Francis Godwin Within a Literary Timeline


Francis Godwin – The Literary Context

Contemporary writers:
Francis Godwin 1562 – 1633
Sir Philip Sidney 1554 — 1586
William Shakespeare 1564 — 1616
Ben Jonson 1572 – 1637
Christopher Marlowe 1564 – 1593
John Donne 1572 – 1631
Edmund Spenser 1553 – 1599
Francis Bacon 1561 – 1626
Miguel de Cervantes 1547 — 1616

What might Godwin have studied and read?

The education of the gentry and mercantile classes became more important during the reign of the Tudor monarchs. As the realm grew in size and power, a need for administrators arose, fuelling the growth of a liberal humanist education based on elements of the European Renaissance: a new type of classical scholarship transplanted to Northern Europe from Italy during the previous generation by scholars and writers like Erasmus and Thomas More. By Godwin’s time, a gentleman destined for the professions or arts needed some accomplishment in languages and literature, and this new humanist culture matured during the period of Godwin’s youth. Even though Godwin appeared destined to become a cleric, his education in the universities of the time would have been influenced by the ideas circulating there.

Godwin would have read the Classics and religious texts as part of his education. From his village background, he would have been aware of folk-plays and country merriments, and his library, as he grew older and more established, probably included the Arthurian romances, ballads, almanacs, morality plays, sermons, poetic satire as well as verse. He would also have had access to histories, and travellers’ tales as narrated by Richard Hakluyt and ‘Sir John Mandeville’ (a pseudonym – these partially invented tales were probably written by a Frenchman or a Fleming). The popular dramas of the day – Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe and their peers – were all available in printed form. Given that Godwin refers to scientific theories within the narrative, we can assume he would have read at least some of the treatises and material available at the time.

The new age of exploration allied with the growth of printing and a new emphasis on a more general education led to an explosion in the variety of vocabulary and imagery used within poetry, drama and prose. Society was becoming increasingly mercantile, explorers were coming back to England with reports of foreign lands and curiosities, fuelling the imagination of poets, dramatists and essayists. There was an emphasis on the life of action (as Gonsales has chosen) rather than contemplation: a contrast between the active (if pagan) virtues of ancient Greece and Rome rather than the ‘idleness’ of mediaeval monasteries – bearing in mind Godwin was born post-Reformation, and post-dissolution of the monasteries. It was a time of reassessment of the traditional picture of the universe even though many scientific advances were still to come – but there was a desire for scientific knowledge, and a belief in the capability of human intellect. Scientific theories thrived alongside more esoteric beliefs in magic, witchcraft and alchemy, the distinction between them often blurred. It was a time of debate: about the theories of Copernicus, for example, the nature of man and the natural world.

Although Godwin made a career within the church, and The Man in the Moone was probably not intended as a commercial venture, his generation was the first to see a new breed of literary man: the purely commercial writer: pamphleteers, dramatists and poets, who made a living by their wits and pens alone, either from patronage or selling their wares. A pamphlet might sell for a few pence, a printed play for sixpence or a ballad a half-penny, enough to produce a modest income, but still easily afforded by men of standing like Godwin.

What prose works were being read in Godwin’s time?

As the seventeenth century progressed, works of prose became more popular, specifically works which conveyed information or sparked discussion. Religious works and sermons made up almost half of the total output of the press, and in the 1620s, the first regular English newspapers appeared. There was a resistance to fiction in some areas (often from religious purists) and research methods into history and science were becoming more rigorous – although history and invented history were still to some degree interchangeable and it is the continued blurring of myth/fact/science/fantasy that is the basis of science fiction up to the present day.

Apart from religious texts, prose writing centered on essays, maxims, counsels and history, although interest was growing in character studies within histories (as opposed to plain narration of facts). There was a heavy emphasis on reading being a serious matter, and those few literary experiences which could be termed ‘light’ (ballads, jest books) were considered a waste of time and potentially immoral. Printing was viewed to some extent as a ‘divine art’ and therefore intended to be used for higher purposes. Godwin may have had a serious purpose behind his work (laying out his scientific ideas, for example), but it is also a light and easy read – perhaps an element of its remaining unpublished until after his death – too light for a Bishop to advertise authorship?

The act of reading in Tudor and early seventeenth-century society was not conducted in the same way as modern reading. Our contemporary fast, silent technique relies upon material easily absorbed by the eye alone. Even non-poetic works of Godwin’s time would have had an awareness of the oral tradition, and would have paid attention to pauses, stresses, the pattern of sound and meaning. There is a clear link to rhetorical traditions and devices in the narrative style of Gonsales as he addresses the reader.

By the time Godwin was writing, various elements of what was to become modern (English) literature were becoming more defined: wit and imagery; character study; abstract or practical analysis; structure.

Where can we place Godwin in the context of the evolution of the novel?

The first English novels are generally attributed to Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719), Henry Fielding (Joseph Andrews, 1742) and Samuel Richardson (Pamela, 1740) and although Godwin’s work predates these by almost a century, and was developed from other literary genres and movements, it does share some of the characteristics of these early novels. It is episodic, it tells a story from a defined character’s point of view, it is a work of prose, and it sets out to entertain as well as to instruct. Given the background of serious, factual prose at the time Godwin was reading and writing, it is an innovative work.

In truth, it owes more to the Spanish literary tradition of the time, rather than the English (and maybe this influenced Godwin’s decision to make Gonsales a Spaniard). Whereas the few fictional prose narratives in English tended towards stylised pastoral romances, with idealised characters and complex metaphorical language (Sidney’s Arcadia, 1590), the Spanish chivalric romances were far more plot-driven, were written with less literary flair and were often poorly translated. Amadis de Gaul (various editions but translated for the popular press in 1590), for example. Don Quixote was published in English in 1612 (part one) and 1620 (part two) and perhaps the episodic nature of the work, with a Spanish hero, was an influence.

Some view The Man in the Moone as the first science fiction work written in English. Others attribute this ‘first’ to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – quite possibly the first true science fiction novel – but there are many examples predating her work which suit the criteria for science fiction, if not those of a defined novel format – Gulliver’s Travels, for example, which owes a clear debt to The Man in the Moone. Although there are examples of speculative fantasy/science fiction work in other languages, Godwin’s work appears to be the first in English.

So where did he get his ideas from…?

Although The Man in the Moone is not a novel as we would term it now, it was still in many ways ahead of its time. It also is a product of its era, and the literary and educational knowledge of its creator: it draws on a tradition of Travellers’ Tales – real or part-fictional – such as those written by Richard Hakluyt and ‘Sir John Mandeville’, as well as on the voyages and adventures of the classics – The Iliad, The Odyssey (Godwin could have read these works in the original Greek, but they were also in translation by the time he was writing). The Man in the Moone utilises some of the conventions of the didactic or moral prose writing of the age, it shows the influence of Utopian writings in its depiction of Moone society (Thomas More’s Utopia, 1551, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, 1627). It uses the plot convention of a shipwreck, used contemporaneously by Shakespeare in The Tempest (1610) as well as being a plot device often used in classical works such as The Aeneid. It does have a structure of sorts, although it is episodic rather than having a true narrative arc (but he does mention a sequel). As mentioned above, Godwin was well read in science and theories of the world as they were understood at the time.

At the very least, Godwin was a talented assimilator of others’ ideas who had the ability to ally them with a rich use of language, and to apply them imaginatively to create a remarkable new work – and in this, he was a true literary innovator.

Liz Kershaw

One thought on “Francis Godwin Within a Literary Timeline”

  1. And as we continue on through the book, the biggest question and mystery for me is still: why did Godwin make Gonsales a Spaniard and a Catholic given the religious background of the age? Gonsales is so a consistent character, proud of his country and his religion that it must have been a dramatic leap of imagination for Godwin to conjure him up and characterise him so well. Was there a secret and subversive message hidden within the text, or was Godwin merely having fun?


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