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  • English Character-Books of the Renaissance: An Anthology
  • Marcus Harmes
Groves, Peter and Geoffrey Hiller, eds, English Character-Books of the Renaissance: An Anthology, Asheville, NC, Pegasus Press, 2008; paperback; pp. iv, 240; R.R.P. unknown; ISBN 1889818399.

This book presents examples of cameos or miniatures written by Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline wits, epigraphers and churchmen. It contains 'characteries' or character sketches and comprises selections from the large surviving body of this type of literature. Editors Peter Groves and Geoffrey Hiller have selected them from collections published in the first half of the seventeenth century. The original authors include bishops Joseph Hall and John Earle, Richard Flecknoe, Nicholas Breton and Sir Thomas Overbury. In most cases, the authorial identity of the passages is secure, although some passages attributed to Webster are of doubtful authorship.

Although an abundance of these characteries survive, edited collections have appeared only rarely since the early twentieth century. The selections from these seventeenth-century writers present a wide-ranging account of personality types, including men and women, different ages (in fact the transition from childhood to youth to old age was a major theme in the character books), different professions, different social layers and persons from the country and city. Foreign nationalities are also represented, such as a French Dancing Master, with curiously, the Welsh also considered to be foreign from the point of view of the characteries' writers. Within these character sketches are attitudes, customs, religious practices, institutions (the parish constable was a noteworthy stock character) and manners, including the observation of urban, dandy and foreign manners.

Overall the editors have provided useful contextualizing introductions to each of the sections. They have preserved the original spellings and more significantly the original vocabulary, but also have provided a glossary of meanings for words that have changed their sense beyond recognition. [End Page 212]

The editors themselves acknowledge that their decision to divide the character sketches into sections (such as men's lives, women's lives, virtues, vices and follies, religion, city and country and so on) imposes coherence on what were meant to be picaresque pieces of writing without thematic focus. However, the categories do assist in consolidating meaning and in presenting the major preoccupations of character writers.

Less successful are the editors' attempts to integrate the characteries into a wider literary context. References to Donne, Marvell and Jonson appear occasionally and passages from their writings are used to elucidate themes from the characteries. More significantly, the editors seek to draw comparisons between the personality types presented in the characteries and the characters in the works of major dramatists, notably Shakespeare.

One of the major claims that Groves and Hiller therefore make on behalf of their material is that the personality types presented in the characteries convey glimpses of individuality which inform the characters of major dramatists. Allusions to Shakespearean characters such as Jacques, Richard III and Iago are made throughout the text, but little attempt is made to account systematically for interaction between dramatists and characteries, beyond pointing to comparisons between characters in the plays and personality types (the melancholic, the unworthy king) in the characteries.

The influence on Shakespeare is a major claim to make about this material, as their earlier scholarly reception has consolidated an impression of their conveying typological characters. This collection therefore raises the question of the extent to which the character books' authors were concerned to convey some impression of actual human personalities. The evidence of the character sketches themselves can often in fact suggest that the characteries were more likely to present a stock character rather than representing an attempt to delineate actual human reality.

Groves and Hiller point out that the writing of the character books was shaped by a distinctive literary and religious context. The numbers known to have kept private diaries during this time in what the editors refer to as 'Protestant communion with God' (p. 8) are cited as evidence of a greater emphasis on individuality which in turn informed the writing of character books. At the same time, Groves and Hiller also reconstruct a context in which social mobility (represented by character types such as the social-climbing alderman or the...


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