- Romance for Sale in Early Modern England: The Rise of Prose Fiction
If nothing else, this book will remain a resource and point of reference for early modernists with an interest in Elizabethan prose fiction. It attempts to deal comprehensively with prose fiction as an emergent Elizabethan genre. Topics include the advent of Heliodorus' Aethiopian History in translation as a rationalizing and elevating model for prose romance in the period; opportunities created by burgeoning print culture for the reformulation of humanist aesthetics and the shaping of authorial careers; the solicitation of heterogeneous 'middlebrow' readers by writers of prose fiction; generic options available to prose writers and degrees of generic consciousness as an important differential between characters in prose fiction (i.e., can they recognize the genre in which they are functioning?); 'Heliodorian' romance as a perceived alternative to chivalric romance and the Italian novella; the exemplary success story and prototypical role of Robert Greene as a 'seller' of romance.
The comprehensiveness at which Mentz aims entails broad coverage of the prose fiction of the time, but also incorporation of many recent critical advances, both in the study of particular texts and in the general critical framing of Elizabethan fiction. Although Mentz does not put it this way, his book represents a timely general review [End Page 98] and reconfiguration of the field. To effect that review, Mentz has to revisit some of the enduring topics and problems associated with Elizabethan prose fiction: how to get it taken seriously enough alongside Elizabethan drama and poetry; how to frame its relation to the history ('rise') of the novel; how to render intelligible a broad diversity of texts not necessarily covered by the rationales of humanist poetics, and often characterized by seemingly circumstantial or opportunistic micro-effects. Mentz makes headway on all these fronts, yet he does so somewhat at the expense of overall focus and coherence. Differently put, he labours to make things cohere, but sometimes at the cost of forced connections and perfunctory yet obligatory inclusiveness. Moreover, he must contend with a difficulty familiar to everyone who has written on this fiction. Technically speaking, any work of Elizabethan prose fiction is fair game for early modern criticism; the works all belong to the professional field. Nevertheless, there are still few early modernists with a retentive command of the entire body of prose fiction (when last did you read Lodge's Forbonius and Prisceria?). Mentz is therefore bound to summarize and engage in successive readings of works his readers will not necessarily have at their fingertips. At times, in fact, the book feels like a forced march through uncharted wastelands of Elizabethan prose.
The title of the book, Romance for Sale in Early Modern England, is unintentionally misleading. Strictly speaking, the book isn't about romance for sale but about prose fiction for sale, not all of it romance except by stretched definition. Then again, the book isn't strictly about romance for sale, meaning that it is not exclusively focused, except by sometimes remote implication, on the marketing of prose fiction. The most coherent and illuminating theme of the book is that of the entry of Heliodorus' Aethiopian History into English literary culture via the 1569 translation into English by Thomas Underdowne. The Aethiopian History provided a template for the English Heliodorians, as Mentz calls them, primarily meaning Greene (Mamillia, Menaphon, Pandosto) and Sidney (Old and New Arcadia). Relying heavily on N. J. Lowe's The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (Cambridge, 2000), Mentz argues that Heliodorus supplied his English successors with a model for writing coherently plotted romance. Mentz connects the 'rise' of English prose fiction to the new availability of a strongly rationalized plot often lacking in chivalric romance. (Although Mentz regards this assimilation of 'the classical plot' as the sine qua non for the cultural upgrading and circulation of romance in the Elizabethan period, he then also tends to seek a high-level generic rationale in [End Page 99] every text he reads, in a...