Book Burning in Chaucer and Austen
By Ellen E. Martin
Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, No. 21 (1999)
Excerpt: Austen has indeed called another author’s scene onto her stage. At the same moment as she is throwing whole chunks of Richardson into the fire, she reconstitutes bookmaking by putting an equally giant predecessor at her service. She shows her authority by simultaneously dismissing one author and electing another. Chaucer has also composed a scene in which he, a maker of books, makes a character who destroys books, combining both making and unmaking in the work of creation.
Near the end of her Prologue to the story she tells in The Canterbury Tales, Alisoun the Wife of Bath lets us in on her latest scrimmage with her fifth and favorite husband, Jankyn. In her first mention of it, she tells us that he once hit her so hard that she went deaf in one ear, just because she’d torn a page out of his book:
By God! He smoot me ones on the lyst,
For that I rente out of his book a leef,
That of the strook myn ere wex al deef. (634-36)
Her being deaf in one ear is Chaucer’s jesting image for her ability to hear clearly but not completely. She embodies the listeners or readers put in the position of making up half the meaning of a text for themselves.
After reviewing some classical and biblical examples of bad marriages, she begins a second time, re-ordering events so as to admit her destruction of his book to its rightful place as the cause of the subsequent smiting:
Now wol I seye yow sooth, by seint Thomas,
Why that I rente out of his book a leef,
For which he smoot me so that I was deef.
He hadde a book. . . . (666-69)