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About Early English Prose Fiction

‘The texts of Early English Prose Fiction are essential to understand the development of narrative in English.  What came to be recognised as the dominant characteristic of English fiction, realism, was only one of a rich diversity of approaches in fiction’s early years.  The collection shows the evolution of English prose, covering the change from a predominantly oral culture, where prose fiction can be understood as "written speech", to a literary culture dependent on strictly literary conventions.

‘As well as the evolution of genre, the collection shows the development of narrative technique.  Many things we now take for granted can be seen as narrative problems that early fiction had to solve – such as how the author should deal with a character’s reiteration of events that have already been related to the reader, or whether the reader should experience an emotional piece of correspondence when it is being written or on delivery.

‘The fiction in the collection also offers an invaluable guide to the attitudes of everyday life, and provides a basis for understanding the high culture of the period.  Shakespeare’s plays, for example, have a very different feel when seen in the context of the fiction that was part of his milieu.

‘The material of Early English Prose Fiction, besides its value for a scholarly understanding of the early stages of English fiction, displays a delight in the fictionality of fiction, a pleasure of imagination that many readers may have forgotten is an essential part of literature.’

David Margolies
Goldsmith’s College, University of London

‘From a linguistic point of view, Early English Prose Fiction largely covers Early Modern English and provides a unique opportunity for broadly based in-depth study of forms and developments in the language, especially in the fields of grammar and syntax, morphology, lexis and semantics.  The selection has been carried out with a view to continuous coverage, though the realities of literary production in the period, with its periods of slack and of massed publication, is of necessity reflected: the volume of prose fiction coming from the presses increased towards the end of the sixteenth and again enormously towards the end of the seventeenth century, and no selection could neglect this trend.  Yet most decades are well represented.

‘Twentieth-century texts and theory have widened our concepts of not only what the novel but what prose fiction in general may encompass.  At the formative stages of what one should (refining Ian Watt’s expression) term “The Rise of the Realist Novel in the West” there was a welter of trends, experiments and hybrid forms of great interest not only for the evolution of the major types but also for general analyses of structure and narrative technique.  While providing the basis for new looks at the history of prose fiction  and in particular the novel in England, the collection also greatly enhances the possibilities of comparative literary studies in the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Britain and continental European countries by enlarging the English material readily available.

‘For cultural studies centred on Britain from the late Middle Ages to the beginnings of the Augustan age, the database provides a rich fund of materials hitherto not easily available.  Of all literary genres, prose fiction presents in most detail and concreteness the individual in a social environment – natural and man-made surroundings, economic, social and political situations, structures and institutions, the inventions and devices of civilisation, everyday habits and customs in the framework of individual and family life as well as in the scale of social groupings or indeed society as a whole at particular points in time.  Fiction may not necessarily present objective data for the immediate use of social and economic historians; but it does enable scholars to obtain images of life, to feel the pulse of past periods precisely in those areas that are incidental to the authors' plots but can be taken as indicative of the very stuff of life.’

Holger Klein
Universität Salzburg


Early English Prose Fiction is a balanced and representative survey of fictional prose in English from the period 1500­­­–1700, comprising more than 200 works.  The database includes numerous rare texts inaccessible in print form together with early editions of all the best-known works of the period, such as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.  Many different kinds of fiction are represented, from prose romances (such as Boyle’s Parthenissa) through to popular jest books (such as Peele’s Merrie Conceited Iests and Skelton’s Merie Tales) and specimens of rogue literature (for example Settle’s The Notorious Impostor and the anonymous Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse).

Other highlights of the collection include:

  • The Vnfortvnate Traveller: Or, The life of Iacke Wilton (1594) by Thomas Nashe, recognised as the earliest picaresque narrative in English
  • Aphra Behn’s anti-slavery novel Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave (1688)
  • Works by Margaret Cavendish,  Delarivier Manley, Mary Pix, Anna Weamys and Lady Mary Wroth
  • Euphves: The Anatomy of Wyt [1578] and Euphues and his England (1580) – the two parts of John Lyly’s romance Euphues – the highly artificial style of which gave rise to the term ‘Euphuism’
  • Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie (1590), written in imitation of Lyly and dramatised by Shakespeare in As You Like It
  • The Famovs and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington (1656) by Thomas Heywood, which recounts the enduring legend of Whittington and his cat

Editorial Policy

Early English Prose Fiction has been produced in association with the Salzburg Centre for Research on the Early English Novel (SCREEN).

Each text is reproduced in full, including all prefatory matter and annotation by the original author.  Texts are accompanied by bibliographic information relating to the source edition used.  Illustrations integral to the text are included, as are errata lists.

Authors and works have been selected under the guidance of the editorial board to meet the needs of academic teaching and research.  The guiding principle has been one of inclusiveness, particularly with regard to the many different types of fiction that characterise the period.  

The collection excludes non-fictional prose and medieval ‘survivals’ (works pre-dating the period in question but printed within it).  Works of fiction translated from other languages are excluded, with one exception (Barclay’s romance Argenis, translated from Latin by Kingsmill Long).

Editorial Board

Professor Holger Klein Universität Salzburg
Dr David Margolies Goldsmith’s College, University of London
Professor Janet Todd University of East Anglia

Advisory Panel:

Professor Don Beecher Carleton University
Professor Helmut Bonheim Universität zu Köln
Professor Jim Harner Texas A&M University
Professor James Hogg Universität Salzburg
Professor Werner von Koppenfels Universität München
Dr Robert Letellier associate of SCREEN, London
Professor Robert Rehder Université de Fribourg
Professor Paul Salzman La Trobe University
Professor Goran Stanivukuvic University of Calgary
Professor György Szönyi Jozsef Attila Tudományegyetem, Szeged
Professor Ioann Williams University College Wales, Aberystwyth