Modern scholars have disagreed sharply over whether Renaissance prose fiction can best be seen as taking tentative steps toward the eighteenth century novel or whether it marks the end of the medieval tradition. As with most academic debates, both approaches are useful and depend on the critic’s perspective. In fact, in some limited but important ways, the state of prose fiction between the first use of movable type in England (1485) and the last decades of the seventeenth century is comparable to that in modern times. It was an era of deep-rooted sociocultural change: A traditional mode of literature was slowly dying or being adapted to an apparently less discriminating audience; also, a bewildering variety of literary experiments, many of which were uncertain or outright failures, was accompanied by an uncertainty about the conventions and the value of prose fiction. To read the works of George Gascoigne, Thomas Deloney, or Aphra Behn is certainly to receive notions about the nature of prose fiction radically challenged. Yet a useful comparison of their strangeness to the modern reader can be made with the reader’s increasing familiarity with the postmodern experiments in fiction. There is also the awareness that although the world they describe is, largely, one that is now lost, they do nevertheless articulate important aspects of modern cultural heritage and so of modern self-understanding.
The period marked by the English revolution, the Restoration, and the Settlement of 1688 is one of the vital watersheds in history, and its effects can be sensed in the age’s prose fiction. By the late seventeenth century, many of the European literary fashions that England had belatedly adopted were taking root, and as socioeconomic balance shifted radically, so a new form of prose fiction developed. Historical changes of such magnitude, however, rarely occur overnight, and the whole era, in particular between 1570 and 1640 when the period’s social, intellectual, and cultural turmoil was at its most concentrated, provides anticipations and experiments of enormous interest. In any period of unusual turbulence, writers and texts tell the reader more than they know, and the role of the critic is more than that of deconstructing the obvious surface referentiality of texts, as the reader searches for evidence of deeper implicit, but eventually enormously important, changes in a society’s culture.