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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

§ 19. The Unfortunate Traveller

All this pamphleteering work, however, was completely overshadowed by his picaresque novel The Unfortunate Traveller or the life of Jack Wilton, which appeared in 1594, and which was the most remarkable work of its kind before the time of Defoe. It relates the lively adventures of the rogue-hero, an English page, who wanders abroad, and comes into contact with many kinds of society. He enters taverns and palaces, makes acquaintance with people worthy and unworthy, and so passes in review the Germany and Italy of his day. The scene opens in the English camp before Tournay, where the page is engaged in his knavish tricks. He terrifies, for instance, a dull army victualler into distributing his stores, so that the army had “syder in boules, in scuppets and in helmets … and if a man would have fild his bootes, there hee might have had it.” Such a humorist became, perforce, a traveller, and he first appears at Münster in time to enjoy the conflict between the emperor and the anabaptists; then, in the service of the earl of Surrey, he makes for Italy. Passing through Rotterdam, the two travellers meet with Erasmus and Sir Thomas More; they witness at Wittenberg an academic pageant and the old play Acolastus, besides solemn disputations between Luther and Carolostadius, and, finally, they strike up an acquaintance with the famous magician, Cornelius Agrippa. At Venice, Jack elopes with a magnifico’s wife, but is overtaken once more by the earl at Florence, where the latter enters a tournament on behalf of his English lady-love Geraldine. The page then moves on alone to Rome, where he remains for a short period in an atmosphere of plague, robbery and murder, and, having learned, both by experience and hearsay, the gruesome horrors of the place, he finally leaves the “Sodom of Italy” for the less lively scenes of his own country.

The form of this work, in the first place, is of great interest, for it resembles the picaresque type indigenous to Spain. But this need not imply that Nashe was a mere imitator; on the contrary, though he may have derived a definite stimulus from Lazarillo de Tormes, the elements of his work represent a spontaneous English growth. The Spanish rogue-novel was the outcome of a widespread beggary brought about by the growth of militarism and the decline of industry, by the increase of gypsies and the indiscriminate charity of an all-powerful church. Similar social conditions prevailed in Elizabethan England, though from different causes, and the conditions which produced Lazarillo produced The Unfortunate Traveller. It has, moreover, been shown that, while Lyly and Sidney were indebted to Spain for certain elements in their works, yet the ultimate origins of English courtesy-books and of the Euphuistic manner, were wholly independent of Spanish influence. And so, in general, it may be said, that parallels existing between the Spanish and English literatures of the time were the result of similar national conditions, of influences which were common to both. In each case, the English development was later than the Spanish but not due to it. Moreover, as regards Nashe in particular, the matter and design of his novel would be quite naturally suggested by the material of his pamphlets, and, possibly, by reminiscences of his travels; while his choice of the realistic form is partly accounted for by his strongly expressed scorn of romances in general, as “the fantasticall dreams of those exiled Abbie lubbers [the monks].”

When compared with the Spanish picaresque type, The Unfortunate Traveller will be found to possess many points of similarity. There is the same firm grasp of the realities of life, the same penetrating observation and forceful expression; there are the same qualities of humour and satire, the same rough drafts of character-sketches; and the aim is that of entertainment rather than reform. From the picaresque novel, however, it diverges in its English mixture of tragedy with comedy, and, again, in the fact that the animating impulse of its rogue-hero is not avarice but a malignant and insatiable love of mischief. The Spanish picaro, also, generally belonged to the lowest class and was wont to confine his attentions very largely to Spanish society, but Jack Wilton, a page, moves further afield and reviews no less expansive a scene than that of western Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century.