Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Summer reading: The Garland of Good Will and Strange Histories, by Thomas Deloney

These are some pretty strange histories, all right. I mean, how often do you get to read a collection of ballads that includes "The murthering of King Edward the second, being killed with a hot burning spit," the travails of the Duchess of Suffolk as she flees from the evil Catholics, and a prose dialogue between ladies disguised as shepherds because they're hiding from Wat Tyler? "Eclectic" doesn't begin to cover it, really. Deloney seems to have a particular interest in the reigns of Henry II and Edward II, but otherwise, anything goes.

This is a version of history where women matter. Out of 38 ballads in the two collections, women are the speakers, heroines, or major supporting figures in at least 21. A striking number of them are the objects of a king's illicit desire. Most of the time, there's a definite division between Good and Bad women. Victims command sympathy, and those with historical and political agency are stigmatized; Deloney is much harder on Mistress Shore, who confesses, "Like a Queene I raigned / And many poore mens suits / By me was obtained*" than he is on Rosamund, who just hangs out in her labyrinth until she's poisoned. Nevertheless, there are some interesting exceptions: Deloney's longest ballad is on the subject of Judith and Holofernes. Queen Eleanor in Strange Histories," though Deloney blames her for fomenting wars and poisoning Rosamund, redeems herself by ruling wisely and well while her son is in Jerusalem: "And while she had this charge in hand, / her care was great in government. / And many a prisoner then in holde, / she set at large from yrons colde." (Although this section is in third person, Eleanor herself is the speaker for much of this ballad -- Deloney seems to reserve this voice for the repentant sinner most of the time. Mistress Shore and Gurney and Matrevers are also first-person narrators.)

Deloney experiments with a couple of different characterizations of Queen Isabella. A ballad in The Garland of Good Will emphasizes the "griefes and injuries" of "our noble Queene" (she is definitely an active heroine here, but she's forgiven for it because she weeps very prettily). On the other hand, the "dissembling Queene" of Strange Histories is cruel and vengeful, qualities that are tied to her femininity: "such is a womans deadly hate: / When fickle fancie follows change, / and lustfull thoughts delight to range."

All in all, an interesting read -- I'm not quite sure what I want to do with this stuff, but I'm glad to have read it.


Lea said...

Deloney is awesome. In the sense that he is completely on crack, and if he had lived in a later age, would totally have written a musical about Edward II, as this is what his ballad collections clearly indicate he wanted to do.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Heh. I think there should be a musical about Edward II -- I'd totally see it, and I don't even like musicals.

Lea said...

There is apparently a ballet based on Marlowe's play, now that I think about it. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I would also go to see an Edward II musical, though, but then, I do like musicals. ;)