If Chaucer is under threat in some university English courses, his work is alive and kicking in Oxford. Professor Marion Turner, chair of Oxford’s English faculty board, is an expert in Chaucer – and she has a new book out, The Wife of Bath: A Biography, which has been winning universal accolades.
The J.R.R. Tolkien Chair of English Literature and Language, Professor Turner is author of several acclaimed books on Chaucer’s works, including Chaucer: A European Life.
As if it needs saying, her enthusiasm is evident for Chaucer, in general, and the Wife of Bath, in particular. In her latest work, Professor Turner focuses on the portrayal of women in early literature – and their lack of voice. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is the ‘first ordinary woman in English literature’, she says, ‘a middle-aged, middle-class woman, who goes on holiday and has friends’ and says things women did not say in books, ‘She speaks openly about sexual desire, domestic abuse, and rape, while also being funny and self-aware. The Wife of Bath also talks about the silencing of women – and the fact that women had not had the chance to tell their own stories.’
‘There was no place in literature for someone like her before Chaucer,’ says Professor Turner. ‘She is ordinary, but she is also extraordinary.’
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is the ‘first ordinary woman in English literature, a middle-aged, middle-class woman, who goes on holiday and has friends and says things women did not say in books...She is ordinary, but she is also extraordinary
As part of the work, Professor Turner examines the reception of the plain-speaking Wife of Bath, one of only three women pilgrims (the other two are nuns) in the Canterbury Tales. And she reveals how the five-times-married Alyson (Alys), has been interpreted and portrayed down the years.
‘I wasn’t expecting to find so many adaptations, and such extensive influence – anonymous ballads, Dryden, Pope, Voltaire, Shakespeare, James Joyce, Ted Hughes. And, in the last 20 years, there has been an upsurge of interest in her among female writers in particular,’ says Professor Turner. ‘Zadie Smith’s new play, The Wife of Willesden, is a brilliant new version of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, that sticks closely to Chaucer, while also bringing the tale up to date, referencing #TimesUp and modern misogyny.’
But she says, ‘Over time there have been many very misogynistic adaptations. There is a tension between writers being obsessed with her, but then trying to censor her, or to punish her…And it is not the case that things have steadily improved across time. In fact, the most extreme misogynist responses came in the 1970s, not the 1470s, for instance Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1972 film version.’
For her part, Professor Turner is particularly interested in trying to recover women’s voices, ‘Across time there has often been a focus on the Wife of Bath’s sexuality, whereas what’s really interesting about her is the power of her voice. She is saying women should be listened to and many people found this threatening. Many of the most misogynist portrayals seek to silence her.’
Professor Turner explains, ‘Talking about sex wasn’t shocking in the Middle Ages. But for a married middle-aged woman in literature, it was shocking…In later centuries, particularly the 18th century, all the bits about sex and the body get taken out. And there are some depictions that either remove the power of her voice, or that show men being able to counter her voice and beat her in some way. In the original, she gets interrupted more than any other pilgrim – but still manages to get her voice heard.’
There have been many very misogynistic adaptations. There is a tension between writers being obsessed with her, but then trying to censor her, or to punish her…the most extreme misogynist responses came in the 1970s, not the 1470s, for instance Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1972 film version
Alongside her examination of her fictional heroine and the responses, Professor Turner examines the lives of real ‘ordinary’ 14th century women – not the queens, virgins, nuns, saints, witches, and prostitutes, who were staples of earlier literature, but mercantile, working women, who were running businesses. Professor Turner maintains, ‘As an imagined female storyteller, the Wife of Bath says women should be able to write books…She talks about the ethical importance of listening to older women, and listening to different points of view. She’s not always right; she’s often infuriating, even appalling – but the point of the Canterbury Tales is to listen to diverse points of view and perspectives.’
It is a message very pertinent today, says Professor Turner, and clearly very close to the academic’s heart. She confesses to reading newspapers with which she disagrees. And she stresses the need for listening to others – and reading them - even if you do not agree with them. She maintains, ‘One of the things Chaucer emphasises is you should listen to varied voices. The whole point of the Canterbury Tales is Chaucer includes people from different social classes, telling different tales, from different points of view. Some of them are offensive, some are unpleasant, some are boring. But you shouldn’t only listen to people you agree with or people in authority.’
She continues, ‘This is perhaps the most urgent message of all today. We see all the time, people encouraged into extreme ways of thinking, partly due to the algorithms that are feeding them the same point of view.’
The whole point of the Canterbury Tales is Chaucer includes people from different social classes...Some of them are offensive, some are unpleasant, some are boring. But you shouldn’t only listen to people with whom you agree
To underline the point, Professor Turner insists, there is no question of throwing out historic texts, ‘I don’t think anyone in our faculty would say we should be throwing out the old. A lot of us are interested in diversifying and decolonising the curriculum. But that is not about throwing texts out, it’s bringing more texts in.’
She adds, ‘It does everyone a disservice to suggest the old and the new are somehow pitted against each other. It’s very hard to grasp the complexity of what modern authors are doing, without understanding what went before them.’
And she points out, with polite exasperation, ‘We have actually seen the number of students who want to specialise in medieval literature double in recent years.’
She insists, ‘It’s a real problem if we only read texts which we already know and which tell us about our own experiences. When we’re reading original medieval or classical texts, sometimes they’re saying something totally alien, maybe even offensively alien, but in those scenarios, I don’t think the answer is to close the book. The answer is to think about the reasons and to ask what it was like to live in a different way.’
It’s a real problem if we only read texts...which tell us about our own experiences. When we’re reading original medieval or classical texts, sometimes they’re saying something totally alien, maybe even offensively alien, but in those scenarios, I don’t think the answer is to close the book.
Professor Turner came to Oxford as an undergraduate, ‘I was one of the rare people at Oxford who was from the north east. I’m from Northumberland and I came to Oxford when I was 17 in 1993.’
She has spent time at other universities and abroad, but returned to Oxford some 15 years ago, as a Tutorial Fellow at Jesus, before moving to Lady Margaret Hall last year, when she was appointed to the Tolkien Chair.
English had very much been her favourite subject at school – although not medieval literature, that came later. But, she emphasises, ‘I wasn’t one of those people who didn’t like Maths or Physics…I was sorry to drop them at A level and nearly did Maths. But in the end, I did English, Latin, and History.’
Professor Turner had always wanted to be a writer, although she saw herself more as a novelist than an academic and even wrote a novel while still at primary school. She says, with embarrassment, as though fearing it might be suddenly produced and subjected to close textual analysis, ‘It was an extremely derivative C.S. Lewis-type of book. It wasn’t in Narnia; I had my own other world, but I think it was very similar.’
It offered an unbeatable opportunity, she says, ‘I loved the huge range of things you can do…You can do detailed analysis, you’re thinking for yourself, you’re studying a lot of history. And…I ended up looking at things in a lot of different languages as well.’
She explains, ‘The majority of my work has coalesced around Chaucer. He’s an extraordinary poet, who wrote so much, and so many kinds of texts. It is a shame Chaucer’s writings are less well known than Shakespeare’s, partly because of the language barrier. And also because, although Chaucer wrote in a range of genres, he didn’t write plays, which tend to be more accessible than poems.’
The majority of my work has coalesced around Chaucer. He’s an extraordinary poet, who wrote so much, and so many kinds of texts. It is a shame Chaucer’s writings are less well known than Shakespeare’s, partly because of the language barrier
Just as Professor Turner has little time for those who would like to see English texts closely restricted, she also has firm views on criticism of studying the Humanities.
One survey from an employment agency, published last summer, claimed English Literature was one of the worst degrees for graduate employment.
It was not possible to see the steam coming out of her ears, but it was definitely there, as Professor Turner explained why this is completely wrong, ‘That really is not true. There are other surveys that say the exact opposite – a piece in The Conversation a couple of years ago demonstrated Humanities graduates earning more than Maths and science graduates.’
She adds with emphasis, ‘Our graduates go into all kinds of jobs. They do all sorts of things and often earn really well. Though of course education is not simply about maximising earning potential.’
She stresses, ‘Literature students learn so many transferable skills, and become sharp critical thinkers...And we [at Oxford] are consistently the top faculty in the world.’
The head of faculty is also vocal about the idea of English being viewed by some as a soft ‘girls’ subject, while boys are channelled into sensible STEM options, ‘We have a problem in our society, when some subjects are seen as for different sexes. It’s absurd that subjects should be gendered.’
Professor Turner adds, ‘We have a very high number of applicants but many universities are not so lucky…The anti-Humanities narrative is very damaging to young people and ultimately to the economy.’
She recognises, ‘Worldwide, people are talking about a crisis in the Humanities.’
But, she stresses, ‘We need to think how we can much more generally encourage students, employers and parents, to continue to see the enormous benefits of studying the Humanities. It is important for the economy, for individuals, for society, for everything we do. I see going out there and advocating for the Humanities as part of the academic’s role.’
Professor Turner has little truck, though, with pitting Humanities against STEM subjects. She maintains, ‘I personally think we specialise far too early in this country…We are asking people at age 15 to shut off different paths in life…our system makes it difficult for people who change their minds…It’s a strange way to organise an education system.’
And rejecting ideas a broader curriculum would damage a student’s capacity to take on advanced university study, she says, ‘The people who come to us, having done a Baccalaureate are fine. Having to specialise at such a young age is really difficult.’
Professor Turner’s evangelical enthusiasm for medieval literature sees her working with colleagues from around the university to reach out to sixth formers, ‘Many schools still do a Chaucer tale for A level…and for many years, with some fellow academics, the Bodleian and the Ashmolean, we have run Chaucer days. Teachers bring groups of A level students – and we offer lectures, seminars and manuscript and object handling. It’s a whole Chaucer day, plus we give them a taste of university education and the real joy of studying literature. We’ve also put a lot of resources online.’
We need to think how we can much more generally encourage students, employers and parents, to continue to see the enormous benefits of studying the Humanities. It is important for the economy, for individuals, for society, for everything we do.
Professor Turner is also open to working with new technologies. She explains, ‘I’ve recently collaborated with graduate students, Creation Theatre, and a company called Charisma AI to make an online Chaucer experience, using AI storytelling technology. Players can ‘talk’ to the Canterbury pilgrims. I’m really passionate about harnessing new technologies, rather than shutting our minds to their potential.’
Later this year, she will be curating an exhibition at the Bodleian about Chaucer across time and around the world – ‘Chaucer Here and Now’. The exhibition will contain the earliest Chaucer manuscript, on loan from the University of Wales, and other treasures from the Bodleian. It will also feature Japanese, Esperanto and even Russian Chaucers, as well as contemporary adaptations.
‘It shows how different people have made Chaucer their own,’ says Professor Turner, who does not want to say what her next big project is going to be. She is still in demand for the Wife of Bath and, despite rumours of Chaucer’s demise, it looks likely that will be the case for some time to come.
See her talk at the Oxford Literary Festival on March 29th https://oxfordliteraryfestival.org/literature-events/2023/march-29/the-wife-of-bath-a-biography