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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

§ 2. The influence of translators

The probationary period of translation enters but slightly into the present narrative; and yet, as it marks the first stage in the development of prose fiction, it must not be entirely forgotten. Painter and Pettie, Whetstone and Riche are the translators mainly concerned, and their efforts are characterised by an interesting change from mere translation to bolder and more original treatment. Painter, in his Palace of Pleasure (1566–7), supplies versions of a hundred and one tales, some forty of which are taken from Boccaccio and Bandello; Fenton, in his Tragicall Discourses (1567), reproduces thirteen tales of Bandello; and both, for the most part, are content with simple, faithful translation. In the twelve stories, however, which constitute The Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure (1576), an advance on the mere process of translation is plainly visible, and additions of an interesting kind are occasionally made. Not only has Pettie’s style certain interesting features, but his narratives are somewhat modified as compared with his originals. Into the tragical stories of Tereus and Procne, Scylla and Minos, to mention only a couple, the translator has skilfully worked an erotic element, while around his classical figures he has thrown a contemporary colouring in such a way as to suggest personalities of his day. In Whetstone’s Rock of Regard (1576), which consists, in part, of prose versions of Italian novels, the method is, once more, one of mere reproduction, but it is worthy of note that one story, vaguely credited to “an unknowne [Italian] author,” is, in all probability, due to Whetstone himself. And, again, of the eight stories which make up Riche his Farewell to the Militarie Profession (1581), while three are taken from the Italian, the remaining five are frankly “forged onely for delight,” though the writer is careful to make his forgeries reminiscent of Italian motives. In this way did mere translation merge into adaptation, and then into the process of actual invention.

But these pioneers did more than render easy access to Italian tales, though this was a service of no slight value; the avenue thus afforded to new and strange realms revealed new springs of human passion, and opened out on wide vistas of unfamiliar life. And, more than this, the secrets of successful narrative, its material and its methods, were silently imparted, while the feature of originality was being implicitly suggested. They did much, too, in the way of popularising prose as a medium of narrative. The merits of a simple prose had long been recognised in France and Italy; its more modest garb had been seen to impose no restraint on the progress of the story, while it was obviously free from that counter-attraction, inevitable in verse, to the narrative itself. English writers had yet to learn the charm of a plain and simple prose, devoid of tricks, but, in employing prose in fiction, they had begun to learn.

This marked development in the methods of narrative soon led to its employment in one of the main literary businesses of the time, that of supplying moral treatises for courtly reading. These works, which aimed at edifying by means of disquisitions on subjects like love and friendship, form a sort of intellectual counterpart to such works as Vincentio Saviolo his Practise, which “intreated” of the use of rapier and dagger and was “most necessarie for all gentlemen that had in regard their Honors.” They were a revival, in some sort, of the medieval discussions, though scarcely, on the whole, as trivial. Under an attractive narrative form, they contrived to disseminate southern culture after the fashion of Castiglione and Guevara.