- Renaissance Historical Fiction: Sidney, Deloney, Nashe
Alex Davis tackles a hitherto neglected subject which he labels ‘Renaissance historical fiction’: a general term rather than one denoting a new genre (p. 8). He argues that the historical settings constructed in Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia (1593), Thomas Deloney’s Jack of Newbury (1619), Thomas of Reading (1612), and The Gentle Craft (1637), and Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) are integral to a complex understanding of these works. In the Introduction, Davis discusses Erwin Panofsky’s influential Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960) that defines the Renaissance as being a period with a sense of history. Therefore, the Renaissance was able to distinguish itself from the historical ‘Other’.
However, Davis outlines an alternative approach to understanding how the Renaissance viewed history. He argues ‘for a doubled strangeness or alterity in Renaissance historical fiction’, or an awareness that the Renaissance is part of the ‘history’ it defines itself against (p. 27). Davis illustrates his thesis with an extract from the third book of Sidney’s revised Arcadia, which uses historical knowledge to confuse and trouble its readers who identify more with the evil aunt Cecropia than with the pious Pamela. In contrast to Panofsky’s separation of past from Renaissance present, Davis contends that Renaissance historical fiction has ‘the desire to make the past productive in the present’ (p. 31). His formal close readings of Elizabethan prose fiction show how these texts use the Renaissance’s method of recording history to discursive effect.
In order to demonstrate that Renaissance historical fiction is not simply confined to Sidney, Deloney, and Nashe, Davis uses Chapter 1 to demonstrate the Elizabethan fascination with history in an additional seven historical fictions. A prime example is Thomas Lodge’s The Life and Death of William Longbeard (1593) that uses Robert Fabyan’s Chronicle or Concordance of Histories as ‘authoritative historical fact’ (p. 44). The text also acknowledges that a single dominant history is not a definitive account of the past, but plays with the notion of numerous histories. In Robert Greene’s Ciceronis Amor (1589), Davis analyses the text’s strategies for representing realistic historical detail. He argues that the humanist practice of translating classical [End Page 204] works from Latin to English and back again, and its fascination with letters are themes that shape Ciceronis Amor. Greene’s text achieves a stylistic historical accuracy through its repeated engagement with Ciceronian Latin. Another noteworthy analysis is of John Lyly’s Euphues and His England (1580), where Davis examines an historical fiction contained within the main narrative. The text’s historical moment describes ‘a disreputable past’ that undermines the narrative’s panegyric of Elizabethan England (p. 78).
Chapter 2 is devoted to Sidney’s new Arcadia set in ancient Greece, an historical setting that is popularly thought to be little more than a thinly disguised Elizabethan political allegory. Davis argues that Sidney’s ostensible pastoral romance can be classed as historical fiction. He identifies in the text ‘deliberate anachronisms’, such as a coach crash in ancient Greece (p. 104). These anachronisms at different social and cultural levels form layers of history Davis terms ‘coordinated’ chronology (p. 119). The effect is that the Arcadia does not construct a realistic ancient Greece, but represents a cornucopia of historical styles for its readers to discern.
Chapter 3 argues that Deloney’s work can be given the generic label ‘early modern historical culture’, or texts that use historical knowledge to create further significance (p. 145). Yet Davis discovers that Deloney’s representations of different pasts all convey the same meaning. The implication is that the Renaissance desire to make the past useful might also destroy its importance as historical knowledge. Davis ends his book, in Chapter 4, with Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller. He identifies how Nashe’s critics focused on imposing a cohesive structure upon the Elizabethan writer’s patchwork narrative. Davis, however, argues that Nashe satirizes the Renaissance’s preoccupation to...