Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124
Very little is known about the pamphleteer and balladeer Thomas Deloney, the English writer whose works became precursors of the English novel. By trade a silk weaver, probably of Norwich, Deloney wrote topical ballads and, through his pamphlets, took part in the religious controversies of the day. Even the date of his birth is not certain. Nevertheless, it seems certain that Deloney died early in 1600 after producing at least three “novels” (that is, episodic narratives) in a short but crowded life. He seems to have had more education than most weavers of the time, and he translated from Latin into his uniquely vigorous English. The ballads of the day were the newspapers of the period, and Deloney’s apprenticeship, like that of so many novelists, might be said to have been in journalism. That was probably how he learned to write concisely and to choose popular subjects. He wrote broadside ballads on such subjects as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, great fires, the execution of traitors, and domestic tragedies, but current events were not Deloney’s only ballad subjects. Using Holinshed and other sources, he drew on English history for subject matter. A collection of Deloney’s ballads entitled The Garland of Good Will appeared in 1631, and earlier editions, such as those of his prose fictions, were probably read out of existence. More than once, Deloney’s pamphlets and more than fifty ballads put him in trouble with the authorities, even sending him for a time to Newgate Prison. One ballad in particular, which showed disrespect for the queen, caused him serious difficulties.
Though widely read, Deloney’s novels were scorned by the university-educated writers of the day as mere plebeian romances from the pen of a balladmaker, and it was not until the twentieth century that his merits as a writer were recognized. His three novels, all approximately the same length, appeared between 1597 and 1600. Jack of Newbery was probably the first one to be written and published. Each novel was in praise of a trade: Jack of Newbery of weaving, The Gentle Craft of shoemaking, and Thomas of Reading of the clothiers’ trade.
Deloney’s stories contain excellent pictures of contemporary middle-class London life, and they introduce a variety of quaint characters. The realism of the novels, however, is only in matters of setting and dialogue; probability is disregarded and wish-fulfillment fantasy prevails, for members of the hardworking trade class are inevitably rewarded for their diligence with large fortunes. The tales are rich with humor and told in a straightforward manner, with the exception of “ornamental” language used in some romantic passages.
Deloney may have been commissioned by the cloth merchants to compose a life of one of their order. Jack of Newbery was a real person who lived in Newbery under Henry VIII, but his history is merely traditional. Deloney, however, knew the town and had a gift for elaborating a tale with circumstantial facts and humorous episodes.
Despite its popularity in its own day, Deloney’s fiction probably had little real effect on the subsequent development of English prose fiction, which had to wait a hundred years and more for the geniuses of Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson to get it off the ground. Yet Jack of Newbery may be considered the first really dramatic novel in English. The fictions of Thomas Nash and Robert Greene are witty and satirical, but they do not have the dramatic plots of Deloney’s work. Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1581) and John Lyly’s Euphues (1578-1580) were only minor influences, if any, on Deloney, who seems to have been more impressed by the Elizabethan stage than anything else (the widow and the other characters display a sense of rhetoric in their dialogue reminiscent of the stage). Deloney’s view of life was essentially dramatic, and the people he wrote about in Jack of Newbery and his other novels are people of action, people who set out to accomplish material things.
Deloney’s focus is on the details of everyday life. Love, marriage, money, and food are the main topics of conversation. Materialist to his heart, he was fascinated by business and household matters. Like Charles Dickens, Deloney plunges into scenes that summarize dramatically an entire situation, painting a picture of an entire culture along the way. There are few irrelevant incidents in Jack of Newbery. The story of the middle-aged widow who falls in love with her young apprentice and the story of his subsequent adventures (including that concerning the king) are told with great enthusiasm. The widow is portrayed as a lusty, self-sufficient female, a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. Jack is apparently as virtuous and industrious an apprentice as Ben Franklin, but he is not as innocent as he pretends and soon moves up in the world.
The tradesmen heroes such as Jack are idealized characters. Jack rises less from his own efforts than from those of the people around him. It almost seems that he is above certain efforts, resembling in this the king himself. The women in Jack of Newbery are the book’s finest characterizations. In creating the gallery of female portraits, Deloney leaves behind him all of his rivals in the prose fiction of the time and approaches the best of Elizabethan stage comedy. Queen Catherine, the first Mistress Winchcomb, and other women in the story are colorful figures, alive with natural vitality. As the plots develop, the women remain in the midst of the action. Perhaps it is a man’s world, but the wife seems to be responsible for her husband’s success. Deloney knew and understood middle-class women and recorded their foibles and unique characteristics with a sharp eye and a precise pen. For the author, the good wife was one who was never idle but knew her place and did not “gad about.” Thus Jack and his first wife make no headway at all until she decides to stay at home and manage the household.
The minor characters are well drawn, especially Randoll Pert. Recently out of debtor’s prison, Pert becomes a porter to support his family. His description is delightful, and his antics add both comic and pathetic touches to the novel. The meeting of Jack and Pert at the Spread Eagle in London is superbly handled. The whole episode, including the part where Jack agrees not to collect five hundred pounds until Pert is sheriff of London, is excellent comedy.
Although the novel is episodic, it forms a coherent and dramatic whole and is filled with humorous scenes and witty dialogue. Jack of Newbery stands as a fine novel in its own right as well as the first example of its kind in English literature.