Book Review: The Good Wife of Bath A (Mostly) True Story by Karen Brooks

About the Book:

In the middle ages, a poet told a story that mocked a strong woman. It became a literary classic. But what if the woman in question had a chance to tell her own version? Who would you believe?

England, The Year of Our Lord, 1364

When married off aged 12 to an elderly farmer, Eleanor Cornfed, who’s constantly told to seek redemption for her many sins, quickly realises it won’t matter what she says or does, God is not on her side – or any poor woman’s for that matter.

But Eleanor was born under the joint signs of Venus and Mars. Both a lover and a fighter, she will not bow meekly to fate. Even if five marriages, several pilgrimages, many lovers, violence, mayhem and wildly divergent fortunes (that swoop up and down as if spinning on Fortuna’s Wheel itself) do not for a peaceful life make.

Aided and abetted by her trusty god-sibling Alyson, the counsel of one Geoffrey Chaucer, and a good head for business, Eleanor fights to protect those she loves from the vagaries of life, the character deficits of her many husbands, the brutalities of medieval England and her own fatal flaw… a lusty appreciation of mankind. All while continuing to pursue the one thing all women want – control of their own lives.

This funny, picaresque, clever retelling of Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ from The Canterbury Tales is a cutting assessment of what happens when male power is left to run unchecked, as well as a recasting of a literary classic that gives a maligned character her own voice, and allows her to tell her own (mostly) true story.

Published by HQ Fiction AU
Released 7th July 2021

My Thoughts:

Thoroughly entertaining, The Good Wife of Bath is a retelling of sorts, of Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ from The Canterbury Tales. Now, I have never read any part of The Canterbury Tales, much less the wife’s tale, so I can’t comment on this novel in relation to Chaucer’s original work. However, Karen Brooks does pay homage to the Wife of Bath, and Chaucer himself, within this novel and I feel I was given much insight into the original verse as well as the author himself through the pages of this story. In other words, I got the gist.

I am quite a fan of Karen Brooks. Her attention to detail and immersive writing is the fine wine of historical fiction. The research that her narrative rests on is phenomenal, there is literally no stone left unturned and she even nails the dialogue and language of her era with such authenticity. Set in the Middle Ages, there was so much about daily life I was completely ignorant to. But she also weaves in the bigger things: changes to kings, uprisings, plagues, trade, commerce, social conventions and all manner of mores; really, in terms of recreating an historical period, this novel is brilliant.

‘If I continued to burden myself with guilt, then Jankin wins – they all do.’
‘Who, mistress?’ she asked quietly.
‘The men who continue to make us women pay for their sins; who have done so since Eve offered the apple to Adam. But –’ I twisted around in the tub so I could look Milda in the face. ‘Remember Mistress Ibbot? Wace’s midwife? She said – and I’ve always thought – Eve didn’t make him eat the bloody fruit. She offered Adam a choice and he made one. So whose sin is it really? Who is really responsible for the Fall of mankind? Is it her or him? Or are they both equally culpable?’

The beating heart of The Good Wife of Bath though is its focus on women’s agency, particularly that of wives, because let’s face it, that’s pretty much all you were going to get to be. By giving her main character five very different marriages, we as readers were treated to a varied experience. We got to see, not only what it would have been like to be a wife of the Middle Ages, but also the restrictions that crossed class as our main character moved up the social ladder with each new union. Basically, when it came to marriage, you were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t. And in the end, social class did not dictate what sort of marriage (or man) you would be getting, despite the material comforts wealth offered.

‘I always enjoy placing women back into history, demonstrating, albeit through researched fiction, that while they may not be recorded or remembered in the same way as their male counterparts, they were there. Herstory happened too. The omission of women from history doesn’t mean they didn’t live it, nor that they didn’t influence it. But just as we forget that to our detriment, so too it’s a mistake to think women fighting for their rights is exclusive to contemporary times. Many women have, over time, fought to be recognised as more than simply walking wombs, the ‘weaker vessel’, good only for sating men’s desires, ‘feeble-minded’ penis-less poor copies of men, responsible for the Fall, men’s inability to control their urges, and so much more. What’s true about the past is that women didn’t have the freedoms, education or ability to fight for their rights the way we continue to today.’ – AUTHOR NOTE

The narration of this novel makes for a highly entertaining read. It is above all a comedy, but there are throughout significant moments of heartbreak. Towards the end, the novel does bear down a bit under its own weight, and I have to be honest, I wasn’t too keen on the trade our main character settled into once she moved to London. It just felt…inevitable in a way I wish the author had resisted. Still, The Good Wife of Bath was a superb read, a real treat for fans of historical fiction, particularly those who like a good long saga to sink into.


Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: The Good Wife of Bath A (Mostly) True Story by Karen Brooks

  1. What a fascinating idea for a retelling! Just imagine if we could take all the tales and stories where women are maligned and tell the other side of the story. I haven’t read Chaucer either, but I am tempted to get out my so far unread copy of his Canterbury Tales and read that one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I will never get time to read this Theresa, but I did read The Wife of Bath’s Tale at school (or first year university, but I think it was the last year of school.) I really enjoyed it, but would have to refresh my memory to make good sense of this retelling. Clearly though you can read it without knowing the original.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Pingback: 2022 Historical Novel Prize longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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