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This article is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Chaucer Andrew Hadfield
Marion Turner, Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton University Press), £34.00

We know a lot more about Chaucer than many of his contemporaries, and writers who lived a considerably long time after him, but, even so, there are huge gaps in the life records. In her splendid new biography, Marion Turner has chosen to ‘tell the story of his life and poetry through spaces and places, rather than through strict chronology’. In doing so the aim is to explore his ‘imaginative development’, and not an emotional life that is ‘beyond the biographer’s reach’ (p.3). It is a useful guideline for lives of writers but runs the obvious danger that the rules have to be bent a bit every now and then. More significantly we might ask what a biography should do. If we cannot access the inner life are we not getting a sophisticated and intimate contextual study? And, if readers compare biographies, ones in which the subject seems more alive, more like a friend, will matter more to them. This might seem like a trivial point but it is surely the case that those writers we can imagine as people will assume a more significant presence than those we cannot.

I raise this issue because I think Prof. Turner has been even more successful than she states, in that she has explained how and why Chaucer developed as a poet, and given us a sense of how he lived and moved through the late Medieval world. Chaucer imagined himself as a European, and we need to remember that he was intimately ...

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