Book Review: The Good Wife of Bath by Karen Brooks

Geoffrey Chaucer is famous for the collection of stories he wrote known as The Canterbury Tales. One of the stories, The Wife of Bath inspired author Karen Brooks to gleefully and expertly give the character, Eleanor the opportunity to give her side of the story.

Set in 1364, Eleanor is married off to the first of five husbands at the age of twelve. By eighteen she is a widow. The book takes us on a journey through her life, in and out of poverty and love and injustice. Geoffrey Chaucer himself is introduced as a character who plays a major role throughout her life as a distant cousin. She is not a woman who bows to social norms and with the support of her closest friend and ally Alison, she fights to protect her loved ones from the brutalities of those medieval times.

Life for women was particularly difficult. They were considered inferior, health care was scant and a woman’s success was tied to the wealth of the man she married. Even then it didn’t guarantee her a happy and fulfilled life. Indeed men’s attitude towards their wives was at best tolerant and at worst, they were treated like slaves and blamed for everything because of their sex. The author immerses us into a world of a plague uncanny in its comparison to our present day pandemic.

I simply adored this novel. I loved the character of Eleanor and was on her side the entire time, wanting a better life for her and dismayed at the injustices that she faced as a woman. And I wondered what she would think in 2023. Would she be amazed or disgusted that there hasn’t been the progress she might have expected?

The theme running throughout the novel is injustice for women and the following sums it up nicely.

“The older of the men, a Master le Brune, looked me up and down, a sneer forming. “Women weren’t put on this earth to conduct business, madam,’ he said haughtily, ‘but to help men with their work. As the good books say, ‘suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence.”

Eleanor railed against a culture where a woman was not permitted to conduct a business by herself, where her only respectability was as a married woman and her role defined as wife and mother.

I cheered for her successes, mourned her losses and there was a lot, was horrified on one page and laughed at the next of this page-turning novel.

It is a long book so be prepared to invest a lot of time to read it. You’ll be rewarded by not wanting it to ever finish. It’s a meticulously researched book vivid in description, humour, and tragedy with powerful characters. Get this one. You won’t be sorry.

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