Monday, January 23, 2023

Marion Turner's "The Wife of Bath"

Marion Turner is the J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford, where she is a Professorial Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall. Her books include the prize-winning biography Chaucer: A European Life.

Turner applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, The Wife of Bath: A Biography, and reported the following:
Page 99 comes about half way through chapter 4, ‘The Female Storyteller’ and focuses on Heloise and Abelard. On this page, I describe the relationship between these two medieval lovers, telling the story of their disastrous affair. Abelard, a famous scholar and cleric, tutored Heloise, and they began a passionate relationship. Heloise gave birth to a child, but she was very much against marriage, seeing it as a hindrance to a full intellectual life. Under pressure from her relatives, Abelard insisted on their marriage, but wanted it to remain secret, and removed Heloise to a convent. Believing that Abelard had abandoned his wife, Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, sent his henchmen to take a brutal revenge, which they did by castrating Abelard. The lovers took vows, becoming a monk and a nun, but Heloise remained plagued by sexual desires. They exchanged a series of letters. From these letters, Heloise emerges as a complex and fascinating character.

This page gives a reasonably representative, though inevitably partial, sense of my book as a whole. It gets across the idea that medieval women were interesting, risk-taking, thinking people, who had more opportunities than many people imagine. Heloise was a notable intellectual; a brilliant thinker; sexually adventurous; and herself a writer.

However, you have to read the next few pages to learn more about what kinds of things Heloise wrote. Page 99 begins to tell the reader about the anti-women comments that she herself made. But a couple of pages later, I write about the fact that many critics have dwelt exclusively on her sexual relationship with Abelard, and her misogynist comments (the things I write about on page 99!), and it is in fact important also to consider her intellectual and philosophical writings, her interest in conscience and consciousness, her particular use of language and imagery. If you only read page 99, you would get a view of Heloise that dwells primarily on her sexual life and attitudes. Importantly, the chapter more generally sets her in the context of other writing medieval women, and also takes a longer view. It goes on to discuss the fact that later readers cast doubt on her authorship of her letters, although no one at her own time doubted this. I compare this with the mutilation of Margery Kempe’s text by early printers, and with translators’ and editors’ explicit denial of Christine de Pizan’s authorship of her texts – which they attributed to men. This comparative and long view demonstrates bigger arguments about attitudes to women across time which aren’t clear from page 99 alone.
Learn more about The Wife of Bath at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue