Thomas Deloney Essay - Critical Essays

Deloney, Thomas


Thomas Deloney c. 1560–1600

English prose writer, poet, and pamphleteer.

Deloney was unique among Elizabethan prose writers. His novels depict the everyday life of artisans and entrepreneurs in rich and concrete detail. Deloney celebrated the contribution of craftsmen to the general well-being of the nation by representing them as essential and honorable members of society. His heroes are weavers and shoemakers, men of humble origin who rise to prominence and promote the welfare of their fellow citizens. In his four novels, Deloney created a multitude of colorful personalities. His heroines and minor characters are especially vigorous and memorable, leading some modern commentators to compare him to Geoffrey Chaucer in this respect. Other critics, emphasizing the opulent variety of his characters, view him as a precursor of Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Charles Dickens. As Merritt E. Lawlis has pointed out, Deloney was the first English novelist to use a dramatic technique—presenting scenes as if they were episodes in a play. Deloney's characters frequently express themselves directly to the reading audience, revealing their thoughts and emotions in candid soliloquies. He often juxtaposes, within a single scene, two or three characters who talk together in distinctive, idiomatic speech patterns that were unique in prose fiction at the time. Deloney's masterful use of dialogue represents an innovation for the period and has won him the praise of many twentieth-century critics. His prose style is generally realistic, filled with vivid details drawn from ordinary life. However, for certain situations—particularly those involving lovers and members of the nobility—he employed the euphuistic style developed by his sixteenth-century predecessors. Deloney drew on a wide variety of sources for his fiction, reworking folk tales and legends, blending oral tradition and chronicle history, and infusing new life into trite characters taken from jest books. Deloney's novels generally appear to endorse the established social order of his time. His nonfiction works—pamphlets and translations—indicate that he was a strong Protestant, a fervent patriot, and a staunch defender of Elizabethan tradesmen.

Biographical Information

Virtually nothing is known about Deloney's early life. Modern scholars speculate that he was born around 1560, perhaps in Norfolk, which at that time was an important center of the English textile industry. In his youth he was an itinerant silk-weaver, traveling from town to town in pursuit of work. Although scholars cannot determine whether Deloney was given any formal education, his translations of Protestant religious treatises demonstrate that he had a working knowledge of Latin. In addition, his novels show that Deloney was familiar with Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, Matteo Bandello's Novelle, William Caxton's The Golden Legend, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, and the prose, poetry, and plays of his Elizabethan contemporaries. Around 1586 Deloney settled in London and began writing the broadside ballads that won him widespread fame over the following decade. By the early 1590s he had become England's foremost ballad-maker. In 1595 Deloney was briefly jailed after he wrote a pamphlet attacking the government's policy of allowing French and Dutch weavers to ply their trade in England. The following year he composed a ballad complaining about the shortage of grain in the country. Civil authorities regarded the ballad as seditious and apprehended the men who published and printed it. Deloney, however, eluded capture. His first two novels were published in 1597, and the others appeared over the next two or three years. It is generally believed that Deloney died in London early in 1600.

Major Works

Deloney's novels are the bases of his modern literary reputation. Yet before the first of these was published, he had achieved a considerable popular following with his ballads. Beginning with "The Lamentation of Bickles" (1586), Deloney's account of a devastating fire in a Suffolk market-town, and "The Death and Execution of Fourteen Most Wicked Traitors" (1586), a vivid description of the hanging and quartering of a group of notorious renegades, his ballads featured both topical and historical subjects, especially those of a sensational nature. The Garland of Good Will, a collection of poems and songs, appeared in 1592–93?. The date of Strange Histories of Kings, a second collection of his poetry and ballads, is unknown. Deloney's first novel, lack of Newberie (1597), traces the career of John Winchcomb from a lowly apprentice weaver to social and economic prominence. Jack is a model of middle-class virtues. He marries a wealthy widow and becomes the manager of an establishment that includes several hundred workers. In one of the novel's central episodes, Jack encounters Henry VIII and convinces the King to change the government's policies regarding the clothing industry. The Gentle Craft (1597) comprises three distinct tales related to the shoemakers' trade. The story of St. Hugh and St. Winifred is based on legend; the narrative of Crispine and Crispianus blends legend and pastoral romance; and the account of Simon Eyre is a quasi-historical biography of a wealthy fifteenth-century upholsterer and draper. Thomas Dekker borrowed freely from The Gentle Craft for his own depiction of Simon Eyre in The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599). Deloney's The Gentle Craft, The second Part (1598–99?) also consists of three stories: that of Richard Casteler, a generous benefactor to the citizens of London; Lusty Peachey, a Tudor courtier and soldier; and the popularly named Green King of St. Martin's, a prosperous shoemaker. This novel is noted for such robust and entertaining characters as Long Meg of Westminster, Gillian of the George, Tom Drum, and Anthony Now-now. Thomas of Reading (1598–99?), often considered Deloney's most accomplished work of fiction, combines realism and romance. Set in twelfth-century England, the narrative is derived from chronicles and proverbial tales. A subplot features the tragic love story of Robert Duke of Normandy and Margaret, a mythical daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. One of the novel's most striking aspects is Deloney's graphic description of the murder of Thomas Cole. Some scholars believe that this nightmarish episode influenced Shakespeare's portrayal of Duncan's murder in Macbeth.

Critical Reception

Immensely popular in his own lifetime, Deloney's novels were frequently reprinted throughout the seventeenth century. Over the next two hundred years, however, they received scant attention from readers or scholars. Modern critical interest in Deloney began with F. O. Mann's 1912 edition of his complete works. Mann emphasizes the novels' sympathetic treatment of ordinary men and women; he also asserts that Deloney's fiction represents "the highest achievement of the Elizabethan novel." Over the past fifty years, commentators have questioned whether the novels accurately portray the everyday life of craftsmen and entrepreneurs, and critics continue to debate the nature of the social and political viewpoints represented in Deloney's fiction. E. D. Mackerness and Max Dorsinville caution that Deloney's depiction of the weavers' and shoemakers' trades is less realistic than earlier critics claimed. Mackerness also contends that the novels uphold the prevailing social order and teach tradesmen to passively accept the sharp distinctions that existed between different classes in Elizabethan society. Similarly, R. G. Howarth claims that Deloney's novels portray a world in which working-class men and women cheerfully accept their lot in life and do not protest against rigid social divisions. Some commentators have noted a change in political perspective from Deloney's first novel to his last. For example, William Domnarski finds a high level of social and economic tension in Thomas of Reading; he views this novel as a keen analysis of the developing merchant class and the problems that were created by newly acquired wealth and a change in social status. Laura S. O'Connell has argued that Deloney portrays the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth-century with ironic humor, acknowledging the contribution of industrial entrepreneurs, but at the same time advocating better treatment of the poor. Several critics, including Dorsinville, have asserted that Deloney's novels uniformly condemn the idleness of the aristocracy and affirm the value of honest labor. Leonard Mustazza has remarked that Deloney's novels all suggest that working-class men and women deserve a much higher level of regard than the aristocracy traditionally granted them. And Evelyn B. Tribble recently declared that although lack of Newberie presents weavers as patriotic subjects, it also reveals their capacity for rebellion if the monarchy and its officials fail to protect the interests of the English clothing industry.

Principal Works

The Garland of Good Will (poetry) 1592–93?

The Gentle Craft. A Discourse Containing Many Matters of Delight, very pleasant to be read (novel) 1597

The Pleasant History of lohn Winchcomb, in his younger years called lack of Newberie (novel) 1597

The Gentle Craft. The second Part. Being a most merrie and pleasant Historie (novel) 1598–99?

Thomas of Reading, or The sixe worthy yeomen of the West (novel) 1598–99?

Strange Histories (poetry) undated

*The Works of Thomas Deloney (novels, poetry, ballads) 1912

**The Novels of Thomas Deloney (novels) 1961

*Includes Iacke of Newberie; The Gentle Craft; The Gentle Craft (The second part); Thomas of Reading; A Declaration Made by the Archbishop of Collen upon the Deede of His Mariage; The Proclamation and Edict of the Archbishop, and Prince Elector of Culleyn; The Garland of Good Will; Strange Histories; Canaans Calamitie; and Miscellaneous Ballads.

**Includes Jack of Newbury; The Gentle Craft; The Gentle Craft, Part II; and Thomas of Reading.


Francis Oscar Mann (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Works of Thomas Deloney, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1912, pp. vii–xxxi.

[In the excerpt below, Mann provides an overview of Deloney's career, calling attention to his straightforward style and his depiction of working-class men and women. The critic asserts that Deloney's prose fiction represents "the highest achievement of the Elizabethan novel."]

The recorded facts of Deloney's life are very scanty. His earliest venture appears to have been A Declaration made by the Archbishop of Cullen upon the Deede of his Mariage (1583), and Kempe in April, 1600, refers to him as having just died. Thus his working literary life lasted...

(The entire section is 3590 words.)

William Domnarski (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "A Different Thomas Deloney: Thomas of Reading Reconsidered," in Renaissance and Reformation, Vol. VI, No. xviii, August, 1982, pp. 197–202.

[In the following essay, Domnarski maintains that Thomas of Reading offers a penetrating, realistic analysis of the social tensions created by radical changes in the Elizabethan economic system.]z7While Greene wrote for the young gallants, 'how young gentlemen that aim at honour should leuel the end of their affections',34 and Petty for 'Gentle Readers, whom by my will I would haue only Gentlewomen',35 Deloney dedicated his novels to the 'famous Cloth Workers in England'36 or 'To the Master...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)

E. D. Mackerness (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "Thomas Deloney and the Virtous Proletariat," in The Cambridge Journal, Vol. V, No. 1, October, 1951, pp. 34–50.

[In the following excerpt, Mackerness contends that Deloney's novels affirm the rigid stratification of Elizabethan society. He points out that historical records clearly show that sixteenth-century cloth workers were exploited by their masters, yet Deloney portrays them as members of a "virtuous proletariat, " content with their lot in life.]


In the voluminous pamphlet literature of the sixteenth century, expressions of professional jealousy are relatively common. It is not surprising, therefore, that the activities of a...

(The entire section is 6498 words.)

Merritt E. Lawlis (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Novels of Thomas Deloney, Indiana University Press, 1961, pp. xi–xxiii.

[In the following excerpt, Lawlis emphasizes some distinctive and innovative qualities of Deloney's novels: the dramatic presentation of scenes, the idiomatic dialogue, and the abundance of colorful characters.]

1. Deloney as Novelist: His Use of the Drama and the Jestbook

By the time Thomas Deloney in the last few years of the sixteenth century turned to what we now call the novel form, he knew what his public wanted. All four of his novels immediately became so popular that the early editions of them were read completely out of existence. To...

(The entire section is 5142 words.)

Walter R. Davis (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Thomas Deloney and Middle-Class Fiction," in Idea and Act in Elizabethan Fiction, Princeton University Press, 1969, pp. 238–80.

[In the excerpt below, Davis provides a detailed analysis of each of Deloney's novels. The critic discusses Deloney's adaptation of his sources; his structural methods; his idealized heroes; and significant differences between Thomas of Reading and Deloney's other prose fiction.]

The only point of positive contact between the university wit Thomas Nashe and the silk-weaver turned balladeer whom he scorned is their common reliance, probably through the influence of Greene, on material from the sixteenth-century jest...

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Max Dorsinville (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Design in Deloney's Jack of Newbury," in PMLA, Vol. 88, No. 2, March, 1973, pp. 233–39.

(The entire section is 5577 words.)

Laura S. O'Connell (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Anti-Entrepreneurial Attitudes in Elizabethan Sermons and Popular Literature," in The Journal of British Studies, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 1–20.

[In the following excerpt, O'Connell discusses the relation between religion and capitalism in Deloney's novels. She contends that Deloney believed women are covetous by nature, and thus thought it was appropriate for them to pursue the accumulation of wealth while their husbands devoted themselves to piety and good works.]

It has been nearly half a century since R. H. Tawney published Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and in spite of many efforts to refine and to dispute Tawney's thesis, the work...

(The entire section is 4324 words.)

Constance Jordan (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The 'Art of Clothing': Role-Playing in Deloney's Fiction," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. II, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 183–93.

[In the essay reprinted below, Jordan focuses on role-playing figures in Deloney's novels. She points out that Jack of Newbury's role-playing is constructive because it allows him to distinguish between his desires and objective reality: by contrast, the role-players in Thomas of Reading are either forced into pretense or choose it as a means of deceiving others.]

Although they were published within a brief three-year period from 1597 to 1600, Thomas Deloney's three novels, Jacke of Newburie, The Gentle Craft I and...

(The entire section is 4920 words.)

Leonard Mustazza (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Thomas Deloney's Jacke of Newbury: A Horatio Alger Story for the Sixteenth Century," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 23, No. 3, Winter, 1989, pp. 165–77.

[In the essay below, the critic examines what he sees as Deloney's ironic treatment of Jack of Newbury 's rags-to-riches story. Mustazza argues that Jack's careful attention to his own best interests and his ability to manipulate others are just as significant as his altruism and class consciousness.]

Louis B. Wright begins his book Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England with this observation:

In the furtherance of his social ambitions, the...

(The entire section is 6247 words.)

Theo Stemmler (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Rise of a New Literary Genre: Thomas Deloney's Bourgeois Novel Jack of Newbury," in Telling Stories: Studies in Honour of Ulrich Broich on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday, edited by Elmar Leh-mann and Bernd Lenz, B. R. Grüner, 1992, pp. 47–55.

[In the following essay, Stemmler evaluates the historical frameworks and factual details in Deloney's novels. These elements, the critic argues, enhanced the stature of Deloney's bourgeois heroes and provided his middle-class readers with exemplary figures from their own sector of Elizabethan society.]

After a long time of scholarly neglect Thomas Deloney's important contribution to the English novel has...

(The entire section is 2871 words.)

Evelyn B. Tribble (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "'We Will Do No Harm with Our Sword': Royal Representation, Civic Pageantry, and the Displacement of Popular Protest in Thomas Deloney's Jacke of Newberie," in Place and Displacement in the Renaissance, edited by Alvin Vos, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1995, pp. 147–57.

[In this essay, Tribble discusses Jack of Newbury's encounter with Henry VIII in terms of Elizabethan civic pageantry. She suggests that through the ant-king episode and the presentation of the golden beehive, Jack implicitly raises the threat of social disorder if the monarch fails to support the clothing industry.]

In 1596 The lord mayor of London wrote to William...

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Further Reading

Atkins, J. W. H. "Elizabethan Prose Fiction." In The Cambridge History of English Literature, edited by A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, pp. 386–424. New York: Macmillan, 1933.

In a brief discussion of Deloney's novels (pp. 417–23), Atkins commends the writer's direct prose style, his robust humor, and his multi-faceted depiction of Elizabethan life.

Baker, Ernest A. "Deloney and Others." In his The History of the English Novel, pp. 170–99. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1929.

This highly significant appraisal of Deloney's prose fiction evaluates the novels' sources and construction, comments on...

(The entire section is 773 words.)