The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries - Short Fiction Analysis

Early Literary Forms

So far as “short” fiction is concerned, the Renaissance, unlike later periods, had no coherent theory of prose fiction in general, let alone for distinguishing between shorter and longer forms. The period inherited a huge variety of shorter forms from its past—jests, anecdotes, fables, exempla, romances, fabliaux, homilies, folktales, récits, novelle—but few writers seem to have given conscious attention to questions of length. Instead, they seem to have been anxious to justify the art of fiction-making itself—“poetry” was their usual term—alongside other human activities. Much Renaissance fiction is uneasily claimed to be “history” and contains elaborate justifications of the teller’s veracity. Although George Gascoigne and John Barth are worlds apart in sophistication of technique, both show a self-conscious uneasiness about their craft that points not merely to the uncertain quality of fiction but, beyond, to the nature of their societies. If one looks to France, Italy, or Spain, one finds evidence of a more self-conscious concern with shorter as opposed to longer forms of fiction and, indeed, in France between about 1560 and 1600 and again between 1660 and 1700, various short forms dominated fashions in prose fiction. In England, however, no such self-consciousness seems to have existed, and in order to get an adequate sense of what forms of short fiction did exist, it will be necessary to stretch and at some points to ignore the limits of the topic.

Notwithstanding uncertainty over the nature of prose fiction (and this is not simply an English phenomenon), an increasing amount was written and published as the new technology of moving type coincided with the expansion of the reading public. Among the earliest books printed by William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde were editions of medieval romances, and by 1600, approximately one-quarter of the books printed in England were prose fiction. The expansion of a literate, book-buying class was a complex business, and one of its most relevant aspects was the growing fear observable among the dominant and educated classes that the more the reading public grew, the more literary standards and—by association—social and political order, would be threatened. Authors who preferred the traditional role of court entertainer slowly adapted to the new commercial market, often with some reluctance, as new economic relationships developed between authors, entrepreneurs, and readers that would eventually radically transform the nature and status of the craft. Whereas Sir Philip Sidney’s primary audience was his sister, his family, and his friends, and John Lyly saw his fiction as a means of social advancement, Robert...

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The Influence of the Court

During the sixteenth century, literature and the arts generally became increasingly subject to the control and values of the age’s dominant institution, the court. As the Tudor state took a more confident shape, it systematically—although on a European scale, belatedly—attempted to use the arts as an instrument in its policy of centralization and control. Epic and lyric poetry and the masque particularly felt its pressure, and the development of these modes show the power of the court over its subjects. The most important works of prose fiction in the European Renaissance—those by François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes,Ángel de Saavedra, and Sir Philip Sidney—all articulate directly or in reaction the new buoyancy and aggressiveness of the Renaissance court. Most writers of any kind were either courtiers or financially dependent on court patronage; until late in the sixteenth century, most conceived of themselves as court entertainers. As the court hegemony broke down over the succeeding century, writers were forced to find alternative social roles and audiences and to change their modes of writing to express the new social realities.

The dominance of the court in the Tudor period meant that the works written or translated were heavily influenced by court taste. The majority of early works of prose fiction drew on traditional medieval chivalric material—stories of romantic love, Arthurian adventures, and the like. Even as early as 1500, their values were fast becoming archaic so...

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Continental Models

When turning to the examples of short prose fiction from which the Renaissance reader had to choose (especially those few occasions when writers seemed more conscious of writing “short” forms), one discovers that the prose fiction of the English Renaissance was dominated by continental models. Most important for the period’s short fiction was the Italian novella, best exemplified by Giovanni Boccaccio in the fourteenth century, a form able to use a variety of serious, romantic, and satiric elements to transmit a sense of vivid, immediate life from teller to hearer. Various novelle by Boccaccio himself were translated or imitated and published in sixteenth century England, including, quite early, the anonymous, lively Frederyke of Jennen (1509), derived through various intermediaries from Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349- 1351; The Decameron, 1620). Later in the period, many of the 214 novelle by Matteo Bandello, richly melodramatic stories of love and violence, were translated or imitated. In 1567, William Painter published Palace of Pleasure (1566, 1567, 1575), taken from François de Belleforest’s French version of Bandello’s work. Subtitled “Pleasant Histories and excellent Novelles,” Painter’s work was described rather disapprovingly by the humanist educator, Roger Ascham, in The Scholemaster (1570) as “fond books, of late translated out of Italian into English, sold in every shop in London.” Painter includes more than one hundred short tales, including the contemporary story of the Duchess of Amalfi (later adapted by John Webster), all combining rich melodrama and dogged, simplistic moralization. Painter offers them as demonstrations that the world is “a stage and theatre” providing “diversitie of matter pleasant and plausible” as well as being “for example and imitation good and commendable.” Titillating scandal exists side by side with moral lectures—a typical combination in the English collections of novelle.

A similar combination, even more diverse in its elements, can be found in Geoffrey Fenton’s adaptions of Belleforest and Bandello in his Certain Tragical Discourses (1567), thirteen short tales, mainly about the evils of lust, combining prurient details and long moralizing harangues on the inevitability of divine punishment. George Pettie’s A Petite Pallace of Pettie His Pleasure (1576) also adapts twelve novelle, but their direct brevity is swamped, again, by coy moralizing and also—a new element which shows how the form was being adapted to genteel courtly taste—by a self-consciously elegant prose style, heavy-handed allegory, stylized debates, stolid...

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George Gascoigne

Between about 1570 and 1610, then, occurred what can justly be seen as a most interesting flowering of prose fiction. A great variety of short and long fiction—much derived from Italian, Spanish, and French sources—was translated, adapted, or imitated. Medieval romances, English and continental alike, were revived in prose versions; the new writers of the Elizabethan younger generation—George Gascoigne, Sir Philip Sidney, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nashe, Deloney, Emmanuel Forde—produced a variety of native examples. Although it is, once again, difficult to sort out distinctively “short” forms—and in some cases impossible if one wishes to get a rounded picture—one can nevertheless note some of the most important trends and illustrate them largely from short examples. Interestingly, one of the best pieces of prose fiction in English was written early in the period and is sufficiently contracted—about thirty-two thousand words long—to almost qualify as “short” fiction. It is the court poet-translator George Gascoigne’s The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J. (revised as The Pleasant Fable of Ferdinando Jeronimi and Leonora de Valasco), first published in 1573 and ostensibly set in some unnamed Northern castle, and then republished in 1575, somewhat rewritten, retitled, and set in a typical Italianate court, accompanied by a denial that the early version had been, as had been alleged, a roman à...

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Sir Philip Sidney

During the late 1570’s and 1580’s, there was a concentrated attempt, largely initiated by Sir Philip Sidney and his circle, to bring about a renaissance of English letters. Sidney’s own Astrophil and Stella (1591, pirated edition printed by Thomas Newman; 1598, first authorized edition), Defence of Poesie (1595, also published as An Apologie for Poetry), The Psalmes of David, Translated into Divers and Sundry Kindes of Verse (1823, with Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke), and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are all parts of this movement. In prose fiction Sidney also led the way with the age’s most important prose work, Arcadia. Sidney’s work epitomizes...

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John Lyly

The other major writer of the 1570’s and 1580’s who, although not strictly a writer of “short” fiction, nevertheless deserves mention is John Lyly. His works, Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and His England (1580), provide excellent examples of the pressure of the court upon the role of fiction writing and the style and scope of his work. Whereas by his position as an aristocrat, Sidney had both the freedom and security to challenge or at least severely qualify court values, Lyly was an eagerly aspiring court follower, anxious for preferment and happy to write according to court taste. Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit is court fiction par excellence, a courtly game designed...

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The Romance Tradition

It is with Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene that one can see the romance tradition being adapted to shorter fictional forms. Although Stephen Gosson’s The Ephemerides of Phialo (1579), Anthony Munday’s Zelauto (1580), and Brian Melbancke’s Philotimus (1583) are all medium-length adaptations of Lyly’s mode, with exemplary dialogues and debates and a self-conscious elegance of style, Greene and Lodge provide readers with the best evidence for the popularity and the adaptability of the court-dominated forms. Lodge is the more influenced by Sidney. In Rosalynde: Or, Euphues Golden Legacy (1590), for example, the major source for Shakespeare’s As You Like It (pr. 1599-1600), the...

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Developments of the 1590’s

In many areas of literature, the 1590’s saw disturbing formal and thematic developments—in satire, in a pared-down rhetoric in both poetry and prose, in the public theater, in the influx of new ideas, and in the virtual invention of new literary forms. So far as prose fiction is concerned, the developments have often been described as the surfacing of a new strain of realism, anticipating, clumsily, developments in the eighteenth century novel. The confusions and the achievements of the 1590’s deserve better than that. They are both important crystallization of the enthusiasms and anxieties of their time and indicative of wider and more long-term cultural changes. Erich Auerbach’s observation that “courtly culture was...

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New Literary Forms

One can, however, find fiction (and significantly, specifically short fiction) that escapes the dominance of the residual court modes if one looks even further from Whitehall than Hodgekins and his like afford. The recovery of popular, especially lower-class, literature in the period is beset with extraordinary difficulties. Much, if not most, has been lost simply because it was not or could not be written down and printed; much that has survived in print has been laundered for a more genteel audience. From various written sources, often very indirect ones, however—commonplace books, letters, and the like, as well as some printed sources—one can piece together a vivid tradition of folk and popular art that never escaped the...

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Cervantes’s Novelas ejemplares (1613; Exemplary Novels, 1846), one of the landmarks in the development of the European short story, was partially translated into English by James Mabbe in 1640 but was not widely influential in England. The tentative beginnings of a new realism foreshadowed in Greene and Nashe come to fruition in these experimental tales, which turn their focus squarely on the life of secular characters in contemporary social settings. Cervantes himself explicitly recognizes in the preface that he is breaking new generic ground in Spanish literature: “I am the first who has written novels in the Spanish language, though many have hitherto appeared among us, all of them translated from foreign...

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Post-Restoration Literature

In subsequent English fiction, one can, nevertheless, certainly pick out both interesting trends and a variety of fictional forms. The best short fiction in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then, was written in this period of transition, between about 1570 and 1620, when it looked as if the tradition established by Sidney, Gascoigne, Lyly, Lodge, Greene, and Nashe, and then modified by Deloney and Forde, might produce a flowering in fiction akin to that in France, Italy, or Spain. This did not happen, however. R. A. Day has described the period between the death of Elizabeth and the early eighteenth century as a “wasteland” so far as fiction is concerned. It is a pardonable exaggeration. Continental fiction continued to...

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Looking back over this survey of short prose fiction between the impact of printing in the late fifteenth and the late seventeenth centuries, one can see that the changes in literary taste are inevitably the expressions of complex but definable structures of idea and feeling in the life of the whole society. In England the period was one of political and social energies for radical change, concentrated, thwarted, and then overwhelmed by forces closely tied to the new dominance of entrepreneurial capitalism. At the beginning of this period, the sociocultural power was slowly slipping from the older feudal aristocracy to classes more in harmony with the new forces of secularism, industrialism, and dominance over the world, nature,...

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Atkinson, William C. “Cervantes, El Pinciano, and the Novelas ejemplares.” Hispanic Review 16 (1948): 189-208; reprinted in Critical Essays on Cervantes. Ruth El Saffar, ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Reads Cervantes’s collection as a series of literary experiments in the aesthetics of the new genre of short fiction, heavily influenced by the Italian literary theorist El Pinciano’s Philosophía antigua poética.

Avalle-Arce, Juan Bautista. “Novelas ejemplares: Reality, Realism, Literary Tradition.” In Mimesis: From Mirror to Method, Augustine to Descartes. Edited by John D. Lyons and...

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