The Renaissance

Romances and Beyond

It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that fiction in English began to flourish and expand. Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, the first version of which was written and circulated among friends by 1581, is a lengthy pastoral romance in prose and might be seen as the forerunner of the novel. Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596) is an Arthurian epic poem and also loosely novel-like in its structure. Neither of these works, though, traced the history or adventures of a single character but rather a miniature ‘world’ of individuals representing certain virtues or vices. Where the novel would later narrow the real world down to a core set of dramatis personae, romances of this period depicted an alternative universe inclusive of every conceivable character type. Nashe’s fine book The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) remains a much-read work of the Elizabethan period, but while it is in prose it is, once again, little like a novel. Lyly’s Euphues (1578) was another example of late 16th century prose fiction and was written in letter (epistolary) form. In this respect it was unusual for its time and had much in common with the novels that Richardson and Fielding would write sixty years later. It is telling that, of these early predecessors of the novel, Sidney’s Arcadia in its cobbled-together ‘New’ form was the one that gained a lasting audience (until the late 19th century at least), while Spenser’s esoteric masterpiece was considerably more influential than it was popular.

In this sense, the Arcadia retained the qualities of fiction writing that were valued in novels in the centuries to come: an unwieldy but exciting plot, certain central heroic characters, romance and betrayals. Yet it was only with the turbulence in the world of 17th century drama (banned outright and then weakened by the intervention of the authorities) that prose fiction started to become common and truly novel-like. Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678 and 1684) was an extremely popular moral fiction, highly religious and allegorical in the manner of Spenser. Again it is not a novel, but unlike the The Faerie Queene it charts the progress of a single individual through various unfamiliar obstacles and places representative of moral states and temptations.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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