The Good Wife of Bath

Written by Karen Brooks
Review by Kristen McDermott

Brooks offers another adventure-crammed frolic through the London of an earlier era in this prequel to her bestselling The Brewer’s Tale/The Lady Brewer of London. Alyson aka Eleanor, a successful bawd and minor figure in the earlier book, becomes the central character in this sprawling, picaresque tale, with her life modeled closely after the autobiographical Prologue to Chaucer’s famous Wife of Bath’s Tale.

Orphaned Eleanor Cornfed of Bath (the first and briefest of many surnames) is married at the age of twelve to an elderly farmer in the year 1464. She’s appalled at the lack of control she has over her life, but the union surprises her by providing opportunities to learn the trade of weaving, to gain a loving family, and eventually, to experience marital joy. Readers might be squeamish about a child forced into a sexual relationship (even though such unions were common in the medieval world), but Brooks handles the relationship with such sensitivity and empathy that one soon finds Eleanor’s affection for her elderly husband quite understandable.

But this is only the first tenth of an entertaining narrative that follows Eleanor (who later takes the name Alyson for dramatic reasons) through five marriages, countless liaisons, numerous reinventions, and several journeys as a pilgrim across the Known World of the 15th century. Her most important relationship, however, is her friendship and correspondence with the poet Geoffrey Chaucer—until he betrays her by transforming her into his most notorious fictional creation.

Brooks not only offers fascinating details about life, work, and relationships in medieval England, but creates a “chosen family” for Eleanor/Alyson whose warmth and loyalty create ample opportunities for truly heartwarming (and sometimes heart-rending) moments along the way. At the end of the 560 pages of this ambitious tale, the reader will be eager to hear more about this loud, loving, unforgettable character.