How Chaucer’s medieval Wife of Bath was tamed and then liberated in the 21st century

How Chaucer’s medieval Wife of Bath was tamed and then liberated in the 21st century

Marion Turner, University of Oxford

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is one of the most famous characters in English literature. Since appearing in the Canterbury tales in 1387, her tale has been rewritten and adapted by authors from the French philosopher Voltaire in the 18th century to the contemporary author Zadie Smith in 2021.

As I write in my book, there is something about this fictional, five-times-married, medieval woman that has taken hold of so many writers’ imaginations.

Before the Wife of Bath (whose name is Alison), women in literature were princesses, damsels-in distress, nuns and queens – or whores, witches and evil old crones. The principal source for the Wife of Bath is an old prostitute. Chaucer’s character is a middle-aged, mercantile, sexually active woman, who gives us her point of view. While she is an extraordinary figure (for her time), she is also an ordinary woman.

Across time, readers have been fascinated – and often threatened – by her. From scribes who argued against her in the margins of 15th-century manuscripts to censors who burnt ballads about her in the 17th century, there are many examples of her provoking anxiety in readers.

Many modern writers have also been drawn to her. But most of them have not been interested in her (still relevant) concern with discussing rape, domestic abuse, ageism, and the silencing of women (lines 692-696). Nor have they been interested in her humour or her self-awareness. Rather, these aspects of her have caused extreme discomfort and most authors have wanted to punish, ridicule, reduce or tame her in their own adaptations.

Sex, lies and videotapes

In 1972, the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini made a film of the Canterbury Tales. He focused on sex and the body, in a radically skewed interpretation of Chaucer that ignores the principle of variety that underpins the original text. For Pasolini, the Wife of Bath, as an older, sexually-active woman, is an abomination.

In his version, sex with her literally causes her fourth husband’s death. Her fifth husband is sexually uninterested in her. The episode ends with her biting his nose, a symbol of castration.

Out of all of the hundreds of responses to the Wife of Bath across time that I have come across, this one is perhaps the most disturbing, demonstrating extreme discomfort with the idea of a confident, middle-aged woman.

In the same decade, the British author Vera Chapman also created a new version of the Wife of Bath. This female-authored version is notably sympathetic. In Chapman’s novel, Alison is kind and considerate, even refusing advantageous marriage offers if she thinks the man might regret it.

But in order to make the Wife of Bath sympathetic, Chapman also makes her far more conventional. She becomes a damsel in distress, twice saved from rape by the intervention of chivalrous men. Chapman also turns her into a loving mother, giving her several children.

These adaptations show that the kind of woman Chaucer wrote was not seen as a viable heroine in the 1970s – she had to be tamed and made to fit into disturbingly narrow stereotypes.

From Molly Bloom to #Metoo

Somewhat similarly, the poet Ted Hughes celebrates and reduces the Wife of Bath. In his poem, Chaucer, Hughes writes that the poet Sylvia Plath recites the Wife of Bath’s Prologue out of pure enjoyment and love of Chaucer. He tells us that the Wife is Plath’s “favourite character in all literature”.

Both women embody certain positive characteristics – they are articulate, desirable, and confident. However, they also talk endlessly, listened to only by cows. Ultimately, Plath and Alison need to be rescued by a strong man (Hughes himself) as she too becomes a damsel in distress, unable to look after herself, and reliant on male strength and decisiveness.

This desire to reduce the Wife of Bath to something more generic is also evident earlier in the century.

James Joyce’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses is a reincarnation of Alison of Bath, as other critics have noted. However, Joyce’s focus on women as “the flesh that always affirms’” runs counter to the Wife of Bath’s interrogation of the misogynist idea that women are unintellectual. The Wife of Bath’s knowledge of the Bible and skill at argument are not paralleled in Joyce’s version, as he creates a simpler, more stereotyped and essentialised version of womanhood.

In the 21st century, many women writers, including Caroline Bergvall, Patience Agbabi and Jean “Binta” Breeze, have taken on the Wife of Bath and embraced her complexities.

Zadie Smith’s Wife of Willesden transports her to contemporary north-west London, where she becomes Alvita. Although the text is ostentatiously of the present moment, with its references to #MeToo, Jordan Peterson and Beyoncé, it closely follows Chaucer’s text.

Alvita, like Alison, is complex, neither monstrous nor blameless. Alison’s searing indictments of rape culture, of the power of hate-filled misogynist books, and of the structural silencing of women in her world are re-voiced as Smith emphasises their ongoing relevance in the 21st century.

The history of feminism is not straightforward – some things get worse over time, not better. It is only in very recent years that new adaptations are no longer less progressive than the original. Despite all the attempts to silence and humiliate her, nevertheless, the Wife of Bath persisted and her voice is now louder than ever before.The Conversation

Marion Turner, J.R.R Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guest Review

REVIEW

Wild Swims. By Dorthe Nors. London: Pushkin Press, 2020.

BY Charlotte Haley

'Wild Swims' cover image

Wild Swims

Embracing the discomfort of minimalism through Nors’ tales of longing, memory, and loneliness.

Wild Swims demands of the reader a kind of mimicry of its characters, contemplative and isolated as they are. Dorthe Nors’ sparse prose asks that her reader also recede from the world and embrace the unsaid – ‘you can always withdraw a little bit further’, reads the epigraph. These short narratives operate on two planes, perhaps best divided as conscious and subconscious levels, and the reader would be best served by leaving their own personality at the shore and diving in.

Nors’ constant flipping from action in the present to trains of thought, entrenched in complex memories, prompts the reader to raise their heads above the water of the characters’ minds every so often. At times, one feels just as lost as the narrator of the title story, who explores the past, or ‘other realms’, in swimming. People bob in and out of situations, never really knowing themselves or those around them. Intimacy as a concept seems impossible in these 14 stories, as broken and distant as those who long for it.

Thus, striving to stay afloat is almost futile. Sentences start and finish in different directions, their clauses joined by a disorienting ‘and’ that feels perfunctory. In ‘Pershing Square’, a grave tale of burgeoning illness, a woman ‘puts her hand on her chest, something’s pressing inside, and there is ice on the lakes in Canada.’ In ‘Manitoba’, a solitary ex-teacher wishes for peace from rowdy teenagers, but sinister notes leak into his character throughout the course of the story: ‘…an aversion to death might keep them from his door, and there’s a glow over by the maple’. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, but these dreamy sentences read like glimpses of cerebral paths being re-trodden, wearied and worn in the minds of the characters.

The direction-changing ‘and’ is just one of the techniques repeated throughout the stories which invite the reader above the surface of deep introspection and memory. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first story, ‘In a Deer Stand’. An overwrought husband injures his ankle while hiking, an attempt to escape his tense home life. Memories of his wife and an intruding character named Lisette are interrupted by the harsh present, the threat of frostbite and wolves. Ingenious typesetting in the Pushkin Press edition from 2020 cuts the first line’s ‘somebody’ in half, so the beginning of the second line reads ‘body will show up’. As the increasingly desperate protagonist imagines his wife contacting the police and striving to find him, the reader can imagine the opposite, and far more likely, outcome, as ‘a wolf has been sighted’.

A consistent sense of anticlimax pervades this collection: each time a story crests into something intriguingly macabre, the blankness of the next page heralds a truncated end. However many short paragraphs remain, however many two-word clauses and compact descriptions are left, one has to come to terms with the story as it is. Nors refuses to expand: expansion almost seems a luxury.

This attitude is shared by her characters, whose failing relationships belie a general reluctance for investing time in others. This is evidenced in ‘Compaction Birds’, where an attempt to elongate a one night stand ends in flat disappointment. Young love is confused and hopeless in ‘By Sydvest Station’, when a teenager named Lina is silently consumed by rejection from a boy who protested that ‘her love couldn’t be genuine… It was just compensation’. No explanation follows for why a teenage boy would have such a self-deprecating mindset, and Lina seems too stunned by the sentiment to expound on it further in her mind. Few characters are fired up by passion or anger – knowing one another intimately doesn’t even seem possible. Lina can’t tell her friend, Kirsten, about her heartbreak, as ‘she’s certain her reaction would be textbook, and nothing’s worse than someone who goes by the book’. There simply isn’t the impetus to share emotion openly, vulnerably.

This challenging collection asks a lot of the reader, and is sometimes difficult to stomach. A few of the characters are repulsive, with cruel desires and warped mindsets. Yet, these lonely, floating people and unlikeable misanthropes display the convincing power of Nors’ voice, and the strength of her narrative wild-swimming.

Charlotte Haley is a recent graduate of Regent’s Park College (2020), with a BA in Classics and English. For the last year, she has been working in Switzerland as a Gallery Assistant for a rare book dealer (while frantically trying to learn German!). Since graduating, she has co-written a short film about sexual health,The Clinic, produced by the BBC Arts New Creatives programme, and won the Kunsthalle Basel’s Online Writing Workshop in May of 2021 for her poem, I Like Basel But. Charlotte’s writing of all forms, published or otherwise, can be found on her blog, IOLIS (I Only Like It Sometimes). Her pronouns are she/they.

Guest Review

REVIEW

Christmas with Dull People. By Saki. London: Daunt Books, 2017.

BY Charlotte Haley

'Things We lost in the Fire' cover image

Christmas with Dull People

Misanthropy is an intoxicating force in this snappy quartet of Saki’s short stories, but does the spirit of the holidays accidentally shine through?

Saki (1870-1916), the pen name of H. H. Munro, is an enigmatic figure. My personal experience with him culminated in my undergraduate dissertation, an exploration of how Saki’s Gabriel-Ernest (1909) had links to Ancient Roman werewolf lore. When the EFL’s Senior Library Assistant, Ross Jones, suggested Saki’s Christmas with Dull People might bring a festive theme to my contemplation of short story collections, I couldn’t ignore the opportunity for comparison. This was a selection of stories I had no cause to read during my dissertation research, and I wondered how much of the viciousness of Saki’s beast-based narratives would be present in his seasonal stories.

The collection did not disappoint. Published by Daunt Books in 2017, this skinny edition of four of Saki’s Christmas-themed tales is dressed much like a tree ornament with an expletive written across it. Deceptively sweet, the book contains stories set in the middle-class homes of Edwardian England, bubbling with bitterness and cruelty.

From collections like Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914), I knew Saki to combine social commentary with fantasy and horror to an unsettling, often comic, effect. In Christmas with Dull People, however, it is the depressing realism of the holidays that protagonists and narrators attempt to convey, and which even drives them to extreme measures. In the first two stories, Reginald, one of Saki’s best-loved narrators, exudes a Wildean disdain for everything around him. Reginald’s Christmas Revel culminates in the titular party-pooper protesting a game of charades by faking a suicide. In Reginald on Christmas Presents, he pontificates on the pros and cons of various predictable gifts from various predictable aunts, with a strong aversion particularly to the George, Prince of Wales Prayer Book.

Despite the middle-class blandness which Saki loves to parody in the Reginald stories and so many others, there is a sort of raw emotion in the character’s vehement refusal to get along with people, and his aggressive and cruel ways of rejecting politeness and custom. Though these powerful rejections are perhaps better suited to the spirit of carnival than Christmas, a time of togetherness, there is something festive in Saki’s explosive extremes. In his world, festivity is about excitement, outrage, and breaking tradition. The punishment that is staying with ‘dull people’, says Reginald, is worse than a defeat. One can imagine the same Grinch-like spirit in Reginald’s nasty prank as that which lurks beneath an obnoxiously bellowed midnight carol, purposely waking up the neighbours.

In fact, Saki explores this festive disregard for peace in Bertie’s Christmas Eve, when a group of boisterous partygoers disrupts the subdued, restrained evening of the Steffink family – with Bertie Steffink’s help. The ‘motor-load’ of rowdy visitors are like the wassailers of the Middle Ages, labourers and farm workers who would demand food and drink of their feudal lords in seasonal song. This proto-carolling grew to hold a violent threat as it developed through the generations: if a household refused to comply with the request of the crowd, the home would be cursed, or worse. The spirit of ‘we won’t go until we get some’ is certainly present in the revellers of Saki’s story, and even in Bertie’s commitment to ruin his family’s muted fun. He demands that they replace their quiet Christmases with a new tradition: shaking up wealthy households and disturbing neighbours. In his consistent critique of a polite, predictable Christmas, Saki seems to demand this too.

When it became apparent that the plot of this story revolves around the myth of animals gaining the power of speech on Christmas Eve, I was hopeful that the Saki I recognised might make an appearance. My mind raced with ideas of anthropomorphised sheep and demonic, singing cows. Instead, the story is thrust along by an especially mean-spirited character in Bertie. Having locked his family in the cow-house as they try to catch the animals talking, Bertie holds a loud, drunken gathering in his family home. One can’t help but feel that the Steffinks – excited to indulge in some harmless fun – are being punished for such a lacklustre performance of festivity. Bertie wants excess and excitement, just like Reginald.

Down Pens, the final tale of this bite-sized collection, concerns the writing of thank-you letters after receiving presents you didn’t want from people you don’t like. Though it reads like a conversation from The Importance of Being Earnest or an extended Seinfeld gag, Saki’s caustic wit is best exhibited here, pointing out the hypocrisies and contradictions of middle-class gift-giving. In combination, the four stories allow a sense of the writer’s distinct tone to come through by exploring Christmas Scrooge-style, but they also question whether Christmas is the best time for politeness and custom, or whether things ought to be a bit more on the wild side.

Charlotte Haley is a recent graduate of Regent’s Park College (2020), with a BA in Classics and English. For the last year, she has been working in Switzerland as a Gallery Assistant for a rare book dealer (while frantically trying to learn German!). Since graduating, she has co-written a short film about sexual health,The Clinic, produced by the BBC Arts New Creatives programme, and won the Kunsthalle Basel’s Online Writing Workshop in May of 2021 for her poem, I Like Basel But. Charlotte’s writing of all forms, published or otherwise, can be found on her blog, IOLIS (I Only Like It Sometimes). Her pronouns are she/they.

Guest Review

REVIEW

Things We Lost in the Fire. By Mariana Enriquez. Translated by Megan McDowell. London: Portobello Books, 2017.

BY Charlotte Haley

Things We lost in the Fire Cover Image

Things We lost in the Fire

Exploring in monstrous form the true crime genre and violence against women, Enriquez’s short story collection remains relevant in 2021.

Trigger Warning: gore, self-harm, suicide, gender-based violence.

While the 12 stories of Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire are mostly entrenched in the preter- and supernatural, the horror of reality is always knocking at the door. This collection answers to a world of police brutality, dead children, political torture, and domestic violence, each taking its own monstrous form. Though she has been compared to Shirley Jackson and has herself discussed the influence of H. P. Lovecraft in her work, Mariana Enriquez is, as translator McDowell says in her note, ‘the heir…of Argentine gothic’, following writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Silvina Ocampo.

There are recognisable elements in this collection of the True Crime genre, a dark corner of media which has as many fans internationally as it does critics. The examination of real crimes, more often than not focusing on grizzly murder, has always captured the public’s most grotesquely-inclined imaginations, and this has peaked in the last fifty years with the rise in awareness of criminal psychology. This morbid fascination has been argued to disconnect us from other human beings, and yet has resulted in the successful apprehension of long-obscured culprits. Many of Enriquez’s stories and characters live in this liminal space between a need for desensitisation to the horror of real life, and a comprehension of how the normalised should be understood as horrific, through the metaphor of her many ghouls and monsters.

The truth of crime is something that Enriquez appears well-versed in, and about which she writes with startling clarity. In this collection alone, she draws from real cases of police brutality, murder, and poverty for the meat of her stories. She digs deep into the soil of her native Argentina, exploring lives wracked by decades of political conflict and human rights abuses. She has spoken about the country as its own character in her narratives, and this can certainly be seen in many of the stories in this collection. In Spiderweb, for instance, the natural world’s silent, Leviathan presence complements the tension felt under the eyes of soldiers serving Paraguayan dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. On a trip to Northern Argentina, a tiresome husband, Juan Martín, his wife, and her cousin, Natalia, end up stranded by a broken down car. When the trio get to a hotel in Clorinda, the husband disappears, and though this may be the most dramatic thing to happen in the narrative, it certainly doesn’t stand out as the most important. A story told earlier by Natalia, in which a burning house mysteriously disappears from the field it was in, sets the tone for Juan Martín’s disappearance to thread seamlessly into the atmosphere. When it happens, we are already unsettled. The floor upon which we stand as readers is already trembling.

Disappearing in the context of the political history of Argentina is also integral to Enriquez’s particular Gothic. During the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s, it is estimated that between 9,000 and 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’ as part of the military dictatorship’s attempt to rid themselves of political dissidents. Many groups of people suffered from the violence, and their families still seek answers. The threat of the military state is aptly hinted towards in Spiderweb, with the appearance of three boisterous soldiers who harass a waitress, and a disturbing story later told about the military building dead bodies into a bridge. Thus when Juan Martín disappears as though he never existed, there is a sense that something underhand but totally normal has occurred, that the narrative itself swallowed him up without a need to explain.

Spiderweb takes place from the point of view of the wife of Juan Martín, and many of Enriquez’s stories in this collection are told from the perspective of women. These characters exist in a country which in the last decade alone has seen mass protest and demonstration against femicide and gender-based violence. Nowhere is this explored so deeply as in the title narrative, Things We Lost in the Fire, the final story in the collection. Despite the exaggerated premise, Enriquez does not shy away from the reality of domestic violence as a systemic issue: when separate incidences of women being set on fire by their partners occur – and people choose to believe they did it to themselves – a widespread protest of self-immolation begins. Women begin to set themselves on fire en masse, organising bonfires and banding together in an attempt to reclaim power over this most destructive act, as well as the men who started it. McDowell’s choice of the word ‘bonfire’ is especially evocative, and the character Marίa Helena, who runs a secret hospital for the burned, alludes to the historical significance of death by burning: ‘I tell them that we women have always been burned — they burned us for four centuries!’

Young women in Enriquez’s stories have a distinctly irreverent shade to their characters, often rebelling against societal expectations, explicit instructions, and parental guidance. In Adela’s House, a young girl enters an abandoned house against the advice of her parents and her own instincts, and never resurfaces, ‘not alive or dead’. Once again, her disappearance is never solved, and the people who loved her are destroyed by the loss. In The Inn, two girls experience a ghostly encounter while trying to set up a prank in empty guest rooms. When about to lie down together, a symbol for the sexual relationship that the main character, Florencia, would like to pursue with her friend, Rocío, they are interrupted by the cacophony of men shouting, car motors, boots stomping – the ghostly sound of state terror and horrific political crimes. There is a sense that the blossoming of these girls’ sexuality and self-knowledge is interrupted by Argentina’s tumultuous recent history, a sense of the impact of intergenerational trauma.

Things We Lost in the Fire plays with anxieties by dancing in the doorway, as all good Gothic material does. Liminal spaces create a pervasive sense of unease, and while characters confront the supernatural and the monstrous, there is also an insidious, creeping anxiety imposed on the reader. In The Dirty Kid, the protagonist exists outside of the central horror, a middle-class woman who chooses to live in her old family home, despite its neighbourhood, Constitución, being plagued with poverty and criminal activity. She chooses to inhabit a contradiction of her own status. The reader almost feels lulled into a false sense of security, seeing this world through the protagonist’s comfortable but alienated eyes, rather than those of the five year old boy who sleeps on the street opposite her house, and who she takes to get ice cream after finding him without his mother, a drug addict. The protagonist likes the neighbourhood for making her feel ‘sharp and audacious’, and yet remarks that the ‘desperate lives’ she sees daily seem ‘natural’ to her. Enriquez so effortlessly highlights this character’s hypocrisy when the boy turns up dead and mutilated, and her fantasy of goodwill towards him is exposed to be diaphanous and impotent.

This story sets the tone for Enriquez to push us to confront the things in life which are morally reprehensible, to which we may have become immune. In An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt, a murder-tour guide develops an obsession with a serial child-killer, and his attitude towards his wife and the envy he feels towards his new baby leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Here, the message is clear: not only do our True Crime obsessions prompt a desensitisation to violence and evil, but they might just start to warp our own morals too. In Under the Black Water, a Lovecraftian series of events leads District Attorney, Marina Pinot, to a defiled church and a ghostly procession in honour of the dead. The poisoned river into which two young men were thrown by police officers – this aspect inspired by a real case of police violence – bloats and fizzes with evil, and once again, the protagonist’s proximity to real horror is melded with her encountering the supernatural.

The desensitisation topic is explored further in Green Red Orange, a story which deals with Hikikomori, or acute social withdrawal. The narrative centres on Marco, a social recluse who is locked in his bedroom and sustained by his anxious mother, and the narrator’s attempts to connect with him over a chatroom. During their increasingly infrequent conversations, Marco reveals details about his dive into the deep web, and the dark corners of exploitation and murder therein. One can’t help but feel that this is a story we are becoming increasingly familiar with, as some young men undergo online radicalisation and turn to extremes.

Another important element of this collection is the age of many of the characters: Enriquez brings to life a cast of high-school aged children in many stories, an older category than is usually employed for the horror genre, since the involvement of young children in the sordid and gory packs an instant emotional punch. Stories like The Intoxicated Years, End of Term, and Green Red Orange explore the particular horror of the period of ‘coming-of-age’, a time that is often romanticised in popular media. This reworking of the pubescent nightmare that is adolescence is part of Enriquez’s reality-check: our media has allowed us to deal with this period of self-discovery by taking the sting out of it, but she retaliates by warping the sting into something grotesque. The sting, for Enriquez, is important, and her portrayals of teenage angst reach disturbing extremes because of it.

End of Term focuses on Marcela, a pupil attending the school of the narrator who describes her as ‘forgettable’ in pretty much every way, except her terrible fashion sense. She wears ill-fitting clothes which cover her completely, a sign of obvious discomfort with her body, and a recognisable tactic to readers who remember their own body problems during puberty. Issues quickly arise, however, when Marcela rips her own fingernails out in class, causing uproar and her notoriety to spread. A slew of acts of self-harm, prompted by an invisible man who seems to haunt Marcela, remind the reader of very real and common mental health crises that many young people go through, and how supernatural horror has often been the genre chosen to explore mental illness. Thankfully, Enriquez avoids the damaging ways in which this genre can stigmatise mental health crises by injecting each story with supernatural antagonists and an otherworldly atmosphere, thus resting in metaphor, rather than exploitation.

Enriquez never fails to disappoint when it comes to extremes: she is in no way afraid to explore the sordid and perverse, and to push ideas to their limits. The collection mostly avoids shocks for the sake of shocks, though her descriptions of gore and the damage done to the human body are certainly visceral and could upset the under-prepared horror reader. Her narrative style is commanding and wastes no ink on extensive descriptions, a factor which makes her concise creation of eeriness all the more engaging.

Charlotte Haley is a recent graduate of Regent’s Park College (2020), with a BA in Classics and English. For the last year, she has been working in Switzerland as a Gallery Assistant for a rare book dealer (while frantically trying to learn German!). Since graduating, she has co-written a short film about sexual health,The Clinic, produced by the BBC Arts New Creatives programme, and won the Kunsthalle Basel’s Online Writing Workshop in May of 2021 for her poem, I Like Basel But. Charlotte’s writing of all forms, published or otherwise, can be found on her blog, IOLIS (I Only Like It Sometimes). Her pronouns are she/they.

Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

This is a guest review by Natalie Perman


Mary Jean Chan’s 2019 poetry collection Flèche is a cross-linguistic love poem to the queer body. A “book of love poems”, as declared in ‘Prologue’, Chan’s collection is defined by sparkling, crystallised images, often pulled from memory; such as how her mother, coming to see her fencing match, “gripped the railing until her marriage ring was folded into flesh”.

The focus on the physical is titular- ‘Fléche’ alludes phonetically to ‘flesh’ as well as denoting the technical offensive fencing move from the French word for ‘arrow’. As body and mind spar, the physical and metaphysical join unexpectedly; in ‘Flèche’ amidst the poem’s episodic jousting a blur of “entangled blades” focuses into “gleaming, smiling lips”. Within the physical fight rendered in the poem, and the physical and tactile in the collection, the potency of sexual desire brims beneath the surface.

These unique love poems- love poems to queerness, sexual and platonic love, family- are above all love poems to those who inhabit conflicting identities. Chan’s debut collection is defined by this intersection of contradictions: the sharp divide between her “mother’s Cantonese rage” versus “your soothing English”, the claim that to be queer “would be ‘ci sin’” and her own “blooms of ache”. The acceptance of the non-white queer body is a constant conflict, as Chan writes “a genuine acceptance of the self/continues to elude me”. However, the search for a space to home conflicting identities forges a beautiful exploration of past and present with the “mothers of history and/mothers of our present”. In this search for union in contradiction, Chan interweaves Confucian tales in “versions from the twenty-four filial exemplars”, her mother’s trauma and memories of political turmoil in poems such as “what my mother (a poet) might say” and the status of women, such as the ‘comfort women’ honoured in her poem “Dragon Hill Spa”.

Flèche’s power lies in its deceptive simplicity- the reader is effortlessly moved across linguistic and cultural boundaries towards the collection’s climactic act of self-awareness. This reaches its zenith in the “roots” and “blood song of your bones” which signal the realisation that “I’ve been looking everywhere / for forgiveness”. Each poem is exacting, its images unforgiving; in “an ode to boundaries” each line contains no more than 5 words, in another poem Chan recalls how “Once, during a bedtime storytelling, she sobbed until I cried for help, but father was asleep”. Only a few of Flèche’s poems seem to not realise their own emotional profundity as their language slips into the recognisable jargon of the love poem with its amorous tropes, such as of heartache, as one poem ends “that ache right there”. Despite this, these poems are still striking in their careful, precise verse.

This debut collection is striking, and Chen’s poems are urgent, armed and bared at the same time, and demand to be heard. Flèche is the highlight of what Mary Jean Chan can deftly achieve: to slip in and out of different tongues, confuse and enrich language, bare the vulnerable whilst charging it to be en garde.


Natalie Perman is an undergraduate at St John’s studying English and German. She is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2017, commended in 2018, and winner of the Forward Student Critics’ Competition in 2017. Contact her on Twitter with any burning poetry questions, passions or inquiries.

Newly discovered Du Maurier poems shed light on a talented writer honing her craft

 

File 20190419 28106 nkdeg4.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
For decades, Du Maurier poems were hidden behind this picture.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

by Laura Varnam, University of Oxford

Daphne du Maurier remains one of the 20th century’s most popular and enigmatic writers, her life captivating readers as much as her works, as the most recent biography, Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay, has shown. Her literary reputation is also finally on the rise and, although her most popular novel Rebecca has often overshadowed her wide-ranging achievements as a writer, the celebration of its 80th anniversary last year reinforced Du Maurier’s place in the canon of English Literature as a serious and influential author.

This will be aided by the recent discovery of unknown poems, written early in her writing career, hidden behind a stunning photograph of the young Du Maurier in a bathing costume on the rocks, poised to take flight into the sea that was such an inspiration to her work.

The poems were discovered by auctioneer Roddy Lloyd of Rowley’s auction house, Ely, as he prepared the archive of Du Maurier materials belonging to the late Maureen Baker-Munton for auction on April 27. Baker-Munton was PA to Daphne’s husband, Lt Gen Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning and she became a close and important friend to the Du Maurier Browning family, as expert Ann Willmore explains on the Du Maurier website.

Du Maurier with her husband Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning in 1956.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

Du Maurier is still primarily known as a novelist – as well as the bestseller Rebecca she is also rightly revered for the great Cornish novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and My Cousin Rachel (1951). But, as I argue in the book I am writing on Du Maurier, she was a far more versatile, wide-ranging, and experimental writer than is currently recognised. Du Maurier wrote plays, short stories and biographies throughout her career but she was also a poet, as her son Kits Browning explained to me when we spoke over the telephone recently.




Read more:
Du Maurier’s Rebecca at 80: why we will always return to Manderley


Honing her craft

The newly discovered poems were written when Du Maurier was honing her craft as a writer in the late 1920s. At that stage she was primarily writing short stories but, as Browning told me: “My mother wrote poetry throughout her life and career.” Indeed Du Maurier often used poetry as a way of exploring an experience or emotion or testing out a character before then expanding on her ideas in a short story or novel. One of the newly discovered poems focuses on loneliness:

When I was ten, I thought the greatest bliss,
would be to rest all day upon hot sand under a burning sun…
time has slipped by, and finally I’ve known,
The lure of beaches under exotic skies,
and find my dreams to be misguided lies,
For God! How dull it is to rest alone.

Du Maurier’s work is preoccupied by the difference between fantasy and reality – and the dangers of dreaming – and her work repeatedly returns to the tension between the desire for independence and the need for companionship and human contact.

Gender and sexuality

Another poem: Song of the Happy Prostitute, portrays a woman who is frustrated with the way her profession is represented.

Why do they picture me as tired and old…
selling myself with sorrow,
just to gain a few dull pence to shield me from the rain.

Song of the Happy Prostitute.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

What on first sight might seem an unusual, even controversial, topic for the young writer in fact reflects the dominant themes of her early work, as Ann Willmore, of Bookends of Fowey, explained to me recently. Willmore discovered the unpublished Du Maurier short story The Doll in which a young woman, suggestively named Rebecca, protects her personal independence by keeping a sex doll. “The Happy Prostitute poem fits in with Daphne’s interests in gender and sexuality, especially in her early work, and she did seem to want to shock her readers”, Willmore told me.

The poem also, in my view, relates to two early short stories from the same period of Du Maurier’s life in which she created the character of a prostitute called Mazie who boldly claimed that her work enabled her to be independent. “I’m free, I don’t owe anything to no one, I belong to myself”, Mazie declares in the short story Piccadilly. Growing up in the 1920s, when the freedom and autonomy of women was increasingly a topic for public debate, Du Maurier’s choice of subject matter reflects the concerns of her day.

Du Maurier and her children at Menabilly, the house near Fowey in Cornwall in which she and her family lived for many years. The house was the inspiration for the novel Rebecca.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

Du Maurier was a very privileged young woman, growing up in the grandeur of Cannon Hall in Hampstead – but her background was theatrical and Bohemian, as the daughter of celebrated actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier and stage actress Muriel Beaumont. And, as her son Kits Browning stressed, she was an avid reader and gained much imaginative experience of the world from the books she devoured as a teenager.

As to why the poems were hidden behind the photograph – either by Du Maurier herself or someone else – we are unlikely ever to find out. Browning told the Daily Telegraph that perhaps she did not want her parents to read them. Perhaps the Happy Prostitute found fuller expression in the Mazie short stories.

These newly discovered poems shed important light on Du Maurier’s early work and writing practice. Still often dogged by the incorrect label of “romantic novelist”, these poems highlight the important themes of independence, gender, and sexuality that were to fascinate Du Maurier throughout her career, in both prose and poetry. They show her boldness, spirit, and strength, just like the photograph behind which they were concealed for all these years.The Conversation

Laura Varnam, Lecturer in English Literature, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chaucer was more than English: he was a great European poet

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

by. Dr Marion Turner

In 2013, a Prospect magazine profile of the UKIP leader Nigel Farage described the Brexiteer’s party in Chaucerian terms:

UKIP is indeed a rag-tag bag … of cussed, contrary, wilful, protesting, obstreperous, bantering Englishmen and women, the like of which have been with us all the way back to The Canterbury Tales … the descendants of the brazen and garrulous Wife of Bath and the boisterous but genial Harry Bailey, Chaucer’s Inn Keeper. These are very English archetypes …

This notion of the quintessential ‘Englishness’ of The Canterbury Tales (1387), authored by the ‘Father of English Literature’, has a long history. In 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey simply because he lived in its precincts; but 150 years later, he was reburied in a grand new tomb as the founder member of Poets’ Corner, becoming, almost literally, the cornerstone of English literature. Poets such as John Dryden claimed him as the ‘father of English poetry’, adding that his most famous poem, The Canterbury Tales, represented ‘the whole English nation’.

Victorian writers, wedded to the essential Englishness of Chaucer, asked: ‘Who is an Englishman more English than Chaucer?’ His genius, they agreed, was ‘English to the core.’ In the 20th century, G K Chesterton took Chaucer’s vaunted Englishness to new levels, claiming that: ‘Chaucer was the Father of his Country, rather in the style of George Washington.’ More recently, the blurb of Peter Ackroyd’s Chaucer: Brief Lives (2004) describes The Canterbury Tales as ‘an epic of Englishness’, while Ackroyd calls Chaucer ‘the genial and smiling emblem of Englishness’.

This mantle of patriarchal Englishness would have seemed distinctly odd to Chaucer himself. Chaucer was able to transform English poetry the way he did precisely because of his internationalism, not his nationalism. Like all educated men of his day, he was multilingual. He devoured late-antique philosophy, Latin translations of Arabic scientific treatises, and French love poems. His unusually good knowledge of Italian – and his travels to Italy – allowed him to access the latest poetry of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Indeed, Chaucer’s very fascination with vernacularity was a European phenomenon: Dante and Boccaccio’s championing of Tuscan vernacular inspired Chaucer to see what he could do with his own.

The influence of these Italian poets changed what English poetry could do. Chaucer’s development of the pentameter, for instance, the 10-syllable, five-stress line that became the building block of English poetry, was inspired by an Italian poetic line (the endecasillabo). And it was Chaucer who first translated a Petrarchan sonnet into English.

This internationalism belies the idea of the ‘English archetypes’ of the Canterbury pilgrims that has seeped into the popular imagination. Far from being a UKIP-member prototype, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is based mainly on a figure called La Vieille from the French Roman de la Rose, and on stereotypes from Jerome’s Latin Adversus Jovinian. And the idea of a group of people telling stories has multiple sources, notably Boccaccio’s Decameron. Most of The Canterbury Tales doesn’t even take place in England: the settings range from central Asia to Syria to northern Italy to Flanders. And very few have any English sources.

Chaucer’s earliest trip to mainland Europe was in 1359, when, as a teenager, he fought in the Hundred Years’ War and was taken prisoner near Reims. In later years, he visited Navarre, now in northern Spain but an independent country in the 14th century – a multicultural community where Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed relatively peacefully. He made two trips to Italy on diplomatic missions, visiting Lombardy, Florence and Genoa. And he frequently went to France, negotiating treaties and marriage alliances. Indeed, parts of modern-day France – including Calais and Aquitaine – were under English rule at this time, and the borders between the countries were constantly changing.

But Chaucer did not need to go abroad to have an international outlook, since English mercantile and aristocratic culture was profoundly European. Chaucer came from a wine-merchant family whose wealth was dependent on the traffic between France and England. Born in Vintry Ward, London – the area of the city with more immigrants than any other – the young Chaucer was brought up seeing the ships come and go on the Thames. Spices from Indonesia, furs from Russia, glass and paper from Italy, timber, grain and metal from Baltic lands, were all available in the markets and shops of late-14th-century London. The world trade system was advanced and complex, and land and sea traders crisscrossed Asia, Africa and Europe. As a child, Chaucer would have been aware of a vast global economy.

When Chaucer worked for the king’s sons and later the king, he slid easily into the internationalism of court life. Queen Philippa of Hainault and Queen Anne of Bohemia had extensive retinues from their homelands in tow, including poets who mainly wrote in French, and Chaucer himself married a woman whose family came from Hainault (a country now subsumed into France and Belgium): Philippa de Roet.

In political life, whenever issues of English national identity flared, filtered through monopolist ambition and xenophobia, Chaucer was always on the side of internationalism – we might even say globalisation. In the 1370s, London merchants, outraged that Italian merchants were gaining advantages in the lucrative wool trade, sought an English monopoly. In the so-called Good Parliament of 1376, MPs denounced these Italians as sodomites, secret Jews and Saracens, as they attempted to push them out of the wool trade. Earlier in the decade, Chaucer had travelled in company with Italians to Genoa, precisely to try to negotiate a trade deal that would have allowed the Genoans to circumvent the monopoly and have their own trading base on the south coast. He was working for John of Gaunt, a firm opponent of the London monopolists.

Chaucer’s own version of Englishness certainly did not mean driving out or excluding other Europeans: he spent his life negotiating and working with them. From 1374, Chaucer served as comptroller for the wool custom, at the heart of England’s international trading system. He regularly associated with men such as Matthew Janyn, an Italian who gave huge loans to the king; Richard Lyons, the part Fleming controller of the petty custom and an old friend of his father’s; and Jacobi Provan and John de Mari, Genoans in whose company Chaucer rode to Italy. Appropriately, from 1374 until 1385-6, he lived and worked on physical thresholds – his home above a gate on the city walls, his office on the riverbank – looking into London and then out to the rest of the world.

Chaucer bore very little resemblance to the dull patriarch depicted on the covers of so many books about him. He was a child in the seething streets of London, a young man crossing the mountain passes of the Pyrenees, a maturing diplomat avid for Italian poetry in Pavia and Giotto’s frescoes in Florence, a courtier to a Bohemian queen, a husband going home to his Hainuyer wife. He was also a poet who wrote about the markets of Paris and Bruges, the tyrants of Lombardy and the court of Chinggis Khan, even the dream of travelling to outer space. Nurtured by the writings of Ovid, Boethius, Dante, Machaut and Boccaccio, his imagination soared beyond borders. To call Chaucer the father of English literature not only misrepresents him, but also sells him short. He should be celebrated as one of the great European poets.

 

 

Gods in exile: resurrecting Dionysus

by Alexandra Turney

Apollo as a shepherd in Austria; Dionysus as a priest in medieval France; Aphrodite as a child washed up on the coast of Italy. While the Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote of the glory of their gods, some 19th century writers were more inspired by the idea of their fall from glory, and descent into obscurity. What kind of life would a pagan god live in modern, Christian Europe? How would they cope with their anonymous existence? And there’s another question, which I’ve recently been asking myself – why are so we fascinated by the idea of the gods in exile?

The German poet Heinrich Heine was one of the first to imagine the reincarnated gods, writing about them with mingled emotions of awe and pity (and a touch of irony) in his essay ‘Gods in Exile’:

The [Church] by no means declared the ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves, and by their diabolic arts, through lust and beauty, particularly through dancing and singing, lured to apostasy unsteadfast Christians who had lost their way in the forest….

Heine recounts various medieval legends about the gods, from Hermes living as a humble tradesman to an elderly Zeus weeping and shivering on a frozen island. “Decay is secretly undermining all that is great in the universe”, writes Heine, and rather than enjoying the spectacle, he advises that we should have some compassion for the fallen gods.

The idea of exiled gods was not a new one, but for some reason it captured the imagination of 19th century writers. In Swinburne’s poem ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ the speaker mourns his “Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day”, while Walter Pater and Vernon Lee used short stories to explore the ideas from Heine’s essay in greater depth and psychological complexity.

`

Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, 1866, from the EFL Rare Books Room

Walter Pater has been remembered primarily for his art criticism – his meditations on the Mona Lisa and his famous line “To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” His fiction, which includes the short stories of Imaginary Portraits, has been almost forgotten, but it contains some evocative contributions to the ‘gods in exile’ genre. ‘Apollo in Picardy’ and ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’ imagine Apollo and Dionysus in a medieval French context. In both stories, the gods are out of place in their Christian communities, and their conflict with their surroundings leads to tragedy.

Vernon Lee, whom Pater acknowledged as his “disciple”, saw connections between gods in exile and ghosts. In her essay ‘Dionysus in the Euganean Hills’ she suggests that the exile of the gods is “a kind of haunting; the gods who had it partaking of the nature of ghosts even more than all gods do, revenants as they are from other ages.” Her interest in the gods in exile was therefore an extension not only of her Hellenism and love of Italy, but also of her fascination with all things supernatural.

One of Lee’s best known short stories from Hauntings, ‘Dionea’, took direct inspiration from Heine. Venus (Aphrodite) is re-born in late 19th century Italy as a young girl of mysterious origins, who has an increasingly malignant influence on her surroundings. Male attempts to portray her or understand her are futile, leading only to disappointment, or even madness and death. Dionea may not be evil, but her influence is, and Lee suggests that this is a result of her alienation, and her incompatibility with the modern Christian world. The story ends with Dionea sailing away, “singing words in an unknown tongue”, unknowable to the last.

Just as the gods fell from glory, so the ‘gods in exile’ genre has faded into obscurity. I doubt I would have ever discovered these fascinating texts if I had not studied English Literature at Oxford, and attended lectures by Dr Stefano Evangelista in my first year as an undergraduate. I fell in love with the language of Swinburne, the ideas of Pater, the atmosphere of Lee.

Despite its strange, detached tone, one of the texts that made the greatest impression on me was Pater’s story ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’, a macabre tale about Dionysus’s unlikely career as a village priest in medieval France; it ends with ‘Denys’ being torn apart by the villagers in an act of sparagmos (ritual dismemberment). Ever since I studied The Bacchae at school I’d been fascinated by the figure of Dionysus – god of wine, divine ecstasy and ritual madness – and Pater’s tale of resurrection/destruction added an intriguing new chapter to the god’s mythology.

Several years later, living in Rome and daydreaming on the metro on the way to work, I found myself thinking of ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’ and Dionysus. What would happen if the god were re-born in modern Rome, a city where he has no believers? I imagined him waking up in the Protestant Cemetery and gazing uncomprehendingly at the Pyramid of Cestius. As he slowly comes to consciousness he realises, to his disappointment, that he is alive again.

My metro daydream eventually became my debut novel, In Exile. I like to think of it as a resurrection not only of Dionysus, but also of the ‘gods in exile’ genre. While I’m aware that other writers have imagined the Greek gods in modern settings (such as Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels or Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips), I was interested in exploring the melancholy, malevolent side of the gods, and the idea of exile. It seems to me such a fascinating concept, and a rich source of inspiration.

Aside from the glamour of the gods – centuries of art and literature are a testament to their continual fascination – I think there are two main explanations for the allure of the gods in exile. Pater and Lee are just two of many writers (and readers) who are obsessed with the past. It’s not so much a disdain for modernity as a fascination with the imaginative potential of the past, and the awareness that the past is at once unknowable and unavoidable. For Lee it is a continual, physical presence, a “borderland” that overlaps with the present. When we imagine a pagan god walking among us, we have the tantalising illusion of being able to understand these “revenants” from the ancient world.

But I think the ‘gods in exile’ genre has even wider appeal. Even more common and relatable than the obsession with the past is the interest in isolation and alienation. It’s a theme that can be found in practically every text ever written, from Beowulf to Twilight. Writers love to write stories about characters who feel out of place in their surroundings, and readers love to read about them.

At a glance, the ‘gods in exile’ genre might seem obscure and inaccessible. Why would the average modern reader, with only the vaguest notions of ancient religion and mythology, care about Dionysus’s reluctant resurrection? By writing In Exile, I hope I’ve answered the question. On some level Dionysus is not just a pagan god, but also Heathcliff or Holden Caulfield, or even the reader. In other words, god or human, author or reader, we have all felt like outsiders at some point in our lives. Exile can be a place or a time, but it’s also a state of mind.


Alexandra Turney is a graduate of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and her novel In Exile was published in January 2019.