(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.