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Chaucer: BRIEF LIVES 1 by Peter Ackroyd

Chaucer: BRIEF LIVES 1 (original 2005; edition 2005)

by Peter Ackroyd

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236874,153 (3.8)14
Title:Chaucer: BRIEF LIVES 1
Authors:Peter Ackroyd
Info:Vintage Books (2005), Paperback, 144 pages
Collections:Your library, Just read

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Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd (2005)


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This was the first in Ackroyd's series of "brief lives" (of eight, to date) - a 170-page summary of everything you really need to know about the subject, with plenty of nice pictures but no unnecessary detail. A nice idea - there aren't enough biographies of that kind around.

Chaucer isn't the first identifiable English poet, of course, nor does Ackroyd try to force the meaningless "Father of English poetry" label on us, but he is one of the first major English writers about whom we know enough outside their works to be able to write a biography that isn't just speculation. And that's not because he was an important poet, but because he came from a social class where things tend to get written down and had the sort of career (in his day-jobs) that leaves a paper-trail in official records.

Of course, what especially interests the London-obsessed Ackroyd about Chaucer is the way he was a London poet. And that his generation really marked the historical moment at which English literature became a specifically metropolitan activity, focussed on the court rather than the scriptoria of remote monasteries.

Chaucer was the son of a London wine-merchant with a court appointment, and as a boy became a page in the household of a prince, getting a court education in consequence, as well as establishing a contact network for his future career. When he grew up, he was employed by the court on various diplomatic missions, including several lengthy stays in Italy where he had the opportunity to get to know the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio (Ackroyd speculates that he might already have learnt Italian in childhood from the Genoese merchants who would have been the Chaucers' London neighbours). He then got a post collecting customs duties in the Port of London, which came with an official residence, and later in life seems to have moved out of the city to Kent, where he was a justice of the peace and served as an MP for a while.

Of course, there is still a lot about Chaucer's life that lends itself to speculation - his slightly odd marital circumstances, for instance - his wife Philippa was a lady-in-waiting in John of Gaunt's household, permanently on tour with the court, and never seems to have spent much time with him. Given that Philippa's sister was John's official mistress, there is even some speculation that Chaucer's son and daughter were actually royal bastards. There's also the mystery of the rape charge laid against Chaucer by Cecily Champain in 1380 and subsequently withdrawn - was Chaucer an early "me too" offender? Is he about to be struck out of the canon at any moment...? ( )
  thorold | Feb 7, 2019 |
As someone unfamiliar with Chaucer, his contemporaries and the context within which he produced his work, I felt I got a thorough introduction, short but certainly not lacking for its brevity. I wouldn't have expected any less from Peter Ackroyd, who knows his stuff. ( )
1 vote Moomin_Mama | Jun 15, 2015 |
An excellent little biography and examination of the poet and storyteller. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
What makes a Peter Ackroyd biography almost guaranteed a five star rating?

I think that it is the fact that one knows that the author will have done as much research as is humanly possible upon his subject; not for Mr Ackroyd, a quick skim through a few easily accessible documents. Then, having soaked up every known fact about the person (or place!) about whom he is going to write, he sifts their accuracy with an almost computer like lack of personal slant. What appears on the page is as near to the true story as one is ever likely to read. Peter Ackroyd writes with such authority, that were he to say that I were dead, I should purchase a coffin immediately.

So, we can take it as read that this is a good biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, but as he died way back, in the mists of time; were the details available to give a rounded view of, not just Chaucer the poet, but also, Chaucer the man? Again, the answer is a resounding, "Yes!". This book is part of a series called, 'Brief Lives' and, whilst it is true that the book reaches only 163 pages, do not be fooled: it contains all that the average reader requires in a biography. Having read same, I feel that, were Geoffrey Chaucer to walk through my door, I would know as much about him as his mum.

I was vaguely aware that Chaucer was employed by the state machinery, but had no idea as to his importance to fourteenth century British statesmanship, or that in his day, he was known as a King's man who wrote a bit, rather than a great writer. He is, of course, most famous, nowadays, for writing 'the Canterbury Tales'. Time is given to an explanation as to why this work should be given credit and an insight into both Chaucer's thinking and the general view of the literary world, at the time that they were produced.

My ultimate test of any literary biography is; does it instil the urge to return to the subject's work? Suffice to say, that my Canterbury Tales looks a little more dog-eared now than it did! This book is both a pleasure and an education: thank you Mr. Ackroyd! ( )
1 vote the.ken.petersen | Nov 18, 2012 |
I was prompted to read this book after a meandering read through The Stories of English by David Crystal. I was fascinated by Crystal's chapters on Chaucer particularly his use of dialect. I have always thought of Chaucer as a shadowy figure leaving behind only his magnificent poetry. In fact quite a bit is known about his life and he was not a reclusive poet. He had an active work life as a courtier for three successive kings and he traveled extensively throughout Europe. In this biography, Peter Ackroyd chronicles that life and it is a wonderful background for an understanding of Chaucer's work.
Part of Ackroyd's Brief Lives series, this book was deliberately written to be a short read to make it accessible. It is only 163 pages and does not require a major investment of time or study.
Highly recommended. ( )
  bhowell | May 15, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 009928748X, Paperback)

Geoffrey Chaucer enjoyed an eventful life, serving with the Duke of Clarence and with Edward III. Through his wife, Philippa, he gained the patronage of John of Gaunt, which helped him carve out a career at Court. His official posts included Controller of Customs at the Port of London, Knight of the Shire for Kent, and King’s Forester. He went on numerous adventurous diplomatic missions to France and Italy, and in 1359 was taken prisoner in France and ransomed.

He began to write in the 1360s, and his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, dominated the last part of his life. He died in 1400.

Peter Ackroyd’s short biography, rich in drama and colour, evokes the medieval world of London and Kent, and provides an entertaining introduction to Chaucer’s poetry.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:58 -0400)

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Examines the life and work of medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, hailed as the father of English poetry.

(summary from another edition)

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