01.05.08, Bullon-Fernandez, Fathers and Daughters in Gower's Confessio Amantis

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Elizabeth Scala

The Medieval Review baj9928.0105.008


Bullon-Fernandez, Maria. Fathers and Daughters in Gower's Confessio Amantis: Authority, Family, State, and Writing.. Publications of the John Gower Society, IV.. Suffolk and Rochester: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Pp. viii, 241. ISBN: 0-859-91578-6.

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Scala
Medieval Studies Adviser, University of Texas at Austin

Maria Bullon-Fernandez's Fathers and Daughters in Gower's Confessio Amantis is an identification and exploration of the recurring father-daughter couple in various tales throughout Gower's poem. Her book makes wonderfully clear what may have gone unnoticed in many studies of Gower (and one could also make a similar claim about Chaucer studies, for that matter): the intense focus on fathers and daughters and the relative absence of father-son narratives. In the patriarchal culture of the Middle Ages, as well as the patriarchal culture of medieval writing, that father-son narratives are eschewed seems almost counterintuitive. Bullon- Fernandez notes the recurring theme of fathers and daughters in Genius's tales and discusses the relation's power dynamic, particularly as it appears to signify other dynamics at issue in Gower's poem. Thus, her focus on fathers and daughters not only intimates an interest in familial relations or the power fathers can wield as heads of families but also political and poetical power relations that may be staged through the familial metaphor. Through the flexible term 'authority' Bullon-Fernandez engages these different aspects of power-- familial, political, poetical--at issue in Gower's poem and debated in its critical tradition. Feminist and anthropological theory provides the "method for understanding and explaining Gower's examination of the gender dynamics that come into play within the family, within the state, and in the process of creation of a literary texts". (3) Because "all three realms...are informed by the same dynamics--the male authority figure appears to negotiate between the desire for an absolute control over the female subordinate figure", Bullon- Fernandez sees Gower continually working variations on these different situations through his repeated interest and focus on father-daughter tales. In short, through the attenuated power relation between father and daughter within the family, Gower can explore, question, limit, propose, and exemplify power relations elsewhere. That elsewhere, as Gower scholarship has revealed, refers to the political and moral institutions that were his most dedicated concerns. The variety of father- daughter narratives--some are idealized, some are incestuous and despotically inappropriate--allows Gower, according to Bullon-Fernandez, to raise complex problems with, as well as simply illustrate the working of, authority in medieval social institutions. (4) Such claims make Bullon-Fernandez's attention to Gower stunningly original, particularly because of her focus on the complex workings of gender and her insights into the many father-daughter stories layering the Confessio. Yet, Bullon-Fernandez's work is also deeply versed in and attentive to the long traditions of Gower scholarship. This book, while innovative in its focus on fathers and daughters, neatly places her in the midst of critical debate on Gower's English poem, which is read most often in terms of its political circumstances, for example, its shift in dedication from Richard II to Henry of Derby, as well as for its political, moral, and ethical wisdom, even kingly advice.

Bullon-Fernandez's work produces an intent focus on language and incestuous desire in Gower's Confessio, and incest has been an increasingly important topic to Gower criticism. In Bullon-Fernandez's discussion both language and incest carry a mutual "originary" function for culture and for Gower's discussion of authority, political and textual, in Confessio Amantis. In yoking these senses or contexts for discussion of authority in the father-daughter theme, Bullon-Fernandez shows how Gower was able to illustrate sin in political contexts relevant both to family and state. Even as she describes her own argument on the opening flyleaf of the book, we can see the allegorical assumptions of her work. Bullon- Fernandez "suggests that Gower perceived the relationships between kings and subject and between authors and texts as similar to paternal relationships with a daughter;....As a father may not commit incest with his daughter and a king may not abuse his authority, so the writer...must curb his desire to control the meaning of his creation". (i) Most of her evidence for such perception as Gower may have exhibited it, comes from within the Confessio and the analogies that she can forge between these contexts for authority. One might wonder, however, if Gower's recourse to father-daughter tales is fully conscious. That is, does he realize the extent to which gender replays the issues of authority and corruption otherwise of interest to him. Could such connections explain rather than follow from Gower's attraction and return to the father-daughter relationship in this variety of stories? Such issues also prompt me to ask biographical questions of Gower-- was he married? Did he have any daughters? Our interest in such questions--as well as their absence from Bullon- Fernandez's study--suggest that Gower's view of authority is a complex one that often collapses in on its own foundations, which is why we may be licensed to inquire about the potentially varied foundations of his interest in authority itself. As such, Bullon-Fernandez is able to have it both ways as she claims that, while Gower shows himself interested in the limits to authority he concomitantly "exposes the inherently transgressive nature of such authority". (i) While biographical information is not the most important material to have left unaddressed or unrelated to this book's main subject, there are certain aspects of Gower's poem obfuscated by Bullon-Fernandez's method of inquiry and explanatory organization. Lost in Bullon-Fernandez's study, for example, is the framework of Gower's Confessio, both the character of Genius and his literary-philosophical tradition as well as the subjectivity of Amans (should we think ourselves able to posit one) and the confessional apparatus that links tales by their relation, however forced, to the seven deadly sins. Reading Bullon-Fernandez's book, one forgets these are even parts of the poem. Looking at her chapter titles attentively, one sees a thematic reorganization of Gower's poem that does some violence to the structure of the Confessio and the relations of tales within its eight books.

Bullon-Fernandez's book is a largely well-written and thorough analysis of fathers and daughters in the Confessio, and it warrants some attention from Gower students. The text is nicely produced and free of errors. It offers an extensive survey of scholarship on Gower's poem in both the body of the text and its notes. Its bibliography is excellent and thorough. The only criticism one might level here is with the extent of its engagement with that critical tradition: many times the details of Bullon-Fernandez's agreement and disagreement with various critics slows the pace of her discussion. Certainly none of the scholarship included in the bibliography should have been left out, but she might have entered a critical dialogue in the book in a slightly more measured way. As far as pace is a problem then, one should not expect a quick read from Fathers and Daughters. The experience of reading Bullon-Fernandez's study is similar to reading Gower's Confessio itself because of the situation described above as well as the sometimes lengthy summaries interspersed throughout. While the comparison is meant to be flattering, it also suggests, frankly, that reading this book is somewhat exhausting, and this reviewer wished there had been more streamlining and condensing of both the argument and the discussions of Gower's stories.

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Elizabeth Scala

Medieval Studies Adviser, University of Texas at Austin