Nevertheless, she persisted.
In fact, 600 years later, we’re still listening to Alison, better known as the Wife of Bath. It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever read Geoffrey Chaucer’s medieval classic “The Canterbury Tales.” Over the centuries, the Wife of Bath has been swinging her hips through Western culture, knocking princesses off their pedestals, shocking prudes and clearing a path for savvy, witty women. With her brash physicality and subversive humor, she’s the ur-grandma of every “nasty woman,” from Shakespeare’s Mistress Overdone to James Joyce’s Molly Bloom, comedian Amy Schumer and TLC’s “MILF Manor” cougars.
This winter, by some felicitous coincidence, the Wheel of Fortune has delivered two delightful books about Alison. One, “The Wife of Willesden,” is an exuberant, modern-day play by the novelist Zadie Smith. The other, “The Wife of Bath,” is an illuminating analysis by Oxford University professor Marion Turner, who published a critically acclaimed biography of Chaucer in 2019.
Fans of “The Canterbury Tales” don’t need any further enticements. The moment they hear about these titles, “thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” to the nearest bookstore. But I’m out to convince those of you still traumatized from when you had to recite the opening of the prologue — in Middle English! — in front of your classmates.
I hear you. Some nights I still wake up, my heart banging, remembering a graduate school professor who relentlessly corrected my Midwestern twang, word by word: Whan. That. Aprill. With. His. Shoures. Soote.
Don’t worry: You’re safe now. Turner’s immensely entertaining “biography” will make you fall in love with the Wife of Bath, whom she crowns “the first ordinary woman in English literature.”
And that’s no put-down. By “ordinary,” Turner means “the first mercantile, working, sexually active woman — not a virginal princess or queen, not a nun, witch, or sorceress, not a damsel in distress nor a functional servant character, not an allegory.” No, here in this poem from the year 1400, we discover “a much-married woman and widow, who works in the cloth trade and tells us about her friends, her tricks, her experience of domestic abuse, her long career combating misogyny, her reflections on the ageing process, and her enjoyment of sex.”
Turner’s greatest skill is her ability to present years of arcane research in chapters that are always wonderfully accessible and briskly entertaining. (For more intrepid readers, a vast apparatus of endnotes and works cited lurks in the back.) She points out that Alison is very much a product of her time and place — that is, a labor force so devastated by plague that women who survived found their economic opportunities radically enhanced. “Widows made the world go round in 14th- and 15th-century England,” Turner explains. Alison is part of that rising class of female entrepreneurs who astutely managed their own businesses and the accumulated wealth of multiple marriages. Her station in life reflects both the liberalized laws that gave women more autonomy and the reactionary critiques that still cast women’s success as suspicious or even dangerous.
Through a creative process that Turner likens to alchemy, Chaucer created this striking character by simultaneously drawing on and subverting the popular misogynist writings of the era. “No one before Chaucer had turned the anti-feminists’ words around and against them as Alison does,” she writes. “No one had imagined a female character with this kind of wit, rhetorical technique, and personal experience going head-to-head with the most authoritative of authorities.”
But Chaucer’s portrayal of an independent woman is not just a response to historical circumstances. Turner’s most audacious claim is that Chaucer created what we now think of as real people with interior minds in fiction. “Before Chaucer invented the Wife of Bath,” she writes, “there were no characters at all with the particular kind of subjectivity and personality that she embodies.” In that sense, every good novel is one of Alison’s children.
“I can think of no other examples of this kind of character,” Turner writes, “who has had anything like Alison’s reach, influence, and capacity for reincarnation.”
Alison’s most recent reincarnation takes place in Zadie Smith’s first — and only — play, “The Wife of Willesden.” Smith had no intention of writing for the theater, but a coincidence of misunderstandings left her committed, and in the end, she says, she found the process of transferring Chaucer’s most famous character to modern-day northwest London “one of the more delightful writing experiences of my life.”
That joy now redounds to us in this book, which contains Smith’s charming introduction, her script from the sold-out production playing in London, and the full text of Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”
Smith anticipates purists’ objections. “It must seem, to many, an odd partnership,” she admits. When she started working, she felt the same way. The distance between Canterbury and her Kilburn neighborhood looked as epic as the distance between the 14th century and the 21st. But quickly, she writes, the time fell away, and the Wife of Bath felt “absolutely contemporary.”
Chaucer’s exploration of “‘sovereigntee’ began to sound a lot like ‘consent,’ for example, and Alison’s insistence on physical pleasure not unlike the sex-positivity movement, while her contempt for class privilege feels uncannily close to our debates on that topic today.” Those connections come vibrantly alive in this script, which Smith claims “is, for the most part, a direct transposition of the Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale.”
She’s being too modest. Smith resets the story to a small pub filled with colorful characters celebrating a prize for the town’s culture. The Wife of Willesden is Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her 50s. She takes the stage:
Let me tell you something: I do not need
Any permission or college degrees
To speak on how marriage is stress. I been
Married five damn times since I was nineteen!
Her pub mates are a rowdy audience. Almost immediately, they’re interrupting Alvita, laughing at her and with her. A wry theological debate breaks out over the morality of multiple marriages and the supremacy of chastity. Alvita’s not swayed.
Jokers. Fools. But it don’t even touch me.
I don’t mess with churchmen or my family.
My thing is: you want to think you’re a saint?
Fine. But don’t slut-shame me because I ain’t.
She’s the kind of woman who can bow her head and offer this holy prayer:
Oh, Lawd Jesus Christ, forever
Send us meek, young husbands who are good in bed
And let us long outlive the men we wed!
Alvita struts and laughs her way across these pages like she owns them. “I’m just real,” she says. “I do and say exactly what I feel.” Indeed, watch out: “I hate anyone tries to rein me in.” She mocks men’s vanity, their egos, their impotence. And the infamous confrontation with her fifth husband — an ardent follower of misogynist memes on the Web — gets reenacted right there in the pub. We know the victor ahead of time, but Alvita’s resolution still carries traces of subversive wit from 600 years ago:
After we’d talked it through
A long time, we did manage to agree …
That everything would be decided by me.
“The Wife of Willesden” has arrived at an opportune time. These days, many teachers are reaching for diverse, modern texts, and debates about the value of works by Dead White Men have pushed old classics into a literary graveyard. The increasing difficulty of Chaucer’s Middle English is another mark against it at a time when many students find even the language of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jane Austen too foreign to read.
Then here comes this feisty revision of the most memorable character in medieval literature from a beloved Jamaican-British writer who says, “I knew that she was speaking to me and that she was a Kilburn girl at heart.”
You were all shocked then. The shock never ends
When women say things usually said by men.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
Princeton University Press. 320 pp. $29.95
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