The Wife of Bath: A Biography by Marion Turner - review by Carolyne Larrington

Carolyne Larrington

I Have Wedded Fyve!

The Wife of Bath: A Biography

By

Princeton University Press 336pp £20
 

How does an Oxford academic follow up a prize-winning trade book, a newly researched biography of Geoffrey Chaucer? And, moreover, in lockdown, when archives and libraries are largely inaccessible? Marion Turner, the newly elected J R R Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at Oxford, has avoided ‘second-book syndrome’ with a breathtakingly simple idea: a biography of Chaucer’s most famous character, Dame Alison (or Alice), weaver, pilgrim, businesswoman and serial participant in the marriage market, better known as the Wife of Bath. Informative, clear-sighted, entertaining and as opinionated as its subject, Turner’s new book is a wonderful introduction to the lives of 14th-century women, The Canterbury Tales and the fascinating ways in which Alison has been read and misread since she first hoisted up her voluminous skirts to show her fine red stockings during the last decade of the 14th century.

The book falls into two broadly equal halves: the first sets the Wife of Bath in the context of late medieval women’s lived experiences; the second dives down into her afterlives, bringing us right up to date with Zadie Smith’s splendidly funny and engrossing 2021 play The Wife of Willesden. First, though, how do you write a biography of someone who is not a real person? Medieval authors were anxious about fictionalising, resorting to a whole range of different genres to pass off their imaginative inventions. The genre known as estates satire, the cataloguing and description of different social types for moral critique, provided one possible medium. Chaucer’s general prologue to The Canterbury Tales is a wildly innovative experiment in estates satire: he does not simply trot out the usual criticisms levelled at churchmen, the gentry or the new middle classes. Rather, he imagines each of the Canterbury-bound pilgrims as an individual with an inner self, hidden from public view but revealed, often in their own words, to Chaucer’s pilgrim-narrator. That literary characters can be – or become – actual people in the reader’s imagination, almost as real as your cousin or the woman next to you on the bus, was a late medieval discovery that changed literary history. Alison herself has a past that she looks back on with humour and nostalgia; she also has a lively present, which she describes with gusto, silencing the objectors in her pilgrim audience. She cheerfully imagines her future, too, perhaps with husband number six. ‘For the audience, the feeling that we are seeing a mind unfolding is one of the ways in which we create Alison as a character as we enter into the illusion of interiority,’ Turner explains.

The Wife of Bath’s prologue relates how Alison inherits handsomely from her first four husbands and then gives authority over her wealth to husband number five, the young clerk Jankyn, who bullies her through endless reading of his infamous ‘book of wicked wives’, a misogynist catalogue of women’s misbehaviour. Her tale in the pilgrims’ storytelling competition, meanwhile, is a chivalric romance with a twist: an uncompromising story of a rapist knight who is taught the error of his ways.

The book’s first half unpacks four key aspects of Alison’s identity as ‘the first ordinary middle-class woman in English literature’: as worker, married woman, storyteller and traveller. In each case, Turner brings relevant social history to bear on her analysis. She highlights the evidence for women working in medieval London – silk weavers banding together to petition the authorities, for example, and women employed in manuscript production – to position Alison within her socio-economic milieu. The chapter on marriage covers more familiar ground, highlighting the clash between the Church’s view that widows have no need to remarry and could spend their lives (and wealth) on good works, and the powerful social imperative for women and their money to remain in circulation, forming new family alliances. ‘Widows made the world go round,’ Turner notes. Marriage was the key to social mobility; Chaucer’s own granddaughter, Alice, Duchess of Suffolk, who ended up the second richest woman in England after the queen, is a case in point. The 15th-century mystic, author, wife and traveller Margery Kempe of Lynn appears here frequently. She tells us, probably in her own words (her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, was dictated to scribes), about childbirth and post-partum madness, failing businesses, how horribly her companions on pilgrimage treated her and her conversations with Jesus Christ.

The chapter on Alison as storyteller takes wing from the question she asks quite late in her prologue: ‘who peyntede the leoun?’ This refers to the well-known Aesop’s fable in which a man and a lion, out for a walk, see a painting depicting a man killing a lion. The man draws the lion’s attention to the artwork; the lion, not unreasonably, points out that had a lion been the artist, the subject might have been very differently depicted. Women, like lions, have not been able to write their own stories, Alison argues. Instead, they must put up with educated men (‘clerks’) writing critically about them: that they are stupid, superficial, lustful, scheming and worse. These remarks anticipate Turner’s discussion, in the book’s second half, of women writers who indeed painted their own lions. Turner also introduces us here to the remarkable 15th-century French author Christine de Pizan, who has a good claim to have been Europe’s first professional woman writer. The chapter on travel tells us much about women on pilgrimage, including Margery Kempe’s maid, who in Margery’s account abandons her mistress en route to Jerusalem. By the time Margery meets her in Rome on her return journey, she has become keeper of the cellar at the main guesthouse for English pilgrims. The maid now gives alms to her former mistress, a kindly but pointed action that underlines the huge rise in her socioeconomic status.

The second half of the book explores key moments in Alison’s afterlives. The first chapter shows how, in rewritings of The Canterbury Tales, ballads and other reimaginings, her voice tends to be tamed and eroded. The fierce thrust of her tale is softened and Chaucer’s nuance is stripped out. A fascinating chapter on Shakespeare and Alison follows. Shakespeare knew his Chaucer well: the larger-than-life character of Sir John Falstaff, another unruly, hilarious and opinionated figure, who breaks out of the history plays and into The Merry Wives of Windsor, has much in common with the book’s heroine. Next, Turner explores how Alison has ventured beyond British shores, appearing in various sanitised and often jokey American adaptations. Voltaire transformed her morality tale into a fairy story; Pasolini’s rambunctious 1972 film The Canterbury Tales turned middle-aged Alison into a rapist figure, reanimating ‘patriarchal, misogynist myths about the horror of female sexuality’.

Alison’s appearances in modern women’s novelistic retellings, both straightforward and highly experimental, are examined next. These are set against Joyce’s reimagining of her in the person of Molly Bloom. The final chapter looks at three versions of Alison in the work of black women writers: Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Patience Agbabi and Zadie Smith. These writers return Alison to the oral culture in which she originated, while also transposing her into different multicultural milieus. Yet she is always the teller of tales, always challenging the men around her. There’s a vivid account of Smith’s The Wife of Willesden; although its run was sadly curtailed by the arrival of the Omicron variant, it briefly lit up London’s Kiln Theatre last Christmas. I’d have liked a bit more in this chapter on Breeze’s ‘Wife of Bath Speaks in Brixton Market’ and Agbabi’s ‘The Wife of Bafa’ (both are available on YouTube); their protagonists’ voices don’t come across quite as clearly as that of Smith’s heroine. But that’s a minor quibble, the sort of complaint that arises when you don’t want a book to end.

This is a wonderfully witty, thoughtful and authoritative meditation on one of English literature’s most astonishing characters – a woman both ahead of her time and yet very much emblematic of the social changes under way in 14th-century England. Inspired by The Wife of Willesden’s final scene, Turner’s vibrant book shows how multiple authors have taken up Alison of Bath, ‘dancing with her in a wild exchange of energy, passion, and ideas’.

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