Character Writers of the Seventeenth Century

The seventeenth century “character” was a new English prose form. Sir Thomas of the important seventeenth century character writers, defined it as a picture, real or personal, quaintly drawn in various colours, all of them brightened by one shadowing.”

A “character” is very short—a thamb-nail sketch of an individual who is much more a type than an individual. The intention of the character-writer is, generally, reformative, and his instruments are satire and wit. The character, says David Daiches in A Critical History of English Literature. Vol. 1, “is essentially a portrait of a tvpe rather than an individual, often done with an. almost exhibitionist wit.” The progress of the character in England is marked by a gradual shift of emphasis from the typical to the individual qualities of the persons dealt with.

Like most English literary genres, the character was imported from abroad. The model for the English character writers was the Greek psychologist Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.) whose Ethical Characters comprised brief character-sketches of some thirty vicious or unpleasant Athenian types done in witty but bitter prose. Theophrastus first came to be known in Latin translation in 1592 and in English in 1616. It is possible that Theophrastus wrote some characters of virtuous types also: however, only the characters of evil or unpleasant types have come down to us. He composed his characters in accordance with a set formula. He starts every character with a very brief description of the vice he is going to handle-flattery, cowardice, talkativeness, superstitiousness, etc. After that he goes on to describe a typical possessor of that vice and his actions under its influence. Any reference to the strictly individual peculiarities of the person concerned is conspicuous by its absence. For illustration let us quote here the beginning of his character of The Distrustful Man:
“Distrustfulness is a disposition to suspect all men of dishonesty. The Distrustful Man is this sort of man. When he has sent one of his slaves to buy provisions he sends another one after the first to find out exactly what they cost. In travelling he carries his own money and sits down every few hundred years to count it…”
The vogue of character writing was initiated in English by Joseph Hall, and was carried forward by the distinguished character writers uverbury and Earle. right upto the age of the Restoration when it died a natural death after having outlived its appeal and utility. Let us now discuss briefly the work of the more important of seventeenth-century character writers.
Joseph Hall (1574-1656):
Joseph Hall is credited with the naturalisation of the new prose form of the character in English literature. His work entitled Characters of Virtues and Vices came out in 1608. He doubtlessly took Theophrastus for his model, but it is possible that, as Tucker Brooke observes, “his immediate inspiration was found in the incidental character-sketches that Ben Jonson had introduced in Every Man out of His Humour (1599) and Cynthia’s Revels (1600). Ben Jonson’s “humours” are also predominantly types, but whereas he adopts the dynamic method of the dramatist in unfolding them, the character writer, like Hall, uses the static or descriotive method”. But the moral aim is shared equally earnestly by the dramatist and the prose writer.
Hall’s Characters of Virtues and Vices consists of two books: Book I deals with virtuous types (such as the wise man, the honest man, and the true friend) and Book II with their vicious counterparts (such as the malcontent, the flatterer, and the unshrift). On the whole, Hall is more successful with vices than with virtues. Let us now compare Hall’s approach and execution with those of Theophrastus.
(1)                 Hall’s sketches are somewhat longer than Theophrastus’s. In spite of the fact that he was called by his contemporaries “our English Seneca” for his packed and rhetorical expression, it has to be admitted that his characters lack compression as also trie artistic selection and rejection of traits which distinguish Theophrastus’s work.
(2)                 Secondly, Hall, as Tucker Brooke says, “intensified the moral tone.” He was a clergyman. David Daiches observes: “He is less the witty observer of men than the Christian moralist seeking to improve his readers by warning or example.” His egregious moral bias finds expression in his Poem to Book I “Virtue is not loved enough because her loveliness is secret… What need we more, than to discover the two to the world? This work shall save the labour of exhorting and dissuasion.”
(3)                 Thirdly, his characters are rich in a peculiar kind of wit which is entirely his own. For illustration, see the end of the character of the busybody: “He knows not why, but his custom is to go a little about and to leave the cross still on the right hand. One event is enough to make a rule; out of these rules he concludes fashions, proper to himself; and nothing can turn him out of his course. If he has done his
task, he is safe: it matters not with what affection, finally, if God would let him be the carver of his own obedience, he could not have a better subject as he is, he cannot have a worse.”
(4)        Lastly, Hall’s sketches are characterised by crude and unpolished vigour-the same which we find in his satirical verse Virgidemiarum.
Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613):
Hall’s work did not achieve any notable popularity. It was Overbury who first distinguished himself in the field of character writing. He died in the Tower of London in 1613 in quite mysterious circumstances. A year after his death a publisher brought out his poem A Wife. The second edition of the poem was supplemented by twenty-two prose characters said to be the work of Overbury “and other learned gentlemen his friends.” The next three months saw the publication of no fewer than four more editions and the number of characters increase from twenty-two to eighty-three. Among the anonymous contributors were famous writers of their times, such as John Donne, the poet and Dekker and Webster the dramatists. This work achieved and maintained remarkable popularity. Fourteen editions were published in the following half-century. Let us now discuss some of the important features of Overbury’s characters.
(1)                 Overbury’s characters are considerably shorter in length than Hall’s. Most of them run to under three hundred words.
(2)                 Overbury does not portray his characters to view them from an abstract moral position. Nor is his aim pre-eminently reformative. He is interested rather in the presentation of contemporary types. However, he was a courtier and, as such, had open contempt for the
commonalty. Hardin Craig observes in
A History of English
edited by himself: “Overbury was a courtier and an acute and acrimonious observer of men and manners. His essays are the product of a circle of wits who profess scorn of the ordinary and the commonplace in human life.”
(3)                 Overbury, unlike Hall, did not make any formal division between virtue and vice. This, as Tucker Brooke observes in A Literary History of England edited by Albert C. Baugh, helped him in “achieving greater naturalness and a more pleasant diversity.” However, that does not mean that he is blind to moral considerations. He does, like Theophrastus and Hall before him, have a didactic and reformative aim which he tries to realise through witty satire.
(4)                 His satire and wit are more sophisticated than Hall’s. They have much more of literary and artistic quality. According to Legouis it was Overbury who “gave this genre [the character] a really literary character.” Mark the telling pungency in his description of a uritan: “A Puritan is a diseased piece of Apocrypha: bind him to the Bible, and he corrupts the whole text : ignorance and fat feed are his founders; his nurses railing rabies and round breeches : his life is but aborrowed blast of wind; for between two religions, as between twodoors, he is ever whistling.”
(5)                 Lastly, Overbury practised a novelty in including somewomen also among his characters. The most striking, fresh, andrefreshing of his characters is “The Fair and Happy Milkmaid.” As acourtier disgusted with the artificial beauty aids used by sophisticatedwomen of the highest circles of society he celebrates in glowing termsthe natural beauty and innocence of a milkmaid. Here is an extractfrom that character:
“…though she be not arrayed in the spoil of the silk-worm, she is decked in innocence, a far better wearing…In milking a cow, and straining the teats through her fingers, it seems that so sweet a milk-press makes the milk whiter or sweeter; for never came almond-gloss or aromatic ointment on her palm to taint it. The golden ears of corn fall and kiss her feet, when she reaps them as if they wished to be bound and led prisoners by the same hand that felled them.”
John Earle (16017-1665):
Overbury’s work gave a considerable fillip to character writing in English. Among those who practised this genre may be mentioned the following:
(i)         John Stephens-Satirical Essays, Characters and Others (1615)
(ii)        Nicholas Breton (1555-1626) and Richard Barthwait (1588-1673)
(iii)       Geoffrey Minshull (c. 1594-1668)–Essays and
Characters of a Prison and Prisoners (1618).
Character sequences followed almost as thickly as sonnet sequences. But out of all of them John Earle’s Microcosmography is the most important and the most interesting. It was first published in 1628, and achieved immediate and well deserved fame. Earle’s seventy-eight portraits have lived on till today for he is easily the most attractive of all the character writers. Given below are some important features of his work.
(1)        Earle has a greater variety of material. His treatment ranges over such diverse characters as “A Young Raw Preacher”, “A Mere Formal Man”, “A She Precise Hypocrite”, and “The Common Singing Men in Cathedral Churches”. Overbury as a courtier had better opportunities to see the world than Earle who was a clergyman and for nearly twenty years a fellow of Merton College, Oxford. His clerical and scholarly bias is apparent in his frequent selection of types connected with the church and the university-“An Old College Butler,” “A Young Gentleman of the University”, “A Downright Scholar,” “A Plodding Student,” “An University Don,” “A Pretender to Learning,” and so forth.
(2)        Earle is not very exhibitive of his wit which is generally unobtrusive and polished. However, it sharpens up whenever he deals with hypocrisy, as when he chastises “A Pretender to Learning!’ who, as he says, “is one that would make others more fools than himself; for though he know nothing, he would not have the world know so much.”
(3)                 A novel feature initiated by Earle was the treatment of some inanimate objects among his characters. One such “character” is “A Tavern”. Earle says about it: “A house of sin you may call it, but not ahouse of darkness, for the candles are never out, and it is like those countries far in the north where it is as clear at midnight as at midday.”
(4)                 Much of the charm of Earle’s characters lies in his style. Tucker Brooke observes: “Earle has a neat epigrammatic style which, if he had lived a century later, would have been called Addisonian…” One of the most remarkable of his portraits is that of “A Child”, which curiously foreshadows Wordsworth’s exaltation of childhood. Mark these words: “The elder he grows, he is a stair lower from God, and
like his first father much worse in his breeches…Could he put off his body with his little coat, he had got eternity without a burthen, and exchanged but one heaven for another.”
After Earle:
After Earle we find the character shifting from the type to the individual. Samuel Butler’s large collection of characters was written in the late 1660’s but not published until 1759. Butler was pungently satirical and was chiefly concerned with contemporary follies and fads. However, it is not his characters but the characters of Earle which have a clear affinity with the spirit of the Taller and the Spectator. Thereafter the character, as David Daiches puts it in A Critical History of English Literature, Vol. I, was “ready to join the other streams that flowed into the English novel.”

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