The Elizabethan Grub Street
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634 ] The Elizabethan Grub Street1 The Listener, 1 (19 June 1929) 853-54 Icallthis“TheElizabethanGrubStreet”insteadof“ElizabethanNovelists” for two reasons. Although most of the men I shall mention wrote novels or romances, it is their whole work in all its variety, not their novels by themselves , which throws light upon their time. Also I wished to omit two novels which are not in the Grub Street class: the Arcadia of Sidney and the Euphues of Lyly.2 The latter is a very dull book; the former I believe to be the dullest novel in the language.3† Both have much higher literary pretensions than my Grub Street work; and just because they are more studied andartificialand“literary,”remainascuriositiesoftheliteratureofaperiod, rather than as documents of life. And furthermore, it is not out of Arcadia and Euphues, but out of the work of the hack novelists and pamphleteers that the modern novel comes; and it emerges triumphantly in the work of a man who belongs to their type but wrote a more developed language and wrote with greater genius: Daniel Defoe. Some of the more important of these men are Greene, Dekker, Nashe, Deloney, and Lodge.4 Greene and Dekker are particularly known as dramatists , but any of these men would have turned his hand to anything. They belonged to a new class of men which the Tudor age produced, a class to which Christopher Marlowe himself belonged. They were mostly university men who, on coming down from Oxford or Cambridge, found themselves able to earn some sort of poor living by their pen. They were sometimes a little disreputable, and often lived recklessly and in great poverty, and wrote from hand to mouth; they were the first hack and free lance journalists, whose life, even in the pages of Thackeray, who has immortalised their nineteenth-centurydescendants,5 hasbeenmadetoappearmorepicturesque than it really is. This humble literary type is really a product of the sixteenth century.Theuniversitiesbredaraceofeducatedmenwhohadnoinclination forthechurchbutfoundthattheycouldwrite;themultiplicationofprinting presses, and the increasing popular demand for sensational reading matter as well as for plays, gave them an opportunity. They were proud of their academic distinction, and sported their M.A.s whenever possible; but they were rather despised, especially by such university pundits as Gabriel Harvey.6 [ 635 The Elizabethan Grub Street Their forms of composition are several. They were ready, as in the famous Martin Marprelate case, to write controversial pamphlets to order, mostly (as was the custom of the time) highly vituperative; political or theological pamphlets – for Church affairs were as popular and as acrimonious then as they are now.7 Another form of their activity has its parallel in the modern world; their exposures, or pretended exposures, for they had little scruple in mixing fact and fiction, of the life of the underworld. This perennial interest is, of course, for us very competently supplied by the daily press, though we require also our volumes of confessions of criminals, accounts of famous crimes, etc. One of the most resourceful masters of this form of literature was Robert Greene, who wrote several successful pamphlets on the art of “conny-catching,” that is to say, various kinds of thieving and swindling, as practised in London.8 I must add that the authors of such pamphlets sometimes pretended to be reformed thieves, sometimes to be merely public-spirited citizens; but that their intention was invariably to warn the public against the dangers and temptations of London. They mingled a certain amount of truth with what may be called realistic fiction, and in this prepared the way for their greater exemplar Defoe. Robert Greene was a resourceful fellow, and managed to do very well with a special line of his own, which was deathbed confessions. Two were published in one year, his Groats-Worth of Witte, bought with a million of Repentance and The Repentance of Robert Greene.9 The fact that he repented and died so often has thrown some doubt on his sincerity, and obscured the genuine literary art which gives them plausibility and interest. The Elizabethan public liked to have its flesh creep, and the horrors of the tragic stage were supplemented by the prose writers. Dekker, far above any otherofthepamphleteersasadramatist,wroteinseveralforms.HisWonderful YearisagrislyaccountoftheplagueinLondon,againanticipatingDefoe;and the comparison with Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year has great interest in showing the swift development of the English mind.10 Defoe still makes us shudder by his plain matter-of-fact narration; his is a style which anyone wouldbeproudtoemulate;Dekkermoreoftenmakesuslaugh,forinhisnarrative are shrieking mandrakes...


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