Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
A Defence of Romances
By Sir George Mackenzie (1636–1691)
From Preface to Aretina

IT hath been rather the fate than merit of romances in all ages to be aspersed with these vices, whereof they were not only innocent, but to whose antidoting virtues they might justly pretend; for, whereas they are judged to be both the fire and faggots whereby love’s flames are both kindled and alimented, I believe, verily, that there is nothing can so easily extinguish them; for as those who have at court seen numbers of peerless and well decked beauties can hardly become enamoured of an ordinary country maid; so those who have seen a Philoclea or Cleopatra depencilled by the curious wits of Sidney and Scuderie, will hardly be invassalled by the (to them scarce approaching) traits of these whom this age garlands for admired beauties. Others, forsooth, accuse them for robbing us of our precious time; but this reproach is ill founded, for if the romance be abject none will trifle away their time in reading it, except those who would misspend it however, and if they be excellent, then time is rather spent than misspent in leafing 1 them over. There is also a third race of detractors who condemn them as lies; but since their authors propose them not with an intention to deceive, they cannot properly be reputed such: and albeit they seem but fables, yet who would unkernel them, would find huddled up in them real truths; and, as naturalists observe, those kernels are best where the shells are hardest, and those metals are noblest, which are mudded over with most earth. But to leave such fanatics in the bedlam of their own fancies, who should blush to trace in those paths which the famous Sydney, Scuderie, Barkley, and Broghill have beaten for them, besides thousands of ancients and moderns, ecclesiastics and laicks, Spaniards, French, and Italians, to remunerate whose endeavours fame hath wreathed garlands (to betemple their ingenious and ingenuous heads) which shall never fade while learning flourishes? I shall speak nothing of that noble romance, written by a bishop, which the entreaty of all the Eastern churches could never prevail with him to disown; and I am confident, that where romances are written by excellent wits, and perused by intelligent readers, that the judgment may pick more sound information from them, than from history, for the one teacheth us only what was done, and the other what should be done; and whereas romances present to us virtue in its holiday robes, history presents her only to us in those ordinary, and spotted suits which she wears while she is busied in her servile and lucrative employments; and as many would be incited to virtue and generosity, by reading in romances, how much it hath been honoured, so contrarywise, many are deterred by historical experience from being virtuous, knowing that it hath been oftener punished than acknowledged. Romances are those vessels which strain the crystal streams of virtue from the puddle of interest; whereas history suffers the memory to quaff them off in their mixed impurity; by these likewise lazy ladies and luxurious gallants are allured to spend in their chambers some hours, which else the one would consecrate to the bed, and the other to the brothel: and albeit essays be the choicest pearls in the jewel house of moral philosophy, yet I ever thought that they were set off to the best advantage, and appeared with the greatest lustre, when they were laced upon a romance; so that the curiosity might be satisfied, as well as the judgment informed, especially in this age wherein the appetite of men’s judgments is become so queasy, 2 that it can relish nothing that is not either vinegared with satires, or sugared with eloquence.
Note 1. leafing = turning over their leaves. [back]
Note 2. queasy = dainty, fastidious. [back]

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