restricted access The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography by Derek Pearsall (review)
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REVIEWS not altogether unlike Lavine's questions to her mother in the Eneas, 'Tell me, what is love?"' (p. 226). Nolan is alert to the perils of her enterprise, and she usually avoids them. Her essay is something like a model for intercextual studies. Readers may want to keep a bookmark in the endnotes, since Nolan often develops points or summarizes previous criticism at considerable length in the notes. The book is handsomely produced, with a good index; but the "Secondary Sources" pare ofthe bibliography is cumbersome to use with the endnotes, since it is divided into sections on "Ovid," "The French Romans antiques," "Boccaccio and the Cultural Milieu of his Filostrato and Teseida," "Chaucer," and "Genre Studies and General Interest." Fortunately, the endnotes include full bibliographical references at the first entry. JAMES M. DEAN University of Delaware DEREK PEARSALL. The Life ofGeoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography. Ox­ ford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. Pp. xii, 365. $29.95. Although most of the major documents recounting the facts of Chaucer's life have been avaiiable for almost a century, Derek Pearsall's Life ofGeoffrey Chaucer is only the third respectable biography of the poet in my lifetime; the other two are Derek Brewer's magnificently illustrated Chaucer and His World (1978) and the late Donald Howard's Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World(1987).1 Brewer's book, which is chiefly biographical rather than critical, is not cited by Pearsall, but his opinion of Howard's is already known, from his severe review in Studies in the Age of Chaucer (vol. 13 (1991)) and his presidential address to the New Chaucer Society in 1990, also published in the 1991 volume of SAC (the latter, lightly revised, forms the first chapter ofthe present book). Pearsall finds fault with How­ ard's often casual and condescending style, his sometimes idiosyncratic or simplistic interpretations ofthe poetry, his excessive presentation ofhistori­ cal and social "background" marginal to the biography or the poetry, his frequent confusion of the historical Geoffrey Chaucer with the person he presents himself as in the poetry, and, in one of Pearsall's apt phrases, his 1 Marchette Chute's Geoffrey Chaucer of England (1946) was a capable work for a popular audience, however, and remained in print for more than three decades. 235 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER excessive use of "speculative grammar" (whereby Chaucer "must have," or "would have," or "undoubtedly," or "probably," or "might have ... ").Al­ though these criticisms are just,2 some readers find Howard to be a largely reliable, pleasantly enthusiastic, if often quirky, introduction to Chaucer's life and art. By contrast, Pearsall's biography is much more austere than Howard's (or Brewer's).He devotes little space to such mere local color as the sights and smells of fourteenth-century London or to the Black Death, though his presentations of, for example, court life and chivalry show the importance of those topics to Chaucer's poetry.There are twenty-one illustrations, but they consist of one ofChaucer's tomb, three of Thomas and Alice Chaucer's tombs, and the rest reproductions of portraits of Chaucer, presented (one hesitates to say intentionally) in small size and murky monochrome.None of the Middle English is glossed,3 Harry Bailly's Christian name is not modernized, and St.Thomas is mentioned only in a note on the Chaucer portraits (p.344 n.13).Although Pearsall is not-could not be-entirely free of speculative grammar,4 his inferences are usually warranted by the course of his argument and exposition.Chiefly, however, it would appear, Pearsall is writing for a reader already somewhat acquainted with the po­ etry and sees his task as bringing certain new critical perspectives to bear on that poetry. In his discussion of Troilus and Criseyde (pp.168-77), for example, tracing the use of Boethius and Boccaccio and carefully showing how and why Chaucer makes the heroine so much more interesting and complex than the hero, Pearsall nowhere mentions Lollius.For such reasons it might be preferable to continue to recommend Brewer or Howard to the reader new to Chaucer, postponing Pearsall to (not very much) later. Pearsall is conversant...