A “microbiography” of the poet’s pivotal year of 1386, Chaucer’s Tale reconstructs his situation as he entered a mid-life crisis. Enjoying a rent-free lease on a dank but well-situated residence at London’s Aldgate portal, benefiting from a position in Parliament, and supported by a salary as a customs controller, in his early 40s, Geoffrey Chaucer would seem to have it made. Depending on noble patronage and royal preferment, however, this up-and-coming civil servant-turned-insider at court found himself on the outs. On the losing side, he retreated to Kent and then crafted his tales of Canterbury. Forced retirement compelled him to reinvent himself.
Paul Strohm, a retired professor from Oxford and Columbia, enlivens the London where Chaucer was born and raised. Nearly nothing is known of his literary career from the records extant, but much is known about his work for the Crown. From the hints scattered or imagined in his verse, scholars construct a parallel life in private to that of the public man who worked his way into favor, albeit slowly.
His stony, damp cell above the key position of Aldgate in the northeast corner of the old city stands as a “symbol of his entire London experience: rather blatantly public in some respects, yet quite private and defended in others.” Chaucer’s intense activity contrasted with his withdrawal and retreat from the hubbub. He occupied the intersection between the urban fortified wall and the busy road into the countryside.
Strohm sets Chaucer’s day within hearing of church bells, from dawn to midnight at Holy Trinity Priory, near his residence. Strohm reminds us of Chaucer’s placement near this pattern of liturgical time, daily followed by the monks, and of his affinity for the seasonal cycle of pilgrimage and of devotion, coinciding with the natural rhythm of springtime, which opens his tales memorably.
To fill in the back story, this narrative moves back and forth in Chaucer’s lifetime. In 1374, Chaucer’s appointment as controller of wool customs put him into a much loftier role than that title may convey to modern audiences. The wool trade dominated English commerce as its “only significant export item”. Chaucer’s complicity with corrupt merchants and bureaucrats to skim off the profits was expected by his betters, if implicitly.
His wife’s brother-in-law was John of Gaunt, who had ruled as regent, being Richard II’s uncle. This had its advantages, but they could prove fickle. Chaucer depended on those higher up for the favors they dispensed and as a commoner he had to accept as he moved up the career ladder more than one “constrained choice”, in Strohm’s phrase.
Strohm pursues clues in the archives, and digs deep into material that may appear tangential. This may weary some readers, but he uses this data to suggest that Chaucer was not tempted by any great chicanery during his customs watch. Strohm avers that Chaucer laid low as London’s power elite colluded to enrich themselves from the wool tariffs pocketed and from the bribes exacted from tradesmen. Chaucer did not own land. He had been set up in a safe seat as a “yes man” for King Richard II.
This necessitated Chaucer’s withdrawal from the customs post. He was recently estranged from his wife. He had to vacate Aldgate, for his single term in Parliament as a “shire knight” lacking property but representing nearby Kent. This office depended on Chaucer as a loyal backer of John of Gaunt and of the Ricardian factions, but from the time Chaucer entered Parliament through 1389, discontent grew. A majority in government resented the king’s control by a few courtiers. Strohm interprets this hostile course of events as shoving aside Chaucer. He prudently absented himself from London during the next two years; some of his former allies turned malcontents were executed by Richard II.
Throughout this intrigue, Strohm tries to keep the tone in tune with modern readers. He uses the phrase “living large”, he compares the Parliament’s politicians in session back then to those on expense accounts at bars in Pimlico or the Beltway, he nods to the attractions of the Las Vegas strip, and he offers an analogy to Hemingway’s novella about the great marlin. These asides do not jar as much as one might expect.
The liveliest sections, about Aldgate and about the making of the Canterbury Tales, rush by rapidly. More on Chaucer’s most famous work would have been welcome, but Strohm’s end notes point to his fellow scholars who have contributed much to our understanding of this story-cycle. After all, Strohm has set himself the difficult task of setting up the assembly of the tales, not their contents themselves. Meanwhile, he reminds readers of its fine predecessor, Troilus and Criseyde.
With “no fixed job and insignificant income”, Chaucer decided on not a political but a literary “riposte” to his fall from favor. “Chaucer in 1386 was eminently fame-worthy… but certainly not famous yet.” Strohm shows how his forced relocation and his separation from his urban audience sparked innovation. Eager to expand his reputation, Chaucer’s hidden rivalry with Italian tale-teller Boccaccio spurred the Englishman to write in his native language its first lengthy masterpiece. Strohm regards the tales as a catalyst for an “audience of his own invention” as varied storytellers became characters, emerging to share a mixture of genres and styles, high and low registers, serious and comic narratives.
In Strohm’s version, Chaucer had to leave London and his comfortable sinecures. By doing so, and starting all over as a writer bent on making his reputation, he attained fame, after all.