Marion Turner has written a superb biography of a woman who never lived. Alison, the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is one of the most famous of all medieval women, even though she has only ever existed on the page. But Turner’s beautifully written, rewarding and thought-provoking book about this imaginary woman shows how much her literary existence has to say about actual women’s lives.
The book is divided into two main sections. In the first, Turner examines four different aspects of Alison – the worker, married woman, storyteller and traveller – and expertly conceptualises the late medieval English world and its attitudes to, and treatment of, women. In Alison, Chaucer gave the ‘ordinary middle-class woman in English literature’ a voice for the first time. In the second section, Turner goes on to trace Alison’s many afterlives, from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes, and her reinventions in 21st-century Britain.
Chaucer wrote Alison in a way that encourages readers to love her – as a rounded character with an interior life. Opinionated, funny and often in a spot of trouble with her men, she was a type Chaucer knew well. A much-married (five times), independent, attractive, socially and sexually active middle-aged woman who worked hard and went on an occasional pilgrimage? There were lots of them around in the later 14th century. As a skilled craftswoman in a post-Black Death world of female wage labour and increased economic opportunities, Alison embodies the autonomous women of the time. Through her voice we can hear them, and how she uses her power is illuminating.
She speaks out against the prevailing misogyny. In a chapter entitled ‘The Female Storyteller’, Turner uses Alison’s famous question ‘Who peyntede the leoun, tel me who?’ to illustrate the awareness many medieval women had of the inferior status imposed on them.