusoe and Defoe's novel of the following year, Moll Flanders, created a fashion for realistic characterization that made possible the character studies of Richardson, Fielding, and their successors.

Firmly established as a journalist, political propagandist, and editor of popular periodicals, Defoe brought to the writing of Robinson Crusoe an unerring sense of public taste and a sure knack for the detail or turn of phrase that would convince the reader of the authenticity of a story. Though the central fact of the book, an Englishman's survival on an uninhabited island for twenty-eight years, is as improbable as many of Behn's turns of plot, Defoe makes the entire story plausible by his scrupulous attention to even the tiniest fact of Crusoe's existence. Where Behn or one of her imitators would have focused on the emotional trauma of shipwreck and isolation, Defoe, eminently practical in all his endeavors, focuses on the mundane how of existence: how to ensure a supply of meat when all the powder and bullets are gone, how to make a shovel without iron, how to bake bread without an oven. Nevertheless, Defoe does not slight Crusoe the moral and emotional creature: perhaps the greatest masterstroke of the novel is Defoe's first making the reader confront and gradually accept the narrator's aloneness, then presenting the fearsome truth that Crusoe is not alone. Though Defoe's sincerity as an ethical writer has often been questioned, there is nothing feigned about Crusoe's confused response to his savage visitors. Behn's Oroonoko has been called the first novel to make equality of the races an issue, but Crusoe's profound dilemma over his proper reaction to the Indians' cannibalism is a more authentic grappling with the issue than is Behn's portrait of the dark-skinned slaves as noble innocents.

Following the immediate success of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe wrote two sequels in the same year, one a series of further adventures and the other Crusoe's reflections on his miraculous life. Meanwhile, Defoe's prolific imagination was at work on a new project, the "private history" of a London woman, who, originally a poor orphan, grows up to lead an exciting, inevitably scandalous life before finally achieving security and station. Moll Flanders differs in plot and setting from Robinson Crusoe, but the psychological authenticity of this purportedly true memoir is brought about by standard Defoe methods. Where Crusoe lovingly recounts his ingenious solutions to minute logistical problems, Moll recalls verbatim the coolly calculated speeches, the nuances of dress and gesture, that had been either her making or undoing in romantic affairs. These are Moll's tools of survival just as surely as Crusoe's odds and ends are his, and Defoe, through his everlastingly coy narrator, convinces the reader that her predicament within society is perhaps more precarious than Crusoe's without. Moreover, one accepts the extremity of her situation because she, like Robinson, wastes few words bewailing it, instead moving immediately from the recognition of disaster to the search for means to survive. One does not pity Moll; rather, one sees oneself in her plight and soon comes unconsciously to share her values.

The reader accepts Moll's authenticity as an autobiographer because she is neither more nor less conscious of her motives than one would expect her to be. She is intuitively ethical, knowing that her need for money does not justify her thievery, especially from people no better off than she is; nevertheless, she is not so aware of herself as to realize that her panic-stricken repentance in Newgate is not real. Neither she nor Defoe is hiding tongue in cheek when she vows to live honestly, then immediately lies. When, at the end, Moll, rich and secure, says that she and her husband (the fourth of five, but the only one surviving) will spend the rest of their days in penitence, the reader can stand back and chuckle. With the realization that it would be useless to demand that the protagonist be more introspective, the reader understands that Defoe has established Moll's character to be the child of a society where money is everything and only the rich can afford to be morally precise. The greatness of the novel is that Defoe never mentions this point; the closest Moll comes to this is to say that a woman without a dowry is lost, and that a woman without looks or a dowry is truly lost.

The irony of the novel is that Defoe, in his Preface, would have the reader believe that Moll Flanders is a story of despicable deeds fervently repented, rather than one of inevitable deeds and a sprinkling of penitent words. With his eye on the prejudices of his audience, he could not bring himself to say that Moll could not repent because society could not forgive, and because it was really society that needed repentance. He, like his flesh-and-blood heroine, dared give the lie to his public time and again, in one "true" history after another, but he, like she, dared not take off the mask.

Louise Schleiner (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Ladies and Gentlemen in Two Genres of Elizabethan Fiction," in SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 1-20.

[In the essay below, Schleiner discusses the depiction of gender and maturation in Elizabethan fiction.]

Elizabethan prose fiction presents rich materials for study of the relationship of gender to genre. Its courtly tales are masculinist to the core—John Lyly's Euphues: the Anatomy of Wit (1578), and its sequel Euphues and his England (1580), popularized a distinct Bildungsroman plot pattern, imitated in numerous works of the 1580s and 90s, that takes young aristocrats through a set of episodes depicting maturation into proper patriarchal masculinity. Its romances, by contrast, commonly use the device of gender disguise to explore the natures of both maleness and femaleness through depictions of adolescent maturation. The present essay will show that these two different modes of portrayal of maturation into gender identity are generically definitive for these two kinds of Elizabethan fiction.1

Such a study responds to at least two calls for feminist work: Annis Pratt's for a "mode of new feminist criticism which will describe the psycho-mythological development of the female individual in literature"2 and Sandra M. Gilbert's for study of "the nexus of genre and gender, … the secret intersections of sexuality and textuality"; indeed, Gilbert sees such work as the central enterprise, that which, "most succinctly, feminist criticism wants": "to decode and demystify all the disguised questions and answers that have always shadowed the connections between textuality and sexuality, genre and gender, psychosexual identity and cultural authority."3

When Pyrocles of Sidney's romance Arcadia censures men who malign love and women with "those kinds of bitter objections (as, that lust, idleness, and a weak harte, should be, as it were, the matter and forme of loue)," he is referring not just to any misogynists but particularly to "counselors" in the line of Lyly's Eubulus (meaning "good counsel"), who in the Euphuist courtly works explicitly define the received models of dominant masculinity and submissive femininity, for the instruction of weak-kneed youths and unruly young ladies.4 The generally more positive portrayal of women and love in Elizabethan romance, by contrast, was the fictional world's counterpoise to Euphuist misogyny—thus the genres of courtly fiction and prose romance (usually pastoral) ideologically correlate with, respectively, the "attack" and "defense" treatises that together comprised the "debate on women" characterized by Linda Woodbridge as "the formal controversy."5 Substantially the same gender stereotypes inform both genres, and in both the authors are often fascinated—in the one case negatively, in the other positively—by a trait of the Renaissance "new-fangled" woman: female wit. Women as well as men, in these works, often have potent, nimble minds and witty tongues; but the two genres contrast in their evaluations of how well female wit can be accommodated to proper femininity.6

Woodbridge's Women and the English Renaissance, so learned and wide-ranging in its treatment of the age's drama and prose treatises, has only a little to say about prose fiction. Lisa Jardine has treated gender disguise (which must be distinguished from transvestism7) more thoroughly, again focusing on drama.8 The present essay, as well as describing the linkage of gender and genre, supplements Woodbridge's and Jardine's accounts of Renaissance English portrayals of woman by describing prose fiction's treatment of gender roles. After all, it was prose romance that supplied most of the theater's gender-disguise plots, and such fiction, with its vastly expansive moralizing digressions, can clarify matters that are ideologically not so clear on stage.

When a lady donned pageboy clothes, what particular concept of aristocratic maleness was she assuming? And when a young man donned the Amazon wig, in what did his new femaleness consist? It is in Euphuist courtly fiction and its counterpoise genre, prose romance, that we get the clearest answers. Besides Euphues and its sequel, the works drawn upon in roughly the first half of this essay (the part on courtly fiction) are Austen Saker's Narbonus (1580), Brian Melbancke's Philotimus (1583), Robert Greene's Mamillia (1583 and 1593),...

(The entire section is 12605 words.)