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Chaucer: Ackroyd's Brief Lives    by Peter Ackroyd order for
by Peter Ackroyd
Order:  USA  Can
Nan A. Talese, 2005 (2004)
Hardcover, Paperback, CD
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Peter Ackroyd begins his Brief Lives series: 'Chaucer is the first of a new series of short biographies which I am writing with the purpose of bringing to life some of the most important men and women in the history of the world.' Geoffrey Chaucer began writing in the 1360s, and is known as 'the father of English poetry'. He is especially remembered for Canterbury Tales, a pilgrimage encompassing a variety of characters, including The Knight's Tale, The Miller's Tale, and The Second Nun's Tale (the life of St. Cecile).

At the beginning of his poetic career, Chaucer wrote 'complaints and roundelays, ballades and envoys, on the theme of love and passion'. ('It is the Romance of the Rose, / In which al the art of love I close.' ) Familiar titles include The Legend of Good Women (a poem dedicated to Queen Anne), the notable Troilus and Criseyde, and The Parliament of Fowls. Through his wife, Philippa Roet, Chaucer won the patronage of John of Gaunt and a post at England's court. Their marriage was considered 'a career marriage' by the social standards of the era. Though there are not substantial records, it seems that Chaucer's firstborn was a daughter Elizabeth, who perhaps went into seclusion. More is known of his son Thomas born in 1367. The author gives a perspective on where Geoffrey Chaucer was born (between 1341 and 1343) and raised. Geoffrey's father, John Chaucer, was a reputable wine merchant, and his mother, Agnes de Copton, was an heiress.

From the age of fourteen until his death in 1400, Chaucer was engaged in 'royal service' for three kings and two princes. As well as a poet, Chaucer was a diplomat, supervisor of building works, judge, Member of Parliament, and a controller of exports and imports. Ackroyd refers to Chaucer as 'the poet of sunrise rather than of sunset', and a 'thoroughly native genius'. Of Chaucer's career, the author says, 'He was not a poet who happened to be a diplomat and government official; he was a government official and diplomat who, in his spare time happened to write poetry.' Chaucer could move from tragedy to comedy in the 'space of a phrase', and introduced new styles in meter, rhyme, and narrative. I appreciated a reference to the treatment of books in Chaucer's day: 'Books were considered so valuable, in fact, that in libraries they were chained to the shelves and could only be loaned on the security of a significant deposit.'

Peter Ackroyd is an acclaimed writer, whose new biographical series includes Shakespeare, The Biography. He also wrote the award-winning Life of Thomas More, and the 2004 novel, The Clerkenwell Tales. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ackroyd's very palatable rendition of Chaucer.

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