The judges said: “A quite exceptional biography that with imaginative insight and stylish wit, sets one of the most significant figures in English literary history firmly in a European context.”
Perhaps above all, though, Turner illuminates and unpacks the curious paradox at the centre of Chaucer's work: that it was both highly original and, at least in the modern sense of the term, not original at all. Hailed by his French contemporary Deschamps as above all a “Grant translateur”, Chaucer derived almost everything he wrote, in one manner or another, from his European fellows: Jean de Meun, Guillaume de Machaut, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.
The Chaucer Life-Records are abundant, so we actually know far more about him than we do about many more modern poets. In Chaucer: A European life (Princeton), Marion Turner has made such abundant use of these records, and read his work so intelligently, that even those who thought they knew it all already will find themselves looking at Chaucer with completely fresh eyes. She evokes the times, the politics, the personalities of his contemporaries and, above all, she gets inside this most ironical and brilliant of poets. “Unlike Dante”, she concludes, “Chaucer actually refuses to have his vision.” I taught Middle English for seven years of my life, but I learnt so much from this book, not just about Chaucer or the Middle Ages. The title, and bent, of the book reminds us how rooted our English culture is in the Latin, French and Italian of our fellow Europeans. The book was so richly enjoyable that, once I had finished, I started to read all over again. It is an absolute triumph.
The paunchy medieval scribbler produced some of the greatest literature in the English language. But he was no proto-Brexiteer, cries Marion Turner in this survey of his life in its European context. Fresh and unusual glimpses of the great man are everywhere: perhaps most strikingly an account of the instagrammable teenaged Chaucer posing as aristocratic eye candy in a skimpy outfit called a “paltok” which failed to cover his backside. Oddsbodkins!
Chaucer’s first female biographer provides a fresh, modern perspective, memorably showing us the great poet as a young man dressed by his employer in a skimpy garment designed to emphasise the genitals and buttocks. A richly textured account and an essential addition to Chaucerian scholarship.
Turner valiantly frames the poet’s writing as proto-feminist. Women who are no longer treated simply as “objects of desire and victims of trafficking” emerge in Chaucer’s poetry around the reign of Anne of Bohemia, Richard II’s queen and champion of women’s literacy. The biggest thorn in the side of such arguments has always been the 1380 record which shows Chaucer was accused of “raptus” — most probably rape — and looks to have paid off his accuser. Turner handles it delicately, but this might be one parallel with aspects of our age that unhinges her portrait of the artist.
One for the holiday deckchair is Chaucer, A European Life by Marion Turner. I have just started this wholly beguiling, original, vividly written appreciation of the hugely innovative author and his rich cultural and political European background. A parable for our time?
In this fine biography, Marion Turner, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, gives us new images of the poet, who was born to a family of well-to-do London vintners around 1342 and became a bureaucrat, diplomat, courtier and friend of the powerful as well as one of the most famous poets of his day. Some of the images Turner gives us are well known to specialists, but some are surprising. Chaucer began his career as an adolescent page in the “great household” of Elizabeth de Burgh, where he was kitted out in a fashionable kind of tunic called a “paltok”, which Turner shows was so skimpy that it did not cover one’s backside or genitals...The book is elegantly written, with a set of well-chosen maps, family trees and colour images. It would be accessible to the general reader as well as the scholarly specialist. Throughout his works Chaucer refuses again and again to weigh things up for us and come to a decisive conclusion; nor does Turner, imitating her subject, but in suggesting further questions and presenting an array of new images, her book gives us back a Chaucer more melancholy and mercurial than the cosy figure we thought we knew.