- Renaissance Romance: The Transformation of English Prose Fiction, 1570-1620 by Nandini Das
I must confess to some fond moments of À la recherche du temps perdu in reading this book, since my own postgraduate research and thesis was on Elizabethan romance. It brought back long hours reading such works as Heliodorus's The Æthiopian Historie in its sixteenth-century translation, Montemayor's Diana, and (in black letter gothic script which almost made me blind) Amadis de Gaul, alongside more familiar ones like Sidney's two versions of Arcadia, Spenser's poetic The Faerie Queene, works by Greene, Lyly, and others less celebrated. I only wonder now how I found the time, especially since not many of these works found a place proportional to their bulk in the main body of my thesis.
In those days there was virtually nothing of much worth published on this particular area, despite the theoretical contributions of Erich Auerbach, Northrop Frye, and Wilson Knight which had awakened interest in romance in general. The neglect of English romances in prose puzzled me because it was clear that the genre was amongst Shakespeare's favourite reading, alongside Ovid, Virgil, and chronicle history, and that every single work by him showed strong traces of its influence. The reason, which quickly occurred to me, was implicated in literary politics which at that time gave visibility and obvious priority to certain kinds of works inspired by courtly humanism, while dismissing romances, apart from those written by illustrious courtiers, as 'merely popular'. In addition, the vast bulk of examples were 'lost' and to all intents outside literary history altogether.
Things have changed to reflect a newfound recognition of the importance of romance, mainly through growing feminist interests in female readership and writers. We have had several major studies, pre-eminently Helen Cooper's wonderful The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (1999) and Paul Salzman writing on prose fiction in general, but also more specific studies on areas like chivalry in romance (Alex Davis, 2003), women (Helen Hackett, 2000), narrative strategies (Constance Relihan, 1994 and 1996), and even intriguing topics like espionage in romance (R. W. Maslen, 1997).
Nandini Das's book is a worthy contributor to the field, and it has the distinction of covering the whole, diverse field of prose romance in the period 1570-1620. It has a running theme of 'generational difference', establishing that in most romances there is a wise elder and several hotheaded young knights in need of sage instruction. While this is almost certainly not the primary reason for the genre's popularity, yet it does supply an 'improving' element that could placate those contemporaries who criticized the often [End Page 231] titillating, emotionally heightened, and apparently escapist stories for their lack of overt, morally educative function. Generational discrimination also introduced a strong class awareness into the fictions since, as Das points out, it was the same courtly aristocrats 'who financed, directed and participated in the staging of romance-inspired tournaments and festivals [who] often were also the main patrons and dedicatees of the narrative texts in question' (p. 37).
They had something to gain from maintaining the cultural and ideological centrality of their position underpinning the fictions. Aristocratic youth could be seen profitably spending time in travel, martial exploits, and even sowing the occasional wild oats in love affairs, so long as they came to heed the advice and example of their elders by marrying a woman equivalent in status, and growing into senior statesmen themselves.
Fortunately, Das does not put all her eggs in this edifying but hardly compelling basket, but relates it to other motifs and romance purposes. She also traces significant changes in the genre over a fifty-year period, moving from the 'wandering knights' of courtly romance and chivalry exemplified in Sidney's Arcadia, 'errant scholars' peopling Lyly's Euphues and its sequel, emphasizing virtuous action through learning. Through her acuteness to changing approaches, Das...