Marion Turner’s ‘Wife of Bath’ is a Delight for Modern Women

In my sophomore year of high school, I fell madly in love. I first met this object of my affection on a normal Tuesday afternoon. Arriving to English early, I found single pieces of white paper, still hot from the photocopier, already waiting on each desk in the classroom. The front of each page held a solitary figure: a small drawing of a woman atop a horse, dressed in red and blue garments, a whip clasped tightly in her hand. Under this, her first words to me:

“Experience, though noon auctoritee

Were in this world, is right ynogh for me

To speke of wo that is in mariage”

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” makes up one of the twenty-four stories included in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The famous medieval text follows a group of pilgrims making their way to Canterbury, and amusing themselves with tale-telling along their journey. Though only the narrator of a single story, the Wife of Bath by and large steals the show. She herself, not even the tale she tells, is arguably the most memorable and impactful force within the text.

Since my first meeting with the Wife of Bath, I have believed her to be one of the most powerful female characters in the literary canon. This is an opinion shared by others of the Wife’s passionate fan club—a group of (please excuse my generalization) mainly women, who find both strength and hilarity in the Wife’s witty Middle English words. 

The Wife of Bath: A Biography is a 2023 book written by professor Marion Turner, J.R.R Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford and unofficial president of the Wife of Bath fan club. Marion is an award-winning author and an academic authority on Geoffrey Chaucer, on whom she wrote the 2020 biography, Chaucer: A European Life.

Marion’s newest work finds her in the realm of biography once again, though subverting the genre to this time focus not on Chaucer, but his creation. The Wife of Bath: A Biography explores in depth the context, history, and future of the Wife of Bath through compiling a complete history of one of literature’s most famous rebels. 

However, this book is not merely a new look at an old favorite. Within the pages of her work, Marion Turner brings Alison of Bath to life. Truly, Marion writes of Alison as if she were living, both in her own time period and in the centuries after when she has continued to be dissected, staged, and metamorphosed by readers and artists alike. 

Marion sets the Wife of Bath directly against examples of real women’s histories from the medieval period, thus humanizing both the literary character and her breathing contemporaries. She often reminds the reader of this period’s truth rather than its legacy: that of a Dark Time full of nothing save violence and fear. In contrast, Marion provides countless examples of medieval women’s resilience and daily revolutions. 

Click on image to enlarge.

This book is populated with anecdotes of violence and survival—much like the story of the Wife herself.

This book is populated with anecdotes of violence and survival—much like the story of the Wife herself. Marion constantly returns to Alison’s own personal history of domestic abuse, reclaimed power, and female autonomy. This is paralleled by the violence done to the Wife of Bath in the real world—or her censorship at the hands of affronted men. However, their indignation only spoke to her power, as Marion writes, “The Wife of Bath was decidedly not silenced, but male readers’ insistent attempts at suppressing her voice tell their own story about just how fascinating, disturbing, and threatening they found her.”

Marion also tracks the Wife’s progress to the modern day, where she has appeared in contemporary literature, film, and theater. For Pasolini, she is the classic woman in red in his 1972 film I racconti di Canterbury. For Patience Agbabi, she is a Nigerian clothing saleswoman in her poem “The Wife of Bafa”. Marion charts the evolution of the Wife in each of her new forms—how each retelling strengthens her original tale while also crafting her into something new.

What is it about this medieval character which continues to affect audiences after centuries?

What is it about this medieval character which continues to affect audiences after centuries? In Marion’s opening to the novel, she assigns it not to Alison’s greatness, but her normalcy. “The Wife of Bath is the first ordinary woman in English literature,” Marion writes. “By that I mean the first mercantile, working, sexually active woman–not a virginal princess or queen, not a nun, witch, or sorceress, not a damsel in distress nor a functional servant character, not an allegory.”

Why do we love the Wife of Bath? Because she is us. An independent, loud-mouthed, unapologetic woman making her way through a story otherwise dominated by men. That’s a hero I can get behind.

Marion Turner flawlessly executes what is a boldly ambitious project; to biographize a woman who does not exist. However, she succeeds in her task of truly encapsulating all this character stands for, and all she has given to male and female readers throughout the ages.

© Reese Alexander (3/1/24) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Visit Marion’s Wikipedia page here.

Purchase The Wife of Bath: A Biography here.

Purchase Chaucer: A European Life here.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: The Wife of Bath. Cropped & Colorized by Jan Lisa Huttner (2/26/24)

Middle Photo: The Prioress and the Wife of Bath. From Old England: A Pictorial Museum, published 1847. Photo Credit: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: M72AT2

Bottom Photo: Portrait of Marion Turner, courtesy of Writers Inspire, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED.

Tags: Chaucer: A European Life, Marion Turner, Patience Agbabi, Reese Alexander, The Wife of Bafa, The Wife of Bath, The Wife of Bath: A Biography

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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