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Eighteenth Century Modernizations from 'The Canterbury Tales.'

In collecting and introducing the work of some seventeen eighteenth-century modernizers of Canterbury Tales, Betsy Bowden has produced a most convenient source-book for those interested in the history of Chaucer's reception. Bowden prints the modernizations objectively in chronological order, while her introduction underlines how the varied material resists too many retrospective generalizations about the eighteenth century. Patterns do, however, emerge. The collection presents the successive efforts by Ogle (1741) and by Lipscomb (1795) to publish the greater part of the Tales as a whole, including the link passages. Ogle's edition draws together a patchwork of his own modernizings and earlier modernizations of individual tales, including those by Dryden, Pope, Betterton (surmised to be early work by Pope) and others. Working after Tyrwhitt's edition, Lipscomb can go beyond Ogle, adding his own twelve modernizations so as to present a nearly complete collection.

It is the choice of individual tales for modernization that suggests several recurrent centres of interest for later readers of Chaucer. Bowden reprints the three versions of the Squire's Tale (Boyse, 1741; Penn, 1794; anonymous, 1796) which, along with Ogle's modernization of Spenser's version, stand between the Spenser and Lane continuations and the subsequent Sterling and Wharton versions of the Tale: a history of successive versions that embodies the continuing concern to find an earle English epic or a romance of epic proportions in Chaucer's works. (Boyse's modernizing of Gamelyn and Brooke's version of the Man of Law's Tale in 1741 reflect a related romantic taste.) Another pattern comments on a perennial focus of interest in Chaucer's work: the century, produces three versions each of the Miller's, Reeve's, and Shipman's Tales. Here in little is a cross-section of the male imagination |improving' on Chaucer's bawdy tales, and Nicholas's advances to Alison prove one tempting moment to expand upon. After first describing how Nicholas |wantonly he stole down by degrees,/ First strok'd her swelling Thigh, then grasp'd her Knees', Smith's 1713 version continues |Til his impatient Hand like Lightning flew/ To a strange Place - which scarce her Husband knew;/ (There had he been indeed, but been in vain,/ Gave her small Pleasure, and Himself much Pain)'. Sex in the Shipman's Tale similarly provides contexts which modernizers handle with varying degrees of explicitness and innuendo. There is Markland's 1721 version (|Then Husband, Sign the Peace, since we're agreed,/ I'll hold the Parchment, you shall Seal the Deed); or Jackson's in 1750 (|And with that Word he caught her by the Meaning .../ His other Hand her milky Bosom plies ... / "Yet, by Saint Austin, I repaid your Wife,/ ... she took it on the Couch ..." ). Perhaps unsurprisingly, a single printed copy is known of a 1791 version of the Miller's Tale which not only elaborates on the text (|They kiss'd, caress'd - the mounting blood grew warm -/ Beneath her stays he thrust his letcherous arm -/ Fast round her supple loins one hand he prest,/ And with the other grasp'd her heaving breast ...'), but is also prefaced by an unblinking discussion of what constitutes indecency (|Nature has not restrained the growth of hair to the scalp alone ...'). Four years later Lipscomb's modernized Tales exclude only the Miller's and Reeve's Tales (|highly indelicate') and the Parson's Tale

('dry and uninteresting'), but such diversity of response is the keynote of Bowden's materials, for as she remarks: |Nobody modernized Chaucer in order to express the era's Zeitgeist.'
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Author:Windeatt, Barry
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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