Nayled to the wow

Tom Shippey

  • The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall
    Blackwell, 365 pp, £19.95, September 1992, ISBN 1 55786 205 2
  • A Wyf ther was: Essays in Honour of Paule Mertens-Fonck edited by Juliette Dor
    University of Liège, 300 pp, June 1992, ISBN 2 87233 004 6
  • Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of 14th-Century Texts by Paul Strohm
    Princeton, 205 pp, £27.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 691 06880 1

Chaucer’s life is a standing temptation to a biographer. On the one hand, we have the 493 documented mentions of him brought together in the Crow and Olson Life Records, a body of paper which makes Chaucer far better evidenced as a person than Shakespeare two centuries later; on the other, there is the persistent refusal of these documents to see him as what we think we know he was (the major poet of his age), presenting him instead as a quite important civil servant with good connections to power, and from a family almost typically English in its concentration not on literary matters but on moving up the social scale. Chaucer’s great-grandfather, Andrew ‘le Taverner’, thus seems to have kept a pub in Ipswich, while his great-great-grandson, Richard Duke of Suffolk, nicknamed ‘Blanche Rose’, was accepted as King of England – but, alas, only by the French, and only till he was killed in battle at Pavia. There is an irony, on which Derek Pearsall ends his book, in the extirpation of the Chaucer line around 1539 at virtually the same moment as the first printing of Chaucer’s Collected Works in 1532. But the irony had been there all the time, in the almost unbroken refusal of Chaucer’s contemporaries to take any documented interest in him as a poet, while recording steadily his involvement with rape, robbery, profitable deals of one kind and another, and not least with His Majesty’s Secret Service – or as the records put it, in secretis negociis domini regis. What did they pay Chaucer for? Why was he so useful? Is there any clue to his James Bond activities in his poetry? At any rate it is a pleasure to have a literary subject who appears to have been taken seriously in his own lifetime, to have had a role in the great world.

No wonder, then, that Chaucer’s biographers have been so ready to pick out his life in vivid colours, from Speght in the 16th century, who said a friend had seen a record (now vanished) of Chaucer being fined two shillings for beating up a friar in Fleet Street, to the late Donald Howard, whose book of five years ago presented Chaucer very much as the adviser and confidant of the great, writing his works in a vain attempt to keep Richard II on the straight and narrow. Pearsall remarks dourly of the first that it is part of a general British tendency to see Chaucer as a university man, or at least a properly-educated one (the vanished record would have made him an inmate of the Inns of Court). De mortuis restrains him from saying much about the second, beyond the occasional blank denial: ‘there is no evidence whatever that the translation [of Boethius] was done for Richard II,’ he writes, where Howard has: ‘could have been written for the King ... useful book for a ruler [the Melibee] ... essential reading for a monarch [the Boethius]’. There is nevertheless a note of asperity in Pearsall’s remark that the snobbish British urge to prevent Chaucer from looking like Mr Nobody from Nowhere is matched by a democratising American urge ‘to emphasise that Chaucer got where he did by hard work’ – not to mention moral virtue. For all the records, and the poems, one might say that Chaucer has in the end been just another victim of ‘presentism’, the strong and perhaps insuperable urge to see him exactly as present fashion would have him, whether as proto-Protestant (Speght), as cloyingly nice (Howard), or as deeply sympathetic to women’s rights (see especially Howard, ‘He lived in a man’s world, but not in his mind or heart,’ or Jill Mann’s inaugural lecture in Cambridge two years ago: ‘he alone ... has an idea of what a real apology to a woman would look like’).

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