Culture Writer Luisa Connors reviews The Wife of Bath: A Biography, praising Marion Turner’s wide-ranging, feminist account of Chaucer’s iconic character

I'm a current student teacher working in primary schools. I completed a BA in English in 2023 and love all things to do with arts and linguistics! When I'm not teaching, I love reading, journaling and painting. I also love learning languages, I'm bilingual in English and Portuguese and I'm currently learning Welsh!
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For centuries, the Wife of Bath has remained a controversial and formidable figure in literary history. First emerging in Geoffrey Chaucer’s iconic The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath (also known as Alison) continues to be remembered for the lively retelling of her five marriages and her self-assured sexuality. Compared to the rest of the book’s cast, Alison’s popularity has led to her transcending the original text. She has lived many afterlives, in which she has collaborated with Chaucer, been rewritten into a passive nun, and performed as a Jamaican woman on stage. Marion Turner, J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at Oxford University, charismatically narrates Alison’s creation and various re-imaginings from a 21st-century feminist point of view in The Wife of Bath: A Biography (published by Princeton University Press). She perfectly encapsulates Alison’s past and current relevance in a bid to unpack her iconic status.

To begin, the book traces Alison back to her roots. Turner notes that there are simply no concrete ancestors for the Wife of Bath. Although we see traces of her in La Vielle, a similarly self-reflective woman with a strong voice, she is a new innovation that can only be compared to her successors. Within the first chapter, Turner dives into the fascinating ‘age of the narrator’ in 14th-century literature, in which she highlights Chaucer’s pioneering explorations of self-identity in his writing. Moreover, to give this role to a woman, when there was no place in contemporary European literature for a woman to ‘speak out,’ was simply revolutionary.

[Turner] perfectly encapsulates Alison’s past and current relevance in a bid to unpack her iconic status

The following chapters on notable medieval women take the reader on a captivating journey through history. Alison’s prologue, Turner tells us, reflects the working lives of many incredible medieval women. ‘Great ladies were expected to work,’ and Turner certainly celebrates their efforts. Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the poet, is exemplified as a woman who does not allow ‘the murder of her husband and her own trial for treason to keep her down’ – a line which perfectly encompasses her incredulous escapades. Turner narrates Alice’s climb up the social mobility ladder through her several re-marriages and impressive work as a political operator. Alice, like many other women, may previously have been outshined by male historical figures, but Turner rectifies this by directing the spotlight onto Alice’s incredible story.

The second half of the biography follows Alison’s afterlife, spanning from her initial reception to her modern-day recreations. Turner highlights the incessant silencing of Alison’s iconic and prolific sexual confidence by several male authors, from the sanitised revision of Alison’s marriage to the imprisonment of publishers who dared to imagine Christ’s forgiveness of Alison. Not all representations of Alison are negative, however. Turner also celebrates Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, asserting its roots from the Wife of Bath. Alison, she argues, ‘inspired his only England-set and only middle-class play,’ which she describes as being about ‘empowered women’ and ‘ethical female behaviour.’

Turner presents a stunningly feminist account of all things Alison

As we dive into the biography’s final chapters, Turner transports us into the 21st century, where the Wife of Bath incites powerful, feminist retellings of her story. For example, Alison is revived as Alvita, a Jamaican woman reciting her tale in a London borough and aligning it with the experiences of the Windrush generation. Turner goes onto negate misconceptions of Chaucer as the original ‘dead white male’ founding father of English Literature, instead painting him as the radical poet he truly was, enriched by his multilingual environment and wide travels.

In sum, Turner presents a stunningly feminist account of all things Alison. Her style is simultaneously witty and informative, enabling her to recall centuries of critics, literature, and people whilst remaining vibrant and engaging. This biography quickly earned 5 stars on my Goodreads and a glowing review, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone looking for a feminist read about medieval women. Alison continues to be one of the most iconic female characters in English literary history, and Turner truly does her justice in The Wife of Bath: A Biography.

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