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  • Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences by Kathy Cawsey
  • Bríd Phillips
Cawsey, Kathy , Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences, Farnham, Ashgate, 2011; hardback; pp. 198; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9781409404781.

Any university library will bear testimony to the wide corpus of scholarly criticism on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. In an effort to bring some structure to the variety of approaches employed, Kathy Cawsey investigates the impact of audiences perceived, actual, and imagined on the critical stance of the scholar. Cawsey maintains that it is a critic's assumption of Chaucer's audience that dictates the thrust of the argument and she hopes that by analysing audiences she is providing a framework of investigation that can be transferred 'to authors and criticism beyond Chaucerian Studies' (p. x). Her approach is designed to avoid the summaries of previous tomes and instead provide analysis conceived around the audience for the unseasoned Chaucerian scholar. Cawsey is clearly convinced by the validity of her approach, but her repeated statement, in the Introduction, of the importance of conceiving the audience, comes across as a little self-conscious. This, however, does not detract from the coherent writing in the body of the text.

Cawsey divides her attention between six major critics of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: George Lyman Kittredge, C. S. Lewis, E. Talbot Donaldson, D. W. Robertson, Carolyn Dinshaw, and Lee Patterson devoting a chapter to each. Each chapter has an appellation that frames the chapter and alludes to the audience Cawsey defines as variously dramatic, psychological, gendered, and the like. There is evidence of extensive research with detailed and easy-to-read footnotes for the student and early career researcher. The writing is intelligent and clear with pertinent transitions from chapter to chapter. Each chapter can stand alone as an analysis of the individual critic but the writing is such that a reader would be hard pressed to put the book down after one chapter. One minor complaint is the absence [End Page 218] of Alastair Minnis from the corpus of work examined. As a major contributor to the subject, his absence from the bibliography is noteworthy.

Cawsey picks George Lyman Kittredge as a starting point as Kittredge marks the transition from the age of scholars to that of scholars and critics. Cawsey suggests that his book Chaucer and His Poetry influenced Chaucerian studies for most of the twentieth century. The thrust of Kittredge's criticism is, firstly, that the author is always right and, secondly, that Chaucer's audience was 'like a theatrical audience, watching characters in a play' (p. 24). Kittredge assumes a universal audience who agrees with him and has remained unchanged from the original medieval reader to the modern scholar and critic. The conclusion of the chapter neatly sets up the interaction of C. S. Lewis with Kittredge's ideas. Chapter 2, 'C. S Lewis: The Psychological Reader', characterizes a monolithic medieval audience. Lewis believes in travelling to the medieval mindset to fully appreciate the medieval literature. Cawsey helps us understand the medieval mind that Lewis envisages by outlining four key aspects: his understanding of courtly love; his rejection of irony as a ruling mode in Chaucer; his theory of allegory; and his emphasis on the psychology of medieval works (pp. 42-43). Cawsey argues that Lewis maintained that the medieval audience was essentially a psychological one as they had intellects stimulated in this direction by their familiarity with the mode of allegory.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus, respectively, on the careful reader of E. Talbot Donaldson and the allegorical reader of D. W. Robertson. These chapters interrelate as Donaldson and Robertson were contemporaries and responded to each other's work. The central discussion point is that Donaldson relies on a close reading of the text, rejecting anything outside of it, while Robertson developed the theory of patristic exegetical criticism. The last two critics discussed, Carolyn Dinshaw - chosen for her landmark feminist study of Chaucer's Sexual Politics - and Lee Patterson - chosen as an example of a critic with a complicated relationship with New Historicism - insist on a multiplicity of audiences with diverse interpretation. For Dinshaw, reading like a man or like...


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