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Having her say

Cover of The Good Wife of Bath
A review of The Good Wife of Bath by Karen Brooks

Karen Brooks gives Chaucer's Wife of Bath a chance to tell her side of the story in this vivid and absorbing tale of how a woman could gain agency in her own life in a time when she legally had none.

The titular "wife" is Eleanor who is married off to her first (of five) husbands at the age of twelve. That first husband is an elderly farmer and Eleanor is initially horrified by her situation. But Eleanor was "born under the signs of Venus and Mars" and thus is both a lover and a fighter. She does not just let life happen to her, she learns and grows and makes deliberate choices to better her circumstances, even when she's convinced that "God is not on her side". Eleanor is able to make that first marriage a success, but the death of her husband and the venality of other men, put her right back where she started. And that pattern repeats. Each step forward is often matched by two steps back as Eleanor is not just up against greedy, powerful men, but also the time period in which she is living (meaning every law and practice is designed to keep women powerless). Nevertheless she perseveres keeping her good friend and cousin, Geoffrey Chaucer, abreast of her circumstances as she goes through life.

Despite the hardships Eleanor faces and the dire nature of life in the 14th century, Karen Brooks' imbues her story with wit and a bit of bawdy humor in keeping with the tone of the story it's based upon. She brings her characters and the Middle Ages to life in gritty and well-researched detail.

Oct 11, 2021