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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

§ 17. Greene’s autobiographical and realistic work

Greene’s autobiographical work begins in his Mourning Garment (1590) and Never too late (1590). He does not, as yet, deal directly with London life, though his own experiences, lightly veiled, form the nucleus of the tales. The Mourning Garment is an adaptation of the story of the Prodigal Son, with the addition of pastoral details as reminders of his earlier craft. But Greene is no longer “Love’s Philosopher,” as, indeed, he confesses; Philador gets into difficulties through the society of women, “those Panthers that allure, the syrens that entice,” and the succeeding details are those of the Biblical narrative. In Never too late, the author’s career is more closely followed. Here, it is Francesco who impersonates Greene; and he relates how he had married a gentlewoman, whom he abandoned for one less worthy, and how he was helped in his distress by strolling actors. These are well-known incidents in the life of Greene; but, when Francesco subsequently becomes reconciled to his injured wife, Greene pathetically suggests an event which, unhappily, found no counterpart in his actual life. In 1592, further autobiographical work was penned by Greene on his death-bed, when the veil concealing the author’s identity is deliberately lifted. The main facts of his life are again dealt with, and, in the Groatsworth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance, the writer is careful to state that Roberto is himself. The other death-bed pamphlet, The Repentance of Robert Greene, is still more direct; its style is, perhaps, inferior to that of his earlier work, and the writer seems intent on painting his life in the most sombre colours.

More direct descriptions of London life appear in further pamphlets, in which Greene exposes rogues and depicts honest tradesmen. The former object underlies his Notable Discovery of Coosnage (1591). Awdeley and Harman, as has been seen, had dealt with the vagabond classes, and had specified for public benefit the various classes of knaves, while Copland’s Hye Way to the Spyttel Hous gave the earliest account of the thievish cant known as “pedlyng frenche.” Greene, however, is indebted to none of these, except, perhaps, for the general idea. He is concerned with neither pedlars, nor gypsies, nor itinerant rogues; his aim, rather, is to warn country people against the snares of London. It is the wiles of panders and courtesans, card-sharpers and swindlers, that he undertakes to reveal, and this the Notable Discovery accomplishes. So successful was he, in fact, that an attempt was made upon his life, and A Defence of Conny-Catching appeared as an impudent rejoinder. In 1592, Greene followed up the attack by A Disputation between a He Conny-Catcher and a She Conny-Catcher, a lurid description of the London demi-monde, which concludes with a pathetic account of the reclaiming of a courtesan. And in The Blacke Booke’s Messenger of the same year, Greene once more wages war with rascals, by sketching the grimy career of a celebrated rogue, one Ned Browne, whose belated repentance takes place in the neighbourhood of the scaffold.

Besides dealing in this way with roguery, Greene also gives some attention to the more respectable side of London life, in his Quip for an Upstart Courtier or a Quaint Dispute between Velvet-Breeches and Cloth-Breeches (1592). The dispute is as to whether the courtier (i.e. Velvet-Breeches) or the tradesman (Cloth-Breeches) is deserving of the greater respect, and the decision is duly referred to a jury of tradesmen. This brings together a body of typical citizens, and is thus a device which enables the author to introduce his projected class-descriptions. The work reveals Greene’s democratic sympathies, for he not only finds much interest in his commonplace types, but he also takes care, while giving short shrift to his upstart courtier, to assign more flattering treatment to the London tradesman. And this democratic attitude is not devoid of a certain significance, especially when a similar sympathy appears in Deloney’s work: it explains, in some measure, the impulse which originated this realistic section of Elizabethan fiction. The form of the work is that of the medieval dream-vision, the fundamental idea, apparently, being taken from an anonymous poem, A Debate between Pride and Lowliness.

All this work of Greene had meant a considerable contribution to the literature dealing with contemporary life. With the author we pass through tavern doors, enter haunts of iniquity and become witnesses to the low cunning, the sordidness and the violence of the society found there. Bohemian life is laid bare, various characters of low life are drawn; and, in the middle of it all, a notable youth in patching up old plays for the stage.