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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

§ 26. Delaney’s literary characteristics

In these works of Deloney, there is much that differs materially from all previous types. Deloney, obviously, is far removed from Lyly, though he, too, produces novels of manners, but it is the bourgeois type which he handles, the city, not the court; he writes to amuse rather than to instruct, and humour, not wit, is the main ingredient of his style. He has reminiscences of the romance and its peculiar style, but they form no real part of his production as a whole; he succumbs to Euphuism when he diverges from his real path, and these Euphuistic passages are precisely those which reveal his limitations, namely, an occasional want of taste and an inability to deal with certain situations which he creates. This is clearly seen in the stilted character of all the love-passages and in the unreal effect of the quasi-pathetic scene in Thomas of Reading. Romantic themes, moreover, are as uncongenial to him as is the romantic style. Passion lies outside his ken: to him, love is rather a matter of side-splitting laughter, a creator of absurd situations, a provoker of rough practical jokes. His characters, therefore, have but little in common with Greene’s feminine creations, with Sidney’s Arcadians, or with Lodge’s sylvan lovers. Nor does his work stand much nearer to the rogue-novel of Nashe, though it deals abundantly in practical jokes; for, while in the picaresque type these jests form the narrative and are an end in themselves, in Deloney they aim at describing manners, at affording an insight into contemporary life, or they are a device for inserting light interlude into the body of the narrative. And, moreover, the hero, in Deloney, is by no means a rogue: he is endowed, on the contrary, with perhaps more than his share of virtue.

The influences which seem to have decided the actual form of Deloney’s novels are of various kinds. In the first place, their bourgeois colouring was the result of circumstances; a life spent within hearing of the looms had brought him into close sympathy with crafts and craftsmen. Then, again, his earlier ballads, to some extent, suggest his material and shape his style: so that in Deloney the ballad-maker, the potential novelist is already visible. His themes in verse had been partly historical, partly romantic, and partly journalistic, and these elements, particularly the first and the last, enter into his novels. But his ballading days did more than suggest certain themes: the experience simplified his style and encouraged him to adopt a more self-effacing prose than even that of Nashe, for, in Nashe, the scholar and the theorist are still visible. Deloney’s “quaint and plain discourse,” with its lack of “pickt words and choice phrases,” was, as he maintained, best fitted for “matters of merriment,” especially as, for the most part, he treated of neither courtiers nor scholars. Deloney’s debt to the contemporary stage is also considerable; that he had observed to some purpose is evident from the happy parody which he devises of Falstaff’s famous soliloquy. From the stage, also, he borrows the idea of the comic underplot, which forms an effective feature in all three works. To the same source must, also, be ascribed his skilful dialogue, which is more natural, less stilted than any that had yet appeared: while his use of dialect and broken English in his attempts at verisimilitude, the skill with which he drops and resumes the thread of his narrative, must, again, have resulted from his observation of dramatic methods. When Greene and Lyly wrote, the stage was yet to develop; Deloney, writing at a later date, does not fail to profit by its rapid extension, and his story of Simon Eyre, under Dekker’s hands, was to pass easily into comedy form, in The Shoemaker’s Holiday.

Deloney’s attraction for modern readers lies, to some extent, in his scenes of London life. Familiar places like Billingsgate and Islington, Fleet Street and Cheapside, appear in his works, though it is the varied humanity which throngs those scenes that most engages the attention. With great gusto, he portrays London tradesmen and their apprentices, dignified aldermen and bragging captains, stately city dames and rough serving-maids; dress is described with knowledge and relish; he appreciates both the gay and the gray colouring of a picturesque age; and, while he notes with precision and relates with effect, he is fully alive to the humour of it all. He also revives earlier interesting traditions: his work belongs, in the first instance, to the tradition represented by the lay of Havelok, to the literature which celebrates the deeds of ordinary folk. It belongs, also, to the traditions of the minstrel and jester: he takes up their tasks where their oral labours leave off. He witnesses to the passing of the old minstrel régime, for, in him, minstrelsy merges into the novelist’s craft: and in like manner he absorbs the current jest-books, which were already foretelling the decay of the jester. It is in this way that he reflects, as does no other of his contemporaries, certain transitions which were taking place in Elizabethan society and art.

His contribution to the Elizabethan novel is, in some sense, the most interesting of all. Even in the best of contemporary novels, there is much that is irksome, however interesting historically: many of them are laboured, nearly all are affected and the story is frequently hard to grasp, on account of the profuse efforts to reveal the same. Deloney, on the other hand, tells his narrative with a simple directness: almost everywhere there is present a lightness of touch. He is a delightful humourist and an accurate painter; his prose runs easily into spirited dialogue, and, when he wishes to enliven the way, he is capable, like Tom Drum, of some cheerful songs. His limitations are those of a pioneer; one most not look for cunning structure or historical colouring, any more than for analysis of motive or character development. He is plying a craft as yet unformed; he uses a big brush to paint what lay before him and he is successful in presenting a broad picture of his age.