Renaissance Romance: The Transformation of English Prose Fiction, 1570-1620

Renaissance Romance: The Transformation of English Prose Fiction, 1570-1620

Renaissance Romance: The Transformation of English Prose Fiction, 1570-1620

Renaissance Romance: The Transformation of English Prose Fiction, 1570-1620


Romance was criticized for its perceived immorality throughout the Renaissance, and even enthusiasts were often forced to acknowledge the shortcomings of its dated narrative conventions. Yet despite that general condemnation, the striking growth in English fiction in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is marked by writers who persisted in using this much-maligned narrative form. In Renaissance Romance, Nandini Das examines why the fears and expectations surrounding the old genre of romance resonated with successive new generations at this particular historical juncture. Across a range of texts in which romance was adopted by the court, by popular print and by women, Das shows how the process of realignment and transformation through which the new prose fiction took shape was driven by a generational consciousness that was always inherent in romance. In the fiction produced by writers such as Sir Philip Sidney, Robert Greene and Lady Mary Wroth, the transformative interaction of romance with other emergent forms, from the court masque to cartography, was determined by specific configurations of social groups, drawn along the lines of generational difference. What emerged as a result of that interaction radically changed the possibilities of fiction in the period.


In the manuscript continuation to Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania, Floristello, the son of Wroth’s eponymous heroine, has occasion to think of the benefits of narrative precedence. The predicament he faces is an old one – how can a prince marry a shepherdess? Luckily, Floristello has to go only as far back as the first part of Wroth’s immense seventeenth-century fiction for a solution. He hopes that the problem posed by the social difference which separates him from the woman he loves will be solved according to existing custom: ‘Was not my mother a sheapherdes? Yes, and the fairest, loveliest Urania, yet she proved a kings daughter, and sister to the most renowned Emperour. Why showld nott I hope that?’ Floristello’s shepherdess, Candiana, is equally quick at defending her own ambitious affections by evoking Urania’s exemplary story: ‘And then why may I not love the Albanian Prince? Noe, his thoughts ore his friends may think mee unworthy, butt why Urania, the beautie and wounder of the world for worthe, was butt a sheapherdess as I ame in show when Steriamus loved her, when Parselius loved her’ (II. 103–4). In an episode rich in textual irony, the lamenting shepherdess is overheard and challenged by Floristello in disguise. Her lament, Candiana asserts, is nothing more than fiction, ‘butt a part I ame to act shortly in a pastoral, and I was repeating itt to have itt the more perfect’ (II. 105). Still richer is the irony available only to the reader. In true romance tradition, we know that Candiana really is a princess unaware of her own identity after all.

The shadows of past stories and old texts loom behind the excuses and defences amassed by Wroth’s love-struck youngsters. There is the story of Urania herself, of course, the shepherdess who, at the beginning of The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, had discovered her princely destiny. Behind her, one may discern traces of that other Urania whose absent presence provides the beginning of the revised Arcadia by Wroth’s famous uncle, Sir Philip Sidney. There are memories too, perhaps, of the shepherdess-princess Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, in love with Prince Florizel and brought to life by the King’s Men at court on multiple occasions. Half concealed by Shakespeare’s Perdita, yet

Lady Mary Wroth, The Second Part of The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, ed. by Josephine A. Roberts, completed by Suzanne Gossett and Janel Mueller (Tempe, AZ: Renaissance English Text Society and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1999), II, 92. All subsequent references to this volume of the Urania will be cited in parentheses in the text.

The most famous of these was the wedding of James I’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, to the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, on 14 February 1613. As a member of the Sidney-Herbert faction at court that looked on this alliance as the last hope of a Protestant reunification of Europe, Wroth would have attended this memorable occasion, especially since Robert Sidney – her father and Philip Sidney’s younger brother – was to be a part of the English contingent that accompanied the princess to Germany.

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