John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship: an interview with Andy Kesson

Lyly coverLast week saw the launch of Andy Kesson’s brilliant new book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, which makes an eloquent and powerful case for both the quality of Lyly’s work and its importance to early modern literature as we understand it. It is full of fascinating insights into literary and print culture and commerce and I urge anyone who is interested in the period to read it.

Born in 1554, Lyly is best remembered today for Eupheus, the Anatomy of Wit his 1578 prose fiction which seems to have taken London and the court by storm. “All our ladies were then his scholars,” it was later said, “and that beauty at court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.”

But that fashionable success has in many respects served to damn him for generation after generation of literary critics. Lyly would abandon prose and become arguably the most successful playwright of the 1580s, writing under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford for the boy companies at the Blackfriars and later at St Paul’s. His reputation though, more than most, suffers from his not being Shakespeare: in literary history Lyly is usually cast simply as a writer whose superficial popularity and wit was superseded by Shakespeare’s greater art. It reflects a dismally Darwinian approach to culture, to say the least; but it is one which Andy’s book is sure to help rectify.

I wasn’t able to make the launch – fittingly held at the Globe Theatre – but a couple of months ago Andy was kind enough to sit down with me over a coffee or two in Paddington for a wide-ranging discussion about Lyly and early modern culture.

ML: I was reading GK Hunter’s article on Lyly in the DNB before I came. I must have read it before but I was struck this morning by the thunderous snobbery of its tone. There’s a moment when Hunter talks about Lyly’s reputation towards the end of the sixteenth century and, to support his thesis that Lyly was no longer fashionable, he has to dismiss Lyly’s evident continuing popularity with the reading public by, essentially, dismissing the entire reading public itself. “Euphues continued to be reprinted (twenty editions of the two parts were printed before the end of the century), but its admirers were no longer at the top of the social scale.”

When you look at it, the way Hunter attempts to hide those twenty editions in parenthesis is sleight-of-hand of the lowest order.

AK: Lyly’s modern editors still say [that sort of thing] very frankly. Scholars of rhetoric say that sort of thing all the time. It’s being read; but it’s being read by the wrong sort of people. It is extraordinary.

ML: Why do you think they say that?

AK: Hunter says elsewhere that Lyly’s tragedy was that he descended into the market and made a fool of himself.

ML: Is it just academic snobbery?

AK: It’s a way of defending the literary canon that scholars prefer to sanction. I think the reason people say that sort of thing goes back to the nineteenth century. There’s a very clear reception process for Lyly. In 1632 Edward Blount edits six Lyly plays, the six core comedies, and writes a preface which claims how important Lyly was to the Elizabethan period.

Lyly is then essentially not read for a hundred years.
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Sir Walter Ralegh: the price of fame?

Ralegh minatureralegh 88

Further to my earlier review of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Elizabeth I and her people, I thought I’d just post two contrasting portraits of Ralegh. The first, on the left, is a Hilliard miniature from 1584. The second is a close-up photo I took of the 1588 portrait currently on display at the NPG. (My apologies for the slight lack of focus!)

My first thought when I saw the latter was: what a toll those four years at the heart of Elizabeth’s court had taken on him. One can read too much into these things, but if the earlier portrait seems to capture the brash confidence – arrogance, even – with which Ralegh was and is often associated, the later portrait suggests a man whose self-belief – for all the studied magnificence of his appearance – is not what it was.

Review: Elizabeth I and her people – National Portrait Gallery exhibition

Elizabeth exhibitionThose whose interest lies outside the Tudor era could be forgiven for exasperation at the extent to which the long sixteenth century still dominates our nation’s cultural life. But the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Elizabeth I and Her People, which runs until January 5 2014 – is nevertheless good enough to excite the curiosity of even the most stubborn Tudor-phobe; and for those of us who find the period particularly fascinating, it is a delight.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, both chief curator and 16th-Century curator at the gallery. She is the author of the recent Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, 1540-1620, and her interest in the representation of lives outside the courtly elite is evidenced throughout.

Late Tudor England grew into an economic powerhouse, based on a flourishing mercantile culture, the increasing financial heft of the City of London and the political and religious stability – relatively speaking – of the Elizabethan state. And this middling sort, aspiring, ambitious, self-conscious, are superbly represented here.

A trio of portraits, for instance, reveals the Wittewronghele, family – father, mother and son – who established a prosperous brewing business in the capital. Thomas Gresham – arguably the most brilliant financier of the 16th century – is here. We see, too, the court portraitist George Gower, who chooses to be painted holding the tools of his trade – the brush and palette – rather than with something that might represent a claim on family title or another, more obviously self-aggrandising, social status. The times were changing. Trade itself was becoming respectable.

But beyond the portraiture, we also see something of the texture of people’s lives. There is some wonderful Tudor clothing here, from a seaman’s cloak to a superbly detailed woman’s waistcoat. And there is much, much more: a tankard inscribed with ‘Think and Thank’, surely the 16-century equivalent of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; a pristine set of drawing instruments; pins, without which many Tudor garments wear simply unwearable; an intricately carved ivory comb featuring the Judgement of Paris and David’s message to Bathsheba; and so on.

For many, perhaps, the portraits will still be the point, and one room is given over to those of Elizabeth herself, including Hilliard’s sumptuous ‘Ermine’ Portrait. Even here, though, the exhibition is careful to delineate between the kind of representations that would have been available to the different strata of society, from the full length paintings that hung in noble houses, through the more modest copies owned by members of the gentry, down to the portraits that every person in the country had access to. When Elizabeth I recalled the coinage early in her reign, she became the first English monarch to sit for the image that represented her on her currency: it was a powerful statement of intent.

There is, too, a room of portraits of courtiers and nobleman. Again, however, the exhibition goes beyond representations of mere power, to offer a more unconventional and human perspective on the way portraiture embodied a kind of power – but also a negotiation with it. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, appears in – in context – a shockingly private portrait of herself in a bedgown beside her dressing table. She had been one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour and her marriage to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the year before had caused controversy at court resulting in her banishment.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whose ward Wriothesley had been, had wanted him to marry his own daughter. He is pictured here, mostly likely in his lost palace at Theobalds in Essex, somewhat charmingly athwart a donkey among some strawberry plants, as if to plead with his queen for the quiet pleasure of a country life away from the explosive tensions and rivalries of the court.

Last but not least, Sir Walter Ralegh is here, in 1588 at the very height of his power and influence. The gallery’s restorers have revealed a hidden detail in the portrait: a sea beneath the sway of the moon. It was a trope Ralegh used often in describing his own, often tempestuous, relationship with Elizabeth and here it affirms his subjection to her. He looks, if truth be told, exhausted. And perhaps he was. The tumults of the Tudor era took their toll on winners and losers alike.

The Dutch Church: the dissolution and its tragic aftermath

It is convenient for historians to conceive of history in neat discrete categories, but all too often that approach both obscures continuities and suggests that events are less brutally random than they are. There are, for instance, many ways of writing about the influence of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries on Elizabethan drama, from the survival of catholic ritual culture to the routes and routines of the traveling players. Indeed, two of the principal London playhouses – the Theatre in Shoreditch and the Blackfriars – were built in the former precincts of religious houses.

But some connections are more direct yet.

For all that Tudor London was dominated by the solidity, tradition and history that churches represented, it was also a city in transition. Henry VIII’s Reformation had ruined the great religious houses of England, and London suffered no less than the rest of the country. In 1536, there had been 12 monasteries in and around London, including the Benedictine order at St Helens in Bishopsgate and the Augustinians outside the walls to the north, at Holywell Priory in Shoreditch. There were twelve principal houses of friars in London, too, among them the Carmelites at Whitefriars and Dominicans at Blackfriars – and many smaller houses, together with 25 major hospitals under the auspices of the old religious orders and again innumerable minor ones.

That was, of course, not in Shakespeare’s lifetime and barely in that of his father, John, who was probably born in 1530. Fifty-odd years on from the dissolution, the institutions and social structures that they supported – including care for the poor and the sick – were indeed long gone: they had disappeared with such speed that the Lord Mayor in 1537-8, Sir Richard Gresham, who lived in Milk Street, had pleaded for some hospital buildings and churches to be spared, because without them Londoners simply didn’t have enough of either.

The shock waves through the social order that the dissolution unleashed were certainly still being felt at the end of the century: more explicit social controls, such as the 1572 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, were required to deal with the fallout, using the judicial system to deal with problems such as poverty, incapacity and mental illness that had hitherto been accommodated, if not necessarily addressed, by the old religious orders.

The buildings themselves proved less tractable. Certainly some were destroyed; but it is far from clear how clean or complete the destruction was. The reality was most likely somewhat messier, with the impact of the Reformation painfully and plentifully visible across the city in broken walls and ruined cloisters, newly open spaces, building sites and smart new houses abutting the boundaries of the old and unhoused orders.
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Ben Jonson: his early life and how it shaped him

Ben Jonson 1572-1637

Contrary as always, Ben Jonson could cast horoscopes – but didn’t believe in them. What, then, would he have made of his own?

In some ways, perhaps, he was born lucky: winter offered the worst chances of survival for an Elizabethan baby; Jonson was born in midsummer. Even so, he was fortunate to survive. One in fifty babies were dead within a day; one in twenty within a week; one in ten within a month; one in eight within a year. One in three would not live out their childhood. Wherever he was born, it was not in London, and in this he was lucky, too: mortality in the City was higher than anywhere else in the country.

He entered the world on 11 June 1572, the feast of St Barnabas. In Canterbury and Stratford-on-Avon, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, both eight years old, were already at school. Spenser was still studying at Cambridge; Sidney had left Oxford – and friends like William Camden – before graduating and was now on the Grand Tour. It would be another four years before London would get a permanent theatre, its first since Roman times. The Elizabethan moment had yet to arrive.

Under the old calendar, the feast of St Barnabas was the longest day of the year. The people celebrated it as Barnaby the Bright; they cut flowers to garland the altars. But there was not a great deal else to celebrate for England that summer. Fear and suspicion were rife. May Day had seen the first demonstration before Elizabeth of London’s – and England’s –  trained bands, a Privy Council innovation to ensure that there was an adequate ‘home guard’ in case of invasion. Counties were required to ensure that their best men received ten days training a year in use of pike and musket, and in military discipline generally. On that May holiday, 3,000 of the finest from London’s City militia took part in a war game – perhaps around one in 20 of the adult male population.
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Sir Thomas Smith and covetousness in history

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Sir Thomas Smith, late in life and in poor health, complaining about how difficult it was to work for Elizabeth I. (I also quoted his trenchant observation on the implications of the Ridolfi plot here.)

Smith is a fascinating example of those apparently minor figures in Tudor history who often don’t get the attention they deserve. Born on 23 December 1513, he was the son of a far from prosperous Saffron Waldon sheep-farmer. The relative poverty of his upbringing did not hold him back, however: his outstanding intellect took him to Cambridge University, where he was recognised as one of the leading students of his generation, and then to a career as an academic, an administrator, a privy councillor, and diplomat.

He is often said to have had an abrasive personality, but since he served the regimes of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, albeit in different capacities and not without periods of disfavour, he cannot have been quite as unyieldingly unpleasant as one might think. He was a moderate Protestant with friends across the religious spectrum, and his academic interests ranged from history and linguistics through political theory to chemistry and maths. In later life he was a noted patron of learning, founding two scholarships at Queen’s College, Cambridge and warmly encouraging the likes of Gabriel Harvey, another prodigiously gifted Saffron Walden man of mean background.

Yesterday, however, I came across a fascinating article about his work as an economic theorist. His principal work in this field was The Discourse of the Commonweal, written in 1549 during a period of exile from the court and not published until 1581. It is only recently that the text has been definitively ascribed to him.
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