The Good Wife of Bath

I received this as a review copy via NetGalley.

I love a story about reclaiming women – whether it’s in history or fiction. Turns out I’ve read a few of these recently: Wendy, Darling and Forces of Nature for example. And The Good Wife of Bath fits into that space: yes, it’s that Wife of Bath, perhaps Chaucer’s most contested character (from The Canterbury Tales anyway).

I have to admit it’s a long, long time since I studied Chaucer at university, and I’m not sure I read all of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale even then (I found the language really hard going, not going to lie). Which means that people who’ve never read any Chaucer (like, most of the population, surely) will be just fine with reading this. If you do know the Wife’s original story I guess you get that extra frisson when a name is dropped, but it’s not essential to the story. Honestly I got more of that from the fact Chaucer is a character in the book and I know bits and pieces about his life courtesy of Who Murdered Chaucer? which I recently re-read.

Anyway. The story is Eleanor’s biography, basically beginning with her marriage at age 12 to a stranger several decades older than she is. Which is a deeply unpleasant thought, but it wasn’t until I got to the Author’s Note that it occurred to me that many people would find this shocking – the shocking-ness of not knowing this was at least sometimes a reality in the 14th century, I mean. 12 was the legal age of marriage in much of Europe for much of the Middle Ages, a fact I already knew and so I guess I’ve already dealt with being shocked by that. (I still don’t find it a pleasant idea, don’t worry.) In Chaucer’s recounting, the Wife talks of having had five husbands, and how she has tried to have mastery over them. Two thirds of the book is Eleanor as wife: who she marries, why, and what her life is like in each circumstance. In many ways it’s an exploration of the possibilities for a woman in the late 14th century: a good life or hard, a loving husband or abusive, allowed by her husband to participate in decision making or treated like a child, and the fact that her property becomes his property at marriage. And then the last third is Eleanor attempting to live as a feme sole, or sole woman – not connected to a man – which basically translates to “target”.

What Eleanor doesn’t personally experience, the women within her circle do. And overall that means that this book has some hard parts to read. Life for everyone in the Middle Ages had its brutality, especially compared to many of the things I take for granted in 21st century urban Australia; and the mid 14th century has the added bonus (?) of the Botch – what we call the Black Death. Life for women had its particular brutalities, and Brooks presents these as a part of life. Eleanor is at times very poor, and at times relatively wealthy; living on a farm or in town; respectable and not, surrounded by family and not. Brooks explores the lot. And by including Chaucer as a character, with as accurate a biography as is available, Brooks also includes bits of the contemporary politics (Lollards, John of Gaunt, 1381…).

The one thing I was left feeling a bit… confused by is the subtitle: A (Mostly) True Story. I love an unreliable narrator, and Eleanor certainly has the potential to be one. But nowhere is there a clear suggestion that she is being slippery, or fiddling with facts to make herself look better, or do anything other than present her story as she experienced it. So the suggestion that she is somehow being crafty in presenting her story doesn’t make sense. I actually forgot it was the subtitle while reading, because it’s just not relevant.

Overall, this is a great addition to the reclaiming of women’s voices within fiction. It’s fairly long; that’s balanced by being very readable, and smartly paced: it’s certainly not a trial to read. Definitely recommended to the historical fiction crowd, or if you were compelled to read any of Chaucer at any stage.

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