FROM LYLY TO SWIFT
During the dying-off of romance proper, or its transference from verse to prose in the late fifteenth and earlier sixteenth century, there is not very much to note about prose fiction in England. But, as the conditions of modern literature fashioned themselves, a very great influence in this as in other departments was no doubt exercised with us by Italian, as well as some by Spanish in a way which may be postponed for a little. The Italian prose tale had begun to exercise that influence as early as Chaucer’s time: but circumstances and atmosphere were as yet unfavourable for its growth. It is a hackneyed truism that Italian society was very much more modern than any other in Europe at this time—in fact it would not be a mere paradox to say that it was, and continued to be till the later sixteenth, much more modern than it has ever been since—or till very recently. By “modern” is here meant the kind of society which is fairly cultivated, fairly comfortable, fairly complicated with classes not very sharply separated from each other, not dominated by any very high ideals, tolerably corrupt, and sufficiently business-like. The Italian novella, of course, admits wild passions and extravagant crimes: but the general tone of it is bourgeois—at any rate domestic. With its great number of situations and motives, presented in miniature, careful work is necessary to bring out the effect: and, above all, there is abundant room for study of manners, for proverbial and popular wisdom and witticism, for “furniture”—to use that word in a wide sense. Above all, the Italian mind, like the Greek, had an ethical twist—twist in more senses than one, some would say, but that does not matter. Manners, morals, motives—these three could not but displace, to some extent, mere incident: though there was generally incident of a poignant or piquant kind as well. In other words the novella was actually (though still in miniature) a novel in nature as well as in name. And these novelle became, as is generally known, common in English translations after the middle of the sixteenth century. Painter’s huge Palace of Pleasure (1566) is only the largest and best known of many translations, single and collected, of the Italian novellieri and the French tale-tellers, contemporary, or of times more or less earlier.
For some time, as almost everybody knows, these collections of translated matter served a purpose—great indeed, but somewhat outside their proper department—by furnishing the Elizabethan dramatists with a large part—perhaps the larger part—of their subjects. But they very soon began to exercise it directly by suggesting the fictitious part of the prose pamphlet—a department which, though infinitely less well known than the plays, and still not very easy to know, holds almost the second position as representing the popular literature of the Elizabethan time. And they also had—in one case certainly, in the other probably—no little influence upon the two great Elizabethan works which in a manner founded the modern novel and the modern romance in English—the Euphues of Lyly and the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney.