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Composed, Altered and Transformed: The Other Self in Seventeenth-Century English Character-Books

Claire Labarbe


Les livres de caractères anglais du XVIIe siècle sont des recueils de courts essais satiriques dans lesquels le “caractère” d’imprimerie s’applique métaphoriquement à la description des divers lieux, métiers et gens de Londres. Le format conventionnel de ces livres et la satire de traits toujours répétés semblent difficilement compatibles avec l’exploration des profondeurs du caractère de l’homme. Partant des proximités formelles entre le caractère et l’essai, cet article propose néanmoins de déterminer la contribution du genre aux représentations de soi pendant la période. Après un passage par la galerie des vaniteux que leur inconstance rend aveugles à eux-mêmes, l’article s’intéresse à la stigmatisation morale et idéologique du changement dans la littérature contemporaine. Le changement n’était néanmoins pas toujours source d’opprobre. L’étude d’un recueil de caractères représentant d’étranges métamorphoses humaines démontre que le genre des caractères, tout en exprimant la figure sociale de l’homme, permit aussi d’en imaginer la nature secrète.

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Notes de la rédaction

This essay derives from a paper given at the ESSE seminar “The Inhuman Self across Early Modern Genres: Textual Strategies 1550-1700” in Galway on 24-25 August 2016.

Texte intégral

  • 1 André Gide, Les Faux-monnayeurs, quoted by Simon Leys, in Protée et Autres Essais (69). My translat (...)

I do not know what to make of him, truth be told. He is never the same for long. He does not hold on to anything, but there is nothing as captivating as his evanescence. You’ve only just met him and cannot tell what he is. His being constantly unforms, forms and re-forms itself. You might think you are about to grasp him [...] but this is Proteus. Proteus takes on the shape of what he loves. And in order to comprehend what he himself might be, one has to love him.1

Essaying the Self

1In ancient mythology, Proteus, the sea-god and shepherd of seals, took on various shapes in order to elude those who pressed him to divulge his prophetic insights. As evidenced in the above quotation, it is Proteus’s mercurial and seemingly unidentifable nature which raises the question of what his defining identity might be. Identity, the quality or condition of being the same in substance, composition, nature or properties, is really at stake when it is negated, blurred or multiplied. And as with Proteus, change itself can become someone’s most defining characteristic.

  • 2 Since the seventeenth-century, the word “self” has been used to refer to “a person’s or thing’s ind (...)

2In modern psychology and in everyday lore, the discussion of what one might be commonly revolves around notions of change. In the arts, the complexity and elusiveness of the self has been depicted through visual subversions of distinct shapes and through literary rewritings of classical tales of metamorphosis (see Walker Bynum and Warner). Albeit generally associated with the idea of an enduring personal identity, the notion of self simultaneously relies on possible changes of state.2 Literary introspection, which might be expected to give access to the true constant core of someone’s personality, typically presents the self as subject to change.

  • 3 For a literary history of the rise of the early modern self, see for instance Mascuch.

3Scholarly narratives of the “emergence of the self” in the early modern period have turned to the metamorphic form of the essay as evidence of the rise of a new form of self-consciousness.3 Such narratives have been called into question for their excessive reliance on literary texts and cultural artefacts and comparative disregard for commonplace experience and everyday practice. In his review essay of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1989), Mario Moussa (1992) objects to Taylor’s dogmatic conception of “the Western self” and finds fault with Taylor’s limited exploration of the relations between philosophical traditions and the related fields of anthropology, history and sociology. “Although the urbane prose of Montaigne, say, marks an advance in literary techniques of self-scrutiny,” writes Moussa, “the observer of contemporary life needs to show how they help any of ‘us’ understand ourselves better or give ‘us’ deeper selves” (225-26).

  • 4 The passage is quoted by Moussa (215).
  • 5 See Nelson (50-51).

4As pointed out by Roy Porter, the appealing tale of “how the West discovered a unique self unknown to former times, an inner psyche unfamiliar in other cultures [...] has the ring of myth, even an air of soap-box rhetoric, especially when recounted as an epic in which the heroic self [...] reaches its peak of perfection in our own times” (8). In Montaigne’s Essays and in other similar literary attempts, the “self” under scrutiny and the process of scrutiny are dependent entities. One may thus question the search for a deeper understanding of “any of us” in Montaigne’s personal considerations as a narcissistic and anachronistic projection. But one is also forced to admit that the subject of the self “doesn’t permit language which escapes personal resonance” (Taylor 512).4 How else can we apprehend other people’s experiences of themselves if not through what we know of ourselves? And how could one speak of the self without speaking of himself or herself?5

5Montaigne is most true at his most personal, and banal everyday life observations are the most likely to have relevance for anyone. In an essay where he recounts stumbling upon the “vnpleasing chance” of becoming affected with the “stone chollike,” Montaigne describes his intermittent accumulation and convoluted elaboration of words on the page as an intermittent record of passing years and a faithful mirror of his changing humours:

THis hudling vp of so much trash, or packing of so many severall pieces, is done so strangely, as I never lay hands on it, but when an over lazie idlenesse vrgeth me [...]. So hath it beene compact at sundry pauses, and contrived at severall intervalls, as occasions have sometime for many months together, heere and there in other places, detained me. [...] My purpose is, to represent the Progresse of my humours, that every part be seene or member distinguished, as it was produced. (Montaigne 424-25)

While Montaigne regrets not having kept his humoural diary as regularly as he could have, thus creating lapses in time, the patchwork nature of his essays is also the best record of the periods of activity which kept him away from writing as well as of the physical and mental changes incurred along the way.

  • 6 The second edition of Stephens’s collection was printed in octavo. It contained eight essays (1-162 (...)
  • 7 Earle’s collection was first printed in duodecimo. The characters are on average between four and f (...)

6Montaigne’s collection was published in French between 1580 and 1588, and the first edition of John Florio’s influential English translation was published in 1603. In seventeenth-century England, one of the popular forms the essay took was that of the character. Characters were short descriptive essays which were published in collections known as “character-books”, in miscellanies of various short forms or as an appendix to longer essays or letters. The titles of several character collections show that character-writing was conceived of as a species of the essay. Whereas John Stephens’s Essayes and Characters (1615, 2nd ed) include both essays and characters (the essays are on average twenty pages long, compared to an average of under ten pages per character),6 John Earle’s Essayes and Characters include some fifty-four characters in the first editions (1628) and no essays.7 In Earle’s as in most character collections, the word “essayes” featuring in the title refers to the characters themselves rather than to distinct essays.

  • 8 Bacon’s essays on the same themes were first published at different dates: “Of Death” (1612, enlarg (...)
  • 9 As in the title of a character collection entitled Micrologia, Characters, or Essayes, of persons, (...)

7Nicholas Breton notably contributed to the association of the two forms by presenting his first book of characters as a “charactering” of essays following the model of Francis Bacon’s better-known essays (sig. A3-A3v). Breton’s Characters Upon Essaies Morall, and Divine are an attempt to emulate Bacon’s work, and as such they illustrate the experimental nature of the essay, in its original sense of a trial, testing or proof. Breton’s characters also follow their Baconian model in providing the reader with a definition of general notions such as “love,” “time” or “death”8 rather than with the description of specific “persons, trades, and places,”9 the most common topics of seventeenth-century English character-books.

8Character-writing as practised by Breton and his contemporaries differed from Protean essay-writing as practised by Montaigne in that it allowed writers to typecast notions in singular vignettes rather than elaborate on them through lengthy convolutions. Seventeenth-century character-books no doubt owed their considerable success to their diminutive format (they were mostly issued as octavo or duodecimo pamphlets) and to their authors’ stated ambition to encapsulate the entire world of man in the nutshell of a series of concise descriptions. Despite and because of this essential formal difference between the satirical character and the reflexive essay, early modern books of characters contributed to a different representation of the self.

  • 10 In this paper, I am using italics when referring to the literary form of the character and no itali (...)

9This paper aims to demonstrate that character writers represented the human self as “constructed, fashioned, performed and represented” rather than as an “authentic, mostly stable inner reality” (Clymer 285). By satirizing the repetitive traits and fickle behaviour of various social types, character-writers portrayed the shimmering deceit of appearances against the opaque backdrop of another deeper self. By doing so, they echoed contemporary attacks against self-fashioned change which also underpinned the condemnation of artificial make-up and the rejection of anthropological alterity as monstruous alterations from the norm. But not all change was conceived of as negative. By focusing on an anonymous collection entitled A Strange Metamorphosis of Man transformed into a Wildernesse Deciphered in Characters (1634), this paper raises the question of whether the highly constrained genre of character-books may have contributed to a subversive imagining of other forms of the human. Character literature, while expressing “the human figure in its social form” (Fowler 28), may also have served to project the human figure in what could be called its natural form.10

She is one, she knows not what her selfe”: Composing vs. Knowing Oneself

10Joseph Hall’s Characters of Vices and Vertues (1608) is commonly conceived of as the first English book of characters, in keeping with the tradition set by anthologists and critics who have used Hall’s assumedly seminal collection to support their reading of the seventeenth-century English genre of characters as an imitation of the Greek Characters of Theophrastus (circa 372-288 BC). Hall’s systematic classification of human characters into two books, the first one devoted to virtues and the second one to vices, was intended to make up for the fact that Theophrastus had only left characters of bad people and thus to complete the Greek philosopher’s supposedly moral venture by staging the positive counterparts of vicious natures. While maintaining his moral claim of the supremacy of good over evil so as to preempt the suspicion that his satirical depiction of vices might delight but fail to instruct, Hall made use of the secular form of the character as a means of making his homiletic message more pleasant and widely accessible.

  • 11 La Bruyère prefaced his Caractères with a French translation of Theophrastus’ Characters. Within a (...)

11Hall’s book provided the reader with allegorical illustrations rather than topical descriptions of typical human behaviour. It could thus travel across cultures and was the only English book of characters to be translated at the time (the first edition of Tourval’s French translation came out in Paris in 1610). Hall’s collection belongs to that literary genre of the “Theophrastan character” which became ever more popular following the success of La Bruyère’s French Caractères in England about a century later.11 The conception of English characters as “Theophrastan” has however been questioned by critics who have identified various other sources for the genre (Considine). While Hall’s reliance on Isaac Casaubon’s Latin translation of Theophrastus (1592) was limited, it can be argued that his collection is little representative of the English genre of characters as a whole.

12Authors of character-books were for the most part Oxbridge scholars in the early stages of their Church or literary careers or young law students at the Inns of Court. For those newly come to the city, satirising the multiple figures and ever-changing aspects of London was a means of unveiling the city’s hidden secrets while establishing their own identity as young urban writers. In contrast to Hall’s allegorical types and to Breton’s philosophical and rather abstract use of the character form to define general notions in general terms, several character collections offer a living geography of the city of London. John Earle’s Micro-cosmographie, or, a Peece of the World Discovered: in Essayes and Characters (1628) and Donald Lupton’s London and the Countrey Carbonadoed and Quartred into several Characters (1632), to name but two, would be of equal interest to urban historians, anthropologists and sociologists.

  • 12 In The Holy and Profane State (Cambridge: Printed [...] for John Williams, 1642), the clergyman and (...)

13Since character writers describe common places and types rather than identifiable individuals,12 they are expectedly more concerned with depicting the self as a social construct than as the reflexive conscience people may have of themselves. Character-books relate to conduct books (themselves not unlike our modern self-help books) in that they provide readers with role-models whose social garb and polite prudence the readers are advised to adopt. By satirising the affected mannerisms of self-fashioned types, however, authors of characters simultaneously call upon readers to consider such characters as lacking that self-awareness which readers should acquire by recognising themselves in the mirror of faults held up to them. In combining manners and morals, authors of characters thus offer a conception of the self both as the composed appearance of social identities and as an interior conscience which can be reflected upon, following the example set by the character of the “Wise Man,” about whom Hall writes that “THERE is nothing that he desires not to know, but most and first himselfe” (5).

14Although the word “identity” does not occur in their descriptions, authors of characters define people and places as distinct from one another and as constant (or constantly inconstant) in themselves. Particular types of people can be recognised and identified, at least to the extent that their repeated actions and habitual manners of speech are predictable enough to be jotted down in the form of a character. Characters are rarely aware of their self-sameness, there’s the rub. Even the hypocrite, who knows how to stage his or her persona in order to deceive others with a pretence of devotion, lacks self-awareness. “She is one, she knows not what her selfe if you aske her,” writes John Earle of the “She Precise Hypocrite” (1628): “shee is indeed one that ha’s taken a toy at the fashion of Religion, and is enamour’d of the Newfangle. See [sic] is a Nonconformist in a close Stomacher and Ruffe of Geneua Print, and her puritie consists much in her Linnen” (Earle sig. H5v). In Earle’s description of a “Hypocrite,” an epithet which in character literature can either refer to Puritans or Jesuits, the subversive conscience of the female religious dissenter is denied and suppressed by portraying her as a volatile afficionada of vestimentary fashion.

15The introductory paraphernelia of prefaces and addresses to the reader put aside, occurrences of the word “self” in books of characters are mostly confined to the formation of compound nouns or adjectives such as (in John Stephens’s first edition of his Satyrical Essayes Characters and Others, 1615) “selfe-lover,” “selfe-conceit,” “self-pleasing,” “selfe-respect” or “selfe-will”. The recurrence of such words in association with specific types of behaviour contributes to the creation of commonplace characters whose typical traits and behaviours are taken up in successive collections by various authors. As shown in the following examples, the reflexive stance signalled by the use of the word “self” is in most cases a sign of a character’s excessive concern or reprehensible infatuation with themselves. Conversely, the word “self” acquires a positive sense when describing a character’s relations with other selves, be they his own soul or his alter ego.

16The term “selfe-love” first features in Hall’s “Characterism of the Ambitious” (1608) and his “Male-content” is characterised as “ever headstrong, and selfe-willed” (Hall 101). In Earle’s description of a “Discontented Man” (1628), “the roote of the disease is a selfe-humouring pride” (Earle sig. B12). The adjective “selfe-humouring” comes up again in Thomas Jordan’s character of a “Melancholly Man” (1641), in what seems to be a close adaptation of Earle’s earlier Discontent: “But this mad Malady [Melancholly] doth often spring, / From the soft Mischiefe of self-humouring, / Or an affected Pride [...]” (Jordan sig. B6v). Jordan’s character of a “Complemental Man” flatters his gullible victims by tickling them with self-conceit. But the sycophant is unlikely to reach his ends with the incorruptible character of a “Noble Spirit” about whom Jordan writes that “Nor is there any Man hath power to cause, / A self-opinion in him, with Applause” (Jordan sig. D8).

17Apart from the use of such compounds indicating a vicious or diseased concern with oneself, occurrences of the word “self” in books of characters are rather rare. In the following examples, the word is used to refer to others, and only once to the character’s own (other) self. Breton’s definition of “A Worthy Queene” (1616) as “the Kings second selfe” (Breton The Good and the Badde 3) echoes Thomas Overbury’s poetic ideal of A Wife (1614) as the perfect match of her husband: “My Wife is my Adopted-selfe, and Shee / As Mee, so what I love, to Love must frame” (Overbury C1v.). Lenton’s similar description of “A Friend” (1631) as “a mans second selfe” (Lenton sig. H) might bring to mind Montaigne’s close friendship with La Boétie, whose death robbed Montaigne of half of his own self: “I was so accustomed to be ever two, and so enured to be never single, that me thinks I am but halfe my selfe” (Montaigne 95, Chapter XXVII, “Of Friendship”). Love and friendship can produce a physical, material or legal expansion of the self. Conversely, selfishness is likely to result in a spiritual if not an apparent diminution of the self, while Lenton’s “Bachelour [...] thinkes himselfe happy in that hee hath none to care for but himselfe, whilest he cares not at all for his Nobler selfe, his Soule” (Lenton sig. G2v). The soul is here broadly defined as that other self in us which we must morally if not spiritually scrutinize and “care for” so as to remain constant in ourselves and with others.

“Grosse alterations, & substantiall changes of nature”: Stigmatizing Change in Early Modern Culture

  • 13 See Dudley North’s despondent conclusion to one of his characters (101).

18Earle’s characters of the “Discontented Man” and of the “She Precise Hypocrite” are solely concerned with themselves – the coquette with her own appearance, the ill-tempered man with his own melancholy – without actually knowing themselves. And the main reason why those characters cannot acquire self-awareness, correct themselves and change – a reality which triggers occasional admissions of defeat from discouraged moralists –13 is because there is nothing in them which is not already subject to change, be it their humours, garments, affections or political and religious allegiances.

  • 14 There are at least two portraits of Frances Howard at the National Portrait Gallery, one of which m (...)

19In early modern pagan and religious literature, the condemnation of moral or sexual inconstancy was often paired with a denunciation of artificial self-fashioning as a sinful deviation from nature. Thomas Tuke’s Treatise against Painting and Tincturing of Men and Women (1616) has been described as “a sustained, biblically inspired attack on cosmetics” (see Merritt). The treatise was published in the aftermath of the imprisonment and alleged murder of Sir Thomas Overbury following his opposition to the nullification of Frances Howard’s marriage to the earl of Essex, a legal act which would leave her free to marry Robert Carr. Tuke’s polemic “Character of a Painted Woman” (57-62) may very well have been aimed at the notorious beauty who was accused of the murder.14 The character, which was published as an illustrative appendix to Tuke’s treatise, describes a coquette competing with the presumably masculine God who has created her as a woman by daring to be “her owne creatrisse, as a picture.”

20Paradoxically, the woman’s artful means of challenging Nature are represented through evocations of the natural world. Thus the woman’s abnormal complexion is best expressed as a hermophradite compound and vegetable embrace: she “is both a substantive and an adjective, and yet not of the neuter gender: but a feminine as well consorting with the masculine, as Ivie with an Ash.” In keeping with her cameleon-like appearance, her fickle behaviour and fluctuating feelings wax and wane with the tide. Her love “is as changeable as her face” and “her devises follow her fansie, as the motions of the Sea do the Moone.”

  • 15 Donne’s or in my case any one author’s.
  • 16 Helen Peters argues that the Paradoxes were written in the early 1590s when Donne was still a law s (...)

21In his Paradoxes, John Donne questioned common opinions by showing how contradictory they were and by proposing his own contrary (and often equally self-contradictory) arguments. Donne’s prose Problems and Paradoxes were first published in 1633 as posthumous Juvenilia. They were reprinted in 1652 in a collection of Problems, Essayes and Characters along with other satirical pieces advertised on the title-page as having been “found lately amongst his [Dr Donne’s] own papers.” Interested as I am in contemporary rehashings of cultural commonplaces through print rather than with “illustrating the considerable imaginative and intellectual continuity in his15 writing as a whole” (Rhodes 7), I have here chosen to quote from the 1652 spurious edition rather than from Helen Peters’s 1980 scholarly edition of the Paradoxes and Problems based on original manuscript sources.16

  • 17 In her edition, Helen Peters excludes from the canon as of doubtful authenticity two “Paradoxes,” i (...)
  • 18 The two questions from the “Paradox” “That Women ought to Paint” here quoted in the 1652 edition ar (...)

22In the 1652 edition, Donne’s paradoxical praise of feminine make-up, “That Women ought to Paint” (7-10), is paired with “A Defence of Womens Inconstancy” (1-7).17 Drawing a comparison between face-painting and the art of the painter, Donnepoints out the superiority of Art over Nature in a possible evocation of Parrhasius’ famous contest with Zeuxis:18 “Are we not more delighted with seeing Birds, Fruits, and Beasts painted then we are with Naturals?” (9) The author’s satirical tone surfaces in his suggestion that some natures are at their best when somewhat disguised: “And do we not with pleasure behold the painted shape of monsters and devils whom true, we durst not regard?” (9). The force of the Paradoxes is that they can and must be read as both flippantly ironic and in earnest: women’s devilish or monstruous nature was certainly not a jest for all.

  • 19 The first edition came out in 1650. The accompanying woodcuts were added in the 1653 edition.

23Colonial expansion meant that inconstant and artificial women were no longer the sole target of normative discourse. While fickle females were the opprobrium of the civilised world, inhabitants of the new world conveniently became the barbarous foils of refined humankind. In Anthropometamorphosis, Man Transform’d; or the Artificial Changeling (1650, 1653),19 John Bulwer, a medical practictioner and theorist, produced an indictment of the devious corruptions of nature practised by “most nations.” Bulwer’s denunciation of reprehensible body alterations and his rejection of facial difference in reality targets indigenous people and cultures whose “artificiall” barbarism and deviant “arts” Bulwer contrasts with the “naturall” complexion, gallantry and social supremacy of the English. The corrupt fashions of the English are consequently attributed to the nefarious influence of foreign cultures: “Our English Ladies, who seeme to have borrowed some of their Cosmeticall conceits from Barbarous Nations, are seldome known to be contented with a Face of Gods making; for they are either adding, detracting, or altering continually, having many Fucusses in readinesse for the same purpose” (1653, 260-261).

Figure 1: “An illustration of the perverse reflection of ‘barbarous’ practices in occidental manners”

Figure 1: “An illustration of the perverse reflection of ‘barbarous’ practices in occidental manners”

John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform’d: or, the Artificiall Changling, 1653.

© British Library Board (G. 10448., p. 261).

24The word “changeling” in Bulwer’s title does not refer to the substitution of one person for another but to different modes of alteration whereby man’s nature is reshaped and distorted, changed from itself both in its substance and in its apparent form: “Stay, Changeling Proteus! Let me count the rapes / Made on thy form, in thy abusive shapes: / I have observ’d thy Nature-scoffing art / Wherewith th’ast Schematiz’d in every part” (1650, sig. A2). Bulwer goes on to list all the parts of the foreign body whose difference – be it genetic or cultural – he identifies as a deviation from the normative anatomy of the English gallant. But the images Bulwer uses to describe the “artificially” altered shapes of man seem no less natural than those he uses to describe the pristine model: “Out of wise Nature’s plastique hands thy Head / Came like a Ball of wax, oblongly spread: / Now’ts like, in its acuminated line, / A Sugar-loaf or Apple of the Pine” (1650, sig. A2). By using such circular metaphors – one may wonder what makes a pine cone less natural than a ball of wax – Bulwer unwittingly undermines his rejection of the colonized other as “naturally” inferior.

25In keeping with contemporary physiognomical theories, authors of characters conceived of the face and other physical characteristics as the visible index of someone’s true character. By applying the metaphor of the typeface or font, with its fixed “characters” that are imprinted on the page, to the description of fixed identities, character writers figuratively expanded upon the emblematic metaphor of the Book of Nature. And by presenting their books as the abridged transcription of the immutable “characters” which Nature has impressed upon men, character writers seem hardly inclined to depict instances of bodily or moral transformation.

26The reliability of Samuel Person’s character of “A Free Spirited, or a Liberal Man” (1664) thus depends on his not being subject to change:

This law of nature is so imprinted on his minde; that he must doe as he would be done to, that time shall not raise it out, it being ingraven in the table of his minde, and printed in the booke of his conscience, as with a pen of iron and pencil of brasse with indelible Characters. (45)

The generous man cannot but act generously, because he cannot change his nature. People who are determined by indeterminacy are equally predictable, legible and characterizable, as exemplified by Hall’s character of “The Unconstant” (1608) who “sayes, sweares, renounces, because what hee promised hee meant not long enough to make an impression” (109).

27Along with marking people with indelible characters, nature’s plastic hands can however favour continuous growth and malleable transformation. In one of his verse characters, Alexander Garden describes the impression made by education and experience on “A Young Man” (1625) as follows: “For Youth is lyke to Lumpes of Lead, or Waxe, / That at the Workers Will th’Impression takes. / Which being hardned, and becomming cold, / Th’Indented Dints and forme it hath, doth hold” (61). Garden compares the young man to a half-fledged bird, a colt that needs breaking, a falcon that must be “well-manned” and a flower that will turn to fruit or perish – “Hee is a Bloome, that’s blasted in the Bud, / Or growes to bee a Fruite that’s faire and good” (60).

28Tender years are decisive because they determine the course of a character’s moral path and whether he or she will proceed onto “the Wyde, or Narrow Way.” In Wye Saltonstall’s “Poeme of a Mayde” (1631), the image of the flower thus appears in conjunction with the moral threat of illicit sexual intercourse:

Those younger yeeres are flexible, their will
As soone seduc’d to act some fond transgression,
And soone consent importun’d once to ill,
Like virgins waxe receiving all impression;
Or like some flower which doth in growth proceed,
Themselves got up, streight haste to run to seed. (sig.

Seedy men are a threat to young virgins and the bodily transformation the maid is likely to undergo if she comes too close to male seducers will appear as a visible mark of her infamy.

29Not all representations of transformation were as repressively negative and “for all that the metamorphoses that happen between the Reformation are inflected by serious, even punitive, consequences,” writes Susan Wiseman, there are texts in which “the idea of a changed state is an imaginative resource at times pressed into service by those who most need change” (5). In this paper, I will not further elaborate upon the political or social need for change. I will however present an atypical book of characters in which images of transformation escape moral stigmatization, an imaginative resource whose purpose must remain open for interpretation.

Strangely “transformed into the shape of everie thing”: Definition as Expansion

30Whether monstruous or marvellous, literary representations of metamorphosis betrayed a common concern with change and otherness. In Writing Metamorphosis in the English Renaissance (2014), Susan Wiseman has shown that “the seventeenth century [was] marked by concentration on the potential of the human, and indeed the very matter of the world, to change or be changed” (1). This concern with change was disclosed in “vernacular epistemologies as well as elite modes of knowledge” (1) and in a wide variety of texts and situations which Wiseman analyses in a series of chapters exploring classical, sacred, physiological, “folkloric” and ethnographic transformations of the human.

31Pastoral poetry, popular mythology, “secret” hieroglyphs, medieval bestiaries and animal fables all had an influence on how early modern writers imagined and represented nature for their own satirical, moral or self-examining purposes. The anonymous duodecimo collection A Strange Metamorphosis of Man transformed into a Wildernesse Deciphered in Characters (1634) suggests that in early modern literature, metaphors of nature and anthropomorphic metamorphoses did not just serve the merely ornamental function of pathetic fallacies. As I will argue, such written transformations effectively created an imaginary crossing of the borders of the human (see Fudge et al; Feerick and Vin Nardizz).

32In his 1949 annotated edition of the anonymous pamphlet, Don Cameron Allen refutes the attribution of the publication to Richard Brathwait on the grounds that he deems it inconsistent with Brathwait’s other writings, his aloof manner and lack of sensitive awareness (ix-x). But Brathwait’s eclectic literary output, which in 1634 already included several collections of pastorals, a series of Essaies vpon the Fiue Senses (1620), two conduct books (first published in 1630 and 1631) and a character collection entitled Whimzies: or, a New Cast of Characters (1631), could just as well support the claim of his authorship of a collection anatomizing nature in a series of characters.

  • 20 Brathwait’s most popular work was published anonymously in 1638 under the pseudonym “Corymbaeus.” B (...)
  • 21 Such an authorial approach was adopted by Robert Ellrodt in his examination of the notion of self i (...)

33Allen’s refutation relies on the assumption of a unified and constant self made manifest in an author’s various writings, an assumption which takes little account of the different personæ an author was likely to adopt depending on the purpose and circumstances of a specific composition.20 Ultimately, the idea that an author’s writings were necessarily consistent does not fit with the early modern conception of literary invention, which in many instances relied on elaborate forms of imitation. For the purposes of this article, I am particularly satisfied with the fact that the author of the pamphlet remains unidentified, since it allows me to reflect on the “strange” self presented in the collection without making biographical or psychological assumptions about the author’s own self.21

34According to Allen, the original subject of the collection could have been inspired by Breton’s Fantasticks, “for Breton had discovered – what others had only partially noticed – that characters existed outside the limits of mankind” (xvii). In his Fantasticks (1626), Breton did not however refer to his brief descriptions of the earth, elements, fish, beasts, humans, seasons and months as characters (sig. C3v). Moreover, by 1634, other writers had issued characters which described not just human types but the human world and which Allen makes no mention of (see Lupton).

35Allen identifies various sources for the pamphlet, among which Aristotle (specifically his History of Animals), Aldrovandi (1522-1605), Edward Topsell’s bestiary (1607), John Caius’ Of English Dogges (1576) and Valerianus’ Hieroglyphica (1556). As indicated by the title of the pamphlet, Ovid’s Metamorphoses were also a source. After having provided the reader with the moral frame of a biblical reference to the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the setting for the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the author of A Strange Metamorphosis moves on to evoke the classical enchantment stories of Circe transforming Ulysses’s crew into swine and of her sister Pasiphæ’s monstruous passion for the bull Poseidon had sent to her husband Minos:

[...] To finde him then, we must leave the Citie, and seeke him in the Wildernesse. Where behold a strange Metamorphosis! Wee finde him not in his owne similitude, but like Ulissis Crew, transformed into the shape of everie thing we meete with. [...] But lest of a wildernesse of things, I make a wildernesse of words, and loose my selfe in my owne wildernesse: Or laboring in a Maze as Pasiphae in her labyrinth, instead of a Metamorphosis, I present you with a Mynotaure. I must intreat thee reader to take my meaning thy Clew to guide thee in and out: which is not to make Monsters of Characters, or to character Monsters, but to present thee with an innocent and harmelesse recreation, through a strange imaginarie Metamorphosis, and that reading without the acerbitie of a Savage, thou shew they selfe at least to be a reasonable Man, in thine own likenesse. (sig. A3-A4v)

Man’s moral pilgrimage away from the corruption of the built city and into the “rectitude” of the uncultivated desert is inversely reflected in the author’s demand that the reader relinquish his “savage” disposition in exchange for his “reasonable” self.

36The anonymous author’s statement that his meaning is not “to character Monsters” suggests that he does not intend to describe mythological creatures such as minotaurs, mermaids or centaurs but rather the common marvels of a familiar landscape, such as “The Squirril,” “The Bramble,” “The Rocke,” “The Snaile,” “The Swallow” or “The Oake”. Nor does the author intend “to make Monsters of Characters” by creating a hybrid form of description which would be neither this nor that and whose various generic influences would make it as doubtful a mongrel as the leopard born of the lioness (sig. B2) and as amphibious a creature as the bat, which partakes both of the mouse and the bird (sig. F6v-F7).

  • 22 “Du signe, on retient la part sensible, celle-là même qui jusque là était suspectée. [...] La litté (...)

37Down-to-earth personifications make for a curious inventory of nature. Rather than seeing such anthropomorphic projections as evidence that the natural world is reduced to the status of an allegorical vehicle, a transparent conveyer of an extraneous reality, namely man, I would argue that the author’s images of nature invent a sense of self which could otherwise neither be represented nor imagined. In Allen’s words, “whereas the Renaissance had been given to seeing nature in man and to searching for the macrocosm in the wilderness of the body, this man [the author of A Strange Metamorphosis] saw man in nature and surveyed the creatures for those particular qualities that made them singularly human” (Fantasticks xvii). In that sense, the pamphlet can be seen to participate in what Elizabeth Spica and Yves Delègue have described as an inversion of the medieval exegetic relation between images and meaning in Renaissance emblem literature.22 Rather than substituting nature for man (or man for nature), the author of the pamphlet represents a wondrous blending of man and nature, whereby the appearance, qualities and modes of being of both nature and man are essentially altered.

  • 23 See for instance John Stephens’s description of the “prowling Officers” whose corruption is such th (...)

38The author of A Strange Metamorphosis did at times resume the allegorical mode of traditional images inherited from medieval bestiaries which informed the early modern interpretation of ancient hieroglyphs and the parallel reinvention of the classical genre of the fable. The commonplace description of the fox as a deceitful animal who “hath a slye looke, and a notable leering eye of his owne” (sig. I5) could be found in about just any text of the period.23 Besides casting traditional animal lore and allegorical stereotypes into the fashionable mould of a character collection, the author of A Strange Metamorphosis did however offer an original compendium of zoological, botanical, technical, artistic, rhetorical and urban knowledge.

  • 24 On the history of the London “Lion Tower,” see Stow (42).

39Everyday realities of early modern London feature throughout the collection. The character of the Elephant signals that the animal was perhaps most familiar to contemporary Londoners in the guise of the fabricated Trojan Horse of scenic displays and street triumphs: “The Elephant / IS a huge Colossus or Mausoleon of flesh and bloud to bury quicke in, a certain thing they call life, which like an Artificiall engine within, gives it a motion, and makes it a kind of a moving Pageant in the form of an Elephant” (sig. E8). The character of the lion includes equally topical references, as the moral curbing of the beast’s regal pride subjects it to the grim fate of the common vagrant: “If hee chance to flye out at any time or be unruly, whereas Mad-men are put into Bedlam, Rogues into Bridwell, Beggers into the Stocks, Night-walkers into the counter, he for his nobilitie is clapt into the Tower” (sig. B3).24

  • 25 The description of “The Coalepit” as “the Peru of Newcastle Merchants” locates what was already the (...)
  • 26 “jowl / jole: The head of a fish; hence (as a cut or dish), the head and shoulders of certain fish, (...)

40In his characters of “The Golden Myne” (sig. B10) and “The Coalepit” (sig. D3),25 the author defines nature not just in its human shape but as shaped by man, dressing practical knowledge about the exploitation of natural resources in a pleasing medley of classical metaphors and humour theory. The author extends the discussion to everyday products in his characters of “Tobacco” (sig. H11) and of “The Mustard-seed” (sig. D8v), the sine qua non condiment of popular meals such as the “Joule of Ling”26 and the “Surloyn of Beefe.” The close observation of the changing hues and textures of “The Moss” (sig. F9-F11), the everlasting “mantle of the wilderness” covering trees and tombs, gives way to a detailed inventory of human-made textiles. Reminding the reader that “Tapestrie, Valence, Velvet, or Plush” are originally sourced from nature, the author suggests that the moss could furnish artisans with as good felt as that which is made out of beaver fur provided “wee had but the art to dresse and handle it as it should be.”

41The author of A Strange Metamorphosis compiles an inventory of the stuff the world is made on as well as of its more impalpable components. The soundscape of contemporary London features in the description of the lion’s cubs, whose deafening cries are said to rival those of the street criers in Westminster hall (sig. B2v). Contrasting with the boisterous uproar of the city, the description of “The Eccho” evokes the ephemeral reverberation of sounds in forests: “The Eccho [...] is the true Camelion of the Aire that changes into every colourable sense, the Proteus that transformes herself to every shape of words” (sig. C9).

42The echo is the sound mirror in which nature reflects itself. As for “The Lake,” it does not just reflect the image of Narcissus and the nymphs and satyrs of classical mythology but also those of wild animals who can see themselves for who they are: “He is no flatterer, but a true tell-troth, for he will shew the Stagge his braunchy hornes, the Asse his prodigious eares” (sig. C12v). While providing the reader with stylistic information about Senecan rhetoric and technical knowledge about glass mirrors, the author depicts a nature which has become its own reflection, rather than man’s. The kaleidoscopic projection of human traits onto the vast “wilderness of things” in A Strange Metamorphosis of Man (1634) thus results in an unexpectedly unsettling presentation of man’s nature as an unbounded poetic entity, hinting at unexplored layers and regions of the human.


43Seventeenth-century character writers contributed to a representation of the “self” as a cultural artifact rather than as “an epiphany of identity freely chosen” (Greenblatt 256). But there was more to their understanding of the human than a series of two-dimensional types strutting and fretting upon a stage of literary commonplaces. The stagings of mechanical types who perform without thought and who do not know themselves suggest that other self-conscious and conscientious selves could exist, selves that could avoid repeating the same mistakes, selves whose character could change.

44Character writers were in fact equally concerned with satirizing changing dispositions as with inciting deeper forms of change in the reader: “read through, and change with me,” wrote Dudley North in the introduction to A Forest of Varieties (sig. B4v), a collection of autobiographical verse, essays, letters and characters he had composed over previous periods of his life and which was published in 1645. The author’s conventional call upon the reader to know himself implied that the text could provoke a form of moral enlightenment and effect transformation in the reader. But the impression made on the reader by the text – “the word character intimates a thing engraven, so that it should have a deep impression upon men,” wrote Samuel Person (6) – was not necessarily or exclusively moral. The satirical description of a character’s changing humours could also have a cathartic effect on the reader’s own disposition.

  • 27 See for instance Anon, The English Hermit, or Wonder of this Age. Being a Relation of the Life of R (...)

45As demonstrated by seventeenth-century stories recounting the prolonged lives of extraordinary vegans and teetotallers,27 man could be transformed by what he ate (or did not eat) in just the same way that he could be transformed by what he read. In A Strange Metamorphosis, the description of “The Crab” provides the reader with a genealogy of English and French apples expressed against the historical backdrop of the Norman Conquest: “Though the Pippin be held to be the king of Apples, yet is the Crab of an ancienter family then he; [...] the Crab is descended from Adams time, [...] linea recta, without any bastardy or attainder of bloud. He is a right Brittaine, and true native of this Land, and not a Gascoigne come in with the Conquerour [...]” (sig. G9-G9v). The personification of the apple which for “his sowre condition, [...] seems to be shut out for an harsh companion” (G9) elaborates upon the tartness of the crab apple, which was proverbial enough to give its meaning to the verb “to crab” – “to cross, to put out of humour or temper” – and to the adjective “crabbed,” applied to irritable or acrimonious persons, as if their essential texture as humans was best represented in the taste of a wild fruit.

46In the above description, the Biblical apple is evoked in a mock genealogy of the English crab’s noble lineage rather than for its religious symbolism. In character literature, moral discourse, everyday lore and medical theories often overlapped, creating multiple meanings which were all conjointly valid. John Earle’s 1628 character of a child combines images of the Biblical apple as a symbol of prelapsarian innocence with printing, writing and painting metaphors:

[A Childe] Is a Man in a small Letter, yet the best Copie of Adam before hee tasted of Eue, or the Apple [...]. Hee is natures fresh picture newly drawne in Oyle, which time, and much handling, dimmes and defaces. His Soule is yet a white paper vnscribled with obseruations of the world, wherewith at length it becomes a blurr’d Note-booke. (sig. B)

47We as humans become what we are as years go by, just as the observer of human mœurs acquires his satirical skills through daily experience. In the same character, Earle evokes the lucky ignorance of a writer who has not yet encountered a diversity of subjects to characterize – “and hee is happy whose small practice in the World can only write this Character [of a Child]” (sig. B). As the writer discovers the multiple and darker faces of human nature, pages will gradually cover themselves in ink.

48The elaborate use of writing and printing metaphors is only one of the many self-reflexive gestures by which authors of character-books refer to their own practice as writers of characters. By his own admission, Samuel Person describes no one better than himself when describing the world: “I have Essayed and tried to characterize every man, but I have characterized none so clearly as I have done my self” (sig. A3v). Railers exhibit their own bilious temperament by satirizing others. Observers of morals and spectators of life are bound to become their own spectacle (Van Delft 165). And although character writers differ from Montaigne in that they do not take themselves as their main object of study, they do speak of themselves while speaking of others.

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1 André Gide, Les Faux-monnayeurs, quoted by Simon Leys, in Protée et Autres Essais (69). My translation.

2 Since the seventeenth-century, the word “self” has been used to refer to “a person’s or thing’s individuality or essence at a particular time or in a particular aspect or relation; a person’s nature, character, or (occasionally) physical constitution or appearance, considered as different at different times” (OED). My emphasis.

3 For a literary history of the rise of the early modern self, see for instance Mascuch.

4 The passage is quoted by Moussa (215).

5 See Nelson (50-51).

6 The second edition of Stephens’s collection was printed in octavo. It contained eight essays (1-162) and twenty eight characters (163-433).

7 Earle’s collection was first printed in duodecimo. The characters are on average between four and five pages long.

8 Bacon’s essays on the same themes were first published at different dates: “Of Death” (1612, enlarged 1625); “Of Love” (1612, rewritten 1625); “Of Truth” (1625).

9 As in the title of a character collection entitled Micrologia, Characters, or Essayes, of persons, trades, and places, offered to the city and country (London: [...] for Michael Sparke [...], 1629).

10 In this paper, I am using italics when referring to the literary form of the character and no italics when referring to any other senses of the word character.

11 La Bruyère prefaced his Caractères with a French translation of Theophrastus’ Characters. Within a year of its first publication in France (1698), La Bruyère’s translation of Theophrastus was translated into English along with his own Caractères under the following title: The Characters, or The Manners of the Age. By Monsieur de la Bruyere […] Made English by several hands. With the Characters of Theophrastus, translated from the Greek. […] (London: printed for John Bullord, [1699]).

12 In The Holy and Profane State (Cambridge: Printed [...] for John Williams, 1642), the clergyman and historian Thomas Fuller offered his own moral diptych in a series of moral mirrors accompanied by historical embodiments of those general types (e.g. “The Good Physician” followed by “The Life of Paracelsus”), thus delineating the closely related but distinct trends of character-writing and life-writing.

13 See Dudley North’s despondent conclusion to one of his characters (101).

14 There are at least two portraits of Frances Howard at the National Portrait Gallery, one of which may be seen at (last accessed 12 March 2019).

15 Donne’s or in my case any one author’s.

16 Helen Peters argues that the Paradoxes were written in the early 1590s when Donne was still a law student and the Problems between 1603 and 1609 or 1610, before Donne’s ordination in 1615.

17 In her edition, Helen Peters excludes from the canon as of doubtful authenticity two “Paradoxes,” including “A Defence of Womens Inconstancy,” two “Characters,” the “Essay of Valour” and “News from the very Country.” An edition of those texts is presented in a separate “Dubia” section at the end of Peters’s volume.

18 The two questions from the “Paradox” “That Women ought to Paint” here quoted in the 1652 edition are roughly identical in the authoritative text established by Peters (3).

19 The first edition came out in 1650. The accompanying woodcuts were added in the 1653 edition.

20 Brathwait’s most popular work was published anonymously in 1638 under the pseudonym “Corymbaeus.” Barnabees Journall recounts four journeys between Kendal (the author’s home) and London and it displays Brathwait’s humorous interest in factual particularities of everyday life.

21 Such an authorial approach was adopted by Robert Ellrodt in his examination of the notion of self in the early modern literary canon (see Montaigne and Shakespeare and Seven Metaphysical Poets).

22 “Du signe, on retient la part sensible, celle-là même qui jusque là était suspectée. [...] La littérature emblématique n’est pas l’adaptation ni le prolongement de l’allégorie médiévale, mais son retournement” (Delègue 11). The passage is quoted by Elizabeth Spica (15).

23 See for instance John Stephens’s description of the “prowling Officers” whose corruption is such that they no longer need the “auncient Hierogliphicke” of the fox to signal their “compacted Villany” (Stephens 2nd ed., 14).

24 On the history of the London “Lion Tower,” see Stow (42).

25 The description of “The Coalepit” as “the Peru of Newcastle Merchants” locates what was already then the main provider of coal in the country. The first recording of the phrase “selling, carrying, bringing, or taking coal(s) to Newcastle” dates back to 1538. By that time, 15 000 tonnes of coal were being exported annually from the area.

26 “jowl / jole: The head of a fish; hence (as a cut or dish), the head and shoulders of certain fish, as the salmon, sturgeon”, and “ling: A long slender gadoid fish, Molva vulgaris or Lota molva, inhabiting the seas of northern Europe. It is largely used for food (usually either salted, or split and dried)” (OED).

27 See for instance Anon, The English Hermit, or Wonder of this Age. Being a Relation of the Life of Roger Crab, living near Uxbridge [...] (London: [...] to be sold in Pope’s Head Alley, and at the Exchange, 1655), and John Reynolds, A Discourse upon prodigious abstinence, occasioned by the twelve months fasting of Martha Taylor, the famed Derbyshire Damsel [...] (London: Printed [...] for Nevil Simmons [...] and Dorman Newman [...], 1660).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: “An illustration of the perverse reflection of ‘barbarous’ practices in occidental manners”
Légende John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform’d: or, the Artificiall Changling, 1653.
Crédits © British Library Board (G. 10448., p. 261).
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Claire Labarbe, « Composed, Altered and Transformed: The Other Self in Seventeenth-Century English Character-Books »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 76 | 2019, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2019, consulté le 30 mai 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Labarbe

Claire Labarbe is writing a PhD on the history of seventeenth-century English character-books under the supervision of Professor Line Cottegnies. She has taught anglophone literature, translation and British and American civilisation at Paris Nanterre University and at Sorbonne Nouvelle University. Her work explores the related fields of urban history, book history and the history of medicine, and she is particularly interested in prison and street literature, melancholy and the culture of curiosity. She has lived between London and Paris for the last ten years.

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