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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

§ 27. General summary

When all this prose fiction, however, has been placed in its proper perspective, it presents a record of experiment rather than of achievement; by the side of the drama, it is crude in form, almost futile in effect. But the greatness of the drama was closely bound up with temporary conditions, among which was a theatre liberally patronised, important in social life and standing in close touch with the life of the people. And then there was the public, intensely fond of “shows,” and finding in them what it was unable to gather from the written word; a public, moreover, long accustomed to dramatic representation, and whose idealistic temperament demanded poetic form. These conditions were not to be permanent, and the future lay with a type of work which provided entertainment independent of these aids. It is in the prose fiction of the time that the beginnings of this type are found, and this historical interest is its first claim to recognition.

As to its actual achievement, one has to confess that this is comparatively small, for it worked from no model and was inspired by no tradition. It was wanting in coherent form and definite purpose; its plots lacked logical development, the threads of a story might be hopelessly confused; its characters were stiff and formal, and its style was not always adapted to the matter in hand. Nor can it be said to treat, as yet, the problems of life; it was content, for the most part, with simple narrative, with rough outlines of character and with studies of manners. But it improved its methods as it went on, it experimented in styles both simple and ornate, it made use of dialogue and it realised something of the wit and humour, as well as the descriptive power, of which prose was capable.

In its own age, it appealed to both the court and the people, and it was later social considerations which determined its future line of progress. The courtly and heroic elements were to pass with the Stuarts; but the more popular elements were to be taken up in Addison’s day by the growing middle class, and, with ever-widening province and increasing art, were to result in the novel as we now know it.