In The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the widow has a sheep named Molly. Made me wonder whether Molly of cloning fame was Christened in honour of her Chaucerian namesake. Like my Basildon-mouthed sister-in-law, who names her cats after characters in literature. It’s not an uncommon practice. The more distinct from the quotidian, be it animal or human, the better. One of her cats was called Enkidu; another Hector. By such nomenclature, she is able to perform her status as a woman with a BA in English Literature, although last time I saw her, she was relieving her daily commute from Essex to London with lashings of middle-brow chic lit. As it turns out, the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh cloned two other sheep besides Molly: Polly, and their star of the fold, Dolly. A love of assonance rather than literary allusion seems to have been the primary motivating factor in this instance.
Today, I read The Tale of Sir Topaz, told by Chaucer’s implied narrator, who in an ironic turn, is a hilariously shite storyteller. After the host interjects and compares his rhyming to a turd, Chaucer’s persona recounts The Tale of Melibee, which Coghill briefly summarises rather than translates. Other translations similarly condense or omit it. Apparently, the tale is long and tedious, perhaps satirically so or perhaps because it is out of kilter with the rest of the pilgrims’ narratives. Either way, it can’t have been any more dreary than some of the tragic exempla of The Monk’s Tale that follows, although I was interested to note that the Monk’s anxieties surrounding the dangers of sharing secrets with one’s wife were reminiscent of those expressed by a violent gangster in Big Spender (1975), an episode of the TV series The Sweeney. It might be a century since women won the vote, but the rise of cultural feminism is evidently a relatively recent phenomenon in these isles.
I’ve read and reread two more of Chaucer’s tales today: The Shipman’s Tale and The Prioress’s Tale. The first concerns a businessman, his unnamed wife, and St. John the Monk, who become embroiled in an amusing financial and sexual ménage-a-trois of sorts, one that in translation involves “double entry”. The Prioress’s Tale is of greater interest, as discussed by E. S Zitter (1991) Anti-Semitism in Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale”. The Chaucer Review, pp.277f, from which I quote at length below. Comments comparable to those of Zitter could be made about the representations of Muslims in The Man of Law’s Tale.
“In her analysis of critical approaches to Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, Beverly Boyd divides the critics into those who are essentially sympathetic in their reading, those who emphasize the tale’s anti-Semitism, and those who favour a mixed approach, seeing in the tale the polarities of “fierce bigotry” and “tender-hearted sympathies” that Wordsworth noted. According to Boyd, most of these mixed readings “are sympathetic to the tale while interpreting the Prioress’s character negatively.” Critics who attempt to absolve Chaucer from the accusation of anti-Semitism have found two wholly divergent ways of doing so, with some excusing Chaucer on the grounds of his historical and social milieu and others claiming that the Prioress’s Tale is ironic and a satire on, rather than a reflection of, the anti-Semitism of Chaucer’s day. Continue reading
‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Matthew 26:41
I struggle to balance my aspirations against my energy levels. I hate to admit to myself how quickly I get tired. Sometimes, mornings are one long slog. Other days, I can read comfortably from 8am to the beginning of the afternoon, although not without hourly breaks. It’s easier if I’m reading and making notes, but slower. Poor physical and mental health, followed by periods of insomnia, have taken their toll. Moreover, during the last few weeks, I’ve had to endure the additional stress of workman strolling in and out of my house, albeit through necessity. Being realistic about my endurance against the pressures of my ambition to write, whether it be for art or money, has proved problematic.
I need to focus. I need to shift gear to slow burn.
Daily schedule: read 3 texts in the morning; reread literary text after lunch; journal.
I’m continuing with Canterbury Tales. Since my last journal entry, I’ve read The Reeve’s Tale and The Man of Law’s Tale. The former, a ‘cradle trick’ tale told by a former carpenter to avenge The Miller’s Tale, features a miller called Simpkin (Symkyn), his wife, his daughter Molly (Malyne) and two Northern students, John and Alan (Aleyn). I’ve read The Man of Law’s Tale before, but I don’t recall when. Years ago, I read part of a prose translation of The Tales, but I’m sure I came across this one more recently.
Sandwiched between these 2 tales in The Cook’s Tale, a fragment notable for its black central character. Both this and The Man of Law’s Tale raise issues of race.
It’s been tough building a reading guide, but I’ve finally settled on 5 categories drawn from the 10 modules of the licentiate, such that I will now spend each morning reading three texts, one of which – the literary text — I’ll read every day and reread in the afternoon. The other two will alternate between four titles. Thus, from this mark, I will carry on reading Canterbury Tales first thing each morning, then reread the same section chapter or section straight after lunch. At the same time, I will alternate between Bennett & Royle’s An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Routledge, 2016) with Constance Hale’s Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing (Norton, 2013), and Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press, 2015) with A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (Penguin, 1929/2002), insha’Allah.
Compared to keeping a journal, creative writing is slow and intense, although the most time-consuming part of the process is revision. I find it impossible to pen more than 500 words of creative prose a day, working 6-8 hours. On that basis, a first draft for a novel should take around 6 months to complete. I don’t know how long I will then need for revision, but I would imagine no more than half that time again, bringing the time needed to finish a novel about one year when planning is included. How, then, can I study and write proper at the same time? The truth it, I can’t, but I don’t feel I can write before I have a better sense of my craft. One possible solution might be to devote 12 months to reading intensively across the piste: historical, thematically, and in terms of genre, taking in both literary texts, literary theory, and books on writing skills. That sounds like a plan.
I’m using my journal to help organise myself into a student and writer. Read books and write journal in morning, work on novel in afternoon: That’s the plan. But what with my laptop still not fully set up and workman on their last day fitting my kitchen, not to mention my wandering thoughts, and I’ve yet again ran into the early afternoon, and without picking up Defoe’s Moll Flanders, which I started reading last week.
This morning, I finished the Knight’s Tale. When it came to the knights getting an early night before their contest, I laughed out loud! I love Chaucer! What makes this tale delicious is that, in one sense, it’s a well-told story, but it also one that discloses a great deal about the storyteller’s foibles. As soon as the knight tells you that he’s done with a subject, for example, he carries on – his insight veiled by his enthusiasm for all things knightly. Surely, there were some aspects of being a knight that were laudable. The less savoury aspects of knightliness, of course, are played down: in this tale, the Duke commands that no one in the contest be killed, and not even the bloke who gets an axe in the chest expires. Even poor Arcite only succumbs when his horse stumbles. In short, romances tell us much about how knights saw themselves and how they liked to be seen by others. Chaucer’s satire debunks this representation of knights as inflated hokum.
I finished part 3 of the Knight’s Tale this morning, with Palamon’s prayers to Venus, and Emily’s devotions to Diana, and Arcite’s pleas to Mars, ending with Saturn’s intervention. Are the descriptions of the three shrines intended to be over-elaborate? The problem with reading 14th century poetry is that I know little about the period or its literature, although I gather Chaucer’s masterpiece makes no mention of several political events of note, such as the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Could one write a novel about British people in 2017 without bringing up the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Perhaps.
Chapter 2 of Bennett & Royle deals with reader-response theory, which it discusses using Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias (1818). During my initial reading of the first seven chapters of Bennett & Royle, I made detailed notes from this chapter, and necessarily so. This is foundational stuff and I must become familiar with the names and concepts associated with this school of criticism. The ideas surrounding reader-response theory are particularly pertinent to my theoretical preference, postcolonialism.