Esther Quinn writes as a veteran teacher conducting a generally chronological comprehensive summary of Chaucer's poems and looking for instances where the poet comments on current events by disguising himself and/or the issues at hand, most often concerning royal scandal, marriages, deaths, divorce, and the general abuses of kingly power by Richard. Many Chaucerian details, such as the depiction of the feminine Pardoner, become glosses on Richard's famous and disastrous unmanliness. In reference to the Legend of Good Women's Prologue, she writes:
[not] only does the God of love have "gilt heer," but the foolish vengeful Absolon in the Miller's Tale has curly gold hair; likewise, both the devious Pardoner and the foolish Sir Thopas have yellow or saffron-colored hair. Additionally, among the mock-authority figures are regal Chantecleer, believer in dreams and susceptible to flattery, and Phebus, the former sun-god who vengefully destroys everything he has cherished. Each of these figures in different ways and varying degrees conveys something of Chaucer's sense of the young monarch's unfitness to rule. Once considered random thoughts and wild surmises, these connections seem now quite possible, even probable (94).
Throughout, she offers these impressionistic connections to persons, places, and events in the political and courtly history that Chaucer lived. The book begins with an overview of Chaucer and his time--all the political and court dealings that he and his family were involved in and that marked his and education, social ascendancy and the various positions he held. It is useful to have such a synthesis of late 14th century politics in one place. It is also logical and likely that Chaucer referred more to these events than is readily apparent in his works, since not all of them have a discernable historically concrete occasion as the Book of he Duchess does. Historicism has reinvigorated an inquiry into the particulars of history, and Richard himself has received so much attention of late that re-historicizing Chaucer and enlivening the personal context of his works is now popular and appropriate. Too often Chaucer is read in historical isolation just as Langland is over-read as if his poem is a gloss on the statute of laborers.
But Quinn is not always successful in linking the poems up to real events and people and does not always convince us, thus, that Chaucer labors over and again to disguise himself and his ideas to protect himself from attack or exposure. And thus her associations become general and, at once, both un-confirmable and undeniable. See her discussion of Pandarus, for example:
A complex blend of literary antecedents and contemporary figures, Pandarus reminds one not only of the lover's friend in the Romance of the Rose and Boccaccio's Pandaro, but the friends, advisers, and critics of Richard II, including both Chaucer himself and Robert de Vere (66).
Equally general is the claim for the Parliament of Fowls that Chaucer's "dream parliament composed of birds of different species and presided over by a female personage serves as a cover for his reflections on the actual parliaments of the late 1370s and 1380s" (52). Such a claim lies unproved and undeveloped. So too, for the House of Fame, Quinn spins a not impossible contemporary application to John of Gaunt that sort of goes nowhere: "Note, for instance, the parallels between Aeneas and Gaunt; as the Trojan left his dead wife Creusa behind, found in Dido a source of comfort, but married Lavinia for political reasons, so John of Gaunt, after the death of Blanche, took Katherine Swynford as his mistress, then contracted a political marriage with Constance of Castile" (33).
Quinn makes these off-hand but not un-provocative associations throughout, and perhaps specialized historians of the period will substantiate or dispute these claims, but here they only serve the immediate context of Quinn's comprehensive thesis--that Chaucer's works are best understood in totality and by tracing in them his constant self-disguise--a mode he crafted so that he could comment on current events without allowing himself to be "subjected to criticism" (3). What this criticism is and what the exact dangers Chaucer faced are not clear. Finally, Quinn's homely, guileless style may strike a strange cord with some, as she speaks very honestly and directly about her own work and the history of criticism: "Of the numerous books that have been written on the Legend of Good Women, none is wholly persuasive" (72); "There has been so much fine work done on the Knight's Tale that I hesitate to write anything more" (94). Also, it's hard to detect what she thinks some of these poems "mean," so to speak; she says that Troilus is an "infelix puer" and that "as a young lover, he resembles at one point or another, any number of young lovers, including Edward the Black Prince, Richard II, and the poet himself" (64). Concerning Criseyde, Quinn gets a bit stuck in that "though [Chaucer] may well have associated this alluring widow with one or more women of his acquaintance, he is careful to avoid any details that might call to mind a contemporary counterpart" (65). Chaucer must have disguised things too well in this case.
Her Canterbury Tales discussion is the strongest in the book, though here too we get generalized conclusions: "Theseus as a capable ruler points to [Chaucer's] hope that Richard might yet prove to be a worthy king" (98). Thus Quinn's overall thesis risks reducing the poems to footnotes to an only partially understood personal history of the poet and his times: the CT she writes, is the "fullest exploration of the social, personal, and political matters that had long preoccupied him" (106). This may be provocative and likely true, but Quinn gives us only suggestions and not, for example, the elaborate political historical inquiry from, say, David Wallace's Chaucerian Polity.
Some other examples: the uses of law to punish murder in the Prioress's Tale "serve as covers for 14th-century people, put to death for speaking out against Richard's "law" (121). Pope Urban in the Second Nun's Tale "obliquely criticizes the Papal Schism" (123). Many references to rape, passim, refer to Chaucer's own situation in the Cecily Champaigne incident, and almost any reference to power, authority, violence leads either to Becket, who dies for opposing royal power, or Richard, who emerges here as abusive, extravagant and tyrannical--though Chaucer would presumably deny all that if you asked him, hence the poetics of disguise. I loved her chapter called "tales without woman" where Quinn avers that Chaucer wanted to focus his critique particularly on "men in high positions" in his own time (133). For Quinn, Chaucer was ever watchfully engaged in concerns over power and government and dedicated his corpus to crafting his cautionary cares. Quinn seems to posit an intended comprehending audience when she refers to Chaucer addressing "matters of concern to them [the audience] and himself," but perhaps more about Chaucer's perceived audience would be helpful and may be fit subject for more work.
The last chapter addresses the often neglected short poems, which Quinn reads in marvelous critical detail; one may not agree with her attempts throughout the book to make personal and local associations, but her sensitivity to language and how it reflects Chaucer's themes of love, virtue, piety, and justice are models of explication--whatever the (likely lost) historical occasions may or may not have been. The book is, finally, among the most bracingly honest and refreshing in recent publications and, for me as a teacher, connects to the students' experience of the language and themes of Chaucer's poetry--all his works--in ways much more timelessly and productively than many ostensibly more "theoretically informed" studies. It will not at all end the debate about Chaucer and his own history, but it posits a theme of indirection that has much authority and many analogues in English literary and political history (not Quinn's topic) that readers, say, in a British survey class could explore, such as More's Utopia. All in all, I would use this book as a reliable tool to introduce Chaucer's work, while encouraging caution about some of the more generalized and un-provable proposals on the function of disguise.
The book makes a good companion to a semester-long Chaucer class, providing summary, close readings, and provisional historical background and contextualization. Quinn's work is highly readable and very accessible to undergraduate readers, and its freedom from critical and professional politics will make Chaucer's works come alive in their power and meaning. If you want to provoke and cultivate student interest in our poet--as opposed to colonizing him with presentist cultural studies, then Quinn's book will serve you. It's about Chaucer and his poems; you can't get more radical than that.