Figures of the pilgrims around the base of Sam Holland’s statue of Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury High Street. They were modelled after local people

Many lives of the first everywoman

Wife of Bath is a brand name all will recognise


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Wife of Bath: A Biography, Marion Turner (Princeton, £20)

“Experience, though noon auctoritee/ Were in this world, is right ynogh for me,” goes the opening of the Wife of Bath’s first-person prologue in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1387) — a statement brilliantly translated for our own age in 2000 by the poet Jean Binta Breeze as “My life is my own bible”. Her poem “The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market” reworks Chaucer’s original in modern Jamaican English. Such spin-offs from the archetypal character (who also lies behind James Joyce’s Molly Bloom) intrigue Marion Turner in this fascinating exploration of the Wife and her afterlives.

You don’t have to have read Chaucer in the original Middle English, or even a modern literary spin-off, to have heard of Wife of Bath. She’s a brand name all will recognise, as recently exploited by a cheese manufacturer: “New Wyfe of Bath, Now Merrier and More Mature!” No way could Liz Truss have called that a “disgrace” to British cheese production, as Chaucer and his Wife of Bath are emblematic of something very deep about the national character.

Except when they are not. When Boris Johnson’s American extramarital lover Jennifer Arcuri was appearing on the airwaves to offer her take on their relationship, one journalist compared her to the Wife of Bath — shorthand for an idea escaping national boundaries of a bawdy woman of some maturity and even more sexual confidence.

Alison is the first truly ordinary character in English fiction

The Wife of Bath — we should call her Alison, the actual name given to her by Chaucer — is popularly associated with sexual appetite, but this book (perhaps for a reason) doesn’t initially refer to her earthy discussion of sexual organs in Chaucer’s Prologue (surely one explanation for her subsequent reputation). Alison herself, unlike Arcuri, is not interested in adultery: all her sexual liaisons have been matrimonial, from the time she first wed at the age of 12 and thence on to her other husbands, total five. She’s middle-aged, older than Jennifer Arcuri at forty plus.

Her opening line, as ventriloquised by Chaucer, is in fact an indication that he’s using her character as a means to explore some of the most complex issues alive at the time in mediaeval philosophy and theology. Should textual authority — grounded in the Bible — have the ultimate say? Or should “lived experience” take precedence over authoritative texts when it comes to the ultimate truths? Should we listen to the academic “clerks” with their baroque glosses or to the testimonies of real people?

Turner argues that Alison, who has no literary prototype, is the first truly ordinary character in English fiction. Empowered, middle-aged, middle-class women had been excluded from the literary canon, which had previously dealt with female characters only in religious or “courtly love” contexts. In the latter, upper class adultery (as with Lancelot and Queen Guinevere) was idealised, but Chaucer came from the merchant classes.

That might partially explain his desire to forward other voices, perhaps in some proto-democratic idea of individualism and capitalism — the Wife herself is a businesswoman — although social mobility for the Chaucer family also involved women marrying up into the aristocracy.

Turner delves into the stories of Alison’s real-life counterparts: flesh and blood mediaeval women who went on pilgrimages as far as Jerusalem (as Alison has done before her latest Canterbury excursion), and whose marital lives, given the mortality rate at the time, often included multiple consecutive husbands.

Her latest husband, a recent graduate, first attracted her with his shapely legs

The most famous parallel is with the mediaeval memoirist Margery Kempe, another “ordinary” woman, who also went on pilgrimage as far as to Jerusalem, her story probably written down at her dictation to a male scribe.

Alison’s own story, as told by Chaucer, includes a parody of Dante’s account in the Inferno of how Paolo and Francesca ended up whirling around in Hell because they read a book about Lancelot and Guinevere that inspired their transgressive love. The Wife of Bath, in contrast, becomes infuriated by the fact that her latest husband (a recent Oxbridge graduate twenty years her junior, who first attracted her with his shapely legs) is reading a misogynistic book — only too standard for the time.

In the ensuing row, she rips out three pages, and he hits her so hard that it permanently affects her hearing. She goes on to show him the error of his ways and gets to assert her independence. It is hilarious when Turner tells us about the marginalia in a later mediaeval text of Chaucer, written by a male scribe who adds his own pennyworth of textual misogyny without any apparent awareness of the irony.

It might have been nice to have had more of a pithy overview near the beginning of Chaucer and the format of his Tales, plus full critical summaries of Alison’s own Prologue and Tale, along with some explanation of the development of the English language. A modern English version in brackets after every Chaucer quotation might have been helpful, too. This very book demonstrates how large its readership could be, given the currency today of the image of the Wife of Bath. It would be a pity to make anyone feel excluded who has not previously had the opportunity to study Middle English (and might want, for example, to know why the title of the Ancrene Wisse looks so foreign), since Turner’s enthralling take on Chaucer is so rich, inspiring and relevant.

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