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The Wife of Bath (Happily) and the Princesse de Cleves (Miserably), Ever After

"By verray force he rafte hire maydenheed”. . . . 

Ugh, of course he did. 

But get this! Citizens protest and much civil unrest ensues because: (1) obviously, we can assume the maiden was believed; and (2) in this particular tale, the people have power and even a knight from King Arthur's own table can — and will! — be tried. What's more, King Arthur actually sentences the “lusty bacheler” (rapist) to death (122)!

Which should be the end of the Wife of Bath’s tale — in Chaucer’s time, our own, or any time at all — but isn’t because King Arthur’s wife, the queen herself!, intervenes to say she’ll spare the rapist’s life, if, in one year’s time, he is able to report back what “thing it is that women most desyren” (122). 

A year later, though, it’s more bad news for the rapist. No one knows what women want in all the land! Until finally he meets a disgusting old woman — “A fouler wight ther may no man devyse” — who offers him a deal: the answer, in exchange for marriage (125). This is basically the worst thing ever for the poor, miserable rapist. He has no choice but to submit, and so she tells him the answer, and he tells the queen, and for this his life is spared:

Wommen desyren to have sovereyntee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love
And for to been in maistrie him above. (125)

To be clear: “hir love” is not her husband.

Which makes this one of the more interesting lines of the tale, of all the Tales in fact, because the Wife of Bath (and Chaucer, of course) takes for granted and deftly slips into her tale the equal right for women to have a legal spouse and a lover. (The fact that the queen accepts and supports this answer adds an extra layer to the Wife of Bath's tale, as she begins by saying, Back in King Arthur's day, etc., which assumes that we already know the queen is dead, having been sentenced to death for her affair with Lancelot.) The distinction between spouse and lover is clear in the Wife of Bath’s tale (as well as it is in history): marriage is one’s duty to family and society, as is sex and the production of children, but love and lovemaking have nothing to do with it, which is why they must be sought out elsewhere.

After their marriage, in fact, the old hag gives the rapist yet another choice — he may keep her as she is, “foul and old,” which guarantees that he’ll never become a “cokewold,” and she promises to “be to yow a trewe humble wyf / And nevere yow displease in al my lyf” . . . or he can have her “yong and fair” and run the risk of being cheated on either in his own home or “in som other place” (129-30).

Having learned what women want, the rapist defeatedly gives up, submits to her will, and says the decision is hers. For this act of submission, she rewards him and transforms into a young and beautiful maiden: “I wol be to yow bothe […] fair and good” and faithful as any wife the world has ever seen (130).

Well, isn’t that just wonderful? A perfect and happy ending for the rapist!  

(It bears mentioning that the Wife of Bath doesn’t end her tale just yet. With her final lines, she begs Jesus to punish by “pestilence” and early death any unworthy man who does not submit to his wife (130).)

In any case, the rapist ultimately gets what every man wants: a young, beautiful, and faithful wife. That this tale of one miserable man’s woe maintains that finding the rare trifecta of youth, beauty, and fidelity in a wife must be hard-earned, assumes that a young and beautiful wife cannot, or will not, ever, in any case, be faithful. For here is the exception. Here is the rarest of the rare. Here, in this "fayerye" tale, is that precious booty that even a knight of the round table didn't dare or hope to find after a long, hard, life-or-death yearlong quest (121).


For all the feminist and anti-feminist discussion “Alyson” the Wife of Bath’s tale may inspire, we must also consider it hand-in-hand, I think, with the Miller’s Tale — which presents us with a different “Alisoun," a young and beautiful, and (of course!) unfaithful, wife. The tale is funny, sure, and who doesn’t love a good fart joke, right? But while there’s much to be said about how its baseness problematically stereotypes millers, the tale — and the order in which we are forced to receive it — is a more interesting investigation.

If I were teaching The Canterbury Tales in, say, a Women of Western Lit seminar, I’d no doubt pay particular attention to how the first person to demand to be heard in the storytelling contest assumes that a story about a woman who makes a fool of her husband is so necessary, so entertaining and memorable, that he must be heard now.

The formal structure of the Tales has everything to do with order disordered. What begins in a logical fashion (he who has the most power has the right to speak first) quickly devolves as power struggles play out between the storytellers vying and vowing to one-up one another. (This ain't no democratic Decameron, folks. Whose formal structure, now that I think of it, is perhaps Canterbury's perfect opposite, in its desperate need to re-order disorder.) The Miller’s tale is uniquely positioned due to its insistence upon being heard now and, as a consequence, initiating the destruction of social order. And what is so important that it must be heard right now? The story of a cheating wife. Sigh. Oh, Alisoun! Why? Why must you be so "wilde and yong" (74)? Why!? Oh wait, that's right. It's not as if there’s any other kind of wife, right? 

At least, not until the other Alyson, the Wife of Bath — the first woman to have a chance to speak in the Tales — presents us with an alternative: a good woman who saves her man’s life, and — shocker! — is also miraculously that rarest of rarities that no man has ever seen before. 

Because she doesn’t actually exist.

She’s a magic fayerye or something? 

Sadly, even in this tale about equality, the best a good woman with magic powers in the land of fayerye can get . . . is a rapist who was once on death row.


In previous posts (about Job's wife and Sappho), I quoted from Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife. I’m scheduled to teach comp again this year, and I’m revamping my syllabus. For the first paper, I’m thinking about assigning the research topic: “traditional marriage.” I’ll probably give them a chapter from Yalom’s book, but I’m also considering Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History.

In Coontz’s first chapter, “The Radical Idea of Marrying for Love,” she notes:

(1) “In Europe, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adultery became idealized as the highest form of love among the aristocracy”;

(2) “As late as the sixteenth century the French essayist Montaigne wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was a man so dull that no one else could love him”;

and (3) “Courtly love probably loomed larger in literature than in real life. But for centuries, noblemen and kings fell in love with courtesans rather than the wives they married for political reasons. Queens and noblewomen had to be more discreet than their husbands, but they too looked beyond marriage for love and intimacy” (16-17).

Which is to say: traditional marriage doesn't, as too many among us tend to believe, begin in the 1950s with "traditional" families that God-fearingly maintained good old-fashioned family values. To be clear, I may be snarky but I'm not against marriage, or tradition. As my soon-to-be posted thoughts on the three Madame Bovarys and the doctor's wife in Blindness will hopefully make even clearer, my own feelings about love and partnership have become even more complicated than they already were. So any chance to teach and continue to research the history of love, and romance, desire, partnership, relationships, etc., is a welcome opportunity to become, I hope, someone who daily learns, lives, and loves more fully, truly, deeply.

OK, you should stop reading here if you just rolled your eyes, because now I'm going to yammer on a bit about a princess . . . whose major drama is that she's in love.


The issue of whether or not love (and sex/fidelity) should have any connection at all to marriage lies right at the heart of the princess's drama in The Princesse de Cleves, which, although published in the 17th century, takes place in the 1500s at the royal court of Henry II.

Terence Cave writes in his introduction to the Oxford edition that the major theme is “secrecy, […] a truth never fully confessed, a name suppressed,” and sure enough the name the princess withholds from her husband is her lover’s (viii). M. de Cleves soon figures it out on his own, though, and it drives him crazy and leads to his premature death. The catch is — the princess only has feelings for M. de Nemours. She never acts on them the way everyone else at court acts on their own (men and women alike). The drama of the novel is that she confesses to her husband that she has such feelings. As Cave points out:

It was in fact the confession scene in The Princesse de Cleves which caused the greatest furore. This was because it provided a test case for plausibility in the expanded nouvelle historique or fictional memoir. Extraordinary and exotic things can happen in romances, but the claim to be in some sense historical entailed for the seventeenth-century reader a submission to common experience and common opinion. The confession, while undoubtedly intriguing, was judged by the majority of readers […] wholly implausible. Wives just don’t say such things to heir husbands. (xiv)

Even after her husband dies, when she is perfectly able to pursue a relationship with the other man (her uncle, in fact, goes out of his way to help make this match happen, as he likes them both and wants to see them happy), Mme de Cleves still rebuffs M. de Nemours’s advances. So difficult is her act of denial, she will spend a good portion of the year locked up in a convent, ever-after! She just can’t trust herself around the guy, and she really wants to obey her mother’s dying wish that she should never become a fallen woman, and she really wants to live up to her husband’s dying wish that she should never pursue a relationship with M. de Nemours.

Although, ultimately, Mme de Cleves is the (almost-) perfect wife — young, beautiful, and faithful — she suffers as a result of struggling so much with the feelings she harbors for M. de Nemours. The novel lets us into her deepest thoughts, and, as a result, she is a fully developed and complicated, psychologically complex/anguished character, despite the fact, or because of it, that she remains loyal and true to the end.


Switching gears for a moment. . . . 

Generically, The Princesse de Cleves is particularly important because it is held to be the first novel, “the first work of prose fiction written in Europe” (viii). At the time, as Cave tells us, novels didn’t exist — but romances did. What makes the work extraordinary is that it is decidedly not a romance, not a tale “of heroes and heroic lovers” (ix). As Cave observes: “if this new work must initially be defined by saying what it is not, rather than what it is, there can be no ready-made category waiting to receive it” (ix).

He points out that prose narratives existed at the time, but were “regarded as a ‘low’ genre, designed mainly for consumption by women readers” (x). Another form that already existed, and was undergoing a revival at the time, was the nouvelle, and while the “romance is written according to the rules of decorum and in a poetic manner” the nouvelle is devoted “to representing things as we see them happen in ordinary life rather than as we imagine them to be” (x). And yet another genre that already existed was the memoir, which was a response to readers’ tastes, at the time, for a quasi-historical narrative describing “the private rather than the public aspect of historical events”; as well, memoirs of the time recorded “the intimate personal passions and intrigues that are glossed over by the official record” (xi).

Thus, The Princesse de Cleves is a hybrid of the various forms of the time:

In its opening pages, The Princesse de Cleves seems to promise the spectacle of a magnificent court and the story of illustrious love affairs: the novel begins, then, as a memoir. It becomes a novel at the point where the invented figures of Mme de Chartres and her daughter appear on the scene, inaugurating a ‘private’ story that no history or memoir could have told. [… And while] it takes its central couple from a family so illustrious in the seventeenth century that the publisher (acting perhaps as a mask for the author herself) felt obliged to defend the work in a prefatory note [… the] amorous intrigue itself is fictional and the figure of the ‘unrequited lover’ is invented. (xii)



Here we have a not-romance, a not-memoir, a not-quite nouvelle. 

How novel, one might say, this hybrid of rejected forms. 

In The Novel: An Alternative History, Steven Moore traces a lineage of the novel that begins long before The Princesse de Cleves ever came along. I'm sure I'll return to his alternative history again and again in future posts, but for now I'll just say that he offers a lineage of the novel that cautions us against too-easy claims of this text or that text being the first novel. It does seem useful, though, to also include his own clarification — that he discusses "the novel as a family classification" whereas distinctions like those I've highlighted from Cave's introduction (romance, memoir, and nouvelle) are classifications more along the lines of genus and species (5). 


In both Chaucer's and Lafayette's days, from the 14th-17th centuries, a husband with a mistress is accepted, even expected. A wife with a lover, however, is expected but not accepted. As such, marriage is not represented in these historical texts as anything other than the business transactions they were during these historical times. The royal marriages in The Princesse de Cleves make this explicitly and especially clear. Mistresses appear with regularity, and their presence at court is taken for granted as a matter of course. Wives, on the other hand, absolutely must be secretive about their own lovers and lovers’ identities.

Most interestingly, M. de Cleves loves his wife dearly — loves her as he would any wife but also loves her as he would a mistress — and the problem is that while she loves him as she would any husband she does not have for him those special loving feelings that she has for M. de Nemours. If the novel is an anti-romance, then the princess is its anti-heroine, even though she is the good wife and never acts upon her feelings; she is an anti-heroine because hers is a tragic love story and unrequited. And her husband, M. de Cleves, is the anti-romance’s tragic anti-hero. Or perhaps not. Perhaps because he gets the girl (for the most part), and because she remains faithful to him, he emerges as the anti-romance’s sort-of hero? M. de Nemours, then, may be the anti-romance’s more likely anti-hero. He is good-looking and rich, is more than willing to DTR, desperately loves the princess, ditches all his previous lovers and remains bizarrely faithful to her, and yet, this perfect Prince Charming never gets the girl. She kind of even ruins his life, as he holds onto his desperate hopes for a really long time. 

So here we have a clear anti-hero and anti-heroine — and a sort of sadsack husband/everyman between them. Welcome to the novel and the birth of the fictional, depressing, unhappily ending, cold-splash-of-water-of-reality prose narrative. Hooray?

Anyway, the very notion of such a thing as the romantic ideal of a marriage founded upon love and fidelity appears even more presciently in the Wife of Bath’s tale, as the rapist obtains, in one body, a wife who also delivers the pleasures usually provided by a mistress. The reason the rapist wins this rare prize is because he has come to understand that women desire sovereignty over their husbands and their lovers. He accepts as her equal right his wife’s ability to take a lover, or lovers, whether he likes it or not. And he is rewarded with a wife who chooses not to take any other lovers for the rest of their days. The message is clear — give a woman power in the relationship, give her the freedom to act as she will, and do not own her, abuse her, mistrust her, and she will of her own accord be loyal and true.


In this way, the tale suggests, all the way back in the 14th century, the notion and possibility of a marriage founded upon love and fidelity, a romantic ideal that won’t actually begin to appear in our real-life history of love and marriage for many, many, many hundreds of years, not even in the 17th century’s The Princesse de Cleves. 

Because, you know, progress takes time.

Traditionalists die hard. 


A quick and final word, to close, about the Wife of Bath’s prologue, in which, despite the fact that she embodies the worst of what wives were/are thought to be, she also embodies the wife as a mental and physical equal to her husband when she gets even with a few of hers, making one think she’s cheated on him upon discovering he cheated on her, and by physically abusing another husband after he abuses her.

Which is to say: I'm not certain the Wife of Bath's definition of "sovereignty" over one's husband necessarily indicates any woman's elevated position in a two-person hierarchy; instead, I think it indicates, simply, actual equality.

The expectation of a husband being the lord of his house and sovereign in his marriage (for how many hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years?) has long been taken for granted.

As his equal, a wife may simply be regarded as the same — lady of her house and sovereign in her marriage. 

Or "relationship."

Or "friends-with-benefits thing."

Or whatever it is she decides she wants, or wants to call it, if she even wants or wants to call it anything at all. 

Because the decision to DTR — or not — is hers. 

Right, ladies? 


Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. V.A. Kolve. 2nd ed. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2005. Print. 

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.  

Lafayette, Madame de. The Princesse de Cleves. Trans. Terence Cave. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. Print. 

Moore, Steven. The Novel: An Alternate History. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print. 

Disorder Ordered in The Decameron; Order Disordered in The Canterbury Tales

Liminality Revisited