Saturday, September 18, 2010

What Would the Wife of Bath Say?

Artist's rendering of the Wife of Bath from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
 When Sir Walter Scott pioneered historical fiction by penning Ivanhoe in 1819, he certainly wasn't thinking about how best to include a strong, independent female protagonist. Rowena, the blonde beauty that Ivanhoe ends up with, is almost as insipid a female character as one can find in literature. Rebecca, the dark-eyed, generous Jewess, is rescued from death and dishonor not by her own wits but by the strength of the male hero. For decades after Ivanhoe, historical fiction authors tended to cast men and women in the same roles that Sir Walter Scott used. The man was the hero, the adventurer, the mastermind. The woman was the dependant damsel in distress.

Nowadays, much of historical fiction treats women in a completely opposite manner. Historical novelists (especially female authors) favor spunky, resourceful leading ladies who can rival--or better--the masculine characters with their intelligence, skills, and determination. Instead of waiting to be rescued, the modern historical heroine devises ways to protect herself and even to keep her man safe. I found two examples of this kind of heroine in the last two historical novels I read: Jean Plaidy's The Plantagenet Prelude and Ken Follett's World Without End.

In The Plantagenet Prelude, the twelfth century main character Eleanor of Aquitaine is portrayed as a woman determined to rule. One of her main ambitions is to demonstrate that, in terms of governing a kingdom, a woman can do everything a man can do. When she marries Louis of France, she dominates the relationship and tries to direct all the foreign policy of France. Her second husband, Henry Plantagenet, is much more difficult to control. She chafes under the expectation that she must continually conceive and produce heirs for him. "Her frustration was intolerable. It was unfair that it should always be the woman's lot to bear the children. This shall be the last, she promised herself." The roles of wife and mother are chains holding back her boundless ambition.

In World Without End, set in fourteenth century England, the main female character Caris is determined not to marry for these same reasons. She "resented Merthin for making her an offer she could not accept. He did not understand. For him, their marriage would be an adjunct to his life as an architect. For her, marriage would have to replace the work to which she had dedicated herself." Over and over again, Caris states that she is determined to live her own life and not live through someone else, whether it be a husband or a child. This is one of the determining factors that causes her to get an abortion when she finds out that she is pregnant by Merthin. "I don't want to spend my life as a slave to anyone, even if it is my own child," she declares.

The women in Plaidy and Follett's stories are obsessed with their own status--or lack of status--in a male-dominated world in a way that would not have even occurred to Sir Walter Scott's heroines. One thing we must remember though is that in Scott's time, the notion of women's suffrage had barely surfaced. He described the wants and desires of women as he understood them at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Plaidy and Follett describe the wants and desires of women as they understand them at the end of the twentieth century.

Though historical fiction does give us a window into the time period in which it is set, it also gives us a window into the time period in which it was written. To assume that Scott's description of women in the Middle Ages is more accurate (because it is older) would be just as fallacious as to assume that Plaidy and Follett's portrayal is more precise (because it makes sense in our own time period). Both views are clouded by the conceptions of the author's own times.

To find out what women were really like in the Middle Ages, we need to rid ourselves of preconceptions (as much as possible) and look at the primary source material. Was Margery of Kempe as insipid as Rowena or as feminist as Caris, or was she distinctly different from either? Do the source documents about Eleanor of Aquitaine show that she insisted on equality and despised her role as a mother?

Was marriage a romantic ideal or a degraded departure from independence? It doesn't matter how Scott, and Plaidy, and Follett would answer that question. The real test is this: what would the Wife of Bath say?

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