Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Q&A with Marion Turner




Marion Turner is the author of the new book The Wife of Bath: A Biography. Her other books include Chaucer: A European Life. She is the J.R.R. Tolkein Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford.


Q: You've written a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer--what inspired you to write a biography of the Wife of Bath, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales character?


A: It’s partly that I was thinking about women and gender, and wanted to write about a woman, and to write something more experimental. When you’re thinking about medieval women, which I wanted to write about, we are accessing this through what men wrote about them.


And partly I was thinking about how when we look at fictional women, we access a historical [truth] through fiction and literature. Why were they interested in depicting women in this way? This is a new kind of literary character—why does she emerge at this time?


She is a linchpin that allows me to look at little sketches of other women. I enjoyed expanding it out from one central woman.


And I was challenging myself to look across time to the reception not just in medieval times but how people read the figure across time and how people responded to her.


Q: As a biographer of both Chaucer and his most famous character, was your writing and research process similar for each book, or did the fact that one subject is fictional make it an entirely different experience?


A: The research was quite different because of the subject matter and the pandemic. I was researching the book during lockdown, with two children in school—the complexities of women’s lives!


It was easier to write in the pandemic than the Chaucer book would have been. That book involved tracing Chaucer’s footsteps, going to the actual places he’d been to, Spain, Florence, looking at the sculptures he saw, and locally, going to the Tower of London by boat and thinking of him traveling around by boat.


This book was very much of two halves—medieval, and crossing time. With the medieval part, I was looking at records about women, trying to put the Wife of Bath in a context people hadn’t before—in the context of economic changes, inheritance laws.


Crossing time was a wild ride. Some of it was quite structured and some involved serendipity. I was reading Hilary Mantel, and suddenly there was a reference to the Wife of Bath! I wasn’t expecting that.


I started thinking about the book before the play [The Wife of Willesden, written by Zadie Smith, was staged]—the Wife of Bath is even more present in our culture than I’d known!


Q: You write, “The Wife of Bath is the first ordinary woman in English literature.” Can you say more about that, and about why she has remained so fascinating for so many centuries?


A: It’s interesting for us to imagine being a reader in the 14th century. What are women like? It’s easy to hear stories about princesses, damsels in distress, objects of sexual desire, old prostitutes, witches, stereotypes. About women who were admired: nuns or saints, women who were willing to be tortured to death rather than lose their chastity.


For the vast majority of women, these are not role models to aspire to. We don’t always need to see ourselves in literature, but if you’re always reading about women who are nothing like you, it’s a problem.


The Wife of Bath was created by a man, but she’s like an ordinary woman—but she’s not. She’s larger than life. She is extraordinary. She’s “ordinary” in that she has sex, gets married, eats, drinks, gossips, has a job. Compared to a queen, a whore, or a witch, she’s an ordinary woman.


It’s a crucial aspect, how new this is. She’s the first ordinary woman, but also the first literary character. More so than Chaucer’s other characters, he gives her a long time to talk about who she is. She’s not a flat character. She has an ethical sense, a sense of humor, a depth to her. It’s a novel way to think about literature.


She does have an extraordinarily powerful voice. Chaucer puts together his own historical moment and other literary sources. He’s a brilliant writer and creates a voice that’s exceptionally powerful and a plea for women’s voices to be heard.


Chaucer becomes a renowned writer, and she lasts because she speaks so powerfully to people. And she annoys a lot of people! People over the centuries want her punished because she refused to get married, they take out the bits about sex, they’re made nervous by her but they can’t leave her alone. The ballad about her has remained very popular while others were trying to suppress it.


Q: What feminist elements do you see in Alison of Bath’s story?


A: From what she says, she is not afraid of talking about rape, domestic abuse, terrible things that are done to women. The part of her prologue that speaks most strongly to feminists is the part about “who painted the lion?” The man is depicted better than the lion, and the lion asks, “Who painted it?”


Who created a work of art? It’s not only about feminism, but think about who’s writing the text? If there’s only one background, we need to hear other voices. Women had not had the chance to tell their own stories. Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf also said that women hadn’t had a chance to tell their one story.


That is a really important point, and it’s still the case today. Women’s voices are not as well represented.


But the Wife of Bath is not feminist because feminism is a more recent concept. Much of what she says and does [has supported] an antifeminist text—she is showing the terrible things women do. Look at how evil women are, defying their husbands. She lies to them and deceives them. She’s open about what a bad person she is.


It’s important not to put her in the modern idea of what we like a heroine to be. She does not represent one thing.


She emerges in a historical moment which relatively speaking was good for women. There were more job opportunities; good inheritance rights; the marriage pattern was to marry later and have fewer children; women didn’t live with their husbands’ families.


At the same time, it was still terrible—women had no vote, no epidurals, no control over their fertility. It’s easy to overidealize the period because it was relatively good.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A few things. One project I’m interested in is why people read fiction across time. At the moment, there’s a crisis in reading. Young people are not reading as much as they used to. It’s the idea of what we get out of fiction, listening, reading in groups—does it make is more empathetic? It’s a big cross-historical study about why in different societies we need to red fiction.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One thing that’s very striking is that things don’t improve steadily over time. It’s not the case that people get less misogynist. Many of the 15th century readings are more anxious about her rhetoric and voice. In the 20th century there’s more anxiety about her body and her sexuality, that she’s an older sexually active woman. Pasolini’s film, in the 1970s, had one of the nastiest images of the Wife of Bath. His attitude is so disturbing.


But there’s a happy ending. In the last 20 years, there have been lots of really fabulously interesting thoughtful responses to the Wife of Bath, particularly by women of color. She’s alive and well and being treated with respect, or creative disrespect in a good way.


Thinking about history, it’s not obvious that things don’t always progress; it’s up and down. We have to be alert and aware to the downturns of how women are treated legally. We see the ups and downs in the treatment of Alison of Bath.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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