Derek B. Alwes. Sons and Authors in Elizabethan England. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2004. 197pp. ISBN 0 8741 3858 2.

Steve Mentz
St. John’s University

Mentz, Steve. Review of Sons and Authors in Elizabethan England. Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 10.1-6<URL:>.

  1. Derek Alwes’s book finds something new in the careers of Lyly, Sidney, and Greene: not the familiar masterplot of prodigality or even an erudite humanist web, but “a genuine commitment to their art” (16). By arguing that these writers “all ultimately grew out of the prodigal son role” (16), Alwes joins a growing chorus of critics who are according Elizabethan fiction a place of its own at the crowded table of early modern English literary culture.

  2. Writing against established critical currents that treat Lyly as a witty playwright, Sidney as a courtly writer, and Greene as a marketplace hack, Alwes makes large claims for these writers’ literary and aesthetic merits. The precise meaning of what he calls “serious literary commitment” (94) appears elastic – he argues for aesthetic excellence, popular success, authorial self-confidence, and even all three at once – but this well-written book provides a clear and persuasive defense of Elizabethan fiction.

  3. He begins with John Lyly and his two Euphues volumes (1578, 1580). Lyly, according to Alwes, used popular fictions to explore his literary options and facilitate his subsequent career as courtly playwright. The movement from the anticourtly and critical Anatomy of Wit (1578) to the romance of Euphues and His England (1580) signals to Alwes that Lyly “was exploring ways to escape the ‘prodigal trap’” (43). Reading Lyly’s plays as allegories of courtly employment is not new, but Alwes also sees developing self-confidence in the changing status of his servant characters. Lyly serves as a false start in Alwes’s redemption narrative: he “first introduced the possibility of an artistic style for prose in English” (64) but could not free himself from the bonds of courtly patronage.

  4. The two chapters on Sidney are the strongest in the book. Alwes reads the early literary performances (The Lady of May, Astrophil and Stella) as anti-courtly critiques, and then dramatically recasts The New Arcadia as defense of fiction. The incomplete revision of the Arcadia becomes an artistic triumph, a solution to the problems faced by overeducated and underemployed literary courtiers. In Alwes’s phrase, “[Sidney] has come to see literature as an alternative service to the state” (95). Alwes even suggests that Sidney may have intended to publish his work (97), although it is hard to distinguish here between the manuscript circulation that took place and a hypothetical print publication had Sidney not died young. Alwes presents a highly literary Sidney, proud of and willing to defend his fictional output.

  5. The final two chapters are on Robert Greene, and here Alwes’s revision of the standard career narrative is even more audacious. He finds in Greene’s turn from imitations of Lyly to cony-catching pamphlets an attempt to carve out an independent audience for narrative fiction in “the educated elite” (130). Alwes distinguishes this audience from both the courtly and the popular, arguing that Greene’s confidence in his own authorial position allowed him to appeal to a new kind of male reader. (Alwes concurs with Lorna Hutson and Helen Hackett that Greene’s appeals to women readers are largely directed to male readers.) He writes, “I believe Greene’s cony-catching pamphlets represent an attempt to fashion a self-identified elite consisting of readers capable of penetrating the surface morality meant to trap the unwary and unsophisticated – a self-constructed elite that included Greene himself” (133). This narrative of fiction triumphant requires an unusual reading of Greene’s final years – Alwes suggests that all three repentance tracts are spurious – and the thesis about coming-into-artistic-maturity may work better for Sidney than for Greene. If at least some of the material in the repentance tracts is authentic (or even an accurate imitation), Greene might represent a different kind of early modern author: less resolute and artistically minded, but more stylistically mobile and attuned to the diverse reading habits of his audience.

  6. Alwes joins a growing field of scholars reconsidering early modern prose fiction, including Hutson, Hackett, Constance Relihan, Lori Newcomb, R.W. Maslen, and others. Alwes suggests that self-conscious artistry is the key achievement of the prose works of Lyly, Sidney, and Greene, and his efforts in taking these authors seriously should bring more readers and scholars to these texts.

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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).