Geoffrey Chaucer's Book of the Duchess (a title given in the Retraction to the Canterbury Tales and in two manuscripts but only gradually settled on by scholars and editors; hereafter BD) received somewhat dismissive evaluations from some early critics, but has gradually established itself as an early masterpiece, though very heavily under the influence of French works, including the Roman de la rose and works of Guillaume de Machaut and Froissart. Jamie Fumo's Making Chaucer's Book of the Duchess is the first critical monograph directed towards study of the poem and analysis of its reception. (An earlier monograph by James Wimsatt explored French influences in the poem; Fumo is also the editor of the recent Chaucer's Book of the Duchess: Contexts and Interpretations, an essay collection not reviewed here.)
The title, Chaucer's Book of the Duchess: Contexts and Interpretations, gives a potentially slightly misleading account of the contents since "reception" is understood in several different ways. The first two chapters are about critical rather than readerly reception, constituting an overview of scholarship on the poem to date (a "lit review") in two volleys, whereas the final two chapters are about bibliographic reception in the hands of early editors and printers and then literary reception in a variety of poetic texts that echo or imitate BD. An intervening middle chapter explores "making" (in the Middle English sense of composing literary works) and the cultural meaning of the word "book" in Chaucer's time. The whole constitutes a thorough and compelling study of Chaucer's poem as analyzed by scholarship, as a surprisingly influential contribution to the literary universe of late medieval England, and as a continuing bibliographical mystery.
BD was composed in commemoration of the death of Duchess Blanche of Lancaster, spouse of John of Gaunt, sometime after her demise in 1368. It is generally accepted to be Chaucer's first major narrative work. A dream vision, it follows a somewhat befuddled Dreamer in his encounter and conversations with a bereaved Man in Black. The Dreamer, himself suffering from an undisclosed malady that is probably love-sickness or melancholy, falls asleep after reading the story of Ceyx and Alcione from Ovid, then dreams that he joins a hunt, loses it, and comes across the mournful figure in black. The Man, who seems to be of higher social stature than the Dreamer, speaks a lyric that clearly states the reason for his distress in the death of his "lady bryght," called White in the poem, but the Dreamer does not understand him (or affects not to) and an extended account from the Man in Black of the successful progress of his wooing follows, ending with an equally plain statement that "She ys ded." The Dreamer's response is the bare "Is that youre los? Be God, hyt ys routhe!," the poem ending abruptly a few lines later.
Although BD has received considerably less critical attention than other poems in the Chaucerian oeuvre, including other shorter works such at the House of Fame and Parliament of Fowles, there is still a very substantial body of scholarly and critical writing about the poem. This would pose a problem for any scholar attempting to give an overview of the themes and concerns of BD scholarship over many decades, and Fumo gives the problem a workable solution in the structure of her first two chapters. The first of these is a "diachronic" treatment of the progress of scholarship on the poem, roughly through the course of the twentieth century; the second a "synchronic" discussion of themes and topics primarily of critical approaches that have become more commonplace in the current century, such as feminist scholarship.
Fumo's breadth and the grasp of her understanding through these chapters are exemplary, and they will be very useful to any scholar or student beginning to work on BD. Although the volume of published work on BD is now so great that a single scholar might despair of ever grasping the whole of this critical history, this is not the impression that I am left with by Fumo's work here. Rather, she has succeeded in choosing the most important threads of critical conversation and giving their principal proponents ample discussion. In the first chapter, the discussion is more loosely organized, but sorted into an historical overview touching on important critical moments such as Robertsonianism; arguments about the date and occasion of the poem; accounts of the construction of the poem focussing on putative lost states; and generic identifications such as elegy, dit amoreux, and dream vision among others. In the second chapter, five critical themes are selected for deeper treatment: miscommunication in speaking and listening; the question of consolation including Boethius; feminist/queer theory approaches skeptical of the degree to which Blanche/White is celebrated (rather than erased) in the poem and attentive to male homosocial relationship; the obfuscation of Blanche's death by plague and the poem's concern with illness more generally; and interlingual/intercultural approaches to French and English in a poem so indebted to French authors. Also impressive is the degree to which Fumo is actively and critically engaged with the authors she cites (in both lit. review chapters), evaluating as well as recounting.
In the remaining three chapters, Fumo introduces critical concerns of her own. Chapter 3, "All This Black: Reading and Making" explores the literariness of the work, its incorporation of episodes of reading and "making" (composition) and also misreading and mis-making "this book." Incorporating comparative study of contemporary uses of the vocabulary of "making," discussion of what Chaucer might have meant by called his 1334-line poem a "book," and sophisticated analysis of the various books in the poem, including the book of Ceyx and Alcione the narrator falls asleep over, this is an important contribution.
The fourth chapter explores the incorporation of BD in print editions of the works of Chaucer beginning with William Thynne's first edition of 1532 and up to the eve of the first truly critical editions. I was somewhat disappointed that Fumo had not seen fit to give more than a cursory account of the manuscript witnesses, partly because the unusual nature of the poem's survival in manuscript (three closely related and defective manuscript witnesses produced within a few years of each other fairly late in the fifteen century) is important in itself, but partly because the authenticity of Thynne's filling of an important gap in all three of the manuscript witnesses (lines 31 to 96), though widely accepted, is and ought to remain under a bit of a cloud. Much of this chapter is devoted to the fact that Chaucer's Envoy to Bukton (made anonymous by omission of the name Bukton in the first line) is appended to BD in these prints. The bibliographical evidence is laid out carefully, but I did find myself wondering what the implications were for the literary or cultural (rather than merely bibliographical) reception of the poem.
The final chapter is the most impressive in the book. An extended argument for the literary influence of BD in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this takes the shape of identification of echoes of BD in a variety of texts: Gower's Ceyx and Alcione story in Book 4 of Confessio Amantis, Lydgate's Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe, Charles d'Orleans' Fortunes Stabilnes; the anonymous Isle of Ladies, Floure and Leafe and Kingis Quair; and Spenser's Daphnaida. Some of the particular local arguments for poetic influence going from BD outwards are possibly tenuous or tendentious given the possibility of lost works in French or English rather than direct influence, but on the whole this is a rather convincing demonstration of the possibility that whatever was happening textually to BD between its composition and the earliest manuscripts, it may have been more successful and culturally influential than scholarship has previously assumed.
Jamie Fumo's Making Chaucer's Book of the Duchess: Textuality and Reception addresses the two words of its subtitle in multiple ways that reinforce each other: the reception of the work in twentieth and twenty-first century scholarship is anticipated in its reception by other authors of the medieval era; and the appearance of the author in the text as writer, reader, and "maker" "of this book," not only anticipates the great Chaucerian narrators of the Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, but informs the critical history and even the bibliographic record. This book will be indispensable for students of Chaucer's BD.