The Wife of Bath: A Biography 
by Marion Turner.
Princeton, 320 pp., £20, January, 978 0 691 20601 1
Show More
The Wife of Willesden 
by Zadie Smith.
Hamish Hamilton, 109 pp., £7.99, November 2021, 978 0 241 47196 8
Show More
The Good Wife of Bath 
by Karen Brooks.
William Morrow, 541 pp., £9.99, March 2022, 978 0 06 314283 1
Show More
Show More

Alysoun ofBath first appeared in the 14th century in the Canterbury Tales, dressed in a finely spun headcloth, scarlet stockings and supple new shoes. An accomplished weaver, well-travelled pilgrim and serial bride, she spends more time recounting the dramas of her own life than contributing to the storytelling competition. In 1600, three men were fined for printing and selling ‘a Disorderly ballad of the wife of Bathe’ in which Alysoun knocks on the gates of heaven and upbraids the various biblical figures who try to keep her out – Adam, Solomon, Mary Magdalene – for their own sinfulness, until Jesus finally shows mercy and lets her in. In Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), John Dryden rendered ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in contemporary English, ‘not daring … to adventure on her prologue, because ’tis too licentious’. Voltaire took the opposite approach: when he reworked Dryden’s version in the 1760s, he made it even more salacious than the original.

Over the last three decades there has been a revival of interest in Alysoun’s story. Susan Swan’s novel The Wives of Bath, set in the fictional Bath Ladies College, was published in 1993. The headmistress looks ‘the way Chaucer’s Wife of Bath might have looked if she had stepped into the 20th century: broad in the behind and out for herself, and the rest of the world could go hang.’ In ‘The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market’ (2000), a poem by Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, the Wife is unapologetic about enjoying sex, because why else would ‘we have dese private parts so sweet’? In Patience Agbabi’s reimagining of Chaucer, Telling Tales (2014), she appears as Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa, a Nigerian textile saleswoman who envies her neighbour’s ‘Jimmy Shoes’, beats her young husband for reading Playboy, and flirtatiously offers her listeners a discount. In Caroline Bergvall’s monologue Alysoun Sings (2019), meanwhile, she summons a chorus of ‘gabfull women’, from Christine de Pizan and Hildegard of Bingen to Valerie Solanas and Audre Lorde.

Why does Alysoun remain such a compelling figure? One reason is that she’s the most fully formed of the Canterbury pilgrims. Chaucer introduces her in the General Prologue: wide-hipped and gap-toothed, she rides her horse confidently and pushes to the front of church when offerings are made. In her own prologue she delivers a learned sermon defending remarriage, gloats about the way she manipulated three elderly husbands by accusing them of adultery and misogyny, describes two more (mutually abusive) marriages, and runs through a list of medieval anti-feminist writings. After this whirlwind rhetorical performance, Alysoun begins her tale: an ambiguous fable set in Arthurian Britain, in which a knight convicted of rape is forced to marry the mysterious crone who saves his life, only to find her transformed into a beautiful young woman.

Scholars have long puzzled over the inconsistencies in Alysoun’s speech. She defends marriage, but depicts married life as a purgatory. She argues against misogynistic stereotypes, but presents herself as a lusty shrew eager to bury each of her husbands. Chaucer says she’s a talented weaver, but most of her business comes from controlling access to her genitals. The medievalist D.W. Robertson Jr argued in the 1960s that Alysoun is ‘not a “character” in the modern sense at all, but an elaborate iconographic figure’ – an assemblage of clichés about women. Then came the twist: ‘that she still seems feminine to us is a tribute to the justness of the ideas which produced her.’ In other words, Alysoun seems realistic to modern readers because the old stereotypes are accurate.

Robertson was reacting against the social movements of the time. And it’s true that, with her insistence on renegotiating power dynamics between the sexes, claiming her right to sexual pleasure, and earning her own money, Alysoun can sound not unlike a second-wave feminist. Yet she doesn’t fit neatly into any ideology. The first word she speaks in the Canterbury Tales is ‘experience’, and it is her specific experience of marriage that gives her authority. She dismisses her first three husbands as flavourless ‘bacon’, unable to satisfy her. Her fourth is a philanderer, whom she torments in turn by making him jealous. Her fifth, the university student Jankyn, harasses her by citing examples of evil women from his books. Only after a fight (in which she delivers the first blow) do they come to an agreement about how to live together.

Marion Turner’s ‘biography’ of the Wife of Bath sets out to explain Alysoun’s ‘long career as a bookrunner – a figure that escapes her own text’. Turner argues that much of Alysoun’s appeal comes from her ordinariness. She isn’t a saint or a queen or a bawd, but a character whose experiences reflect those of women in the 14th century. Marrying multiple times was common. English inheritance laws, compared to those on the Continent, were favourable to widows, allowing them to keep both their own dowry and a substantial portion of their deceased husband’s property. In London, widows could continue living in the marital home until they died or remarried. Turner gives the examples of Margaret Stodeye, probably known to Chaucer, whose four husbands included two mayors of London; Alice Chaucer, the poet’s granddaughter, whose fortune grew over the course of her three marriages; and his great-niece Katherine Neville, whose fourth wedding, to a 19-year-old, took place when she was 65. Alysoun’s spirited defence of her right to remarry is therefore unnecessary; she’s arguing against old books rather than contemporary attitudes. Her financial independence as a successful weaver, her travels to medieval pilgrimage sites such as Jerusalem and Cologne, and even her second-hand bookishness are also not unusual for the time.

Yet ordinariness alone can’t explain Alysoun’s long afterlife. Turner argues that Chaucer created a type of character new to English literature: one who is self-aware and gives the impression of revealing her thoughts and emotions. There were antecedents. Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of verse letters in the voices of such women as Penelope, Dido and Sappho, provided the basis for Chaucer’s own collection of women’s lives, The Legend of Good Women. The anonymous Old English elegies – The Wanderer and The Wife’s Lament being the most famous – were meditations on loss and trauma that made effective use of repetition. But ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ is informed most of all by the tradition of confession. In the early Middle Ages, confession was varied and irregular. It might take place in public or in private, signal a major change in a person’s life or be performed repeatedly to cover various infractions. Then, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that from the age of discretion all Christians should confess their sins to their priest at least once a year. This encouraged people of all classes to examine their inner lives. Various scholars have traced a change in subjectivity, as it’s represented in medieval literature, to this landmark shift in religious practice. Chaucer, Turner writes, extended this interest in the self to secular literature. In the Canterbury Tales, people from all walks of life get a chance to speak, and some of them talk openly about their own vices, desires and failures. It’s when characters confess that they come to seem real.

At one point Alysoun looks back on her youth, both rueing her lost beauty and revelling in the erotic pleasures she once enjoyed: ‘I have had my world, as in my time.’ Despite no longer being as attractive as she was, she is determined to do what she can with the body she has, and to be ‘right merry’. This sense of time passing helps make her a person: she speaks as if she has a past, present and future, rather than being in the text merely to represent an idea or further the plot. While recounting the story of her life she digresses, circles back to traumatic memories, and occasionally contradicts herself. This creates ‘the feeling that we are seeing a mind unfolding’.

Turner points out that Chaucer treats the Wife differently to the other pilgrims. She has the longest prologue by far, is mentioned by the Clerk in his own tale, and is cited as an authority on marriage by one of the characters in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’. In his humorous poem ‘Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton’, Chaucer advises his reader to consult the Wife of Bath on ‘the sorrow and woe that is in marriage’, as though she were an author in her own right. But reactions to the tale haven’t always been sympathetic. One 15th-century reader, now referred to as the ‘Egerton glossator’, responded to Alysoun’s arguments with his own assortment of biblical quotations making the case against quarrelsome women. After John Gay’s 1713 marriage comedy, The Wife of Bath, closed after only two performances, he changed the ending to leave Alysoun alone and humiliated. (The rewrite was also a flop.) Two centuries later Percy MacKaye began writing a play based on the Wife, but his financial backers, keen that Alysoun should not be the dominant character, persuaded him to scale back her role. By the time the play premiered in 1903, MacKaye had rebranded it The Canterbury Pilgrims.

Two new versions​ of ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, by Zadie Smith and the Australian novelist Karen Brooks, show contemporary writers continuing to adapt Alysoun’s story. The Wife of Willesden, Smith’s first play, had its premiere at Kilburn’s Kiln Theatre in 2021. In her introduction, she describes reading the original tale and realising that Alysoun was ‘a Kilburn girl at heart’: ‘Alyson’s voice – brash, honest, cheeky, salacious, outrageous, unapologetic – is one I’ve heard and loved all my life: in the flats, at school, in the playgrounds of my childhood and then the pubs of my maturity, at bus stops, in shops, and of course up and down the Kilburn High Road … The words may be different but the spirit is the same.’

As she worked on the play, Smith noticed ‘sympathetic rhymes’ between Chaucer’s period and her own. In Alysoun’s insistence on women’s ‘sovereigntee’ over men, for instance, Smith sees an emphasis on consent. Many readers have been unsettled by Chaucer’s handling of the rape, which appears to go unpunished, but this strikes Smith as a depiction of ‘restorative justice’. Alysoun’s celebration of her own pleasure, meanwhile, puts Smith in mind of ‘the sex positivity movement’. But although Alysoun can be easily brought in line with modern views, what most appeals to Smith is her ‘startling indifference to the opinions of others’ and ‘passionate compulsion to live her own life as she pleases’.

The Wife of Willesden is a witty, perceptive adaptation. Smith sticks close to the source material, though she sets the play in a real pub, the Colin Campbell, and divides the lines from Alysoun’s speech between different characters. Here the Wife is Alvita, a Jamaican-born woman in her late fifties – as one friend puts it, ‘she’s been that bitch since 1963.’ In a nod to Chaucer’s General Prologue, the other characters gossip about her before she enters: the way she makes her own clothes, wears fake gold chains and goes on holiday to ‘Ibiza, Corfu, Magaluf’. She sometimes comes across as wiser than Chaucer’s Wife, as having learned a little more from middle age. While Alysoun regrets the loss of her youth, Alvita is glad to have left it behind: ‘Back when I was young I worked way too hard/For approval.’

Like Chaucer, Smith writes a version of herself into the story. The Author sits with her laptop at a corner table, fretting about how her play will be received. Telling the audience that she isn’t giving ‘a trigger warning, exactly’, she warns that they may be shocked by what they hear – but she has only ‘copied it down from the original’. Blaming the source was one of Chaucer’s signature rhetorical moves, and he wasn’t above inventing one. But Smith’s non-apology seems tailored to an age in which authors can be hesitant to write flawed characters for fear of appearing to let down the cause. The Wife of Bath offers an opportunity to write about a woman who might reflect poorly on women.

Smith manages to translate Chaucer’s images and characters into a convincing contemporary idiom. When the Wife of Bath accuses her elderly husbands of being jealous, she compares her vulva to a lantern at which many men light their candles. For Alvita, sexual jealousy is ‘like them people who lock up their wifi … /Like, they think it’s gonna run out!’ In Smith’s hands, Jankyn becomes Ryan, a Scottish student who reads Jordan Peterson and quotes from books with titles like The Woman Racket and The Myth of Male Power. As Alvita puts it, ‘he knew more anti-wife/Online memes than there are seconds in this life.’ Six centuries after the Canterbury Tales, a resentful young man can still find books that will confirm his hatred of women.

In Smith’s rendition the Wife’s tale itself is set in 18th-century Jamaica rather than Arthurian Britain. In place of Guinevere, it’s Queen Nanny, the leader of the Maroons, who commutes the sentence of a rapist condemned to death. He’s given a year to discover what women truly desire. The answer comes from an old unnamed Obeah woman: what they want, she says, is for men to submit. The young man presents the answer in Queen Nanny’s court, but he only really learns the lesson when the Obeah woman guilts him into marrying her. In Smith’s play, as in Chaucer’s poem, the young man is given a choice between an attractive young spouse who will betray him and an old wife he finds repulsive, but who will remain loyal. When he surrenders to the Obeah woman, she transforms into Alvita in all her ‘fabulous, thick, middle-aged beauteousness’. A lusty, joyful ending, it reveals the real fantasy behind Alysoun and Alvita’s stories: that a woman with experience will be desired for who she is.

The protagonist of Brooks’s novel The Good Wife of Bath is more obviously flawed than Alvita. She starts life as Eleanor, an ‘imperfect child who grew into an imperfect woman – experienced, foolish and clever too’. Set in the 14th century and written in an awkward blend of antiquated and contemporary language, The Good Wife of Bath makes ample use of current literary trends. Trauma plot? Five turbulent marriages, one of them violent, aren’t enough for Brooks, who inserts a near rape at the start of the story. Girlboss protagonist? When Eleanor is forced to marry Fulk Bigod, a widowed farmer five decades her senior, she remembers her father’s advice: ‘You have to create opportunities where you can. No matter what life hurls at you, child, catch it. If it’s shit, turn it into fertiliser.’ Her new husband smells rather like fertiliser, but Eleanor is won over when she sees his landholdings. She encourages him to ‘diversify (a word Papa had been fond of using)’ by buying more looms, and her career is on its way. After an unhappy second marriage, she marries Mervyn Slynge, a ‘clever, generous sodomite’. He recognises Eleanor’s business acumen, and arranges for her to learn how to read and write so she can increase his profits. If most men can’t be counted on to be decent partners, Brooks suggests an alternative: female friendship. Eleanor grows close to Fulk’s daughter, Alyson – a reimagining of Alysoun, the Wife’s best friend. (Modern retellings of the Wife of Bath often leave out the second Alysoun.) In Brooks’s version, Eleanor takes Alyson with her as she passes through her various households, and eventually realises that she needs her friend more than any man. When her fifth husband, Jankyn, murders Alyson, Eleanor stabs him. She takes on Alyson’s identity as she flees, thereby ‘solving’ the mystery of the double names.

The Good Wife of Bath has its share of earnest moments. When an employee quits his job on account of her second husband’s bullying, Eleanor’s instinct is to distance herself from her spouse. But she recognises that her silence might be problematic: ‘by not speaking up, hadn’t I been complicit?’ At one point, Eleanor establishes a commune for sex workers who have retrained as spinners, and takes the time to listen to their life stories. But there are a few surprises too. Brooks allows Eleanor to make mistakes: she stays with Jankyn because ‘he appealed to a darkness within me.’ As she grows older, she fails more frequently, and with graver consequences.

Most interesting is the way Eleanor misjudges her distant relative, Geoffrey Chaucer, who acts as her mentor only to use her experiences as material for his own poetry. Eleanor continues to assume the best of him, even when he is accused of rape. This plot point has its basis in a document from 1380, in which a woman called Cecily Chaumpaigne formally released Chaucer from actions related to ‘de raptu meo’ – a reference to either abduction or sexual assault. In the century and a half since Frederick James Furnivall announced the discovery of the deed of release in the Athenaeum, scholars have argued about what it might mean. Was Chaucer a rapist? Or did he kidnap Chaumpaigne and, if so, on whose behalf? Eleanor is wary of the sly-looking Cecilia, and delighted when the case against him is dropped, thanks to the support of his powerful friends. Only towards the end of the book does she realise that she was wrong about her benefactor.

Even more daring is Brooks’s depiction of the relationship between Eleanor and Fulk. It begins chastely when they are twelve and 61 respectively, but develops into a sexually fulfilling marriage. In her afterword, Brooks notes that this aspect of the novel might ‘trigger and appal people’, but insists that it’s historically accurate, and comes from the original source. (The same is true, she says, of Eleanor’s casual use of sexually explicit words such as ‘queynte’.) Brooks’s defence shows what’s at stake in reviving ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’. Whatever appeal Alysoun might hold for modern readers, her views on sex and love are guaranteed to cause offence at some point. In that event, she has a ready excuse: ‘my intent is only to play.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences