Writing the biography of pre-modern subjects is notoriously formidable. Overstate a speculation and the scholars pounce; be overcautious, shadowing each claim with "perhaps," and the book-buying public evaporates. In the case of Chaucer, whose Life-Records associate with him more than 493 contemporaneous documents (more than we have for Shakespeare whose career comes two centuries later), the problems might seem minimized. With so many available facts, surely we can agree on the basic outlines of his life. Alas, we cannot. Although we know that one Geffray Chaucer...et...Philippe sa femme were rendered a series of life annuities from the Lancastrian household--and evidence points to this Phillipa as the sister of Katherine Swynford--we know almost nothing about their marriage. Although we know that a Galfrido Chaucer was granted the right to live rent-free in totam mansionem supra portam de Algate, we don't know if he lived there year-round and continuously between 1374 and 1386; his possible marital and family ties to Lincolnshire and Kent might mean he split his residency across several places. Although we know that Chaucer was appointed controller of the wool custom, the position was compromised by Nicholas Brembre's shenanigans, and the work interrupted by other obligations to the crown. Even long-held truisms--Chaucer died with The Canterbury Tales in ten distinct fragments--or newly discovered facts--Chaucer's scribe was Adam Pynkhurst--are subject to re-evaluation. In short, we have many bits of data and multiple ways to connect and understand them.
These multiple interpretive possibilities have ensured the predictable appearance of a new Chaucer biography every decade or so. Because newly discovered documents have not necessitated a new edition of Crow and Olson's 1966 Chaucer's Life-Records, biographies of Chaucer tend to differ from one another in the ways they reflect the interests and obsessions of contemporary authors and audiences. Accordingly, until the mid-twentieth century, biographers tended to depict a genial poet in the mold of an English gentleman wise enough to anticipate the Protestant Reformation's basic principles. Since mid-twentieth century, Chaucer's biographers have situated him as a wily courtier, diplomat, and bureaucrat in a tumultuous age. Paul Strohm continues in this vein by emphasizing the historical context for Chaucer's personal and literary decisions, decisions that in turn lead to some uneasy surmises about Chaucer's character.
Strohm, an influential Chaucerian distinguished for his nuanced readings that listen carefully to what literary and historical texts can tell us, enters the biographical tussle and offers "an evidence-based account that respects the past as past, but...simultaneously seeks out linkages between that past and our present" (13). Focusing on 1386 as a year of momentous change for Chaucer's personal, professional, and poetic life, Strohm revisits three relationships that the Life-Records tell us ended in 1386 (his residency at Aldgate, his long-term position at the Wool Wharf, and his brief representation as a Parliamentary shire knight), plus a fourth one that would soon end (his marriage to Philippa with her death in 1387). Strohm then considers how these life-altering events resonate with contemporary audiences as well as how their near-simultaneity shaped Chaucer's poetry.
Strohm's interest in the longest of these four relationships, Chaucer's marriage to Philippa, stems from what he sees as long-standing "marital estrangement" (6). He accepts the general consensus that Chaucer married Philippa de Roet, daughter of a knight from Hainault and sister to Katherine, the eventual consort and wife of John of Gaunt. More than most academic biographers, Strohm puts much pressure on the consequences of this marriage for Chaucer's career, claiming that whatever favors Gaunt tossed to Chaucer came as the result of his marriage, not his service or verse. Finding in the record evidence for a widening gap between the social ranks of Chaucer and Philippa and for her strengthening affiliations with Gaunt's household, Strohm posits that after seventeen years in service at royal family courts (1357-74) and seven or eight overlapping years of marriage, Chaucer's marriage and court career stalled. The event that signals for Strohm the wide gap between Chaucer and Philippa is her 1386 initiation into Lincoln Cathedral's lay fraternity along with Henry of Derby, John Beaufort, and Thomas Swynford, all members of the Lancastrian-Swynford entourage. Having eclipsed her increasingly marginalized husband, Philippa remained with Katherine in Lincolnshire and Leicestershire when Chaucer was sent alone to London to be controller of the wool custom, an arrangement not unlike commuter marriages of our own time. Their marriage had plateaued into a "détente, a cooperative alignment pursued for mutual convenience and advantage" (47).
In this light, the Aldgate apartment described in a 1374 lease becomes something akin to a bachelor pad, or based on Strohm's description, a man cave. Small and poorly lit, the Aldgate tower room had little to recommend it; Strohm estimates it to have provided less than 250 square feet of living space and been lit by two (maybe four) narrow window slits. Situated above one of the city's primary ingresses, it would have also been loud and smelly. Despite its rough qualities, it provided a private refuge, a bird's-eye view of the city and the district just outside the wall, and opportunities to mingle on the streets without having to join any guild or parish, granting what Strohm calls "a form of passive immersion rather than active engagement" (88). Even though it's possible to imagine the Aldgate room more akin to a pied-á-terre, his quarters when business obligations brought him to London, Strohm imagines Chaucer as a year-round London resident who lived in the city without fully participating as a citizen.
The London residence was made necessary when Chaucer was appointed controller of the wool customs. As reconstituted by Strohm, Chaucer's return to London in 1374 was "part of a conspiracy," involving "the king's party in Windsor and Westminster on the one hand and the mercantile elite of London on the other, to accomplish a common goal" (90). He bases this conspiracy on five nearly coincident events: Nicholas Brembre becomes collector of wool custom; Edward III grants Chaucer a daily pitcher of wine to be collected at London; London city officials lease him rent-free the Aldgate room; the king or his council appoint Chaucer as controller of the wool custom; and Gaunt confers a life annuity jointly to Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer. Taken together, these five events point to a scheme to place a man loyal to the king's interest in a position to "assure a revenue flow to the [king's] exchequer" (97). Quickly, however, Chaucer is placed in the compromising position of turning a blind eye to Brembre's profit skimming (98). Unable or unwilling to provide the needed check on Brembre's greed, Chaucer most likely was "an enabler" rather than a crook, a judgment Strohm finds supported by his debt problems in the years after Philippa's death and the consequent loss of her annuity (136).
Chaucer's professional compromises continue when he served in the 1386 Parliament as a shire knight from Kent; he entered Westminster with his loyalties and duties predetermined by his royalist affiliations. Because Chaucer did not fit the usual profile as a shire knight, Strohm contends that he was there as part of the Ricardian faction's "effort to pack the Parliament" (141). Neither landowner nor knight nor resident of Kent, Chaucer was a king's man expected to support Richard II's demand for funds under the pretense of invading France. If these were the royalist plans, they failed magnificently: Parliament granted the king a fraction of the requested subsidy, indicted his chancellor, and established an oversight council, thereby setting the stage for the Merciless Parliament in 1388. As presented by Strohm, Chaucer's short stint in Parliament was not a feather in his cap. Though he survived, no other immediate good came to him from his role.
Within a few months' time, Chaucer's personal and professional situation collapsed: when he left London at the end of the 1386 Parliament, he was already ousted from his place at Aldgate, days away from resigning his post as controller, and soon to be a widower. Perhaps Chaucer was shrewdly and voluntarily shedding his royalist affiliations while he safely could. Strohm, however, argues that he left London under pressure because he "had fallen seriously out of favor and may even have been regarded with hostility by his former allies" (173). In this line of thinking, Chaucer's departure from London was not nimble insight but "a constrained choice" (183), marked by his leaving in a more degraded position than when he arrived in 1374.
Though Chaucer had been writing for close to twenty years, his departure from Aldgate and the Wool Wharf forced him to find a new audience. Bereft of the courtly audience of his youth and the literati circle in London, Chaucer created his own fictional audience, the Canterbury pilgrims. They were his companions, the audience of his ear, until his death in 1400, living among the monks of Westminster, alone, isolated, penniless, and supported by his up-and-coming son, Thomas. Not only did these pilgrims provide a new audience, their tale-telling adventures provide the perfect forum for mixing genres, social perspectives, and audience reactions. What might have been a year of personal disasters becomes, in Strohm's version, the turning point that allowed Chaucer to reinvent English literature.
In having Chaucer's poetic career pivot on this revolutionary shift in audience, Strohm has had to reformulate Chaucer's biography in several significant ways, beginning with a tight focus that minimizes the periods before and after his dozen years as controller in London. As a result, we do not get a sense of the formative influences of his initial audience, members of the noble courts where he worked and lived before moving to London. Without the courtly milieu, he would not have been exposed to the dits and ditties of the French courtier poets shaping his tastes and his aesthetics in ways we continue to discover. Without that position at court, he might not have traveled abroad and been exposed to the verse of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. And without that courtly experience, he might not have attempted and performed his own verse, and certainly would not have won the eye (if not the heart) of Philippa de Roet. We are also not given the context to appreciate fully Chaucer's London audience, the focus of Strohm's 1989 Social Chaucer. Not only did his London friends and fellow writers serve as his primary audience while he worked as controller, but many of those men probably remained available to him, in one form or another, for the rest of his life. Finally, Strohm skips over a substantial chunk of Chaucer's life, the years between Aldgate and Westminster, and ignores the possibility of a third audience during this period. The records tell us he continued to travel for the crown and served as the clerk of the King's Works, providing him with sustained opportunities for enlarging his contacts with laborers and landowners, some of the very folk composing his band of pilgrims. In other words, there are other ways to read the evidence and explain Chaucer's poetic evolution. He was not necessarily stuck in the wilds of Kent with only his pen, wax tablets, and imagination to keep him company. Instead, he could have been actively involved in the life of the city, the region, and the kingdom. To make Chaucer's reconceived audience necessary, Strohm has had to diminish the importance--and sometimes eliminate altogether--other, more mundane audiences that could have played that significant role.
In addition to this narrow focus, Strohm also crafts Chaucer as an isolated loner. From the first chapter to the last, Strohm studs his descriptions of Chaucer with such words as "alone," "solitary," and "alienated." The introvert Strohm invents makes true Chaucer's self-portrait as a bookish hermit in the House of Fame, or as a self-effacing fellow aloof from the crowd in the Sir Thopas and Melibee links. By not reading the self-deprecating figure as a joke his contemporaries could appreciate, Strohm discourages us from imagining a quick-witted youth who made his way from the wine docks to the royal courts, or the chatty fellow who befriends strangers and gets them to reveal their moral weaknesses and worldly desires. We end up, instead, with a very different character, "a rather self-contained and private-minded civil servant: time server in customs, member of diplomatic missions but head of none, lost in the crowd at the moment of his wife's social apotheosis, least qualified shire knight in his parliamentary term, expendable factionalist in the civic broils of 1386" (255).
Together, the narrow chronological focus and the formation of an isolated figure allow Strohm to shape a narrative with a clear arc, suspenseful denouement, and a compromised yet sympathetic protagonist. They also allow him to cater to his audience, the Viking or Penguin Books reader who is not the professional reading this review but the student or amateur reader for whom a good story about a familiar name appeals. By selecting his details with great care, Strohm tells a tale of woes that his twenty-first-century audience could find familiar: the commuter marriage; the bureaucratic job with perks too good to leave--a rent-free apartment in London!--and demands too compromising to tolerate; power held by a handful of unscrupulous men with little cultural capital; and the forced move from the capital to the suburbs. Strohm has creatively tackled the problem of insufficient evidence by finding a narrative in the interstices; however, he too frequently allows his suppositions to slip into established fact. While this strategy can entertain, it can also mislead, and readers should be alert to this problem.