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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVI. Elizabethan Prose Fiction

§ 1. Earlier native types

AMONG the prose compositions of the Elizabethan era are numerous works which, with many points of difference, have this in common, that they all aim at affording entertainment by means of prose narrative. They are variously styled Phantasticall treatises, Pleasant histories, Lives, Tales and Pamphlets, and the methods and material they employ are of corresponding variety; they are, moreover, obviously written in response to demands from different classes, and yet their common motive, as well as a common prose form, unmistakably suggests a single literary species.

Previous examples of the type will rarely be found in our literature, for medieval fiction had mostly assumed the form of verse. The general adoption of prose at this date is, therefore, an innovation, and, as such, it was due to more than one cause. It was the outcome, in the first place, of natural development, the result of that national awakening which led to the overthrow of Latin as the language of the learned; with its activities extended in the one direction, the vernacular was not long in recommending itself for use in another, and so it came about that prose joined verse in the service of delight. Then, again, Malory, Caxton and the translators of Boccaccio had shown that narrative might adopt prose form without disadvantage; through the Bible and the liturgy the use of vernacular prose was fast becoming familiar; while further possibilities of prose were being revealed from its place in the drama. And, lastly, with the departure of the minstrel and the appearance of the printing press, there ceased, naturally enough, that exclusive use of verse for narrative purposes, which, under earlier conditions, alone had made long narrative possible.

Prose fiction, therefore, is one of the gifts of the Elizabethans to our literature, and the gift is none the less valuable because unconsciously made. It was no special creation, fashioned upon a definite model, but, rather, the result of a variety of efforts which, indirectly, converged towards one literary type. Its elements were of various origin, being borrowed, in part, from medieval England, in part, from abroad, while much, also, was due to the initiative of the age. The material with which it dealt, varied in accordance with the immediate end in view. Its “treatises” and its pamphlets embodied studies of manners and character-sketches; it comprised tales of adventure as well as romance; it dealt with contemporary life and events of the past, with life at the court, and life in the city; it was, by turns, humorous and didactic, realistic and fanciful, in short, it represented the first rough drafts of the later novel. The history of the novel had really begun, and, although the term was not, as yet, generally applied, the word itself had already entered the language.

The two main centres of influence around which Elizabethan prose fiction revolved were the court and the people. The court was easily the supreme element in national life, and one great aim of contemporary letters became that of supplying the courtier’s needs, just as, in Rome, it was the orator, the typical figure of the classical age, who had won similar attention. At the same time, a strong and self-conscious middle class was emerging from the ruins of feudalism, and the commons were becoming alive to the interests of their class. Hence, now for the first time, they made their way into literature, and the treatment of their affairs became the secondary aim of this prose fiction.

A period of apprenticeship came first, in which the lines of translation were closely followed, and then, with skill acquired in the art of story-telling, a host of writers devoted themselves to the newly found craft. A series of moral treatises, in narrative form, were the first to appear. They aimed, for the most part, at courtly education, and, up to about 1584, instruction, often in sugared form, became the main concern of a body of writers, of whom Lyly was chief. Then the business became one of a more cheerful kind: Greene and Lodge wrote their romances for court entertainment, while Sidney sought distraction in the quiet shades of Arcadia. In the last decade of the century came the assertion of the bourgeois element. As an embodiment of realistic tendencies, it followed, naturally enough, upon the previous romancing; but social considerations had, also, made it inevitable. Greene, Nashe and Deloney laboured to present the dark and the fair side of the life of the people: they wrote to reform as well as to amuse.

Throughout the whole period, England, as is well known, was singularly sensitive to foreign influence: one foreign work or another seems to have been continually inspiring Elizabethan pens. Castiglione and Guevara, Montemayor and Mendoza, each in his different way, exercised influence, which was certainly stimulative, and was, to some extent, directive. But, while this is true, it is equally true that, in most cases, the actual production springs readily and naturally from English soil; southern influence, undoubtedly, helped to warm the seed into life, but the seed itself was of an earlier sowing.

First, with regard to the treatises: the enthusiasm inspired by North’s translation (1557) of Guevara’s El Relox de Principes, and Hoby’s translation (1561) of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, was as great as it was undoubted, but it does not altogether account for Lyly’s great work. Courtesy books had been written in English before those works appeared. The Babees’ Boke (1475), “a lytyl reporte of how young people should behave,” and Hugh Rhodes’s Boke of Nurture (1450, published 1577), had previously aimed at inculcating good manners; afterwards came Elyot’s Governour (1531), Ascham’s Scholemaster (published 1570) and Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Queene Elizabethes Achademy (written after 1562), all of which treated of instruction, not only in letters, but also in social and practical life. Such works as these, together with the numerous Mirrours, aimed at pointing the way to higher social refinement, and thus the movement which culminated in Lyly had already begun in fifteenth-century England, and had kept pace with the national development, of which it is, indeed, the logical outcome.

Secondly, the romance is an obvious continuation of a literary type familiar to medieval England. Sannazaro and Montemayor modified, but did not supply the form, while the French and Spanish works of chivalry introduced by Paynel and Munday (1580–90) merely catered for a taste which had then become jaded. Medieval romances, it is true, had fallen by this time into a decrepit old age. They were cherished by antiquaries, sometimes reprinted, less frequently reread; they figured mainly with “blind harpers and … taverne minstrels… at Christmasse diners and bride ales, in tavernes and alehouses and such other places of base resort.” But their tradition lived on in the romantic works of Greene, Sidney and Lodge, though in the form of their survival they owed something to foreign influence. The pastoral colouring, for instance, is caught from the fashions of Italy and Spain; but, for the rest, their differences from the earlier English forms may be fairly put down to changed aspects of national life. In a general awakening, something of the old wonder and awe had, naturally, been lost; the world of chivalry and enchantment had receded, leaving the heroes of romance in a setting less heroic, just as, in active life, the knight had turned courtier and castles had become palaces. Moreover, the medley of form which these romances exhibit corresponds to that medley of past and present which lingered in men’s minds at masque and pageant. The Elizabethan romance is, in short, firmly rooted in Elizabethan life. Modifying influences came from abroad; but the animating tradition and guiding impulses were forces derived from the national life.

And again, the immediate origin of the realistic work which followed must be sought for in English works of an earlier date. It is not necessary to ascribe Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller, any more than the other realistic works of 1590–1600, entirely to the influence of Lazarillo de Tormes. In part, all these works represented a reaction against those “feyned-no-where acts” which had proved enchanting in the preceding decade. But the ultimate causes were yet more deeply rooted, being social changes, partly national, partly European. Agricultural depression, long years of militarism and the closing of the monasteries, had done much to reinforce those bands of “broken men” that swarmed like plagues over England. Their existence began now more than ever to force itself upon the notice of their countrymen, while, at the same time, the tendency of the renascence in the direction of individualism urged attention to these human units, and the sombre conditions under which they lived. And yet the realistic literature of 1590–1600 was of no sudden growth. Humble life had been portrayed in the lay of Havelok, its laments had been voiced in the vision of Piers the Plowman and alongside the romances of earlier England had existed coarser fabliaux which related the tricks and intrigues of the lower reaches of society. It was only a more specialised form of these tastes and tendencies which sprang into being in the sixteenth century. To the popular mind, collections of jests, as we have seen, had become an acceptable form of literature, while, at the same time, material was being collected for English rogue-studies; and, while the jest-collections had aimed at mere amusement, the rogue pamphlets were prompted by ideas of reform. It is this material which anticipates the realistic work of Greene, Nashe and Deloney. The social influences which produced the earlier and cruder type of work also produced the later.