The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2021 James Tait Black prizes.
The link below is to an article that reports on the winners of the 2020 Kitschies in the United Kingdom.
For more visit:
Spying is a risky profession. For the 14th-century English undercover agent-turned-poet Geoffrey Chaucer, the dangers – at least to his reputation – continue to surface centuries after his death.
In his July 2021 essay for the Times Literary Supplement, A.S.G. Edwards, professor of medieval manuscripts at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, laments the removal of Geoffrey Chaucer from university curricula. Edwards says he believes this disappearance may be propelled by a vocal cohort of scholars who see the “father of English poetry” as a rapist, racist and antisemite.
The predicament would have amused Chaucer himself. Jewish and feminist scholars, among others, are shooting down one of their earliest and wisest allies. This is happening when new research reveals a Chaucer altogether different from what many current readers have come to accept. My decades of research show he was no raunchy proponent of bro culture but a daring and ingenious defender of women and the innocent.
As a medievalist who teaches Chaucer, I believe the movement to cancel Chaucer has been bamboozled by his tradecraft – his consummate skill as a master of disguise.
Outfoxing the professors
It’s true that Chaucer’s work contains toxic material. His “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” in “The Canterbury Tales,” his celebrated collection of stories, quotes at length from the long tradition of classical and medieval works on the evils of women, as mansplained by the Wife’s elderly husbands: “You say, just as worms destroy a tree, so a wife destroys her husband.”
These poems in particular generate accusations that Chaucer propagated sexist and antisemitic material because he agreed with or enjoyed it.
Several prominent scholars seem convinced that Chaucer’s personal views are the same as those of his characters and that Chaucer is promoting these opinions. And they believe he abducted or raped a young woman named Cecily Chaumpaigne, although the legal records are enigmatic. It looks as though Cecily accused Chaucer of some such crime and he paid her to clear his name. It’s unclear what actually happened between them.
Critics cherry-pick quotations to support their claims about Chaucer. But if you examine his writings in detail, as I have, you’ll see themes of concern for women and human rights, the oppressed and the persecuted, reappear time and time again.
Chaucer the spy
Readers often assume Chaucer’s characters were a reflection of the writer’s own attitude because he is such a convincing role player. Chaucer’s career in the English secret service trained him as an observer, analyst, diplomat and master at concealing his own views.
In his teens, Chaucer became a confidential envoy for England. From 1359 to 1378, he graced English diplomatic delegations and carried out missions described in expense records only as “the king’s secret business.”
Documents show him scouting paths through the Pyrenees for English forces poised to invade Spain. He lobbied Italy for money and troops, while also perhaps investigating the suspicious death of Lionel of Antwerp, an English prince who was probably poisoned soon after his wedding.
Chaucer’s job brought him face to face with the darkest figures of his day — the treacherous Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, a notorious traitor and assassin, and Bernabò Visconti, lord of Milan, who helped devise a 40-day torture protocol.
Chaucer’s poetry reflects his experience as an English agent. He enjoyed role-playing and assuming many identities in his writing. And like the couriers he dispatched from Italy in 1378, he brings his readers covert messages split between multiple speakers. Each teller holds just a piece of the puzzle. The whole story can only be understood when all the messages arrive.
He also uses the skills of a secret agent to express dangerous truths not accepted in his own day, when misogyny and antisemitism were both entrenched, especially among the clergy.
Chaucer does not preach or explain. Instead, he lets the formidable Wife of Bath, the character he most enjoyed, tell us about the misogyny of her five husbands and fantasize about how ladies of King Arthur’s court might take revenge on a rapist. Or he makes his deserted Queen Dido cry: “Given their bad behavior, it’s a shame any woman ever took pity on any man.”
Chaucer the chivalrous defender
My own research shows that in the course of his career he supported women’s right to choose their own mates and the human desire for freedom from enslavement, coercion, verbal abuse, political tyranny, judicial corruption and sexual trafficking. In “The Canterbury Tales” and “The Legend of Good Women,” he tells many stories on such themes. There he opposed assassination, infanticide and femicide, the mistreatment of prisoners, sexual harassment and domestic abuse. He valued self-control in action and in speech. He spoke out for women, enslaved people and Jews.
“Women want to be free and not coerced like slaves, and so do men,” the narrator of “The Franklin’s Prologue” says.
[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]
As for Jews, Chaucer salutes their ancient heroism in his early poem “The House of Fame.” He depicts them as a people who have done great good in the world, only to be rewarded with slander. In “The Prioress’s Tale” he shows them being libeled by a desperate character to cover up a crime of which they were manifestly innocent, a century after all Jews had been brutally expelled from England.
Chaucer’s own words demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that when his much underestimated Prioress tells her antisemitic blood libel tale, Chaucer is not endorsing it. Through her own words and actions, and a cascade of reactions from those who hear her, he is exposing such guilty and dangerous actors as they deploy such lies.
And was he a rapist or an abductor? It’s unlikely. The case suggests he might well have been targeted, perhaps even because of his work. Few authors have ever been more outspoken about man’s inhumanity to women.
It is bizarre that one of the strongest and earliest writers in English literature to speak out against rape and support women and the downtrodden should be pilloried and threatened with cancellation.
But Chaucer knew the complexity of his art put him at risk. As his character the Squire dryly observed, people all too often “demen gladly to the badder ende” – “They are happy to assume the worst.”
Illness, unlike war, as English academic and writer Elizabeth Outka brilliantly demonstrates in her book Viral Modernism (2019), is a story that easily slips out of cultural and historical memory.
In illness, the modernist writer Virginia Woolf observed, “We cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters.” Woolf, writing in the wake of the first world war, saw the threat that the Spanish flu of 1919 posed to the stories of national triumph. Influenza moves in invisible and unpredictable ways. It renders everyone potentially vulnerable.
This interest in illness was personal. Woolf came down with several bouts of influenza between 1916 and 1925 and needed to confine herself to bed for stretches of time.
She documents the experience of the Spanish flu in her diary in 1918, noting, as an aside, how “we are, by the way, in the midst of a plague unmatched since The Black Death, according to the Times, who seem to tremble lest it may seize upon Lord Northcliffe and thus precipitate us into peace.”
Her tone is mocking. She would later appreciate the seriousness the threat of influenza posed. But here she suggests that what illness promises to bring is the end of the profit of war that fuels the nationalist sentiments churned out by the newspapers owned by Lord Northcliffe’s vast empire of popular journalism.
Reading Woolf’s work, particularly her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, on the 80th anniversary of her death and in the midst of our own pandemic, we see how she tried to rewrite death and illness back into the national story of post-first world war glory and strength.
I’m a lecturer in English at Cardiff University, and teaching literature in a sparsely filled lecture theatre during the pandemic has been a discombobulating experience. Mrs Dalloway provided an entry point to make sense of the business of studying and thinking while a new national emergency unfolded around us. The protagonist of Mrs Dalloway is a survivor of the Spanish flu of 1919 and the sense of life that permeates the text emerges from her experience of rediscovering the pleasures of life. We meet Mrs Dalloway as she weaves her way through London, experiencing the quiet intensity of life one morning in June.
The novel’s famous opening line – “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” – has taken on new resonance this year as the pandemic has made all our worlds much smaller. Clarissa wants to buy the flowers herself because she is delighted to go out – as we might appreciate – having spent so long indoors.
In class, the students and I thought about what it meant to see Clarissa as a character who has lived through a pandemic and come out the other side. Clarissa’s commitment to life, after a long confinement, is hopeful, though it comes at a cost.
At the centre of Clarissa’s party, which the novel builds to, comes the news that Septimus Smith, a young war veteran, has killed himself. In Woolf’s original plans for her novel, Septimus did not appear and Clarissa was to kill herself during the party. In creating Septimus as Clarissa’s double, Woolf is able to move death to the sidelines – as we all would like to.
Woolf revolutionises character by radically tunnelling inwards – giving us not a description of a character, but a map of their psychic life. We experience the protagonist intimately from within – through their stream of consciousness – but peripheral characters also proliferate in the modernist novel.
Woolf recognises how easy it is to cast characters to the sidelines of life. This is, after all, how national fictions work, by making space for protagonists at the expense of those who are pushed further out of view. In the case of post-war Britain, space was made for the glory of war but not for the the Spanish flu.
Mrs Dalloway is a text that shows how memory and mourning work to uphold the values of the British Empire. Its attention on how emotions circulate between people allows us to understand how national structures of feeling are created through newspapers and through the orchestration of symbolic identifications.
“In all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other,” Woolf writes, “and thought of the dead; of the flag of Empire.” Woolf is interested in showing something that is hard to pinpoint: how national communities are created and sustained; how the war’s dead continue to underpin an inexorable sense of Britishness.
Woolf saw that a subjective perspective was required to make sense of how death continues to inflect the mood of a generation. Mourning, as Sigmund Freud also realised at a similar point, is ongoing, illusory work. What is remarkable about her writing is that Woolf draws our attention to how death pushes us beyond what we can know. In this unknowing, we are forced to admit that our lives are more fragile and dependent on the lives of others.
As one of her characters articulates in The Voyage Out (1915):
“It seems so inexplicable,” Evelyn continued. “Death, I mean. Why should she be dead, and not you or I? It was only a fortnight ago that she was here with the rest of us?”
Woolf’s ability to show how hard it is to explain death helps us understand the difficulty of living with its presence. In the face of the loneliness of death, the growing demise of its communal forms, the diminished structures of public mourning, she provides us with a language for death outside of national structures of commemoration.
The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2020 Rebecca Swift Foundation’s Women Poets’ Prize.
The link below is to an article reporting on UK universities investigating the high cost of academic ebooks.
The paperback copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover pictured above is of great cultural significance. Leafing through the pages one discovers hidden gems: pencil markings, underlinings, marginal annotations. Accompanying the book are sheets of headed stationery from the Old Bailey, containing handwritten notes relating to the novel along with a clumsily hand-stitched fabric bag – apparently made not to protect the book but rather the person carrying it by obscuring its title.
It’s the “judge’s copy” of the book, used by Mr Justice Lawrence Byrne who presided over the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial in which DH Lawrence’s famous novel was at the centre of a test of Britain’s new censorship law.
The University of Bristol’s acquisition of the so-called “judge’s copy” in 2019 was an important moment and, having assisted in making the case for its new home to be in the university’s special collections, examining it for the first time was thrilling. Now, on the 60th anniversary of the trial it is timely to consider this intriguing volume. But first a reminder of the case with which it was connected.
In August 1960, by pre-arrangement, the police were handed copies of the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley by its publisher. Following this, Penguin Books Limited was charged with publishing an obscene article under the Obscene Publications Act 1959.
The 1959 act aimed both to strengthen the law concerning pornography and to protect literature. It created the publishing offence (the handing over constituted publication) and provided that material was “obscene” if its effect, taken as a whole, was such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely to read, see or hear it.
But a public good defence meant a conviction would not result if it were proved that publication was justified “in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern”. The Lady Chatterley trial was a test of the act; in particular, would the defence protect creative works?
In the courtroom, while the defence did not accept the book was obscene, their focus was on its literary merit. A line up of 35 witnesses (women and men) were called on behalf of publisher Penguin to speak in favour of the book, including authors, academics, clergy, a 21-year-old English graduate and a headmaster. The prosecution played a minor role, calling only one witness and sometimes putting no questions to those who appeared for the defence. In the end, after three hours of deliberation, the jury of three women and nine men returned a unanimous verdict. Penguin was acquitted.
Which brings us back to Lady Chatterley and, in particular, the book in the fabric bag. Copies of the unexpurgated novel were circulating before 1960, meaning some of those involved in the case had long been familiar with it – the first defence witness had read it in about 1940. The police had acquired a marked-up proof copy of the Penguin book before the publisher’s handover.
The lawyers had taken great pains to study the 1960 text in preparing for the trial. Defence files show that Penguin’s solicitors undertook an analysis not entirely dissimilar to that on show in the “judge’s copy” with its accompanying notes. As prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones demonstrated in his opening to the jury, where he observed that the words “fuck” or “fucking” occurred at least 30 times within the novel’s pages, so too had the Crown.
The jury were given copies in court, just before the trial began. At the end of the first day, the judge adjourned the case, directing them to read the book but forbidding them from taking it home. After a gap of several days the proceedings resumed and the trial continued for a further five days.
Reports tell how copies of the novel were handed round the court during the trial, to the jury, witnesses and to the judge, with the players occasionally leafing through the pages in search of a particular passage. The judge, however, was given a copy of the book at the same time as the jury first received it, on day one of the trial, before proceedings got underway.
It seems that at some point Byrne shared the novel with his wife, as we are told that most of the markings in the book and all of the separate notes are in Lady Dorothy Byrne’s hand, with a few annotations apparently made by her husband. Accounts suggest she worked on the text before the trial (or perhaps during the jury’s reading days), with her husband adding notes during proceedings as she sat next to him. Lady Byrne is also credited with making the bag.
This all suggests that the couple worked together, with Lady Byrne taking the leading role. Moreover, they did so despite Griffith-Jones’s question to the jury on day one of the trial: “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
How then did the “judge’s copy” journey to Bristol? The Byrne family auctioned it in 1993. It came up for sale again in 2018, selling to a private individual in the US. In an attempt to keep it in the UK, the book was placed under temporary export deferral and expressions of interest were sought. At Bristol we put together a case to acquire the book and fundraising efforts began, with contributions coming from organisations and individuals.
As a result, the “judge’s copy”, notes and bag now reside alongside the Penguin Archive and trial papers of Michael Rubinstein, Penguin’s solicitor. Given its history, however, I wonder if we might begin to reconsider how we refer to this Lady Chatterley. Because of her work, the judge’s wife seems to deserve credit; it is not only the “judge’s copy” it is also very much “Lady Byrne’s copy”.
This year’s Booker prize shortlist offers the most diverse lineup ever with four female and two male writers, four of who are people of colour. But while the diversity of the 2020 shortlist for the best original novel is to be commended, the majority of the publishers of Booker-winning novels are still based in London.
This reflects that the concentration of power in UK publishing is still in the English capital. As such, non-English British writers published outside London are perennially disadvantaged by the Booker’s selection criteria.
And as it stands, of the 30 times the prize has been awarded to UK-based authors, it has only once gone to a Scottish author: James Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late, in 1994. It went once to a Welsh author – Bernice Rubens for The Elected Member in 1970 – while Anna Burns became the first winner from Northern Ireland in 2018 for Milkman. Three non-English, but UK-based winners, all of which were published by London presses.
The Booker is steeped in Britain’s colonial history, having originally been set up as an award for British and Commonwealth writers writing in the English language and published in the UK and Ireland.
The literary prize opened up its entry criteria in 2013 to allow submissions from writers born outside of Britain, its Commonwealth and its former colonies. This is a move that continues to rankle some prominent British authors with concerns US writers are dominating the line-up. All but one of the writers on the 2020 shortlist, are from the US or hold joint US citizenship.
Prior to this, the makeup of Booker winners was overwhelmingly male (67%), privately-educated (62%), and one-third of winners had attended Oxford or Cambridge University. No wonder, then, that Julian Barnes, former judge and winner of the prize, described it as “posh bingo”.
A publishers’ prize?
As with any literary prize, the Booker’s submission criteria has always influenced the kind of novels that are shortlisted. Its submission guidelines, which don’t allow entries from publishers who don’t publish at least two literary fiction titles a year, have created an unbalanced system.
And since a rule change in 2013, the prize is now weighted even more towards publishers with a history of having books longlisted for the prize – who are able to submit up to four entries. This change was said to be in the interest of fairness and to better “represent the levels of publishing the different sized houses do”. But many feel the changes work in favour of the bigger publishers.
In a country where publishing is so concentrated in the hands of just a few conglomerates who have acquired some of Britain’s most successful small presses, the chances of British novelists who are neither English, nor published by major London publishers, winning seems to be getting smaller. And for non-English UK novelists published by small presses (self-published works are ineligible for the Booker), the Booker is simply not a plausible option.
As Leigh Wilson, professor of English literature, has argued on this site: “Booker rules make submissions from small publishers very tricky because of the size of the print run required and the amount of money that involves.” This is compounded by the fact that: “The rules of eligibility are almost entirely now about the publisher, rather than the novel or novelist”.
Absence of small presses
The prize also often illustrates a disconnect between the publishing industry and the reading public. This gulf could be behind the surging popularity of the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize, a reader-nominated, deliberately tongue-in-cheek, rejoinder to the Booker’s perceived pomposity.
Indeed, Welsh writer Richard Owain Roberts’ debut, Hello Friend We Missed You – touted as the favourite for this year’s Not the Booker – would simply never have been considered for entry to the Booker. This is because the submission criteria makes it near impossible for small presses – like Parthian, Roberts’ Cardigan-based publisher – to even afford to enter.
This absence or marginalisation of writers in Wales, Scotland and Ireland seems not to relate to sales successes. Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s phenomenally successful Normal People, for example, didn’t make the step from longlist to shortlist for the Booker. This is despite it having a cult following, achieving substantial sales and being touted as the favourite when the longlist was announced.
But the Booker is far from alone in not reflecting bestseller lists. In his analysis of the Pulitzer prize for fiction (broadly the US equivalent of the Booker), author and academic, James F. English notes the number of shortlisted novels that also appear on that year’s top ten bestseller lists have been in steady decline – from a high point in the 1960s of 60% to under 5% in the 1990s.
That said, winning might not be all it’s cracked up to be, given a 2014 study found that literary prizes make books less popular.
The links below are to articles reporting on the 2020 winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction in the United Kingdom, Namwali Serpell, for ‘The Old Drift.’
For more visit:
The link below is to an article reporting on the 2020 UK Short Story Award shortlist.