Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

2
Cavaliers, Puritans, and Rogues:
English Prose Fiction from
1485 to 1700

ENGLISH prose fiction was a comparatively late arrival in European literature. Before The Pilgrim's Progress in the late seventeenth century there is no popular masterpiece comparable to Giovanni Boccaccio's story cycle The Decameron (1349–51) or François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–4), let alone to Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote de la Mancha, which is the greatest of all early novels. Until the Elizabethan period English prose fiction consisted of romance narratives translated or adapted from Latin and French, together with a few original short stories.1 The two prose works that survive as literary classics are Sir Thomas More's Utopia, published in Latin in 1516 and not translated into English until 1551, and Sir Thomas Malory's translation of the Arthurian romances from French and Welsh originals. It is small wonder that the conventional history of the English novel begins with Defoe and fails to acknowledge the novel's prehistory.

But English fiction before Defoe outlines many of the national themes that were to become familiar in the later tradition. Sixteenth-century prose narratives provided stories and plots for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, a mode of expression that matured so much faster that it comprehensively outclassed the early novel. The comparative failure of Elizabethan fiction reveals, above all, the futility of the idea of the novel as a 'book of the Courtier', a sophisticated, learned, and highly elaborate art intended, like much of the poetry of the time, to win royal patronage and the praise of the aristocracy. John Lyly, Sir Philip Sidney, and other writers of Elizabethan courtly prose were thwarted by the novel's adaptation to private reading and its inability to engage with the public and performative role of the arts in the life of the court.

Nor did prose fiction have any roots in, or much apparent connection with, English popular culture. The surviving early accounts of folk heroes

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