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Literature’s first feminist icon

Alison, the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, was “the first ordinary woman in English literature”, says Mary Flannery in the Times Literary Supplement. She’s not a “virginal princess”, a witch or a damsel in distress, but rather a “working, sexually active” female. She’s entirely frank about using her feminine wiles to manipulate men: “half so boldely kan ther no man / Swere and lyen as a womman kan”. And she proudly weds her fifth husband soon after admiring his legs at the funeral of her fourth. She knows her life isn’t one of “greet perfeccioun”, but while there may be others who wish to “lyve parfitly”, “that am nat I”.

In the 600 years since, Alison has been “famous to some, and infamous to others”. There’s a strong case that she was a “major inspiration” for Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and Zadie Smith based her 2021 play The Wife of Willesden on the character. In the late 16th century, she was considered so incendiary that copies of a ballad about her were burnt and their printers imprisoned; in the 1970s, Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s I racconti di Canterbury depicted her as “a harbinger of doom”. At every turn she has been “celebrated, censured, tamed or silenced” according to the values and gender politics of the age. The one thing she’s never been is “neutral”.