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Gillian Austen. George Gascoigne.

Gillian Austen. George Gascoigne.

Studies in Renaissance Literature 24. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, Inc., 2008. xviii + 236 pp. index. illus. chron. bibl. $95. ISBN: 978-1-84384-157-9.

Gillian Austen's new study of the work of George Gascoigne is the first monograph to appear on this Tudor courtier, poet, and soldier since C. T. Prouty's 1942 biography. In it, Austen pursues a number of parallel projects: the first is a detailed discussion of each of Gascoigne's literary works, with the secondary aim of making an argument for the importance of this relatively neglected figure. Certainly Gascoigne's numerous literary innovations, his influence on his contemporaries and his high reputation for a generation or more after his death all argue for this renewed attention, and Austen's enthusiasm for her subject matter is both commendable and persuasive. A third aim, consistently returned to throughout the study, is to dislodge or at least to complicate the portrait of Gascoigne as a Reformed Prodigal. This image was central to Prouty's biography, and Gascoigne himself assiduously cultivated the persona in the works he published under his own name.

In the preface, Austen explains that her study is not a biography, but rather a survey of "the full range of personae and self-presentations which Gascoigne cultivated in order to manoeuvre within the system of patronage, including the figure of the Reformed Prodigal" (xi). The book proceeds chronologically, supplying as much biographical information as is necessary for understanding the context of a particular work. After a chapter that gives an overview of Gascoigne's career, subsequent chapters address the literary products of discrete time periods. Chapter 1 discusses the early years at Gray's Inn (1555-69), offering some useful comments on the literary culture of the Inns, and looking at the two poineering dramas written by Gascoigne for production there, Supposes and Jocasta. Here as elsewhere each work is treated very methodically, looking at the circumstances of its composition, its reception, subsequent critical response and so on.

Chapter 3 (1572-73) looks at Gascoigne's miscellany A Hundreth Sundrie Flowers. Published anonymously and presented as the work of several authors, this collection contains a variety of texts, including poems written much earlier, new work, an uncompleted work "Dan Bartholomew of Bath," and the first version of one of Gascoigne's most famous works, the prose narrative "A Discourse of the Adventures passed by Master F. J.," the story of an unrepentant seducer. Returning from fighting in the Netherlands in 1575, Gascoigne discovered that the publication of this book had caused a scandal, due to both "sundrie wanton speeches and lascivious phrases" it contained (85), as well as to suspicion of its libelous intent. This suspicion was likely due to Gascoigne's repeated hints that the work is autobiographical, which are countered by the repeated insistence that it is not.

His response was to rearrange and lightly revise the contents, including setting the adventures of F. J. in Italy and pretending the story was a translation of an Italian tale, and then to publish the revised collection under his own name as a work of moral instruction. This was followed by the publication that first established the Reformed Prodigal label, The Glasse of Government, which Austen identifies as "a rare example of the Dutch Prodigal Son play" (103). The same year saw Gascoigne's most ambitious bid for preferment with the entertainments written for Elizabeth's visit to Leicester's Kenilworth estate, later published anonymously. In the last substantial chapter Austen discusses a few more works in the Reformed Prodigal vein, published in the year before his death (1576).

The strict, chronological approach to Gascoigne's works helps to support Austen's thesis that the Reformed Prodigal pose Gascoigne adopted midway through his career was not the result of a sudden moral awakening, since works published after it continue to adopt different personae. It does, however, make for a choppy and repetitive account at times. Austen's rejection of a simplistic acceptance of the claim to reformation is sensible, although Richard Helgerson made a similar argument in The Elizabethan Prodigals (1976), where he deftly explored the relations between biography, fiction and popular cultural narratives. Austen frequently concludes discussions by observing that Gascoigne's "self-presentation" in his works was highly varied, but the book would have been more compelling had it gone further to explore the reasons for this, and constructed a fuller account of Gascoigne's personae that built on recent discussions of such things as courtliness and performance; patronage, public service, and poetry; inwardness, self-fashioning, or other accounts of Renaissance subjectivity or identity. In spite of this reticence, Austen's study is a valuable re-introduction to the career of an important and protean Tudor figure.


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Author:Ellis, Jim
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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