April 2014 Book of the Month: The Extravagant Shepherd by Charles Sorel, translated into English by John Davies (1653)

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A stranger encounters Lysis the shepherd: Fellows’ Library I Arch.2.15 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

This anti-Romance’ by the French writer Charles Sorel offers a burlesque take on the pastoral romance genre. Like Don Quixote, the work satirizes unrealistic expectations of love and heroism fostered by literature.

The protagonist is the shabbily flamboyant, romance-reading shepherd Lysis. Farcical episodes of Lysis impersonating women, fighting monsters and feigning death are interspersed with mythological tales and discussions, while his companions by turns mock his credulity and try to reform him.

As well as parodying the subject matter of romances, Sorel mimics their style. The writer draws attention to laboured narrative devices and improbable turns of events, while Lysis’s speech is characterised by rhetorical flourishes, clichés and hyperbole.

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Title-page: Fellows’ Library I Arch.2.15 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The engraved frontispiece represents a ludicrously literal interpretation of a blason (a poetic head-to-toe description of an idealized woman). This matches the instructions Lysis gives for painting his love, Charite:

‘Pretty Cheeks, intermingled with Lilies and Roses… the Lips are branches of Coral… her Teeth, which are two rowes of fine Pearl…’

There are only five copies of this edition known to survive. Although purchased centuries after publication, the work does have a connection to Jesus College: Davies, the translator, matriculated here in 1641.

Emma Jones (Graduate Library Trainee, 2013–14)

Sources and further reading:

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