It was Ron Charles’ writing about Zadie Smith’s play based on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales that moved me to read this. It was bold of me to take this on; I have a high school level memory of The Canterbury Tales (It’s not in modern English, it was written by Chaucer, it’s racy). But I love Zadie Smith and that turns out to be reason enough.
First, a little background in case we have forgotten: The Canterbury Tales are the stories Chaucer presented as being told by pilgrims in a story-telling contest while on the road from London to Canterbury Cathedral to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, written between 1387 and 1400. The winner of the prize was to receive a free meal at the Tabard Inn.
So why did Zadie Smith use The Wife of Bath as a model for her modern take on a woman from the area in London she is associated with? In her Introduction Smith says that Brent (a borough of London) won the “Borough of Culture” prize in 2020 and she was asked to write about the area. She says,
But this simple request proved difficult to manage. It was like being asked to breathe when breathing is sort of what you do on the regular. Everything I write is more or less about Brent, yet being explicitly asked to write about Brent sent me into a spiral of self-consciousness from which no writing seemed likely to emerge.
She realized the Kilburn High Road in Brent was on a medieval pilgrimage route and that pilgrims would likely have stopped at the Kilburn Priory that was established in 1134. One day her copy of The Canterbury Tales presented itself to her and The Wife of Willesden (Willesden is an area in Brent) was conceived.
It is a play centered on a woman who asserts herself as the Wife of Bath did. Smith says, “Alyson’s voice — brash, honest, cheeky, salacious, outrageous, unapologetic — is one I’ve heard all my life: in the flats, at school, in the playgrounds of my childhood and then the pubs of my maturity, at bus stops, in shops, and of course up and down Kilburn High Road, any day of the week.
The play takes place in a pub and besides Alvita (the wife), a publican, several of Alvita’s friends, the Author, Alvita’s five husbands, God, St. Paul, and many others make appearances and weigh in.
Here’s Alvita making the case that her husband shouldn’t expect her to be faithful:
It’s like them people who lock up their Wifi . . .
Like, they think it’s gonna run out! Like if I
Jump on it and get something for free,
It’s unfair. Not as far as I can see.
Just mind your own business, husbands! Then
I’ll mind mine. And peace will reign in Willesden.
But they don’t. He’s in my face about what
What fun this play in verse was to read! Included in the book is Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and I confess I am still not up for deciphering Middle English.
Zadie Smith, The Wife of Willesden, Penguin Books, 2021, 187 pages. Available in the public library.