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  • Tempering Romance
  • Katherine R. Larson (bio)
The Fabulous Dark Cloister: Romance in England after the Reformation by Tiffany Jo Werth. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Pp. 248, 8 illustrations. $65.00 cloth.

When John Milton sets out in Areopagitica (1644) to defend the freedom of the press against Parliament’s 1643 Press Ordinance, he advocates confrontations with seemingly seductive texts as vital opportunities for moral reform:

’Tis next alleg’d we must not expose our selves to temptations without necessity, and next to that, not imploy our time in vain things. To both these objections one answer will serve . . . that to all men such books are not temptations, nor vanities; but usefull drugs and materialls wherewith to temper and compose effective and strong med’cins, which mans life cannot want.1

Reading widely, he argues, fosters the interpretive acuity required to inculcate virtue. Romance is not an explicit focus of his argument here, but clearly Milton sees the genre, conventionally associated with vanity and temptation, as an obvious target for licensers. Warning of the difficulty of silencing musical instruments across England, for instance, he imagines the acoustic “lectures” produced by village fiddles and bagpipes as rural alternatives to romance reading: “[T]hese are the Countrymans Arcadia’s and his Monte Mayors.”2

Romances like Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590, 1593) and [End Page 137] Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (1559) may have constituted “recreations and pastimes”3 that were inherently suspect, but they were also integral to the didactic tempering that Milton associates with reading “promiscuously”4 and well. Elsewhere in Areopagitica, he lauds Edmund Spenser’s Sir Guyon for modeling discernment and moderation, and he concludes that readers should grapple vicariously with Mammon and the Bower of Bliss so that they too might “see and know, and yet abstain.”5 In his capacity as a writer of romance, Spenser constitutes for Milton an exemplary “teacher”6 of active readers who are challenged to demonstrate their virtue and to discern truth as they are drawn into Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and navigate its tempting landscapes alongside Guyon.

In The Fabulous Dark Cloister, Tiffany Jo Werth probes the Janus-faced attributes of romance reading that inform Milton’s argument in Areopagitica. The romance was demonized in the aftermath of the Reformation as an inherently Catholic and effeminizing genre that led readers astray. Yet Werth demonstrates that Protestant writers sought to harness its affective power for edifying purposes. As such, the romance emerges in Werth’s compelling analysis as a distinctly “hybrid” (2) genre that registers the transitional nature of the post-Reformation period through its ability both to tempt and to temper readers. Bridging Catholic and Protestant practices, the four romances featured in this rich study—Sidney’s The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, William Shakespeare’s Pericles (ca. 1607), and Lady Mary Wroth’s The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania (1621)—contributed to the ongoing religious and cultural reform of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries even as they reveal considerable ambivalence about those changes.

Given the “self-reflexivity advocated in Protestant modes of reading” (101) and the related tenet of sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), it is not surprising that seemingly secular texts and the interpretive practices of their readers likewise became “fraught catalysts for—or against—faith” (5) in the post-Reformation period. Werth innovatively structures her book so as to foreground this dynamic and implicitly transformative relationship between text and reader. In part 1, “Fabulous Texts,” she examines the vilification of the romance genre in the light of the slippage between the moralizing miracles extolled in biblical parables and the potentially damning supernatural feats of secular romance. If both narrative models were widely recognized as holding the power to move readers and auditors, how might romance writers [End Page 138] deploy these affective tools to help mold pious readers? Werth begins to probe this question in chapters 1 and 2 as she considers how Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare rework romance’s familiar wonders for instructive and virtuous ends. All three of these writers rely on their readers’ memory of romance conventions and recognize the appeal of wondrous...


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pp. 137-143
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