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