Friday, 28 August 2015

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

"The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex."

Mr. Dashwood of Norland Park has passed away leaving his wife, Mrs. Dashwood, and three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret to the mercy of their half-brother, John Dashwood, now owner of their ancestral home.  While John had promised his father to care for his step-mother and sisters and settle money on them for their comfort, he is quickly and deftly talked out of giving them anything by his mercenary wife. The Dashwood family is left to accept Barton Cottage, a small cottage in Devonshire, offered to them by a distant cousin, Mr. Sir John Middleton.  Yet before they leave Norland, Elinor forms an attachment with Edward Ferrars, the brother of her callous sister-in-law, a good-natured young man, who appreciates Elinor's sense and temperance.

At Barton Cottage, the family meet their benefactor, Sir John, a rather buffoonish cordial man, with a wife with a character as warm as winter. Despite their reduced circumstances, the Dashwoods accept their new life with, more-or-less, a cheerful resignation and begin to move about in society, meeting the dour and grave Colonel Brandon.  Brandon is attracted to Marianne, but at thirty-five years old, he seems rather ancient to her, and his disposition does not exemplify all the sensitivity, feeling and passion that she considers essential in a man.  During an accident in the rain, Marianne is rescued by a young gentleman, Willoughby, and his nature, in contrast to Brandon's, appears to be everything her heart desires.  His love of books, music and poetry correspond identically to hers; his impulsiveness and his carefree love of pleasure; his immoderate abandon in the face of love.  Their marriage soon appears to be a surety, but when Marianne learns of his engagement to another, her heart and all her preconceived ideals are damaged.

Meanwhile, Edward Ferrars pays a visit, yet while Elinor feels an ardent connection between them, Edward appears indecisive.  She soon learns of his engagement to a Miss Lucy Steele and, contrary to Marianne's disposition, she is forced to suppress her natural feeling for the sake of convention, but also self-respect.

Gathering Flowers in a
Devonshire Garden
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart
The juxtaposition of sense and sensibility is played out and embodied in the characters of Elinor and Marianne.  Elinor's sense is soon made apparent.  "Elinor, the eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgement, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to impudence.  She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught."

Marianne, in contrast, is all unbridled sensibility, and shows a contempt for those who are not as passionate.  While her sensibility is a sensation of passion induced by positive emotions and experience, such as love, poetry, music, and a response to beauty, it is a wild impulsive, unrestrained, vehement emotion, and Marianne allows herself to be governed by it entirely.  As young colt strains against the teaching rein, so Marianne pulls against the constraints that society places on her as a young woman in Georgian England.

London (1808)
William Turner
source Wikiart
Yet while Austen shows the differences and consequences of the two character traits, with her usual insights and character crafting she does not put either sister in a tidy box.  While Marianne is wild and impulsive, she also show glimmers of sense.  As her character develops, Willoughby's true nature is revealed to her, and through him her own nature is reflected back into her eyes.  She recognizes her faults and strives for change.  Conversely, it is not that responsible, pragmatic Elinor doesn't feel; she has similar strength of emotion and attachment as her sister, but her emotions are bridled.  Elinor's sensibility is there, but it does not overpower her sense and therefore allows her to see situations in a clearer light, and from that she is able to govern her life in a way that not only brings respect and contentment to herself, but is beneficial for those people around her.

As usual, Austen gives us a kaleidoscope of characters and while there is strict delineation between the different levels of society, she also shows the colourful interactions that cross those boundaries between them.  She juxtaposes two situations, one were engagements are incorrectly assumed for both sisters, and then the turmoil of both sisters when it is known that Willoughby and Edward are engaged to other women.  Yet it is the characters that offer us a lesson, as their behaviour determines the outcomes of each situation, and gives us an intimate look at the correct balance of both "sense" and sensibility".

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Hamlet Read-Along

Finally, Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice is having her promised Hamlet Read-Along and I am so in!  This play is one of my favourites of Shakespeare's.  Is Hamlet mad or is he incredibly deceptive, that is the question?

I've read this play one and a half times already, so this time I'll be able to dig even deeper into the characters' psyches.

Hamlette has also compiled a list of books to read which deal with the play in her post Hamlet 101.  If you are looking for some extra reading, please check out her list.

So whether you are a Shakespeare aficionado or are reading him for the first time, please join us on October 1st for the Hamlet Read-Along.   Personally, I can't wait!

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Classics Club Spin #10 ............. And the Winning Number is ...........

 Number 5

So the book that I'll be reading is The History of Napoleon Buonaparte by John Gibson Lockhart.

I'm actually very excited about this choice because it gives me an opportunity to finish this book that I'd already begun to read and had set aside, AND because I'm able to read a non-fiction choice.  I really love non-fiction (and history), yet rarely have the time to read it; my pitiful performance in my Non-Fiction Adventure Challenge will attest to that.

I'm looking forward to spending some time with the great man, Napoleon!

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~ The Summoner's Prologue and Tale

After the Friar finished his story, the Summoner calls in question its veracity, by aligning the Friar with fiends, claiming that they keep good company.  He relates a rather deprecating story about an angel taking a friar through Hell and, upon seeing not one Friar and asking if all Friars were saved, the angel has Satan lift up his tail and, exposing his anus, out flies from there twenty thousand Friars.  Having sufficiently insulted the Friar's occupation, the Summoner tells his tale.

The Summoner
source Wikimedia Commons

The Summoner's Tale

There was a Friar in the area of Holdernesse, who travelled around receiving gifts from the people in return for his promised prayers, which he never remembered to give.  Upon visiting a church member, Thomas, the Friar fondles his wife and listens to her complaints about her husband's illness and his bad temper.  He assures her that her dead child went to heaven because he saw it in a vision, and then proceeds to sermonize about how fasting brings moral purity and gluttony, corruption.  His sermons continue to Thomas, as he tries to convince him to give more money to the church to relieve his sufferings, and goes on, ad nauseum, about the glorious virtues of friars.  He berates Thomas for his anger and employs the extensive use of classic examples to support his points.

The Friar and Thomas (1787)
John Mortimer
Finally, Thomas, disgusted beyond measure by the pomp and officiousness contemptibility of the Friar and his "false dissimulation", tells him that he has a gift and that he will give it to him only upon the condition that he promises to share it with the other friars.  The Friar readily agrees and Thomas instructs:

"'Now then, put in they hand down by my back,'
Said this man, 'and grope well behind.
Benearth my buttock where shalt thou find
A thing that I have hidden in private.'"

Middle English:

"'Now thanne, put in thyn hand doun by my bak,'
Deyde this man, 'and grope wel bihynde.
Bynethe my buttok there a shaltow fynde
A thyng that I have hyd in pryvetee'."

The Friar reaches between the cleft of Thomas' buttocks, but the gift is not what he expected:

"Amid his hand he let the friar a fart;
There is no horse, pulling cart,
That could have let a fart of such a sound."

Middle English:

"Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart;
Ther nys no capul, drawynge in a cart, 
That myghte have lete a fart of swich a soun."

An Augustinian Friar Praying
Gerard David
source Wikiart
Enraged, the Friar takes himself off and comes upon a Lord with his Lady; he freely shares his ire prompted by this insulting action. Both are shocked, but the Lord is more perplexed by the scientific problem:  Can a fart be shared?  His servant comes to the rescue, suggesting using a cartwheel with twelve spokes and, if one puts each of the friars at the end of the spokes and then get the churl (Thomas) to fart in the "nave", the resulting stink can be shared by all.  All, except the Friar, are impressed with the servant's brilliant answer.

The pilgrims are almost at town and the Summoner announces that his tale is done.

Both the Summon and the Friar are portrayed as hypocrites, saying one thing, while their actions portray another.  Instead of being concerned with the souls of people, they are only interested in their own well-being and comfort.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Classics Club Spin #10

I wasn't going to participate in this Classics Club Spin.  I am so behind with my reading due to various family matters that have taken up unusual amounts of time.  Add to this, a very busy fall, and common sense told to me skip the Spin this time around.  However, when have I listened to common sense when it comes to books .........??

So I went to my Classics Club list, sorted it with the random generator, and came up with my list.

  1. The Pickwick Papers (1836 - 1837) - Charles Dickens
  2. The Heart of Darkness (1899) - Joseph Conrad
  3. Moby Dick (1851) - Herman Melville
  4. The Fairie Queene (1590 - 1596) - Edmund Spenser
  5. The History of Napoleon Buonoparte (1829) - John Gibson Lockhart
  6. The Well at the World's End (1896) - William Morris
  7. The Silver Chalice (1952) - Thomas Costain
  8. Wives and Daughters (1864/66) - Elizabeth Gaskell
  9. The Prince (1513) - Niccolo Machiavelli
  10. The Merchant of Venice (1596 - 1598) - William Shakespeare
  11. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) - Jacob Burckhardt
  12. The Man in the Iron Mask (1850) - Alexandre Dumas
  13. The Cloister and the Hearth (1861) - Charles Reade
  14. Tom Sawyer (1876) - Mark Twain
  15. Pensées (1669) - Blaise Pascal
  16. Murder in the Cathedral (1935) - T.S. Eliot
  17. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978) - Barbara Tuchman
  18. Aristotle, Ethics (330 B.C.) – Aristotle
  19. The Good Soldier Svejk (1923) - Jaroslav Hasek
  20. Bondage of the Will (1525) – Martin Luther

Oh, help!  Seriously, there are some ENORMOUS books in this group and, if they're not huge, they're mentally taxing.  Why, oh why, am I doing this to myself?

Five Books I'm Dreading: (could we make it 18 books I'm dreading?):

1.  Moby Dick (because of size and content)
2.  The Fairie Queene (because of size absolutely!)
3.  The Pickwick Papers (because of size)
4.  Ethics (oh, my poor brain)
5.  The Distant Mirror  (because of size)

Five Books I'm Excited About:

1.  The Prince (because it's short)
2.  The Heart of Darkness (because it's short)
3.  Wives and Daughters (I love Gaskell)
4.  The History of Napoleon Buonaparte (because I'm half-way through it)
5.  The Merchant of Venice

To be honest, I really like all the books on the list and all my dread comes from lack of time.  We will see what the future holds on Monday ......

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~ The Friar's Prologue and Tale

While glaring at the Summoner, the Friar counsels The Wife of Bath to leave all questions of authority to the schools and the Church.  He, however, will now tell his tale of the a summoner, the profession being evil and their actions vile. The Host asks him to moderate his comments and encourages temperance, but the Summoner himself gives the Friar leave to tell his tale, promising to pay him in kind and more when his turn comes.  The Host allows the Friar to continue.

The Friar's Tale

In the country where the Friar lived, there was an Archdeacon who was continually monitoring the community for signs of vices and sin.  To enforce his power, he had a summoner whose job it was to deliver the summons to the church members, outlining their offenses.  Now, this summoner was himself a morass of vice, taking bribes from the parishioners to line his pocket.

One day, in his travels, the summoner meets a yeoman from another country. They both find that they are equally as unscrupulous and corrupt, and pledge an alliance to each other.  The yeomen then reveals that he is, in fact, a demon who has taken the form of a man.  The summoner is not taken aback by this disclosure, and they continue on, finding a man who has his cart and horse stuck in the mud.  Consigning his horses to the devil, it appears the man has sealed their fate, yet the summoner must remind the demon that the man himself has allowed him to take them.  However, surprisingly the demon refuses, claiming that the man did not mean his words, and sure enough, the man is soon praising God when he gets them free.

Next on their journey, they come across a respectable old woman, whom the summoner proceeds to bully, demanding twelve pence or he will accuse her of a number of misdemeanours.  She consigns him to the devil, and when the demon confirms that she is in earnest, he takes the summoner, complete with a frying pan, to the fiery depths of hell, and so ends his reign of terror.

The Friar ends with a benediction:

" ..... The innocent.  Be ready to oppose
The fiend who would enslave you; thus dispose
Your hearts.  He cannot tempt you past your might,
For Christ will be your champion and your knight.
And pray that all these summoners repent
Before the devil takes them off hell bent!"

Middle English:

To sle the innocent, if that he may."
Disposeth ay youre hertes to withstonde
The feend, that yow wolde make thral and bonde.
He may nat tempte yow over youre myght,
For Crist wol be youre champion and knyght.
And prayeth that thise somonours hem repente
Of hir mysdedes, er that the feend hem hente

The Summoner, the Devil & the Old Woman (1787)
John Mortimer

The Friar does a masterful job of abusing the Summoner with this story.  He portrays the summoner in the story as one who takes bribes, practices extortion and highlights his absolute corruption, yet he also depicts the demon has having more integrity when he refuses to take the man's horses in spite of his words.  The summoner is relegated to a level almost lower than the devil himself, and in this characterization, the grossest insult imaginable is delivered to the "pious" Summoner.

It was somewhat pleasing to see the summoner tangled in his own web of deceit.  One wonders how the Summoner will repay the Friar for this highly imaginative, yet disparaging tale.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

What is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky

"On the morning of July 11, 1856, the staff of one of the large hotels near the Moscow Railway Station in Petersburg was in a quandary, almost in a state of distress."

What do Chernyshevsky, Nietzsche and Star Trek all have in common? They all believe in socialist Utopias, in that if we all just could see the higher purpose of man and allow our characters to be developed beyond the animalistic tendencies of greed and selfishness and jealousy, we would all be able to lead this idealistic life with money, freedom, happiness and, in Nietzsche's case, right-thinking for all. Everyone would get exactly what they wanted in all things, and gratification and joy would abound everywhere.  And this would all come in an erupting revolution that would change the world as we know it. Sounds good, doesn't it?  Except that there's one catch.  In all of history, men have never been able to shed all strife and avarice and enmity towards each other.  We have never been able to only do good, love mercy and walk humbly.  So how these people can expect this to happen in the rumblings of revolution, yet also in an easily perceived development of social change, is quite beyond me.  "Delusional"is the word that springs first to mind.

The Young Seamstress
Jean-Francois Millet
source Wikiart
In Chernyshevsky's, What Is To Be Done?, Véra Pálovna is a sheltered young woman with a strident, lower class, controlling mother.  Her mother tries to manipulate her with her machinations, but Véra, with stern self command unusual for her age and sex, manages to best her mother and ends up marrying a medical student and tutor, Dmítry Sergéich Lopukhóv, to escape her mother's nagging domination.  While married to Lopukhóv, she starts her own sewing business, employing unusual business acumen to make it a success.  Likewise, her marriage is run in an unusual business-like way, to the apparent delight of both. Yet when their close friend, another medical student, Alexánder Matvéich Kirsánov, begins to form an attraction to Véra, an impending tragedy culminates, and finalizes in a most unexpected way.

Although What Is To Be Done? is almost unknown in classic fiction, among Russians it was considered one of the most influential books of nineteenth-century Russia for the ramification it had on human thought, and the effect it had on the history of the country.

Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky was a staunch proponent of materialist philosophy, socialist political economy, and women's liberation.  In his novel, he attempted to provide a remedy for all the social ills and the dilemmas that faced Russian society, believing that the controlling patriarchal hierarchy of the family, social inequality, and political and social problems were the main causes of the tyrannical, unbalanced, economic backwardness of the society. He disliked modern reform, advocating more radical steps.  Offering a blend of Russian traditional values, and ideas from Western Europe, he called for a social education that would bring sexual freedom, self-awareness, and prosperity.  However, his self-righteousness and intolerance of criticism eventually caused him to be barred from academia, and Chernyshevsky was forced to turn to journalism for an outlet.  His views eventually occasioned his arrest and he spent eighteen months in prison, which no doubt helped to advance him to the status of a martyr and enhanced the popularity of this book.  He became a symbol of the ultimate revolutionary Utopian socialist.

Moscow, Smolensky Boulevard, Study (1916)
Wassily Kadinsky
source Wikiart
This book served not only as a platform for Chernyshevsky's ideas, but it was also a response to Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons.  In Turgenev's novel, Turgenev explores the relationship between reason and emotion, or perhaps how emotion can undermine one's ideology.  In Fathers and Sons, both the nihilist Bazarov's ideology and his underdeveloped grasp of emotion appear to cancel each other out, leaving him in a morass of ineffectuality in either.  In contrast, the nobleman Kirsanov reaches a level of contentment using a combination of idealism and reason, mirrored in his recognition of family values, the importance of nature and the land on which he lives. Chernyshevsky despised the novel and Turgenev's portrayal of "new men"; with his novel, he strove to counter the portrayal, borrowing character names from Turgenev and metamorphosing Bazarov's nihilism into rational egoism for what he thought allowed for more efficient action.  The ongoing debate continued with Fyodor Dostoyevsky's response to What is To Be Done?, in his Notes from the Underground.

Perhaps I was suffering with extreme impatience with naive "genius" philosophers and writers, but the impatience only increased with Chernyshevsky.  Not only were his ideas born of some unrealistic fantasy, but the structure of his book was tedious.  The book wasn't really a story, it was merely Chernyshevsky's ideas.  Everyone is subordinate to his ideas, from his plot, to his characters, even his reader cannot escape.  While I know that authors control their stories, I like to feel their stories control them to some degree; that the story is born inside of them with not only the passionate ideas that they breed, but perhaps with an insight that is not quite explored or realized.  Then, voilà!  A "conversation" is begun between reader and writer. Yet, with Chernyshevsky, this certainly wasn't the case.  Instead of speaking with you, he speaks at you.  In fact, he goes so far as to address his readers with an intentional condescension, not only confessing what he is doing to you with his prose, but leading you down garden paths of supposition, professing your own ideas and putting words in your mouth, then calling you an idiot because you followed what he was offering you.  I don't understand it.  Often these people profess to know all the ills of society and all the solutions, but they have absolutely no social skills or even an appearance of love for humanity at all; or at least it doesn't come out in their work.

I'm going to read Notes from the Underground next to finish this conversation. Dostoyevsky confuses me, but he has to be better than Chernyshevsky.  Doesn't he .........???

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~ The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

The Wife of Bath's Prologue is by far the longest prologue in The Canterbury Tales.  From The General Prologue, we learned that she has a fabulous skill in weaving cloth and exceeds abilities of the weavers in the well-known Belgium clothing-making centres of Ypres and Ghent.  Her fashion is rather flamboyant, as she is clad in nearly ten pounds of cloth, rounding out her ostentation with scarlet stockings.  And while she's somewhat deaf, she certainly has no aversion to talking.  Love is her specialty.

This "good" Wife immediately tells us that she has been married five times since she was twelve years old.  Yikes!  And in spite of some Biblical references that perhaps discourage this practice, there are a good number of examples of men with many wives, so why not she?  The fact that she's been often married, qualifies her to speak on the subject as an expert, or so she believes.  She argues for marriage, using many extraordinary arguments.  The organs of men and women cannot simply be for eliminating urine and determining male from female.  No!  The Wife of Bath claims experience teaches otherwise.

She uses many Biblical references and those from ancient writings with impunity, agreeing or disagreeing to suit her philosophy and purpose.  While illustrating the difference between wives and virgins, she describes virgins as white bread and wives as barley bread; since Jesus himself used barley bread to feed the five thousand, therefore wives are of much more value.

The Wife passes over most of her husbands, only sharing that most of them were rich and old, yet she stays to describe the marriage to her fifth husband whom, despite his ill-treatment of her, she appears to have loved.  Jenkin is his name and he spends much of his time reading from a book that portrays the exploits of wicked wives.  In frustration, the Wife tears out pages from the book, and in enraged retaliation, her husband strikes her:

"And when I saw that he would never stop
Reading all night from his accursed book,
Suddenly, in the midst of it, I took
Three leaves and tore them out in a great pique,
And with my fist I caught him on the cheek
So hard I tumbled backward in the fire.
And up he jumped, he was as mad for ire
As a mad lion, and caught me on the head
With such a blow I fell down dead."

Middle English:

"And whan I saugh he wolde never fyne
To reden on this cursed book al night,
Al sodeynly three leves have I plight
Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke,
I with my fist so took him on the cheke,
That in our fyr he fit bakward adoun.
And he up-stirte as dooth a wood leoun,
And with his fist he smoot me on the heed,
That in the floor I lay as I were deed."

In feigning death and accusing him of murdering her for her riches, she so horrifies her husband by what he's done that he begs her forgiveness, whereupon she cuffs him a couple of times, and rejoices in the mastery gained over him, which continues in their relationship.

Here, the Friar and the Summoner get into a disagreement and threaten to tell less than complimentary tales of each other's professions, then the Host prods the Wife to tell her tale.


The Wife of Bath's Tale

Set in the gloriously noble times of King Arthur, the wife tells the story of a young knight who is accused of the rape of a maiden.  He is taken to Queen Guinevere, who proclaims that he will gain a reprieve if, within the space of one year, he can discover what women most desire.

A year passes and the knight, despondent at not discovering an answer, returns to Camelot.  On his way, he meets an old grizzled hag who promises to reveal the answer if he will grant her whatever she asks.  She whispers in his ear, and the knight returns to Queen Guinevere professing that "women desire to have the sovereignty and sit in rule and government above their husbands, and to have their way in love."  The knight is pardoned, but his joy is short-lived, as he discovers that the old woman wishes to be his wife.

His lack of enthusiasm in bed displeases his new wife and she lectures him on virtue;  it is not attained by wealth, appearance or status, but rather is cultivated by character.  She could transform herself to correct the issues that disgust him, but does he want an old, virtuous, faithful wife, or a beautiful young wife who could easily make him a cuckhold?  The knight allows her to choose, and because he has given her this power, she makes herself both faithful and beautiful.  The knight is overjoyed and all ends happily.

The Wife of Bath must have the final say though and ends with almost a benediction that God would send women young, lusty, submissive husbands, and the plague to those who are irascible and parsimonious.

The Overthrowing of the Rusty Knight (1894)
Arthur Hughes
source Wikiart

The Wife of Bath weaves cloth but is also adept at weaving words.  Her deafness also seems a rather important point.  Not only is she physically deaf, she is deaf to the needs of others, deaf to Biblical precepts, deaf to social convention and even deaf to the consequences of her actions; even though her marriages don't necessarily bring marital bliss, her troubles do not seem to deviate her from her set course.  This Wife means to make war on and conquer her husbands.  Yet the mastery she seeks is not a forced control; she means to coerce a yielded power, in that the man willingly gives all control to her, domestically, economically and personally.  This "good" woman shows no discomposure in depicting herself as a wife who uses accusations for torment, withholds sexual favours for payment and gains mastery over her husbands by force, nagging and trickery.  In fact, she glorifies in it.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~ The Man of Law's Prologue, Tale and Epilogue

The Host becomes aware of the passage of time through various observations of nature and it causes him to reflect on what some great sages have had to say about lost time.  He compels the Man of Law to relate his tale to discharge his duty.  The Man assents, but then starts a long monologue referring to the manner in which Chaucer tells his stories, and giving him some acclaim, and then begins to tell of stories that are so foul, about which Chaucer would never write.  However, there is some reference to a real character of the time, a Mr. John Gower, who would write about such offensive topics, such as incest, and one wonders if the author is chastizing this man or attempting to antagonize him into a response.  In any case, the Man of Law claims his tale will not follow such abomination, and that he will relate it in prose.

The Man of Law

Well, even though the Man of Law claimed his plan was to chronicle his tale in prose, he recounts it in complex seven-line rhyme-royal stanzas.  The prologue of the tale appears to begin almost as a lament against poverty, its detriments and adversities, but then the narrative merges into a commentary on the prosperity of wealthy men.  The Man of Law tells of a merchant who told him the story which he will now recount.

The Man of Law's Tale

The First Part:

Syrian merchants who were known for trading in excellent wares, took a journey to Rome and, while staying in that bustling city, learned of the renown of the beautiful, virtuous Lady Cunstance, the Emperor's daughter.

Now, when the merchants returned from Rome, they brought news to the Sultan of Syria about the lovely Lady Cunstance, and the Sultan determined to have her for his own. Then there comes a kind of prophecy:

"Perhaps in that large book
Which men call the heaven was written
In stars, when he was born,
That he because of love should have his death, alas!
For in the stars, clearer than is glass,
Is written, God knows, whoever could read it,
The death of every man, without doubt.

In stars, many a winter before then,
Was written the death of Hector, Achilles,
Of Pompey, Julius, before they were born;
The strife of Thebes; and of Hercules,
Of Sampson, Turnus, and of Socrates
The death; but men's wits are so dull
That no person can well interpret it fully."

 And in Middle English:

"Paraventure in thilke large book
Which that men clepe the hevene ywriten was
With sterres, whan that he his birthe took,
That he for love sholde han his deeth, allas!
For in the sterres, clerer than is glas,
Is writen, God woot, whoso koude it rede,
The deeth of every man, withouten drede.

In sterres, many a wynter therbiforn,
Was writen the deeth of Ector, Achilles,
Of Pompei, Julius, er they were born;
The strif of Thebes; and of Ercules,
Of Sampson, Turnus, and of Socrates
The deeth; but mennes wittes ben so dulle
That no wight kan wel rede it atte fulle."

There is a problem, however.  The Sultan is a Muslim, and Custance is a Christian, and what good Roman Christian would give his daughter to a Muslim?  So the Sultan and all his vassalage, agree to convert, so he can take Cunstance in marriage.

The Silk Merchants
Edwin Lord Weeks
source Wikiart

When it comes time for Lady Custance to depart for her new home and husband, she is filled with sadness and regret:

Alas, what wonder is it though she wept,
She who shall be sent to a foreign nation
From friends who so tenderly cared for her,
And to be bound under subjection
By one, (of whom) she knows not his character?
Husbands are all good, and have been for years;
Wives know that; I dare say you no more.

Allas, what wonder is it thogh she wepte,
That shal be sent to strange nacioun
Fro freendes that so tendrely hire kepte,
And to be bounden under subjeccioun
Of oon, she knoweth nat his condicioun?
Housbondes been alle goode, and han ben yoore;
That knowen wyves; I dar sey yow na moore.

Yet even though she dreads her fate, she will gladly go because of obedience to her parents and for her love of God.  She claims though, that Mars has slain her marriage, which is interesting as Mars is the god of war.  I wonder if this allusion will play into the story later on?

So while the Sultain awaits his bride, the Sultan's mother is irate that her son is going to forsake his beliefs.  She acquires the support of the council to pretend to accept Christianity before slaying all the Christians at the wedding banquet. The narrator compares the Sultaness with Satan, in her quest to destroy what is pure and virtuous.

The Sultan of Morocco (1845)
Eugene Delacroix
source Wikiart

The Second Part:

The Muslims massacre all the Christians, including both the ones from Rome, the Sultan, and those of his party who were planning to convert.  However Lady Custance is left alive, to be set afloat on a ship, to survive with minimal provisions, if she is able.  She is afloat for many years and we are told that God kept her alive to show his works in her, and so follows a list of historical people whom God has kept from harm.  Finally, she is tossed onto the coast of Northumberland near a castle and, disoriented and pitiful, is found by the constable of the castle, who takes her to his wife, Hermengild.

Through Lady Custance's prayers and sweet character, the good lady is converted in this land full of pagans, from where Christians had already fled, and hence, her husband also.  But Satan, ever up to his mischief, makes a knight fall in love with Custance and want his way with her, but Cunstance guards her virtue and will not be swayed by his amorous advances.  The knight, enraged at her resistance, kills Hermengild by slitting her throat and places the knife by the sleeping Cunstance.  The constable and King Alla return and see the murdered woman.  Everyone is shocked that the virtuous lady Cunstance could commit such a horrible deed yet the knight testifies against her, so what can be done?  But lo, as he swears the truth on the Bible, a hand smites him on the neck and his eyes burst out of his head, while a voice is heard condemning the slander and praising Cunstance.  Because of this miracle, many were saved, including the king, who married Cunstance and made her a queen.

This king's mother too, is against the marriage to a "foreigner".   When the king is away and Custance is delivered of a son, through some macchinations, a letter is delivered to the king telling him his wife has delivered a monstrous infant and that no one wanted to go near the castle.  The king, with his new Christian charity, claims that he will accept the child whether fair or foul. Again, the king's mother, with her evil servant, Donegild, intercepts the king's letter and instead, it is said that he banishes Cunstance from the kingdom. Custance accepts her fate, secure in her faith, but prays for protection for her innocent babe.

Young Mother With Child
Lucas Cranach the Elder
source Wikiart

The Third Part:

When king Alla returns, he learns of the wretched deed done to his wife and son, and he has his mother slain for her troubles.  But he is left to mourn for Cunstance, who sails for five years, reaches another heathen land, has her virtue once again targeted by a lecherous male, and is protected by God as the man falls into the sea and drowns.  Finally, she is picked up by a Roman ship returning from a battle with the Syrians over the slaying of the Christians, and when she reaches Rome, she abides with a senator and his wife.

Now King Alla is remorseful for the slaying of his mother and decides to make a pilgrimage to Rome to receive his penance.  He is befriended by the senator, first sees his child then his wife there, and is moved to tears of joy.  Lady Cunstance is at first wary, as she remembers his treachery, but when the truth is known to her, she rejoices at their reunion.  She makes peace with her father and returns to England, where she lives in bliss with her husband until he dies a year later.  To Rome she then goes to live with her father happily, and her son, Maurice, eventually becomes a respected Emperor.

Bamburgh Castle, Northmberland (1874)
James Webb
source Wikiart

I absolutely loved this story.  Lady Cunstance is painted in saintly form, and I suppose that people could criticize that she's too perfect.  But I always believe that the purpose of these types of stories were to teach, and while Cunstance is "perfect," there is often nothing but turmoil happening around her, so in these cases, the storytellers are instructing us in the right responses in times of trouble and strife, while also illustrating the benefits that can come from our right actions during these times.  Conversely, they also can illustrate the outcomes of wrong actions and their consequences.

Yet, even amid Cunstance's perfection, the life lessons are realistically presented:

"….. But little while it lasts, I you promise
Joy of this world, because time will not stand still;
From day to night it changes like the tide.

Who lived ever in such delight one day
That he was not moved by either conscience, 
Or anger, or desire, or some kind of fear,
Envy, or pride, or passion, or offence? ……"

Middle English:

…..But litel while it lasteth, I yow heete,
Joye of this world, for tyme wol nat abyde;
Fro day to nyght it changeth as the tyde.

Who lyved euere in swich delit o day
That hym ne moeved outher conscience,
Or ire, or talent, or som kynnes affray,
Envye, or pride, or passion, or offence? …..

A few commentaries on this tale surmise that the Lady Cunstance symbolizes "crusading fever" (or perhaps it was fervour ;-)  )  but I didn't read that supposition into the tale at all.  For me, the focus was on Cunstance, her virtue and her faithfulness to God no matter what her circumstances, and what comes out of that perseverance and faith.  It is basically the story of a saint, and I believe Chaucer meant it to be so.  But as for the narrator, that is a different story.  In the General Prologue, the Man of Law was obviously an astute and respected character, yet there was some cunning and wiliness behind his demeanour.  The story itself stands, but did he have another purpose for telling it?

The Forum, as seen from the Farnese Gardens, Rome (1826)
Camille Corot
source Wikiart

Chaucer finishes the tale in a flourishing style:

And fare now well! my tale is at an end.
Now Jesus Christ, that of his might may send
Joy after woe, govern us in his grace,
keep us all that are in this place! Amen
Middle English:

" ... And fareth now weel! my tale is at an ende.
Now Jhesu Crist, that of his myght may sende
Joye after wo, governe us in his grace,
And kepe us alle that been in this place! Amen

In the Epilogue, the Priest is called upon to tell the next tale, but the Shipman strongly protests saying that they all believe in God and that the sermonizing will only "sprinkle weeds in their clean grain".  He states that he will tell the next tale.  This is puzzling, because in the order that we're following, the next tale is The Wife of Bath's Tale.  I'm sorry, but I have no idea why.