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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

§ 20. Its literary qualities

As regards its form in general, the work may be classified as a novel of manners, though, obviously, it deals with different material from that employed by Lyly in his Euphues. It also represents our first historical novel. Nashe had promised some “varietie of mirth”; he had also proposed a “reasonable conveyance of history”; and thus the great intellectual and religious movements of the preceding age are duly represented. They are represented, too, at their most significant moments, and by the most impressive personalities. Erasmus and Sir Thomas More are the representatives of the humanistic movement; Surrey the courtier stands for a vanishing chivalry; the militant Luther and the anabaptists represent religious thought; while the supernatural pretensions of Cornelius Agrippa point to a still active superstition. In this device of mingling history with fiction, Nashe is practically original. In introducing a tragic element into his work, he probably aimed at presenting a more complete picture of actual life than was possible by means of comedy alone; but in this he is not altogether successful. His tragedy is apt to border upon the melodramatic, and he is much happier in the comic vein. For his comedy, he depends upon lively situation: he scorns Euphuistic wit, and futile word play, as well as those cruder conceits which “clownage kept in pay.” He is alike successful in his large bold outlines, and in his detailed descriptions; his scenes are the more effective on account of their incidental detail, and he is fully alive to “the effect of a pose, of the fold of a garment.” The action is one of uniform movement, retarded by no irrelevant episode or unnecessary description; the novelist is proof even against the attractions of Rome with its storied associations. The movements of the hero are never lost sight of, and, in view of these facts, the work is something more than a mere succession of scenes. It is true that the author occasionally allows himself some latitude in the matter of personal reflections, but they can never be said to become intrusive. For instance, he puts into the mouth of one of his characters at Rome certain words of warning on the evils of travel; his ardent enthusiasm for poetry is revealed when he writes, concerning poets: “None come so neere to God in wit, none more contemn the world … despised they are of the world because they are not of the world;” and, again, his orthodox spirit cannot forbear to point a moral to his story of the anabaptists: “Heare what it is,” he writes, “to be anabaptists, to be puritans, to be villains.”