Gail Ashton. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. London: Continuum, 2007. vi + 121 pp. $14.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8264-8936-4.
Reviewed by Conrad van Dijk (Medieval Studies Department, Cornell University)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2008)
Gail Ashton's Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" is the latest in a line of student-friendly Continuum reader's guides. Clocking in at 121 pages (including apparatus), this brief volume will be a tremendously useful resource for those new to Chaucer criticism. In roughly three sections (although the book has five chapters), Ashton provides a concise exposition of the historical background to the Canterbury Tales, a detailed discussion of form and style, and an excellent overview of the work's critical reception. While this review will raise a few concerns about weak passages and errors, the reader should not lose sight of the general utility of this book.
The opening chapter, "Contexts," begins with the question, "why examine Chaucer's biography at all?" The answer, according to Ashton, is that we should seek to understand "Chaucer" the critical construct, rather than the historical figure. By severing "Chaucer" from both history and the text, Ashton gives a clear indication that this reader's guide is meant not simply as a source of information, but as a lesson in reading, as an introduction to critical theory. While this does a small disservice to the life records--and it apparently contradicts the later observation that "the 'facts' of Chaucer's life were obscured until relatively recently" (p. 94)--the distinction serves as a caveat lector that historical analysis will generally play second fiddle to more trendy forms of criticism.
Not surprisingly, then, it is Cecily de Chaumpaigne's charge of raptus that is singled out as possibly "the single, most interesting biographical detail" in Chaucer's life (p. 3). The incident is in fact so important that the earlier caution about marrying text and author is promptly forgotten. Ashton observes, "In the light of this whiff of scandal, the question 'is Chaucer a friend of women in his work?' suddenly seems highly pertinent indeed" (p. 4). One of the discussion questions at the end of the chapter--each chapter ends with two or three discussion questions--nicely sums up the critical quandary that Ashton has found herself in: "How productive--or even necessary--is it to read Chaucer's tales in the light of fourteenth-century concerns?" (p. 15). Perhaps the answer is that such historicizing is not only necessary, but even inevitable. Ashton is in fact at her best when she details what we do know about Chaucer, and when she summarizes some of the distinctive interpretations of the life records (e.g., those by Derek Pearsall and the authors of Who Murdered Chaucer?). 
While the opening chapter gracefully guides the student through Chaucer's social and literary contexts, its final section, "Medieval Literary Culture," is arguably the weakest part of the book. Its modulation in tone (we suddenly get a much more intimate address) is slightly awkward, but the real problem lies in its representation of "auctoritas" and "print culture." Ashton generalizes that medieval readers "had no regard for originality" (p. 12) and that in Chaucer's day the notion of "author" increasingly slips away. Given the increasing cultural recognition of literary authorship in Ricardian England, these overstatements are limiting, rather than productive. About printing Ashton writes, "Turn back the clock 600 years and the picture is entirely different…. The printing press was a brand new invention and processes of authorship [were] entirely different from our own" (p. 11). Throughout these pages, Ashton refers to print and print culture (in contrast to oral storytelling--another problematic term given Chaucer's use of primarily written sources) and the reference to commercial bookselling in the mid-1470s a few pages later only further confuses the issue (p. 13). A charitable reader might glean from all of this that the printing press would eventually bring Chaucer's work to a broader audience. Someone new to the period, on the other hand, will be thoroughly confused as to why we need to consider print culture at all.
Chapter 2, on language, style, and form, opens with a list of tips on reading Middle English (enough to get the student going) and provides an introduction to England's trilingual culture in the late Middle Ages. There are some generalizations here (e.g., that even after Chaucer most literary works were written in Anglo-Norman) and some awkward explanations (surely "the droghte of March" is not the clearest illustration of iambic metre) but on the whole the discussion moves quickly. Chapter 2 continues with the theme of "auctoritas," discusses editorial practice, demonstrates how Chaucer thematizes translation, and introduces the notions of exegesis and glossing. The latter discussion is clearly indebted to Carolyn Dinshaw's work (see p. 22), and a citation would have been useful. Indeed, one of the minor problems with the bibliography (entitled "Further Reading") is that works are listed by chapter and are generally only mentioned once, even when they appear in multiple chapters.
While the opening chapter ends weakly, chapter 2 is the strongest in its conclusion. Ashton's reading of the Man of Law's Tale's mingling of genres produces some great observations and questions (e.g., "Is this a folk tale with a focus upon psychological drama and self-identity?" [p. 31]). More importantly, it models in an exemplary manner how students might pose their own research questions and begin to analyze the Tales. The questions that conclude chapter 3's final paragraph should probably have found their way into the list of discussion questions that accompany this chapter, especially as the first and third discussion questions that are included fit much better with the subsequent chapter (question 3's distinction between "sentence" and "solaas" is in fact not even brought up until three pages later).
Chapter 3, "Reading The Canterbury Tales" is easily the longest, and brings us much closer to the actual text. Whereas for the first two chapters the reader was assumed to have some basic knowledge of the contents of the Tales, Ashton now seems to suppose general ignorance, so that we get, for instance, a close description of the General Prologue as well as such comments as "You may have noticed in the General Prologue a speaker identified only as 'I'" (p. 34). This is of course the bane of all introductory books, namely that some of the explanations will feel slightly belated, but it is a fairly common predicament in this work, and something that might have been remedied with better editing (for example, the explanations of the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt are on pp. 6-7 though they first appear on pp. 2 and 4).
Chapter 3 includes good discussions of the narrator, the frame, Harry Bailey's character, Chaucer-the-pilgrim, the relation between teller and tale, the overturning of generic expectations, marriage and sexuality, queer readings, the twin themes of knowledge and experience, and endings and closures. It is a long list, and it shows the breadth and usefulness of the chapter. Ashton proves to be a good close reader and she develops her themes succinctly. Probably the most interesting aspect of this chapter is Ashton's opposition to reading the tales as dramatic monologues (she also critiques the Kittredge model in chapter 4). According to Ashton, "essay questions and some critical readings still invite us to focus on the way a speaker narrates a tale, even as the question of matching a tale with its teller misleads us" (p. 43). Ashton provides some compelling reasons for caution, and she qualifies her argument somewhat by acknowledging that occasionally there is a fit. However, on the whole this hesitant stance is not borne out by the rest of the chapter, where we frequently get comparisons of characters and their tales.
Chapters 4 and 5 discuss Chaucer's critical (and creative) reception and publishing history. I particularly enjoyed chapter 4's overview of fields of criticism, including psychological realism, exegetical criticism, new historicism, and gender studies. Eco or green readings and postcolonial readings are also mentioned, but receive scant attention. Ashton does not merely restate various views, but also provides some good criticism of received truths. Students may find this section of the book the most challenging, but also the most rewarding, as it will help them situate their own work and that of others within a wider, if unstable (p. 77), field of criticism.
Chapter 5 has two main sections: a discussion of later authors whose work has been influenced by Chaucer and a discussion of modern adaptations in various media--film, musical, television, and radio. The former provides a nice list of authors, ranging from Dryden to Atwood, but is really too brief and vague. The latter, on the other hand, is lively, personal, and detailed. It should be mentioned that throughout the book this loose and relaxed teaching voice alternates somewhat uncomfortably with a more scholarly tone.
To conclude, Ashton has written an easy-to-read and clearly laid out guide for students of Chaucer, one that I think will see much use. A particular benefit that I see is that Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" represents above all a study in interpretation, a reflection on how we should approach Chaucer from our contemporary vantage point. It is this open-minded refusal of critical closure that will ultimately give students the confidence to pursue their own readings.
. Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992); Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, and Juliette Dor, Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery (London: Methuen, 2002).
. George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer and his Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1915), 78-80.
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Conrad van Dijk. Review of Ashton, Gail, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
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