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Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and All Her Sect

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Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and All Her Sect

Comparative Literature,  Winter 1997  by Denise L Despres

FEMINIST READINGS IN MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE: THE WIFE OF BATH AND ALL HER SECT. Edited by Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson. London: Routledge, 1994. 257 p.

Given the breadth and richness of recent criticism and scholarship on medieval women writers, their textual communities, female book ownership, and the female reconstitution of male literary genres and discourses, one might question the necessity of a teaching volume of essays whose central purpose is to demonstrate that "'feminism' is not a historically portable term" (p. 1), and that to "historicize is both to seek for historical meaning and to recognize the limits of those meanings" (p. 2). Certainly this generalization applies to all post-New Critical readings, and the editors might have better served students preparing for the rigors of current literary debate about the cultural construction of gender with a coherent methodology or principle of selection. The Introduction is full of disclaimers: the book represents "the liveliness of feminist readings of medieval texts," but its "political impact is less easy to calculate" (p. 18); the "volume deliberately does not set out to offer either a coherent narrative of that critical history from the 1970s to the present or a series of new essays on the cutting edge of high theory" (p. 6), although it does present a partial narrative and includes challenging pieces by some of the most innovative scholars in the field. As one might expect from the book's subtitle, half of the essays focus on Chaucer, who has already received exhaustive attention in both undergraduate and graduate courses in medieval literature. In its exploration of critical trends of the 1970s and glimpses of exciting new poststructuralist approaches, Feminist Readings is perhaps more appropriate, as a whole, for a course whose main subject is the history of criticism rather than literature. Undoubtedly, selected essays could be used in a variety of courses. Despite these reservations, I think instructors will applaud the book's genuine commitment to teaching both canonical and non-canonical texts from theoretically dynamic perspectives. The Introduction to Feminist Readings is a valuable pedagogical tool, presenting a critical overview of the debates that have revised (and revived) medieval literary studies-debates that students are all too likely to take for granted. Mary Carruthers's seminal essay (the first in the volume), "The Wife of Bath and the Painting of the Lions," presents an obvious argument to readers trained in a poststructuralist classroom, but the editors remind students that, until very recently, the dominant paradigms of reading in the academy were the Robertsonian exegetical hermeneutic and the depoliticized source study. Moreover, unlike Victorian and Edwardian literary studies, for example, medieval literary criticism has been "deeply resistant to new critical methods and to the intellectual challenges posed by the newer disciplines" (p. 7). Mary Carruthers's "Afterword"-a self-reflective discussion of her original intentions, reactions to the controversy the essay generated, and subsequent consideration of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" in light of recent theoretically charged arguments-ought to unsettle students. Rather than crystallizing her position on the Wife's tale, Carruthers insists that "closure comes from us, the audience, and we shall probably have no more success at it than her fictional audience did" (p. 44) .

The essays that follow offer strategies for exploring issues of gender in medieval literature, such as "how to negotiate the alterity of the medieval past and attend to the meaning of its specific historical systems of difference . . . how to interpret the various acts of medieval ventriloquism: the female voices which proceed, for the most part, trom male authors" (p. ). While students may ind all of the essays equally lively and engaging, their instructors will undoubtedly be drawn to those informed by the most current critical methodologies. Ruth Evans's essay on medieval cycle drama and the "shifting borders between material bodies and a range of gendered identities" that complicate the construction of a body politic reflects the influence of anthropologically informed body scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s. Julia Long's "Mysticism and Hysteria: The Histories of Margery Kempe and Anna O" discusses the role of the confessor and the psychoanalyst in subverting identity, and the power of the hysteric and mystic to "dethrone" patriarchy and reject victimization. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne convincingly argues that medieval virginity literature empowers the woman reader by exposing the "strategies of romance" that objectify a woman to make her the "heroine of a divine romance" (p. 171); thus virginity literature "reappropriates romance for its own purposes" (p. 172). One could organize an entire course around Susan Schibanoff's now-classic essay on Christine de Pisan's painful "progress from immasculated reader to woman reader" (p. 229), entitled "`Taking the Gold out of Egypt': The Art of Reading as a Woman."


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