Katharine Wilson. Fictions of Authorship in Late Elizabethan Narratives: Euphues in Arcadia. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006. 185pp. ISBN 0 1992 5253X.

Steve Mentz
St. John’s University

Steve Mentz. "Review of Katharine Wilson, Fictions of Authorship in Late Elizabethan Narratives: Euphues in Arcadia." Early Modern Literary Studies 13.1 (May, 2007) 11.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/13-1/revwils.htm>.

1. Katharine Wilson’s study of Elizabethan fiction concludes with a plea that the works of Greene, Lyly, Gascoigne, Lodge, and Nashe “deserve to be rescued from the back pages of editions of Shakespeare’s plays” (170). She could hardly find a more sympathetic audience for this request than me, since I have also recently published a book on many of the same writers (Romance for Sale in Early Modern England, Ashgate 2006). Since I took on this review, in fact, I have seen our books reviewed together or next to each other in Renaissance Quarterly, Studies in English Literature, and the Times Literary Supplement. Our books, alongside studies by Derek Alwes, Robert Maslen, Lori Newcomb, Constance Relihan, and others, suggest that we may need to start thinking about early modern fiction as a hot new trend. Wilson demonstrates that the first step in reconsidering this genre is attention to its complexity, inter-textual allusiveness, and flexible understanding of Elizabethan literary culture.

2. She begins her study by defining the culture of Elizabethan fiction. Probably her most important term is “intertextuality” (9), and her book demonstrates conclusively that the works of Lyly, Greene, Lodge, and their peers were deeply self-aware and thoroughly responsive to each other and to trends in literary culture. But Wilson is no mere allusion hunter; she also has a compelling story to tell about what she calls the “cultural fragmentation” (17) of late Elizabethan fiction and about what she calls these authors’ “growing disenchantment with romance” (4). On this last point, she differs from several other recent critics of these works (including me), although perhaps the distinction involves different parsings of the complex term, “romance.”

3. Wilson opens with a powerful reading of Gascoigne’s Master F.J. (1573), the publication of which caused a scandal, sold books, and, in Wilson’s telling, jump-started a new narrative culture. A series of writers, including George Whetstone and John Grange, and later John Lyly and Robert Greene, attempted to cash in on Gascoigne’s popularity while avoiding (or managing) his scandal. Wilson’s most noteworthy discovery here is the role played by Gabriel Harvey, the Cambridge Don who scourged Nashe in the 1590s, but earlier wrote an unprinted work of narrative fiction that attempted to “transform Gascoigne’s bawdy story into a moral tale’ (43). Harvey’s tale, which resembles an embryonic Pamela, helps Wilson show how powerful and disturbing Gascoigne’s fictional experiments were.

4. The bulk of her book examines the fictions of Lyly, Greene, and Lodge, the most prolific writers of fiction in the 1580s and early 1590s. Three of her five chapters discuss Greene, who is clearly the major figure in the genre. Her readings of these three writers are acute and detailed. Lyly emerges as a calculating figure who “adds flexibility to authorship” (74), carefully positioning his work in relation to his desired positions at court. Lodge serves as a conduit linking Greene’s popular romances with Sidney’s Arcadia, and Wilson suggests that Lodge published Rosalynde in 1590 to coincide with the posthumous printing of Sidney’s romance (139). But Greene is the heart of the book, and he sometimes proves hardest to manage. He wrote so many books – Wilson provides readings of over two dozen separate titles, including several plays – and these books are so unfamiliar to most readers that even an elegant writer like Wilson sometimes gets bogged down in plot. She clarifies an important feature of Greene’s authorial project through what she calls his “glucupilica,” a term from Perimedes the Blacksmith (1588) that refers to playing cards and, according to Wilson, to Greene’s understanding of fiction: “sweet & sower, double faced, bearing in their foreheads pleasure and peace, and in their backes sorrowes & Stratagemes” (86). It’s a suggestive image of Greene’s narrative mode, especially in the late 1580s, and Wilson in general proves a reliable guide to his complex career.

5. One of the problems facing the critic of Elizabethan fiction is the relationship of this rich but little-read oeuvre to more widely recognized forms of early modern literature. While there seems to be a consensus not to return to the days when contributing plots for Shakespeare’s theater was the highest role to which these writers could aspire, there is not any one position about how these works should speak to a larger audience. Some critics, including Alexandra Halasz and Lorna Hutson, link the fiction to sociological or cultural trends like urbanization, humanism, or print culture. Others, including Constance Relihan, have refined the sense in which these works relate genetically, and generically, to the modern novel. Still others, especially Lori Newcomb and Derek Alwes, bring Greene and his peers in contact with canonical figures like Sidney and Spenser. Wilson, however, represents what seems the most straightforward response to the works: she insists that these works deserve attention on their own terms.

6. It’s hard to cover everything even in a sub-field like Elizabethan prose fiction, but I confess that when Wilson discussed Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler in a mere two pages in her conclusion I wanted more. I agree with her that earlier works like Greene’s Menaphon and Lodge’s Rosalynde better represent the flourishing of Elizabethan narrative culture, and I further agree that The Unfortunate Traveler “is both a parody and a commentary on [Nashe’s] predecessors” (168). I suspect, however, that Nashe’s work, more than any other, will earn new the readers for this genre. I’d have welcomed reading Wilson’s patient, clear attention to Nashe’s intertextuality and self-conscious understandings of authorship. But that is just to say that I agree with Wilson that these works repay critical attention, and join her in hoping that they continue to get more of it.

Works Cited

  • Alwes, Derek. Sons and Authors in Elizabethan England. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2004.
  • Halasz, Alexandra. The Marketplace of Print: Pamphlets and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
  • Hutson, Lorna. The Usurer's Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-century England. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Mentz, Steve. Romance for Sale in Early Modern England: The Rise of Prose Fiction. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Newcomb, Lori. Reading Popular Romance in Early Modern England. New York: Columbia UP, 2002.
  • Relihan, Constance. Fashioning Authority: The Development of Elizabethan Novelistic Discourse. Kent: Kent State UP, 1994.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).