The writing of biography involves special skills, especially when the subject of the biography is an author of note: in this case the biographer must interweave a writer's personal life, authorial compositions, and the larger context of the world in which the author lives or lived. In addition to navigating this complex terrain, biographers of renowned authors need also to attend to the work of critics and fellow biographers who have engaged in studies of the author. Biographers of medieval writers have an even more complicated task ahead of them. These biographers have reconcile fact with fiction in the process of interpolating the links that connect the paucity of medieval life records with the story that the biographer wishes to tell. So while Chaucer's life-records are unusually vast for a medieval writer--as Ashton herself notes in her Conclusion: "[d]espite the lack of hard facts and continuous documentary evidence, we know more about Geoffrey Chaucer than about any other medieval writer" (111). A biographer of Chaucer, like all biographers, in essence, will have to forge connections between historical events, the author's compositions, and the few surviving records with records of events that have either disappeared over time or perhaps never existed. Ashton is prepared for this narrative skill as she herself remarks in her Introduction, "[n]o life story is ever complete without its omissions, speculations and vested readings" (8). Such "omissions, speculations and vested readings" are the matter that makes or breaks a biography because the skills of writing and conjecture deployed in forging the links between the known and the unknown attest to the value of the biographer's contribution. For Ashton, that unique mark she makes involves her compelling vision of and clear affection for Chaucer. In fact, before even beginning her tale about Geoffrey Chaucer's life, world, and writing, Ashton confesses that there are many possible Chaucers, and that she has selected "but one version of a man who appears to us in many guises" (9).
There is much to admire about Gail Ashton's biography of Chaucer, and what Ashton strikes out to do is made clear when she identifies her work with Derek Pearsall's "literary-criticism biography" (113); in this declaration of affiliation, Ashton parts ways with the likes of biographers who create a popularized Chaucer whose life unfolds through "half-baked and insubstantial correlation[s] of art and experience" (113). In this description Ashton essentially declares her preference for a more academic Chaucer who materializes for readers within a "politically charged medieval life" (113). Ashton's style of a literary-criticism biography provides an enjoyable read, especially for me--and for someone like me--who sees herself as one of those scholars who does what Ashton characterizes as lit-crit work and prefers a serious-minded biography rather than one that allegedly panders to the putative needs and desires of a general public. Even so, what I like most about Ashton's work also inclines me to believe that this biography is a suitable addition to Chaucer courses for undergraduate and even graduate M.A.-level courses.
I do wish that there were an index at the close of this volume, yet I also recognize that the agenda of the Brief Lives series may bar the inclusion of an index, which could be construed as an overly scholarly addition to a volume quite likely intended to be accessible both to academic audiences and an enthusiastic public. In the words describing the objective of the Brief Lives series on the Hesperus Press website: "Brief Lives offers short, authoritative biographies of the world's best-known literary figures. Both informative and entertaining, each title introduces the modern reader to the early life, writing career and literary legacy of the author." Ashton navigates multiple Chaucers in her Brief Lives. One of those Chaucers that Ashton introduces to her readers is a vibrant--and familiar--Chaucer, a Chaucer who is "the genial and, above all, humane fellow who deals in universals: the only-joking critic of a congenial, beer-swilling merrie England that never existed and for which we still pine" (102). The other Chaucer is distant by time--a Chaucer in his medieval world--yet made closer by our also meeting the vibrant Chaucer. In this biography Ashton actually makes the distant accessible, present, and tantalizing mysterious through excerpts from Chaucer's poetry in Middle English; through references to Chaucer's writers' group during the fourteenth, as well as those who memorialized and in a way made Chaucer in the fifteenth century; through discussions of the manuscript and early-print editions of Chaucer's writings; and through details of the deeply fraught social and political sphere in which Chaucer moved, sometimes adeptly, and wrote. For all of these reasons, and especially because of Ashton's lit-crit agenda, I appreciated this biography and enjoyed the encounter with Ashton's synopsis of the medieval English world that unfolds within Geoffrey Chaucer.
Ashton organizes her brief life of Chaucer's story in twenty-one discrete sections whose brief and fitting titles, listed on the Contents page, are often joined by helpful dates within the text itself; those dates are joined to the headings, and both are positioned at the beginning of each section, rather than on the Contents page. The dates assist readers in formulating a chronology of Chaucer's life. Here I provide two examples of my point: "1366-78" accompanies the section title "Man on the Move" (see 27); "c. 1400" joins the heading "Done to Death" (77). The dating system, however, does not begin every section because some headings--and the material that follows those headings--detail post-Chaucer cultural phenomena as is the case with "Lodestars and Legends," where Ashton introduces and reflects on "[t]he conviction that through his work we access a Chaucer who embodies everything we understand by 'nation' or 'Englishness'" (67) or with "Literary Politics," where Ashton celebrates how Chaucer's "work remains inextricably linked to the political intrigues...of the Ricardian court and, later, the Lancastrian agenda of the future Henry V" (110). Another section that embodies a view of a post-Chaucer unfolds in "Our Geoffrey," where Ashton speaks of a complicated academic Chaucer "who is largely found in red-brick and established research institutions" (101). This academic Chaucer unfolds, on the one hand, in "Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog" and also, what Ashton records as "The Chaucer Society" (105). But in Ashton's naming of this society, I must depart from my praise of this Brief Lives and regretfully note an evident oversight of an important detail about a Chaucerian academic community.
Ashton introduces The Chaucer Society, founded in 1868 by Dr. F. J. Furnivall, but does not mention that the society was re-born in the late twentieth century as The New Chaucer Society. The different agendas between Furnivall's society and its reincarnation are significant, vast even, and speak exactly to that point that Ashton is making about bringing a medieval Chaucer into the postmodern present. While this bone of contention might very well seem overly pedantic, the small point about The Chaucer Society and its successor The New Chaucer Society is indicative of some larger problems with this biography: either fact-checking errors or editorial oversight or both. Such errors mar my opinion of a biography that, otherwise, would nicely help to bring a medieval writer, studied mostly in the halls of academe, into the larger public sphere. So I wrestle with (not) wanting to assign this work to students because, also, of a few more examples of possibly grave fact-checking errors: one of them minor but the other a major error. (I wonder: could there be others that I missed?) The minor issue involves the date that follows the mention of Peter Ackroyd's Chaucer: Brief Lives. In the body of the Ashton's Chaucer, Ashton cites Ackroyd's biography as a 2004 text (60), but in the bibliography the volume is listed as "London, 2005" (116). My research into this dating discrepancy reveals that the first U.S. edition of Ackroyd's appeared in 2005 as a Nan A. Talese/Doubleday text (New York). The 2004 volume was published by Chattus and Windus (London). The dating of Ackroyd's biography is, as I said, minor and probably points to some uncareful editing. I would not call this discrepancy out were it not for an even graver error regarding the assignation of the Hengwrt Manuscript to the "Huntingdon" (misspelled) library in California (87). The Hengwrt, however, is housed in Aberystwth at The National Library of Wales; the Ellesmere (the manuscript with those marvelous miniatures [certainly not "gnawed" by "rats"] ) is housed in the Huntington (note the spelling) library in San Marino, California.
Altogether, these unfortunate gaffes inevitably undermine my confidence in assigning this work to students and recommending this read to fellow scholars. In some ways I wish I had not spotted these errors because Ashton's biography remains--without its problems--an otherwise enjoyable work filled with interesting details that position well Chaucer's work in his medieval and our contemporary world.