Lockdown with the Wife of Bath: A Conversation with Douglas North
In March of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic brought a wave of unexpected change with it. Many of us suddenly found ourselves homeschooling children and baking Dutch Babies in between anxious bouts of fearing for our friends and families. Some people found it impossible to read and write; others found themselves at peak productivity. Regardless of which group you found yourself in, we were all looking for ways to fill the hours that suddenly felt endless. Dr. Douglas North found himself at his bookshelf, pondering a new project. On one of my semi-regular internet searches for new-to-me adaptations, I found a link to his self-published “transformation” and immediately ordered it. Earlier this year, I contacted Dr. North to discuss his experiences adapting Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue.
North’s book breaks the Wife of Bath’s Prologue into 60 numbered sections of varying lengths, each with a title setting up the contents, often quite humorously (I particularly enjoyed “The Wife Confides that She is Looking. The Apostle Paul is OK with This.” and “She Really Did Not Like That Guy.”) The book runs to 108 pages and includes an “Author’s Preface” offering an in-depth explanation of how the transformation came about as well as notes on audiences that might enjoy it. The preface and the text itself inspired my questions on North’s experience as an adapter of Chaucer and his answers have given me much to think about as both an adapter and a reader of adaptations. You can read my questions and North’s answers below.
What led you to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue? You write in your introduction that “it was written in mid-March 2020, when we were all socially distanced, or quarantined, or terrified for our lives and the lives of others” – was there something about the Prologue that felt right for this time?
That early, scary, stay-at-home-if-you’re-old period of the Covid-19 pandemic gave me many more hours to fill, and I already had a lot of hours to fill. I had retired almost two years before after 30 years of leading educational institutions, a college, a university, and a private school. A year and a half into retirement, I was already looking at the bottom of my bucket list and casting about for something to do, some new ideas. Some purpose. There was a tinge of desperation to all of this.
I thought idly that I could try to revisit some of the previous eras of my life—maybe to pick up a lost thread. Well, I had studied English Literature for ten years before realizing that was not the path for me. Considering this, I stood before the bookcase.
For some unknowable reason other than perhaps proximity I picked off the shelf F. N. Robinson’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, which had been faithfully boxed, shelved, and re-boxed during a lifetime of changes and moves. Suddenly I thought about translation. I had at one point in my life translated a work from Spanish to English even though I knew very little Spanish, but enough to catch the meaning and turn it into unstilted English. The author liked it, anyway. I thought, maybe I could try that sort of thing with Middle English and Chaucer. So I went, again somewhat inexplicably, to The Wife of Bath’s Prologue—and sat down to try a homespun translation. Something that would make an ordinary person “get it.”
An equally valid alternative explanation is that a Muse paid a visit.
In any case I spent many of those extra hours at home in a state of “flow.” Within the first hour of laboriously translating from the glossary and trying to make it come alive and sound natural, I slipped into thinking in couplets. I asked myself, “can I do it all in couplets?” Why not try? After a while I began to get the hang of it, and I streamlined my process. With the use of FNR’s glossary and notes, the Harvard online interlinear translation, and an online rhyming dictionary I could move along at a pretty good pace.
Do you feel like the process of adapting (transforming) a work changes your understanding of it? After having adapted (transformed) the text, has your vision of the Wife of Bath or of Chaucer as an author changed and, if so, in what ways?
About a third of the way into the Prologue, I thought about breaking the text into titled chapters that guide the reader. Like Tom Jones, sort of. It would be a way of interpreting the Prologue by organizing it and making the plot flow more, dramatically. Like a silent movie with editorial captions. The character of The Wife of Bath began to grow in this fashion, and her basic feminism began to stand out. So I used the chapter titles to emphasize the Wife’s contemporary relevance.
I remember that I was taught that the Wife was a weaver and skilled in needlecraft. But this time around, I learned from women’s scholarship that she is a business owner in the prosperous wool trade. Wealthy, propertied, free, and capable. She is a “material girl” a few decades on. More than a bit ostentatious. She is a combination of “I am the Whip” and an underlying vulnerability that comes out every now and then. That recognition of her social position helped me to coordinate the General Prologue’s description and the persona of her Prologue.
I think the Wife of Bath’s Prologue was a work in progress–maybe the author’s first or second shot at sequencing notes and scenes into a “plot.” I am very interested in the brief moment when Alison suggests to Janekyn that if only she were a widow they could do a wedding dance. By changing the “wedding dance” into “I shot him a glance” I have made the moment more explicitly conspiratorial, but I think it is justified, because Alison has definitely given a heavy hint to Janekyn in the text. I wonder now how Chaucer might have developed this “plot” in subsequent prologues and tales, if the grand plan were carried out. Did Janekyn take the hint and arrange the death of the hated fourth husband while Alison was off on her Jerusalem pilgrimage?
Another change that I thought justified was making Alison get into an early tiff with the Pardoner and portraying him as already drinking. Later, I have Alison take a few drinks herself, all to set up her statement that she always gets free with her speech when she’s had one too many. That is a key moment. At that point things get dramatically different as she opens up and starts to talk about her life, goaded on by the Pardoner’s asking her to tell the guys her tricks and perhaps by the drink itself.
I always thought of the Pilgrims riding along while telling stories, but now I prefer to think of the storytelling taking place in the hostelries along the way, after the day’s travels.
So, I see Chaucer as a dramatist more than I did before.
Have you read other adaptations of The Canterbury Tales or the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, either before publishing your transformation or after? You mention catching up with “some of the scholarly research and analysis” on the Wife of Bath’s Prologue – was there anything in particular you really enjoyed or found surprising?
I think my “transformation” is much less wide-sweeping than others that take the Wife into a different time and place, but then I am trying to stay as close to the text as possible, line by line. So I think it is a minimalist transformation. If you look at the cover, I was thinking at one point of having a hand in a white glove giving a tug to the tapestry and tilting it some.
One aspect of adapting Chaucer through the ages that our project is looking at is the manner in which different adapters deal with the sections of The Canterbury Tales that have been considered obscene at one time or another, including the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Were there any sections of the Prologue that gave you pause? Does she retain the capacity to shock today?
To answer the second question first: even today she would be bawdy. I imagined her doing this as a comic monologue in a tavern. There are plenty of opportunities for her to gesture in ways that would evoke laughter in the crowd and make the clergy hot with disapproval as she goes on about our genitalia and how pleasurable sex is.
One obscenity issue came up during the time I was writing. The Wife is berating an old husband, trying to get him to accept her infidelities. I originally wrote, “for certain, old dummy, if I may be so bold/you get plenty of pussy for someone so old.” My wife said a feminist wouldn’t ever say pussy. That was a demeaning male word. So it got changed to “lots of vajayjay.”
Then there is the fake orgasm. Is that a first in English Lit.?
Thanks so much to Dr. Douglas North for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully and for the continuing conversation about Chaucer and adaptation.