The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 16. John Earle

But it was not in London that the character sketch reached its fullest development. A number of manuscript portraits had been in circulation for some years at Oxford, when Edward Blount printed them in 1628 under the title Microcosmographie. It was afterwards known that the collection was chiefly the work of John Earle. These productions are composed with a more chastened humour and in a more scholarly style than those of Hall, Overbury or Stephens. Conceits, of course, are not wanting, and many of the characters consist of jests and paradoxes invented out of such familiar figures as a trumpeter, a sergeant, a carrier, or a cook. Others, again, describe institutions, such as Wye Saltonstall was afterwards to portray. And others have a satirical or controversial purpose, coloured by the university point of view. But Microcosmographie contains something beyond wit, style and ephemeral satire. The other Theophrastians were exposing the absurdities which rival classes always discover in each other, or, at best, were analysing some type which creates interest because conspicuous. But Earle, under the guise of character sketches, enquires into the moral significance of the day’s unrecorded words and actions. He was one of the first writers who showed how essential a part of the ordinary man’s life is made up of trivial and familiar things, and, consequently, how carefully these trifles should be studied. Hence, he explains characters which seem so colourless that they generally pass unnoticed. We have searching analyses of such commonplaces as a child, a weak man, a mere formal man, a plain country fellow, a modest man, a poor man and a coward. Earle shows how a lack of vigilance in the veriest routine of life ends in selfdeception, error or discontent, and he constantly draws a comparison between the judgment of wise men and that passed by the common herd. His technique, roughly, is the same as that of his predecessors, but his initial definitions are sometimes more felicitous, and his conclusions sometimes break off with a studied heedlessness more contemptuous than any invective.

Hall, Overbury, Stephens and Earle completed the nationalisation of the Theophrastian character sketch. They were followed by a host of imitators, of whom John Cleveland, Samuel Butler and William Law were the greatest; and, from the time of the Civil War, this type of literature became a recognised weapon in party strife. Their work is important because it gave direction and method to the study of character, and introduced a crisp, concentrated style of description. They cannot be regarded as having materially influenced the novel, because the Theophrastian character sketch remained objective, but they supplemented, and, in some measure, supplanted the drama, which is always hampered in an age of class satire or political warfare. The beginning of a more subjective treatment is marked by the publication of The Wandering Jew (1649). This work is largely a reproduction of The Man in the Moone, with the important difference that the characters, besides being described, plead for themselves and thus enlist our sympathies.