While I have been ostensibly writing about the Wyve of Bath, I began by talking about Chaucer’s choice to write in Middle English, taking primacy over the French spoken at that time in England. Presumably it was his mother tongue. Indeed, Ngugi, were he able to magically converse with Chaucer, would have at the least called that French a colonizing tongue, though beyond the Norman invasion of 1066 we do not know with what strategies the language was imposed.
In returning to English, spoken by the humble people around him, if not some others native to England’s soil, one might say that Chaucer was affirming his Englishness not just seeking a wider audience for Canterbury Tales, but ‘de-centering’ the literary primacy of Norman French. However, Middle English itself was already, if I may be so bold, ‘mongrelized’ by earlier tongues (and,
yes, Norman French and Latin.)[i] But, and as noted in my previous essay, Chaucer used a form—iambic pentameter—which had already become associated with other, often Romance, language forms. Was his English already “semi-colonized” or are we speculating about the way language changes when several cultures meet? (Now of course English, the colonized language, “semi-” or fully—has today become a colonizer.)
I leave such speculations to someone else, however, for my interest in Chaucer’s book is several-fold: to make note of the fact that Middle English is one of the sources for the sometimes misunderstood music of my own mother tongue, all of its alliteration, those soothing sibilants and ‘th’ sounds, and, not the least of which, how one of its speakers, Chaucer, used it to portray a thoroughly English woman, the Wife of Bath, whose archetype has spread and continued to make its presence felt even in contemporary times. And, as noted in my previous discussion, the fact that a number in his audiences would have been illiterate, that choice may highlight the fact of its frequent oral delivery.
The Wife as literary archetype might sound a bit overblown; and, indeed, my three contemporary examples of its use are not only performative, rather than contained and intended to be read in a text, but rendered (if only by suggestion) in accented, very much non-BBC English. Their creators come from colonized peoples with, indeed, a distinct regional rendering of English. Of Nigerian heritage, Patience Agbabi is a poet whose poem, “The Wife of Bafa,” comes alive when performed and, to be frank, seems less alive when a copy is seen on the written page. Its performance has music, though it is not delivered in Nigerian-inflected, but, rather, standard English and with some of the torqued non-standard grammar perhaps used by Nigerian English speakers. The character rings delightfully true, though transplanted to Britain. In fact, for this writer the character, Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa, is nonetheless reminiscent of some of the market women I encountered while living, briefly, in West Africa. Like them, Mrs. Bafa is tough, full of energy, sensual, racy, and confident in being who she is in a way that English and Euro-American women—let’s just say it—stereotypically are not.
With a Jamaican mother (I am again reminded of the notion of a ‘mother tongue’ and the strong music of Jamaican English) and an English father, British writer Zadie Smith has chosen to transform the Wife of Bath story into a play, with Alyson become Alvita, Wife of Willesden, and the text/book version of the script most honorably dedicated to the Windrush generation.[ii] The setting of Smith’s play is The Cambell, herein described as “a quiet pub” transformed as it is
suddenly inundated by a colorful crowd. There’s been dancing: some people are in carnival-like costume; there are people in national dress, families, teenagers, lovers. (3)
The stage directions go on to note group of people intent upon enjoying themselves in various ways and ‘one especially striking woman, ALVITA, WIFE OF WILLESDEN. She’s settling seating arrangements, she’s handing over pints to people who can’t reach the bar, laughing and joking with everyone…’ (3-4)
Set in 2019, a lock-down is suggested, though my memory of reading about the UK’s handling of the pandemic, I thought, would have excluded such crowded gatherings. With an oblique tip of the hat to Boccaccio’s Decameron, participants are encouraged to take the stage and tell their stories: men more or less leap to the chance, but in the background there is the wondering—would a woman speak? A few do in a lackluster way, then—ta-dah! The wife of Willesden, introduced to us by The Author, a character in the play: “The story of her life’s/Worth hearing.”
The Prologue is actually a long passage, a dialogue between several characters but largely consisting of conversations regarding sex and sexuality, relationships. Surprise, Surprise. Pastor Jegede—Yoruba male name/family name: ‘of slender stem and inconsiderable height’—argues for Christian monogamy and rather traditional wifely behavior. But here the “Gede” part jumps out at me, for Gede in Haitian voudou is a lwa (spirit) of death and fertility, quite possibly brought there by the Gedevi-become-enslaved transported from Dahomey to what is now Haiti and with h/her form slightly altered. This same Pastor becomes negatively portrayed, torqued as an anti-sex and, ergo, anti-life character, whereas the Wife herself as the assertion of sexuality, of life, and pleasure might quite literally be the more earthy, female one.[iii]
Still, noble effort though it may be, there is not enough complexity in Smith’s portrayal. Promoted as delivered in a “North Weezy” accent (north east London), to be honest the musicality of the speech is barely noticeable. The trailer, from the UK’s National Theatre at home pushes this as a contemporary reincarnation of the Wife of Bath. What is presented as the prologue, though, goes on and on and on and on in the text; and no amount of inspired acting can make up for its repetitiveness and, strangely uninteresting sexual assertiveness. The script, out in short book form, devotes pages 35 -103[iv] to the so-called prologue—granted not a monologue as in Chaucer’s Tale— with dialogue between Alvita, as Smith names her, her various former husbands and others. Harping on the same few notes, still it gets tiresome; and one can only hope it is a bit more nuanced, albeit feisty, on stage.
But returning to the idea of oral delivery, I much prefer the late dub poet, Jean Binta Breeze’s version, “The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market,” delivered in Jamaican English (what Kamau Brathwaite would call ‘nation language’ as it combines elements of the African languages of captive Africans brought to the Caribbean with the colonizers’ English.) The music is there in Breeze’s “Wife” in a way that even in Agbabi’s rendering of her poem seems forced.
Indeed, it would be a worthy investigation for those of us for whom English is our mother tongue—a worthy investigation to look at some of the mainstream contemporary writing in our rhyme-poor but rhythmic mother tongue, and wonder why the echoes of orality (let alone its music) have faded so. I suspect it has been a long time coming, whilst the pressure to write in a ‘realistic’ manner has, contrary to realism, forced a dull sameness onto our literary choices.
Indeed, a number of years ago, I remember attending a reading of one of my favorite poets and being terribly disappointed: he might as well have been reading a grocery list, though, thankfully I could at least go back to his texts and “hear” something more. I find it hard to believe that we can no longer imagine sonically as well as visually. Yes, Caribbean English is especially pleasing in that regard, but can the rest of us not imagine musically as well? the quake of an elderly voice? the booming of a bully? the effort of a character pushing to be heard in a crowded room? At the same time, unlike Smith’s rendering of the Wyfe, that rather ham-fisted—if one can put it this way—”Johnny One Note” rendering of the Wife of Willesden, surely contemporary character development and writing need not be reduced to just noise.
For now, the persistence of Chaucer’s wonderful character? If one must make a choice, choose Binta Breeze.
[i] Today, Broad Scots and Geordie dialects of current British English are considered closest to Middle English, with some word and pronunciation retentions. This writer has even read that “American English” is closer to Middle English then that of contemporary Brits.
[ii] Those much put upon Afro-Caribbean persons who came to Britain, the UK then seeking much needed additions to its work force. When that part of Britain’s ’empire’ became independent, though legally confirmed as citizens by the Immigration Act of 1971, these folks had no proof. To this day, many have been summarily deported and otherwise shabbily treated.
[iii] In my article on Old World vodun (the reference ‘voodoo’ is sometimes considered a bit pejorative) I wrote: “…when I spoke o the Gedevi at Agbomɛ (descendents of those who stayed behind), their Gede was far from the Haitian cigar-smoking, rum-swilling, ladies’-behind-pinching guardian of the cemetery portrayed in Haitian voudou]. The former spoke of Gede reverently as ‘Gede just is,’ as Earth, as synonymous with it.” In other words, more Cthonic, less like the bald assertions of sexuality portrayed in Smith’s Wife of Willesden. (Mills, “The Vodun has Killed Them,” in Voudou in the Haitian Experience, Ch. 6, 144. )
[iv] In the script, the Tale itself goes on from 103 – 144.
DO ALSO NOTE: OPEN CULTURE has digitized the entire corpus of Chaucer’s work, should you, Dear Reader, wish to take a look; and for those with a specific interest in the Wyve of Bath herself, Oxford professor, Marion Turner has published The Wife of Bath; a Biography. On a different note—but on the subject of different Englishes—for those readers who can access BBC Radio 4, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001stdw for another poetry/song rendered in yet another regional accent.
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