Steve Mentz.  Romance for Sale in Early Modern England: The Rise of Prose Fiction. Ashgate, 2006. x+261pp. ISBN 0 7546 5469 9.

Claire Jowitt
Nottingham Trent University

Claire Jowitt. "Review of Steve Mentz, Romance for Sale in Early Modern England: The Rise of Prose Fiction." Early Modern Literary Studies 13.1 (May, 2007) 6.1-4<URL:>.

  1. Mentz’s learned book Romance for Sale explores two fascinating aspects of the history of one of the most popular and sophisticated literary forms of the English Renaissance, prose romance. Roughly the first half of the book (the first four chapters) examines the critically neglected topic of the influence of Heliodorus’s Aethiopian History on the genre in the late 1580s, tracing in particular the influence of Heliodorus’ text on Philip Sidney’s New Aracadia (1590) and Robert Greene’s Mamilla (1583), Menaphon (1589), and others. The second half of the book (the last three chapters) concentrates on the strategies by which writers of prose romance in the 1590s ‘departed from the model […] of Elizabethan-Heliodoran prose romance in the 1580s’ (15), and sought to appeal to a heterodox audience and ensure their place in the literary marketplace. In this section Mentz includes chapters on Greene’s later works, romances by, amongst others, Lodge and Nashe, as well as looking at Greene’s ‘afterlife’ in a series of texts published after his death which used his ghost as a means to debate the limits and terms of the genre. Throughout, as Mentz states in the ‘Introduction’ Romance for Sale privileges ‘practice over theory’ (14). In other words, Mentz’s project emphasizes the influence of the literary practices of Heliodorus rather than the literary theories of Aristotle upon English prose romance writers in the late sixteenth century. This leads Mentz to argue that ‘the efforts of professional writers like Greene, Lodge and Nash, and others to define their own works as worth a book-buyers purse constitutes a theoretical defense of prose fiction’ which, in turn, ‘demonstrates the rise of a new field of literary culture, driven neither by patronage nor the joint-stock companies of the public stage, but by an implied contract between authors and readers that expressed itself economically in the book market’(14).

  2. The broken-backed structure of Romance for Sale is, arguably, its greatest weakness. The first section on the rediscovery (in 1526), significance, and literary reach of Heliodorus’s Aethiopian History is superb. Mentz skillfully establishes the generic innovations offered by the Greek romance and its translations, and considers the text’s narrative significance as an anti-epic, before tracing the complexities of its literary influence on the romances of Sidney and Greene. The sections on ‘Reason, Faith and Shipwreck’ and ‘Cross Dressing in Captivity’ in New Arcadia are particularly fine as with considerable skill Mentz establishes the Heliodoran mode that Sidney used and, at times, resisted. The chapter on Greene is equally strong as Mentz contrasts the way ‘the distinction between Sidney and Greene establishers two clear models for romancers who would follow them: either strain against the genre’s limits [Sidney], or accept the form and play with it [Greene]’ (111).

  3. It is after this chapter that, to my mind, the book falters. In the latter half of Romance for Sale Mentz develops in particular the arguments which generate the book’s title, which emphasizes the material conditions of the literary marketplace. The last three chapters focus on romances written the 1590s and first years of the seventeenth century in terms of the literary strategies their authors developed to ensure their books’ share of the market. The work of Greene is the link between these two, in many ways, somewhat separate projects. Nevertheless this section of the book is internally coherent and informative as, with skill, Mentz describes the ways romance changes in the 1590s. He describes the way in which ‘a new figure, the Author in Print’ emerges in the series of posthumous works and responses which make up Greene’s afterlife, which debate ‘what it meant to be an author of printed fiction in late Elizabethan London’ (207). The Heliodoran moment has passed, it seems, as professional writers of romance turn their attention to other debates.

  4. Of course no book can do everything, and in many ways Mentz’s decision to limit his material chronologically to texts written before the death of Elizabeth is an eminently sensible one. Yet it seems to me that the book misses an opportunity through its emphasis on Greene as linchpin between the book’s two halves and its sole consideration of Greene’s afterlife. A consideration of Sidney’s textual afterlife – in Greville’s The Life of the Renowned Philip Sidney (1610-14) perhaps, and especially his influence on later prose romances such as Wroth’s Urania (1621) or Barclay’s Argenis (1621) - and discussion of the continued significance of Aethiopian History, would have addressed the broken-backed nature of the book. This would, of course, have lengthened the book’s chronology considerably, but as it stands the book appears, to this reader at least, unfinished, since the influence of Sidney and Heliodorus largely vanish from view in the literary history of prose romance which Mentz describes. Irrespective of this criticism, Romance for Sale is a rich, original and informative book which is a pleasure read: it should be essential reading for all those interested in the changing fashions of Renaissance prose romance.  

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© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).