The Wife of Bath (a.k.a. Alison of Bath) speaks with the knowledge of experience: travels throughout Europe, mercantile savvy, five marriages, domestic abuse, sex, and pleasure. Indeed, before launching into her Tale—a parable about what women desire—she delivers a Prologue rife with “truths” from her own “life.” Truths and life are in scare quotes here because Alison, of course, is a fictional character. But that fact hasn’t lessened how real she has felt to centuries of readers and reinterpreters of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the iconic late fourteenth-century poem that portrays a heterogenous group of Canterbury-bound pilgrims.
Alison calls our attention to who has long wielded the pen and shaped the record, and who has not: “By God, if women had but written stories / Like those clergy keep in oratories, / More had been written of man’s wickedness / Than all the sons of Adam could redress” [“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” trans. Nevill Coghill]. Alison is astute, wry, and candid. She also likes to enjoy herself. As Chaucer scholar Marion Turner writes in The Wife of Bath (Princeton University Press), a new biography of this titular taleteller, “[S]he gossips! She drinks! She tells her husband’s secrets! She looks for a new husband at her previous husband’s funeral!”
Turner’s biography traces Alison from her fourteenth-century context to her appearances, both literal and referential, in works by William Shakespeare, Voltaire, James Joyce, Hilary Mantel, Patience Agbabi, Jean “Binta” Breeze, and Zadie Smith, among many others. “She lives for readers in a way that most characters do not,” Turner writes. We spoke about how and why Alison’s presence has endured, and our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Melissa Rodman: I’d love to start out by placing this book in conversation with your previous book, Chaucer: A European Life, which focused on Chaucer himself as the life to untangle in context. Now you’ve turned to the Wife of Bath, the character, and I’m wondering what led you to make that choice.
Marion Turner: I really enjoyed writing and researching the biography of Chaucer, and it involved a lot of travel, a lot of working with different kinds of records. I did feel like I was able to get inside the imagination of the author and the audience in the fourteenth century, through thinking about what he saw, where he went, the structures he lived in. I thought, “I would really like to write about a woman,” and I really enjoyed writing literary biography, but I wanted to do something experimental as well.
Of course, it’s hard to write about women from the distant past because we don’t have the same amount of evidence. And when we do have evidence, it’s often been written by men, or—even if it’s been written by women—it’s usually been filtered through men, through forms that have been designed by men, sometimes male ghostwriters, sometimes there’s a male editor, male scribes.
I wondered if there were other ways of thinking about women in time that didn’t involve going to an actual, individual woman. What would it be like to try to think about how we can access different aspects of historical truth and the imagination, through someone who is not real, who is a character? Right now, people are still writing new versions of the Wife of Bath, which is crazy in a way—650 years on, she’s still inspiring so many texts.
The intertextuality you’re talking about really emerges in reading The Wife of Bath, not just in medieval times but also in your incorporation of Virginia Woolf, for example. Woolf seems to be central to your project. I don’t know if that connection was something you thought about prior to the research stage?
Woolf has always been really influential for me, even though I’ve never been an expert on modernism. One thing that’s very striking for me is that many of the things that Woolf was saying in the early twentieth century were things that the Wife of Bath was saying in the fourteenth century. There are two particularly important aspects here. First, Virginia Woolf writes at length in A Room of One’s Own about the fact that women haven’t had the chance to tell their own stories, and she tells this story of an imagined Shakespeare’s sister who would not have been able to get her voice heard. Now, Virginia Woolf is writing this in the early twentieth century, but in the late fourteenth century the Wife of Bath is saying, “All the books have been written by men. Who painted the lion? Men have told all the stories. They have said terrible things about women,” and, “If women had been able to write stories, they would have told of the wickedness of men.”
The other thing, which I think is fundamental to what Virginia Woolf wrote, is the idea that women need a room of their own, which is shorthand for saying economic independence. A key part of my argument is that the Wife of Bath emerged at this particular historical moment because women did have a certain amount of economic freedom and independence. She has benefited from inheritance laws. She’s been able to be a working woman; she’s been able to inherit from her husbands; she’s been able to have a certain degree of economic power. And that reflects the historical reality of the late fourteenth century, although, of course, this is not an era of equality. But it wasn’t an era of total subjugation, oppression, either, and, in fact, after the Black Death, women were able to work more.
Women also set up new households with their husbands. They weren’t staying, living, with their parents or their husbands’ parents. They weren’t childbearing, usually, at very young ages. This was a moment at which women did have some economic independence and, therefore, more sexual choices as well. Interestingly, it’s comparable to post–First World War, which of course is an important moment for Woolf. At a time of demographic crisis, when lots of people die, when terrible, terrible things happen, out of that can come social change. And in both of those appalling instances—the Black Death and the First World War—because so many working men died, it did give rise to opportunities for women.
What’s so interesting is that Alison, a fictional character, emerges in a nonfictional way. I’m going to quote something you wrote that’s really intriguing: “The illusion of honesty that she cultivates through her assured performance is deeply appealing to many readers who feel they can see inside her head, and this becomes even more engaging when she voices things with which we can identify.” I’m wondering, in your reading of the Canterbury Tales, when did you first connect with Alison in this way? It also brings up this question of gender dynamics that you’re discussing. How can Chaucer, a man, create this woman who has spoken to both men and women across time?
I first read the Wife of Bath when I was about fourteen or fifteen, and I did find her extremely striking as a character. So many people say, “Oh, Chaucer. The Wife of Bath. Oh, she was my favourite. She was the one I remember.”
Many people when they read her, first they get deceived by the illusion, so they think there is an authenticity to it, which changes once you understand some of the misogynist sources that lie behind her construction. Some of us might think, “Oh, good on her”; medieval readers are thinking, “Oh, women are so terrible.” So, there are all kinds of complex things going on with our preconceptions.
The Wife of Bath is essentially the first character in English literature, and not just the first female character. Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath to experiment with the very concept of what a literary character can be. That doesn’t mean she is the same as characters in Victorian or modern novels; of course not. There are all kinds of stereotypical aspects. But, at the same time, this is a figure who speaks at length in her confessional Prologue about herself. She talks about her past. She has a sense of temporality. That’s crucial in character formation. She circles things in her mind; she returns to things. Traumatic incidents keep coming back when she talks about the domestic violence that was enacted against her. That keeps recurring in a way that really gives us the sense of a mind. And, of course, it’s an illusion. This isn’t a real person.
Her voice is so idiosyncratic because, unlike her sources, she has this properly funny voice. She’s comic. She kind of laughs at herself. She’s self-deprecating. And she’s not the kind of cynical old bawd of the Romance of the Rose, which is one of the key sources. She has a moral sense. There are all these aspects of her, which are not just about being a woman but are about being a character. Chaucer uses this character; he does it a bit in other characters as well, but more in the Wife of Bath than in any of the other Canterbury pilgrims. It’s partly about character, which isn’t only about gender. But it’s absolutely fascinating that he chooses to experiment with a female character, because not only should literary characters not speak this way, neither should fourteenth-century women.
Chaucer is able to give us the sense of someone who is thinking about issues, such as rape and domestic abuse, in ways that he couldn’t have experienced—but that a fourteenth-century woman might have. He moved in very mixed circles, and women were reading and listening to his texts. The whole point of the Canterbury Tales is to let all kinds of voices speak. As a writer, as a thinker, he was deeply invested in trying to make leaps not only of imagination but of perspective. What you see is determined by where you are standing.
You mention briefly in The Wife of Bath some allegations against Chaucer in his own life, his own domestic violence potentially. I’d love to hear you elaborate a bit more about that. In some headlines earlier this year, that discussion also has reemerged.
There was a legal document that said he was no longer liable for allegations of “raptus,” which can be translated as rape, against someone called Cecily Chaumpaigne. There was a phase of scholars who said, “Well, Chaucer couldn’t possibly have been a rapist. What an outrageous thing even to imagine.” And then there were other scholars who said, “We have to take this seriously. We have to wrestle with the idea that the author whom we love might have done this terrible thing and that he might have been able to write sympathetically about women and treat them badly in his own life.” And just a few weeks ago some scholars found some other documents, which have demonstrated that this was not about rape. That, in fact, Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne were on the same side of a legal dispute, where she had left an employer to go work for Chaucer, and, by joining together, they were stopping the employer from suing her for leaving him or from suing Chaucer for taking her away from this other employer. It’s a great example because it shows how people think, “Can anything still happen in the world of medieval studies?” But documents are still being found. There’s still ambiguity, but we’ve got a bit more clarity now.
Would you say that Cecily was in an economic relationship with Chaucer, or was there a romantic tinge?
There’s no evidence of anything romantic, but the economics—as you identify—is so interesting. One of the things that fascinates me about the Wife of Bath is not only her individually but the literary and real worlds that she represents. For instance, when the Wife of Bath talks about her own household—maids and nurses, working women within her household. As I mentioned earlier, it’s really crucial that women are able to work, and service was a major way for them to gain economic independence.
There are many societies in that era, and in other eras as well, where the kind of service work of the house is done by women who are not paid, by the daughters-in-law, sisters of the household who are not allowed to leave, who are not allowed to earn money, who stay within the household as unpaid service providers. The fact that Chaucer lives in a world of female domestic and other labour, it meant that women could leave their fathers’ homes. They could go and earn a salary. They could save up money, and then they could set up their own home. Now, of course, that’s not to say there was no exploitation. But it was better for women than living in slavery.
Women did lots of different things, like the cloth trade and brewing and different kinds of textile work. The Wife of Bath herself talks about working in the cloth trade. We also hear about women who are parchment makers or who own ships, and there are women who own companies. Particularly widows. Their husband would die, and they would go on running the company, training apprentices. You can imagine these networks of women, who are sometimes crossing hierarchies, employers and employees. But sometimes they’re obviously supportive networks, where money is being left, where training is being gifted, and women are being gifted the economic independence. [In] the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, where she is talking about how she gets money from her husband, she loses all her personal power when she gives it up to her fifth husband, and she has to get it back. She has to get economic power before she can have any other kind of power. Cecily Chaumpaigne in some kind of service role shines a new spotlight on that part of Chaucer’s world.
It also makes me think about the lion line that is instrumental to this book: “Who painted the lion, tell me who?” It’s such a beautiful line as written by Chaucer, and then your close reading of it in The Wife of Bath is so powerful. Can you walk me through how in Chaucer’s text you were drawn to that line and then what the close reading process entailed?
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue has lots and lots of different sources, and many of those sources are from an antifeminist tradition, a tradition of texts which are about how dreadful women are. Some of them are biblical texts by people such as Saint Jerome or texts by poet Eustache Deschamps. In the “who painted the lion” moment, Chaucer moves outside of that antifeminist tradition and goes to a fable. Fables were a really crucial way in which people were taught at school. So, we’ve moved into a different kind of source, and that is striking in itself, in terms of thinking, “What is Chaucer doing here?” He’s allowing us to have a moment where the Wife of Bath keeps telling us, essentially, that she’s a creature made by texts, that there are only antifeminist texts, there are only misogynist texts. She’s been made out of them. How can she get out of them?
The basic idea is there’s a picture of a man killing a lion, and a lion looking at it says, “Well, who painted that?” Obviously, this is a painting done by men to say, “We’re better than lions. Aren’t we great?” If the lion were able to do the painting, then it would be different. The lion is saying, “This isn’t fair. The artist is biased.” It’s back to perspective again; where you’re standing determines what you see and what you represent, or history is written by the victors.
This is something that really speaks to all of us, to say, “Think about the bias in art. Think about the bias in everything that you read. Who wrote it?” This is the fundamental point not only in thinking about gender but in thinking today about fake news, social media. This could not be more relevant, I think, to our own era as well.
She’s so prescient. I don’t know how that happens.
Absolutely. There are so many things which are extraordinary, and I think that also speaks to why people have taken her up so much across time. Because you also think about the Tale that she tells, which is then this story of, “How do you construct an appropriate punishment for a rapist? Is the appropriate punishment simply to kill them?” And she says, “No. Let’s make them think about what they’ve done. Let’s make them think about female desire. Let’s make them try to get into the shoes of someone whose desires are not taken account of. Let’s try that.” And there are lots of issues and complexities with that story, but it’s a very modern perspective on punishment. Make the punishment fit the crime. Try and reform someone. And some people wouldn’t agree with that. But it’s very, very interesting to think about her foregrounding those debates.
One of the things that also is so modern is this concept of interruption. As you write, “At the heart of the Canterbury Tales is the idea of interruption. We repeatedly hear an authoritative voice challenged by a kind of voice that isn’t usually given the opportunity to speak—in life or in literature.” How might Chaucer have found that kind of voice in a sea of prescriptive—repeated, regurgitated, everybody painting the lion in the same way—voices?
It is important to note that he is doing something that is genuinely innovative in literature. Chaucer is a merchant’s son, so he’s not brought up in a courtly, aristocratic environment. He’s brought up in the city of London. He has a variety of different jobs that involve travelling. He’s a prisoner of war. He’s mixing with different kinds of communities and ethnicities. He lives in the heart of the trading world.
But in terms of the texts that he’s reading, a really crucial source for him is Boccaccio’s Decameron, which does have lots of different voices telling stories. At the same time, they are all of the same social class. He gets models from literature, “Okay, we can have different voices coming in,” and the tale collection is such a rich genre for being able to voice different opinions and have different voices. But I think that one of the genuinely novel things that Chaucer does is he says, “Well, what happens if we make these people different classes? If I say, well, actually, I’m going to have a miller interrupt the telling of the stories and stop the monk from telling his Tale and say that he’s going to reply to the person of high level, the knight. What happens if I have the person who talks at length being this kind of mercantile woman?”
I think he also is inspired by things like the development of new kinds of voices in Parliament, so the growing strength of the Commons in the English Parliament, the emergence of the speaker, someone who can speak for a group of others. He himself was an MP at one point. This is also the era of the Great Revolt of 1381, so politically he does have models for interruption, for low class voices being able to speak. In literary terms, he’s really trailblazing in that.
I wonder if it would be interesting for me to say a little about the fact that this book goes up to 2021?
It was actually after I started the work for this book that I heard about Zadie Smith’s play, The Wife of Willesden. I already knew there were modern Wives of Bath, but that play was being written while I was writing this book, and then I was lucky enough to be able to see an advanced copy and then to go and see the actual play in November 2021. The fact that one of the most celebrated writers today, Zadie Smith, is choosing to write a play about the Wife of Bath really makes my point: that this is still someone who is so relevant, so interesting to people.
In Smith’s play, Alison becomes Alvita, and the Arthurian Britain of the Wife of Bath’s Tale becomes eighteenth-century Jamaica. It says to audiences today, “Look, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a relevant part of our history, but eighteenth-century Jamaica and the slave plantations, they are also a relevant part of our history.” And today, I think, there are some people who want to say, “Well, it’s one or the other,” who want to say, “No, we have to focus on Britishness, on this country. That the history of what was going on in the colonies, or on the slave plantations, that’s only relevant to a small demographic.” It’s [Smith’s play] saying, “No. This is the history of this country.”
And it’s not about shutting other parts of history out but demonstrating the breadth of what is relevant to thinking about British identity in this case, and saying that we need to acknowledge colonial histories does not mean saying we’re no longer interested in Chaucer. Not at all. We’re interested in all these things.
That’s also very interesting to me as someone who works in a university, where we think a lot about diversifying the curriculum, which I’m very committed to. It’s not about trying to limit but trying to expand in various ways. Something like The Wife of Willesden or Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales. Patience is a Nigerian British author who’s done this brilliant version of the Canterbury Tales, each in a different kind of modern poetic genre, but it started as the Wife of Bath.
There’s something in the last chapter, too—in talking about the live aspect. Of course, one can read a play, but it’s also about seeing a play. Zadie Smith, I believe, includes herself in the final scene of The Wife of Willesden. It’s the “who painted the lion” question again, and Zadie Smith’s parallels to Chaucer, all those questions about authorship.
There’s an author figure at various points in the play, and when you see it live, the actress playing the author figure looks kind of like Zadie Smith and is there with her MacBook, and it’s very cleverly done. I’m glad you also raise that issue of orality of the text, because across time the Wife of Bath has usually been put into oral forms: ballads, plays, performance poetry. I found it very interesting, then, to write the penultimate chapter, which is about what happens when she goes into the traditionally silent form of the novel. And very often, novelists then find ways still to make her voice very important because that voice is really crucial to understanding her.
So much about this project is about life writing. I’m wondering if there are other lives you’re looking to write about next and where this process of life writing has guided your scholarship.
It’s a really interesting area, isn’t it? Of what’s happening with life writing more generally at the moment. Hilary Mantel very sadly died after I had written this, but I was pleased that I had the little bit about her in it as a small homage. [The introduction to Turner’s The Wife of Bath begins with an epigraph from and close reading of a quotation from Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light: “It might have been my mother or it might have been the Wife of Bath.”] Traditionally, I would have said that historical fiction is a very different thing from life writing or biography, and, of course, that is broadly true. But someone such as Hilary Mantel, who was so extraordinarily talented and groundbreaking, really troubles that boundary by doing so much research into thinking about [Thomas Cromwell]. It is fiction, and she markets it as fiction, but there obviously is also truth to it. So, I think that kind of work is really challenging us to think about the place of different kinds of historical life writing, that there are times when using the imagination in the way that she does might give us access to a certain kind of historical truth.
That is, of course, something that can be very misused. You have to have the kind of talent of Hilary Mantel to be able to make it work and to make clear that there is historical truth, and there are truths; there are things that happened, and there are things that didn’t happen. It’s important not to blur the boundary so much that we get away from that, of course.
It’s so interesting with both Zadie Smith and Hilary Mantel making the jump, as their careers progress, into playwriting.
It gives you such a different way of thinking about subjectivity, doesn’t it? When you have that performance and when you are also as a writer handing over so much to the actors because their imagination, their interpretation, counts so much. I imagine that for a novelist, that then allows them a different kind of collaboration, which for some people would be a nightmare but for some people would be very energizing, and pleasing, to have that more collaborative mode of writing, which I think is absolutely what we see in Chaucer’s work and in the way it was treated by readers and writers who did feel they could intervene and do their own versions and write their own things on the text.
Lots of times they do things that as a reader you think, “Oh, you know, they really got that wrong. They’re doing all kinds of terrible things.” But there’s also something very important about the fact that people respond creatively to these texts. These texts are not dead, even when people might think, “Oh, they’ve got it wrong.” But they’re reading it! They’re thinking! They’re doing things!