Chaucer's life is a standing temptation to a biographer. On the one hand, we have the 493 documented mentions of him brought together in the Crow and Olson Life Records, a body of paper which makes Chaucer far better evidenced as a person than Shakespeare two centuries later; on the other, there is the persistent refusal of these documents to see him as what we think we know he was (the major poet of his age), presenting him instead as a quite important civil servant with good connections to power, and from a family almost typically English in its concentration not on literary matters but on moving up the social scale. Chaucer's great-grandfather, Andrew 'le Taverner', thus seems to have kept a pub in Ipswich, while his great-great-grandson, Richard Duke of Suffolk, nicknamed 'Blanche Rose', was accepted as King of England - but, alas, only by the French, and only till he was killed in battle at Pavia. There is an irony, on which Derek Pearsall ends his book, in the extirpation of the Chaucer line around 1539 at virtually the same moment as the first printing of Chaucer's Collected Works in 1532. But the irony had been there all the time, in the almost unbroken refusal of Chaucer's contemporaries to take any documented interest in him as a poet, while recording steadily his involvement with rape, robbery, profitable deals of one kind and another, and not least with His Majesty's Secret Service - or as the records put it, in secretis negociis domini regis. What did they pay Chaucer for? Why was he so useful? Is there any clue to his James Bond activities in his poetry? At any rate it is a pleasure to have a literary subject who appears to have been taken seriously in his own lifetime, to have had a role in the great world.
LRB 7 January 1993 | PDF Download