The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVI. Elizabethan Prose Fiction

§ 4. Euphues

The work for which he is famous appeared in two instalments. Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit was “lying bound on the stacioners stall” by the Christmas of 1578; Euphues and his England, the second part, appeared in 1580. Together, they form an extensive moral treatise, and, incidentally, our first English novel. The whole hangs together by the thinnest of plots, which is, indeed, more a means to an end than an end in itself. Each incident and situation is merely an opportunity for expounding some point of philosophy. Euphues, a young man of Athens, arrives at Naples, where he forms a friendship with young Philautus. He falls in love with Lucilla, the betrothed of Philautus, and is duly jilted by that fickle mistress. This is all the action of The Anatomy of Wit: but the moralising element is something more considerable. The ancient Eubulus discourses on the follies of youth; Euphues, himself, on the subject of friendship. The complications brought about by the action of Lucilla lead to much bitter moralising upon fickleness in general, while Euphues, jilted, discusses his soul and indites “a Cooling Carde for all Fond Lovers.” Over and above all this, the work contains the hero’s private papers, his essays and letters; and opportunities are seized for inveighing against dress, and for discoursing upon such diverse subjects as marriage and travel, education and atheism. In Euphues and his England, the scene changes from Italy to England. The two friends, now reconciled, proceed to Canterbury, where they are entertained by one Fidus, a pastoral figure of considerable attractiveness; Philautus soon becomes involved in the toils of love, while Euphues plays the part of a philosophical spectator. The former lays siege to the heart of one whose affections are already bestowed, and so, with philosophy for his comfort, he enters upon the wooing of another, with more auspicious result. This brings the action to a close, and Euphues leaves England, eulogising the country and the women it contains, and returns forthwith to nurse his melancholy within his cell at Silexedra.

The significance of the structure is best appreciated by remembering that the work is really a compilation, and is, in fact, entered as such in the Stationers’ register. Reminiscences of Cicero occur, particularly of his De Amicitia and his De Natura Deorum: but the body of the work is drawn from North’s Diall of Princes (1557), the English translation of Guevara’s great treatise. Euphues, in short, is little more than a re-ordering of this material, and Lyly betrays his source when he introduces certain details which, in his work, are obvious anachronisms, but which, in the pages of Guevara, were in perfect keeping. Apart from this, the adaptation has been consistently made, and the works coincide in much of their detail. Dissertations on the same subjects—on love and ladies, on friendship and God, occur in each. Both have letters appended to their close, which letters treat of identical subjects; Lyly’s names of Lucilla, Livia and Camilla are taken over from Guevara, while the “Cooling Carde” of Euphues finds its counterpart in that letter of Marcus Aurelius against the frailty of women which is embodied in Guevara’s work. It is only in a few instances that Lyly, while obtaining his idea from the Spanish work, goes elsewhere for fuller details. This is, however, the case in his remarks on education, in the section Euphues and his Ephoebus (1, 264). Guevara, it is true, embodies this material, but Lyly’s rendering is more nearly suggestive of Plutarch’s De Educatione Puerorum, though his indebtedness is but indirect, the actual source being Erasmus’s Colloquia Familiaria (Puerpera).

The character of these sources indicates, clearly enough, Lyly’s didactic aim, in undertaking his Euphues. But, in projecting a moral treatise, he stumbled on the novel, and, considered as such, the work, though with many defects, has, also, abundant merit. It foretells the day of the novel of manners, of the novel involving a detailed analysis of love. It moves away from the fanciful idealism of the medieval romance and suggests an interest in contemporary life. Love is no longer the medieval pastime of knights and ladies; its subtleties are analysed, its romance and glamour are seen to lurk within contemporary walls and beneath velvet doublets. The defects of Euphues, on the other hand, are those of a writer unconscious of his art. there is a want of action, for the story is, after all, of but secondary interest. A poverty of invention is apparent in the parallelism which exists between the action of the two parts. Again, proportion is wanting; important events are hurriedly treated; the characterisation is but slight; the attempt at realism unconvincing. And yet the writer acquires skill as he proceeds. In the second part, he shows a distinct advance in artistic conception; there is more action, less moralising; characters multiply, characterisation improves and variety is introduced by changes of scene.