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
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- Critical Essays