The girls and I are having a good time with Chaucer. We’re making our way through the Prologue—slowly; this is a slow reading—using the Norton Anthology of Poetry because it’s conveniently marked up with my notes from college, as well as having decent footnotes to help us along with the Middle English. I was delighted to discover I could still quote the opening lines, thanks to my wonderful Medieval Lit prof, Dr. John Krause. Now Rose and Beanie are learning them, which makes me six kinds of happy.
I’m reading aloud relevant bits of Marshall’s English Literature for Boys and Girls for background and color, some of which gives us a good laugh, since Marshall feels compelled to reassure her young readers that she isn’t going to scandalize them with the unsavory stuff, but perhaps they will appreciate it in context when they are older. Today this led to a discussion of Victorian* sensibilities and occasional outbursts of “Your ankle is showing!” (Perhaps you had to be there. We were crying laughing.)
(*English Literature for Boys and Girls was published in 1909, so isn’t itself Victorian, but Marshall’s tone very often is, and amusingly so. “Some of these stories you will like to read, but others are too coarse and rude to give you any pleasure. Even the roughness of these tales, however, helps us to picture the England of those far-off days. We see from them how hard and rough the life must have been when people found humor and fun in jokes in which we can feel only disgust.” Er, no, Henrietta, I think a casual meandering through YouTube will make a strong case for the enduring appeal of “coarse and rude” content.)
This morning’s passage was some more of the prologue—we haven’t met all the travelers yet; we’re doing a slow reading—and then “The Complaynt of Chaucer to His Purse,” which my daughters, the offspring of two freelance writers, understood all too well. 😉 After we finish the prologue, we’ll read two Tales together. Chanticleer, I think, because the girls know it from the Barbara Cooney book and I expect they’ll enjoy hearing the original, and one other I haven’t decided upon yet. And then they can read the rest on their own, if they like.
My favorite part of our discussion today was in regard to Chaucer’s apologia for the Miller’s Tale:
What should I more say but this miller
He would his words for no man forbear,
But told his churls tale in his manner.
Me thinketh that I shall rehearse it here;
And therefore every gently wight I pray,
For Goddes love deem not that I say
Of evil intent, but for I might rehearse
Their tales all, be they better or worse,
Or else falsen some of my matter…
(To borrow Marshall’s translation, since I had the tab open already)
We talked about how every writer of fiction (and biography, memoir, many other forms) has to grapple with this same challenge, and how gratifying it is to me to see Chaucer dealing with it way back in the 14th century. Sometimes our characters must say and do things we, personally, find distressing or even offensive. This has been the hardest part of writing my current novel, actually. It’s historical fiction and though I wish my characters were more enlightened on several points, I must be true to the time, must let these people tell their stories authentically “or else falsen some of my matter.” One of the chief parts of my job is climbing inside these unfamiliar skins and attempting to walk some miles in them. I inch my way in and find Chaucer has already been there.
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