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Andrew Hadfield (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of English Prose 1500-1640 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). ISBN: 978-0-19-958068-2, 768 pp. £95.00.

Reviewed by Patrick J. Murray


[1] The study of sixteenth and seventeenth century literature, especially at school and undergraduate university level, is often concentrated on the period’s poetry and drama. With practitioners such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, Thomas Wyatt, Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser not only figuring as supreme poets and dramatists, but also representing some of the most skilled users of the English language, such a focus is understandable. However, adeptly guided by the editorship of Andrew Hadfield, The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Prose 1500-1640 draws our attention to the rich, multifaceted and fascinating corpus of the period’s prose. Moreover, it tackles the multi-layered social, intellectual, political and cultural discourses surroundings its production and dissemination. If scholarship should engage, inform and entertain, this anthology is a scholarly triumph.

[2] The book is divided into six broadly-defined sections. Part 1 addresses ‘translation, education, and literary criticism’, focusing primarily on the dynamic interface of budding English with the more established Latin and Romance languages in sixteenth-century publishing. Peter Mack’s study of Michel de Montaigne and his Anglo-Italian translator John Florio is representative, considering a specific moment of engagement between non-English and English prose and what it reveals about the emergent form of the essay in English literature (p. 77-90). In a similar vein, Helen Moore’s examination of English versions of the French romance narrative Amadis de Gaule (p. 59-76) and Gordon Braden’s study of translation from classical sources explore how English writers approached foreign language texts, manipulating them to particular ends. Alexander Samson’s analysis of the reception of the Lazarillo de Tormes (121-136) is a particular highlight, tracing the genesis of the anonymously-authored Spanish picaresque in English translations and its reception among readers such as Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene. Suggesting that Lazarillo had a ‘significant impact on the early modern English literature imagination’ (135), Samson investigates how sectarian divisions between Catholic and Protestant influenced renditions of this famously anti-prelatical farce, and how its emphases and central themes were varied across the evolution of the text in another language. Moore, Mack, Braden, Samson and others show how translation, implicitly necessitating a translator, is accompanied by an array of socio-cultural and political imperatives.

[3] In the second section, named writers are afforded particular attention. Thus, the likes of Greene, Nashe, Philip Sidney, Richard Hakluyt, Raphael Holinshed, Mary Wroth and George Gascoigne are the subject of individual studies. In ‘“Turn Your Library to Your Wardrope”: John Lyly and Euphuism’ (p. 172-187) Katherine Wilson explores the important contribution of Lyly and his ‘fluid and dynamic’ euphuistic style to the development of the rich English Renaissance literary canon. Furthermore, Lyly’s writing is given context as well as conspicuousness. While Wilson argues that ‘euphuism was a new way of dressing up language and writing for fun’, she also signals Lyly’s congruence with the cultural changes of his time: ‘Euphuism is about infinite expansion,’ Wilson observes, ‘a single thought can breed analogies, anecdotes, intellectual choices, and printed pages. It is thus ideally suited to the rapidly developing print cultures of the late sixteenth century’ (p. 173).

[4] This adroit segue from the stylistic microcosm to the socio-political macrocosm is a recurring trait throughout the volume. A real strength of the Handbook is its author-specific studies, which contextualise individual writers and show how they register, reflect, distort, ironize and even transform the medium in which they work and indeed wider contemporary debates. For example, John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments is interrogated by Thomas S. Freeman and Susannah Brietz Monta, who note the putative author’s primary role as an anthologizer of Protestant martyrologies and what such a relationship between text and compositor says about early modern ‘authorship’ (p. 522-543). Caroline Erskine, in a timely intervention, reflects upon John Knox and George Buchanan’s respective roles in the formulation of a Scottish literary, religious and national identity (p. 631-645). R. W. Maslen, meanwhile, explores Robert Greene’s own unique output, making a convincing case for his status as a writer of transformative significance. ‘Before [Greene] started to write,’ observes Maslen, ‘no English writer had dedicated his entire career to prose fiction, or written so many varieties of it, or demonstrated to the same extent its unparalleled flexibility as a medium, its capacity to function as a vehicle for such an astonishing range of contrasting styles, plots, narrative forms, and points of view’ (p. 188). Tracing Greene’s writing career from his emergence from obscurity in the second half of the seventeenth century, Maslen takes the reader through an oeuvre as prodigious in scale as it is in variety. Romance narratives rub shoulders with satirical translations; quasi-historical accounts emerge from the same pen as comic dramas; and pseudo-autobiographies accompany scurrilous pamphlets, including famously one aimed at the most revered figure in all of English literature, the upstart crow William ‘Shake-scene’. In Maslen’s account, there emerges a distinctly proto-Middletonian aspect to Greene, a writer who played around not only with language, but with genres, forms and subjects both sacred and profane. Symbolic of early modern prose’s diversity, Greene may have started as a ‘nobody’ (p. 189), but his substantial and substantive writing ensures he endures as a somebody.

[5] Peter McCullough’s essay on sermons is an important one in the context of an anthology examining literature, for it draws attention to probably the most ubiquitous form of non-liturgical prose in sixteenth and seventeenth century English society. As such, literature beyond the page is given a stage. ‘With the possible exception of the Bible in English and the Book of Common Prayer,’ writes McCullough, ‘no prose works were more widely encountered across all classes of English speakers in the early modern period than sermons’ (p. 561). The new Oxford edition of the sermons of John Donne, complete with website proffering virtual tours around early seventeenth century St. Pauls underscores the recent research into this particular medium. However, while Donne and other prominent orators, such as Launcelot Andrewes, can dominate the critical conversation, McCullough brings to the fore more marginal figures, such as John Wilkins and Joseph Hall, to elucidate prevailing theories around the structure, purpose and oratorical modes of Renaissance sermonising.

[6] An indication of the immensity of primary literature covered in this volume is the number of chapters dedicated to entire genres of early modern English prose as opposed to specific authors or texts. Accordingly, Claire Preston considers ‘English Scientific Prose’ (p. 268-291); P. G. Maxwell-Stuart explores the capacious topics of ‘Astrology, Magic, and Witchcraft’ (p. 346-342); Nicholas McDowell examines ‘Political Prose’ (p. 360—379); while Joad Raymond analyses the nascent form of ‘News Writing’ (p. 396-416). Reminding the reader of the sheer breadth and variety of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writing, and its fecundity for further scholarship, such chapter-length studies are by necessity often summary in nature. Nonetheless, perspicacious apercus abound. Maxwell-Stuart’s description of astrology’s links to discrete medical and scientific discourses alerts us to the important place of this ostensibly pseudo-science in Renaissance intellectualism (p. 327-333), while Raymond’s account of the translation of news stories from the religious wars in Europe into English from 1589-1640 conveys a publishing environment alive with innovation and indeed adaptation as propaganda swirled around an increasingly fractious national consciousness (p. 406-412).

[7] Pointedly, generic permanence in early modern prose – in a reminder of the persistent coincidences between the post-modern and the early modern – was open to destabilization. This is especially apparent in ‘personal’ literature, such as letters, diaries and life writing. As Alan Stewart, Adam Smyth and Danielle Clarke demonstrate, the division between superficially private writings and public discourse remained slippery. ‘In the early modern period’ writes Adam Smyth in commencing his study of personal journal literature, ‘the term “diary” lacked the generic stability it would later acquire” (p. 434). Opening up the critical purview to a broader canon, generic slipperiness can be a difficult thing to handle. Like the question of authorial attribution in early modern and especially Shakespearean dramaturgy, defining what constitutes a certain typology of writing can prompt some sound and fury, while revealing nothing. Anachronism can be a pitfall: projecting onto the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary landscape theoretical appellations shaped by centuries of subsequent discourse not only conjures literary conventions where there are none. It also inadvertently standardises texts which should not be standardised, but rather analysed for their subversion and defiance of supposed normative modes. Smyth makes a point of singling out the startling absence of the ‘inner life’ in many early modern diaries: ‘modern expectations of the diary as a form linked with intimacy, candour, and self-revelation are only fitfully present in this period.’ Rather than articulating emotional responses to events, Smyth notes, ‘most early modern diaries were texts as much linked with the recording of actions in the world and public events as they were registers of any kind of inner life.’ (p. 434).

[8] I have touched upon only a small percentage of this volume. Surveying its seven hundred and sixty odd pages, a phrase from the series of anti-ecclesiastical prose pamphlets known as the Marprelate tracts (quoted by contributing author Joseph L. Black) springs to mind: ‘a portable book, if your horse be not too weak.’ If the reader does not have a sturdy horse already, she or he would do well to obtain one. This volume presents a landmark contribution to our understanding of early modern prose and its multitude of themes, subjects and authors.

University of Glasgow, September 2014