Chaucer’s life is a standing temptation to a biographer. On the one hand, we have the 493 documented mentions of him brought together in the Crow and Olson Life Records, a body of paper which makes Chaucer far better evidenced as a person than Shakespeare two centuries later; on the other, there is the persistent refusal of these documents to see him as what we think we know he was (the major poet of his age), presenting him instead as a quite important civil servant with good connections to power, and from a family almost typically English in its concentration not on literary matters but on moving up the social scale. Chaucer’s great-grandfather, Andrew ‘le Taverner’, thus seems to have kept a pub in Ipswich, while his great-great-grandson, Richard Duke of Suffolk, nicknamed ‘Blanche Rose’, was accepted as King of England – but, alas, only by the French, and only till he was killed in battle at Pavia. There is an irony, on which Derek Pearsall ends his book, in the extirpation of the Chaucer line around 1539 at virtually the same moment as the first printing of Chaucer’s Collected Works in 1532. But the irony had been there all the time, in the almost unbroken refusal of Chaucer’s contemporaries to take any documented interest in him as a poet, while recording steadily his involvement with rape, robbery, profitable deals of one kind and another, and not least with His Majesty’s Secret Service – or as the records put it, in secretis negociis domini regis. What did they pay Chaucer for? Why was he so useful? Is there any clue to his James Bond activities in his poetry? At any rate it is a pleasure to have a literary subject who appears to have been taken seriously in his own lifetime, to have had a role in the great world.
No wonder, then, that Chaucer’s biographers have been so ready to pick out his life in vivid colours, from Speght in the 16th century, who said a friend had seen a record (now vanished) of Chaucer being fined two shillings for beating up a friar in Fleet Street, to the late Donald Howard, whose book of five years ago presented Chaucer very much as the adviser and confidant of the great, writing his works in a vain attempt to keep Richard II on the straight and narrow. Pearsall remarks dourly of the first that it is part of a general British tendency to see Chaucer as a university man, or at least a properly-educated one (the vanished record would have made him an inmate of the Inns of Court). De mortuis restrains him from saying much about the second, beyond the occasional blank denial: ‘there is no evidence whatever that the translation [of Boethius] was done for Richard II,’ he writes, where Howard has: ‘could have been written for the King ... useful book for a ruler [the Melibee] ... essential reading for a monarch [the Boethius]’. There is nevertheless a note of asperity in Pearsall’s remark that the snobbish British urge to prevent Chaucer from looking like Mr Nobody from Nowhere is matched by a democratising American urge ‘to emphasise that Chaucer got where he did by hard work’ – not to mention moral virtue. For all the records, and the poems, one might say that Chaucer has in the end been just another victim of ‘presentism’, the strong and perhaps insuperable urge to see him exactly as present fashion would have him, whether as proto-Protestant (Speght), as cloyingly nice (Howard), or as deeply sympathetic to women’s rights (see especially Howard, ‘He lived in a man’s world, but not in his mind or heart,’ or Jill Mann’s inaugural lecture in Cambridge two years ago: ‘he alone ... has an idea of what a real apology to a woman would look like’).
Is it possible, given current awareness of the way in which observers affect what they observe, to get any ‘objective’ view of Chaucer at all, Life Records or no Life Records? Pearsall considers the doubt and makes a disarming ‘declaration of interest’ in finding Chaucer to be ‘a decent sort of fellow’. Yet this air of bluff, even hearty common sense is deliberately deceptive. For all its cheerful decency, Pearsall’s book is an aggressive work, its unstated target the inviolable pieties of the critical profession itself. In a powerfully scholarly section Pearsall makes it clear that there is no Chaucerian order for the Canterbury Tales: they are printed the way they are because someone, after Chaucer’s death, had to make the best he could of what he had. Yet though everyone knows this, in a sort of a way, their profession makes critics dig order and unity out of somewhere: ‘Most studies of the Tales,’ Pearsall writes in an uncompromising footnote, ‘use one or other of the methods of organisation I describe as impossible or pointless.’ Elsewhere Pearsall remarks that it is ‘not surprising’ that deconstructionists ‘like Chaucer’, since he had the same ‘dedicated lack of commitment’ that they have; writes off much of the not-a-mistake-a-subtle-irony industry as simply ‘hard to credit;’ and tellingly points out that when ‘we’ applaud our authors’ high-mindedness, sophistication, or indeed ruthlessness in stripping away high-mindedness and sophistication, we are in practice applauding our own capacity for moral recognition – not, given the reality of life in educational bureaucracies, a pretty sight.
Maybe that is the clue to perceiving Chaucer. He was, like so many present university professors of English, a bureaucrat with literary interests, the latter usually subordinated to the needs of his job. Despite the ‘decent sort of fellow’ claim, Pearsall brings this possibility strongly forward. Chaucer’s job in the Customs, he suggests, might not have demanded outright venality but did demand continual ‘acquiescence in doubtful practice, the perpetual turning of a blind eye’. What it also seems to have taught him was a fine sense of when things were going too far. Chaucer quit his two Customs controllerships in late 1386. Is it a coincidence that the Parliament of that year, in which Chaucer was one of the two knights of the shire for Kent, presented a petition to remove life controllers from office on evident suspicion of financial malpractice? Since no action was taken on the petition, and with his general distrust of dramatic explanations, Pearsall finds against any direct connection. But politics were getting nasty, the King could not protect his appointees; the Parliament of 1386 was followed by the Merciless Parliament of 1388, from which Chaucer’s former boss Brembre went to the gallows and Thomas Usk, one of the few people in the period who did mention Chaucer as a poet, to the more dreadful fate of hanging, drawing and beheading – he changed sides (to Chaucer’s) too soon and too prominently.
The effect of all this on Chaucer’s poetry, Pearsall suggests, was to make him turn evasion into art. Chaucer spoke Italian, knew Bernabo Visconti, had visited his court in 1378: when it comes to mentioning his murder he ‘scuttles for safety in his usual fashion’, saying only ‘But why ne how noot I that thou were slawe.’ As for the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when the rebels entered London they did so by marching under Chaucer’s gatehouse apartment: Chaucer mentions the event only once, and then to make a joke of it, though a joke which implies actual presence at murder – killing the Flemings (which Jack Straw and his men did right by Chaucer’s childhood home) was nothing like as noisy as the hue and cry raised after the fox and Chauntecleer. Critics like to see Chaucer commenting on political issues, at least in his minor poems: ‘In my view’, Pearsall writes, ‘the more point’ a poem ‘might have, the less likely Chaucer is to make any.’ The underlying image which emerges is of someone astute, well-informed, without convictions, playing a modest hand increasingly well: a Smiley rather than a Bond.
All this might be less provocative if it did not challenge critical pieties now particularly well-entrenched, about class, gender, and the status of literature. On class, the critical consensus (not only in America) is to see Chaucer as ‘the genial observer of the social scene’ – sympathetic to the working classes like the Miller and the Reeve, mildly satirical of established religious figures like the Monk, Friar and Prioress, respectful of solid moral worth in the Parson and Plowman, but capable of extending a hand to mavericks like the Wife of Bath. As for the Peasants’ Revolt, the Chaucer his critics would wish to see would clearly have approved many of the democratising goals of the Revolt, if such they were, while in good Faculty Club style entirely refusing to condone the excesses committed in practice by either rebels or repressors.
Pearsall will have very little of this. He presents a much more patrician figure, whose moments of sympathy with, for instance, the old widow of the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ are merely a charming mannerism, like a modern Civil Service mandarin enthusing about the Tube. Nor does he think that Chaucer really had much to do with the court in a narrow sense, the King’s entourage: critics swayed by the famous picture of Chaucer Reading to the Court of King Richard II, he says, have not untypically failed to notice that in it Chaucer is not holding a book. His true audience was much less glamorous – the growing London-based national administration; among other things, an all-male group. This, too, is a point which Pearsall presses, suggesting, for instance, that the double entendre in House of Fame 115-18 (on weariness making soft what was hard) would have the right rueful note only to male middle-aged marrieds, while the cosy Alma Cogan view of love and marriage so routinely forced on the ‘Franklin’s Tale’ is rejected as firmly as the more modern ‘oppression internalised’ readings of the Wife of Bath. Though Chaucer’s clear advice to his friend Sir Peter Bukton not to get married again without taking warning from the Wife of Bath may be one of Chaucer’s common self-simplifications, Pearsall still sees parts of Chaucer’s analysis of marriage as ‘unblinkingly hostile’, and perhaps – though this is approaching boundaries of speculation Pearsall will not cross – the result of the working out of some psychosexual problem connected with his own semi-detached, if not Smiley-style marriage to Philippa de Roet.
The biographer is quite close here to saying that great poets do not have to be nice people, or to prefigure modern views. One of Chaucer’s 493 documents is a release by one Cecily Champain from all actions tam de raptu meo tam de aliqua alia re. Chaucer seems to have paid highly for this, at least half a year’s pay, and he had the release witnessed by important people including the King’s chamberlain. Was the raptus a rape? Or ‘just’ an abduction? If the latter, Pearsall points out, it would be standard to say raptus et abductio; raptus on its own normally, if inconveniently for modern admirers, means ‘rape’. But maybe Chaucer was not a principal (some have murmured)? And after all the charge was never proved ... But rape charges, one has to reflect, frequently aren’t, and for a totally innocent man Chaucer paid a lot. There is some ‘violence of passion’ hidden away, Pearsall concludes. Though his well-wishers tried from an early date to secure Chaucer the reputation of being ‘ever woman’s friend’, their arguments look increasingly unpersuasive. Maybe one should try instead to see Troilus and Criseyde as the Fatal Attraction of its age, a work capable at once of feminist and misogynist interpretations, designed above all to provoke opposing extremes of discussion.
If that was Chaucer’s aim, one has to conclude that he is becoming more and more of a failure. The collection of essays edited by Juliette Dor, A Wyf ther was, has space for plenty of discussions of ‘Chaucer and Feminism’, ‘Sex and Gender in Chaucer’s Poetry’, ‘Feminist Re-Enactments’ and ‘Quarrels, Rivals and Rape’, but not much for all-male audiences or weary humour about impotence. Carolyn Dinshaw (whose title is the last of those quoted) makes out a case for ‘violence between men’ being enabled by ‘an unacknowledged violence against the feminine’; so when Chaucer and Gower quarrelled (or rather their texts quarrelled) over Philomela, their real quarrel, the critic says, was ‘over my dead body’. But they didn’t quarrel (Pearsall would bluffly say), and the rumour that they did is just another textual misunderstanding caused by failure to understand manuscript variation. No matter. Though there is some provocative scholarship in the volume – notably Renate Haas’s illustrated account of the early female Chaucer critics and the very rough treatment they got for treading on men’s preserves – the main sense it creates is once more of ‘presentism’: only some Chaucers are now acceptable, and the ingenuity in finding those is in direct proportion to the rejection of inconvenient ones, including the figure so clearly presented by the wretched Life Records.
Paul Strohm’s Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of 14th-Century Texts by contrast takes one straight into the bitter faction-fighting milieu of Chaucer’s real life. In late 1384 Nicholas Brembre, later to hang, had the election for mayor of London sewn up. His opponents made plans to disrupt it by force (or so Brembre’s faction alleged later), but gave up when they realised they had lost. Except for one Hochon (no surname) of Liverpool, who drew his bow from ambush on Hugh Fastolf, an associate of Chaucer’s, and said: ‘I schal naylen him with an arwe to the wow [wall].’ But the arrow never flew. Perhaps it was never drawn. The evidence, detailed as it is, comes from a man who said he was there but had changed sides to discredit the anti-Brembre faction, just like unlucky Thomas Usk. Or perhaps Hochon was bitterly provoked. Fastolf was in the act of pissing on a church wall, as illegal then as now – there was a latrine in the square – and a familiar way of asserting ‘territoriality’ or careless dominance.
Strohm goes on from this incident to show how hard it can be to see texts as other than ‘argumentative and interpretative documents in their own right’, whether they are Usk’s various and continually changed accounts of his own role as traitor – he accused himself of treason as part of the process of turning what a later age would call ‘King’s evidence’, only in the end to die on that charge – or Chaucer’s minor poems. Strohm looks at two of these in particular, ‘Lak of Stedfastnesse’ and ‘The Complaint to his Purse’. The latter has long seemed one of the least excusably self-seeking of Chaucer’s works, as Chaucer, who had taken King Richard’s pay for twenty years, carefully endorses all the claims of Boling-broke to the throne, by ‘free eleccion’ (highly doubtful), descent (a flat lie) and conquest (true but hardly creditable). Strohm thinks that Chaucer’s support was by this time worth soliciting, and points to failed attempts by Henry IV to recruit Christine de Pisan; Pearsall thinks Henry may not even have noticed. In the same way Strohm would like to see ‘Lak of Stedfastnesse’ not just as the tissue of literary commonplaces it is, but also as Chaucer’s urging of Richard in the pause before the letter’s counterstroke to the Merciless Parliament to ‘Shew forth thy swerd of castigacioun’ and get the opposition before they got him: if that was the case, one might add, and Richard had taken the advice more thoroughly, he might not have wound up murdered himself. Pearsall prefers – in this case less plausibly – to stick with his view of Chaucer as a determined coward (in which case he hardly needed to write such a provocative poem at all). At least commentators are agreed on one thing: texts written by members of one faction or another during a period of deadly civil war are especially likely not to tell the whole or nothing but the truth.
Is the overall Pearsall view of Chaucer finally convincing? It is certainly accurate on the wishful thinking of modern literary and ideological criticism. The remarks on the ‘soap-opera’ or ‘novelettish’ shapes created in earlier biographies are also undeniable. Yet the reaction is too fierce. I find it hard to believe that Chaucer – whose wife clearly was the sister of John of Gaunt’s long-term and acknowledged mistress, later wife – was quite as obscurely middle-rank as he is presented. He certainly gave his son Thomas a flying start. And there could be an obvious reason for the omission of the Chaucer arms from the Ewelme tomb of Thomas’s daughter – namely, that for generations the Chaucer males married up, the children taking their mother’s coats-of-arms for display. The question remains as to why Chaucer was so continuously employed by and brought into association with his social superiors, if it was not (as it might have been) that he had the cachet of known poetic skill and capacity to amuse – if not instruct.