Inspiring Older Readers
The Wife of Bath by Marion Turner
Originally published in 2023 but now available from Princeton University Press in paperback, Marion Turner has produced an intellectually daring study – a biography of a fictional character; Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Turner makes a compelling case that the Wife of Bath – referred to by her first name, Alison, throughout most of the book – is one of the few fictional creations that deserves such an honour. It’s undoubtedly true that of all Chaucer’s pilgrims, she has found a sort of permanent resonance – an undeniable vivacity - for future readers, artists, writers and creatives of all kinds and her influence can be traced like a thread through to our modern culture.
When I was at university studying English literature in the 1970s, there was still a lively debate about the legitimacy of treating fictional characters as ‘real’ and giving them a speculative past and future life.
(This isn’t the place to rehearse those debates here but for those who might want to know more, you’ll find plenty on this if you search for L.C. Knights’ lecture, ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’).
Turner has quite adroitly side-stepped the pitfalls of this academic controversy by making her notion of ‘biography’ a much more elastic concept. She says from the very outset that she doesn’t think that Alison was a portrait of an individual woman that Chaucer actually knew, nor a simple patchwork of female stereotypes commonplace in the literature of the time. She is, Turner suggests, something much more sophisticated and complex – and it’s this that has allowed subsequent generations to find significance in her character:
“Before Chaucer invented the Wife of Bath, there was no place in European literary tradition for a woman to speak out in this way who was neither a beautiful victim nor a hideous stereotype of an ancient procuress.”
In trying to understand how she came into existence Turner explores in some detail the different aspects of the society from which she springs – and in doing so confounds some of the lazy assumptions about the place of women in the Middle Ages. Chapters entitled ‘Working Women’ and ‘The Marriage Market’ paint vivid pictures of the world that Alison would have inhabited and it comes, perhaps, as something of a surprise:
“The world that she lives in – a world of female inheritance possibilities, comfortably well-off widows, and mobile working women – is very much a post-plague, northern European world. Alison needs to be read in that historical and geographical context.”
Turner also uses Alison’s story to highlight the issue of male hegemony over the literary process. Who, she asks (both Turner and The Wife of Bath) gets to tell the stories we all rely on to construct our world and our history? Through his creation Chaucer challenges the male dominance of storytelling and ‘When Alison complained about….the difficulty of getting her voice heard, she is identifying a problem at the heart of late-medieval culture, a problem that still resonates in today’s very different world.’
That idea, that Chaucer’s creation has significance through the ages right up to the modern day, shapes the rest of this study as Turner looks at how the spirit of The Wife of Bath has a presence in Shakespeare and the development of the novel ( I especially liked the section on Joyce’s Molly Bloom), has travelled abroad and has had a fascinating influence on Black culture.
For those who are academically inclined there are plenty of additional notes and a thoroughgoing reference list at the end but there’s plenty to enjoy here for the lay reader who doesn’t want to feel they’re expected to study the subject at a university level.
You will be able to get this book from your local independent bookshop – who will be happy to order it for you if they don’t have copies on the shelf. Alternatively, go to the Princeton University Press website and order it directly from there.