William Matthews Memorial Lecture: ‘European Journeys, Medieval and Modern’

Dr Marion Turner’s lecture on Chaucer’s writings and journeys reframed the quintessentially English writer as a great European poet and source of inspiration beyond the continent.

Dr Marion Turner took an audience of Chaucer enthusiasts on a journey through the poet’s works for the 2019 William Matthews Memorial Lecture. Following on from her own travels around Europe, where she contrasted the medieval with the contemporary, she demonstrated how Chaucer weaved his journeys through Europe into his works of poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and author, whose most famous works include The Canterbury Tales. He is often thought of as ‘the Father of English Literature.’

During her research, Dr Turner endeavoured to go on a physical journey through contemporary Europe in order to retrace Chaucer’s journey through Medieval Europe, to understand his interests, works and what gives the writer appeal beyond the borders of England.

Early on in the lecture, Dr Turner shared the impetus of her travels; being approached to write a biography of Chaucer’s life. She lamented that, upon sitting down to write the book, the plan she sketched was not very different from any other biography written about Chaucer. Frustrated, she set out on a walk to help her find ways of approaching the structure of the book, when she came to her ‘road to Damascus moment’; the idea to approach Chaucer’s work through his travels through Europe in the fourteenth century as a way of understanding the writer in the reader’s imagination.

Dr Turner reflected on numerous characterisations of Chaucer as an English poet firmly rooted in the English imagination and identity. She used the example of UKIP aligning Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Alisoun with the party during the 2013 election, thus painting her as an English archetype. But this trope is challenged by the numerous writers of colour, particularly women, who have taken Chaucer’s work and adapted it to create stories in their own contexts.

What’s more, through her travels she found that Chaucer’s stories came from distant places made up of diverse demographics. Particularly Navarre, located in the northern region of Spain, where Chaucer visited and saw members of the three main religions living harmoniously. She highlights that in the medieval period the most educated of the population were multilingual and that Chaucer himself would have been influenced by French, Italian and Latin poetry, which he enjoyed.

Chaucer’s travels through Europe also highlighted to Dr Turner the importance he places on perspective in his work, and it is this transition of perspective that characterises much of his poetry. She gives the example of the prominence of birds and someone who can only see from the ground as a way of demonstrating these different perspectives, which will inform an individual’s thinking on any given situation.

The lecture concluded with a reflection on Chaucer’s views of time and crossings, the place of crossing being “a place of magic, darkness and possibility” – an ongoing action in which the past infiltrates the present, much like the persistent influence of Chaucer’s works on writers across place and space within the literary canon.

The William Mathews memorial lecture is an annual lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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Mongrel Tongues/Mongrel Nation: William Matthews Lecture 2018

On Thursday 29 November, author Bernadine Evaristo delivered an insightful lecture exploring how and why authors create voices that challenge the predominance of Standard English as the literary and cultural norm.

If you were passing the Beveridge Hall in Senate House on Thursday 29 November, you may have been surprised to hear a speaker addressing her audience in a language decidedly far from Standard English. Indeed, it wasn’t just author Bernadine Evaristo’s voice that filled the hall as she gave her fascinating lecture entitled ‘Mongrel Tongues/Mongrel Nation’, but the voices of countless others who have been left out of traditional English literature. From the pidgin English of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy [soldier boy] (1985) to the inner city gang slang voiced by Evaristo’s protagonist in Hello Mum (2010), this year’s William Matthews Lecture challenged our ideas of the language that should be spoken in literature, and opened the floor to include every voice in the discussion.

Following a welcome from Professor Heike Bauer, Head of Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, Bernadine Evaristo, who has written eight books and numerous other publications, began the lecture with a discussion about belonging. Having grown up in Britain with a black father and a white mother, Evaristo knows what it is to feel different. Recalling the disapproval of her mother’s family when their daughter married a Nigerian, Evaristo explains “My father always said that he became a black man when he arrived in England … Black British people were not seen as fully, properly British, and from this I absorbed the concept of ‘blackness’ as a negative.” This idea was explored in her first novel, Lara (1997).

Evaristo herself felt like an outsider for much of her youth, neither fully belonging to her father’s Nigerian culture nor the British one in which she was growing up. “People don’t know you, but they think they do,” she explains, “they know ‘your kind.’” Such was Evaristo’s father’s concern that she should be fully integrated into British culture, that he deliberately avoided passing his own language and heritage onto his children. Perhaps it is due to this loss that Evaristo is determined to broaden our understanding of the value of a range of different voices in literature.

Through the evening’s discussion, Evaristo asks “Can you truly capture characters’ lives in Standard English?” Take the aforementioned Sozaboy, for example. His stream of consciousness is punctuated with non-standard phrases that form part of the pidgin English spoken by 75 million people in Nigeria. Evaristo argues that by using Sozaboy’s language, its author, Ken Saro-Wiwa, establishes the setting, society, culture and context that make up Sozaboy’s world. The use of dialect, far from patronizing the protagonist, means that “we are charmed by him”, and “when he goes to war, so do we.”

By giving the text the subtitle “A Novel in Rotten English”, Saro-Wiwa brings the discomfort that an audience accustomed to Standard English might feel on reading (and understanding) the book to the forefront. But Evaristo also draws attention to writers that go further than this, such as Junot Díaz, who leaves vast swathes of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) in Spanish, without offering his reader a convenient explanation or glossary. This act, which Evaristo dubs “assertive non-translation”, forces the reader to engage with “the bilingual and bicultural reality of the text”, and begs the question: how far can we embed foreign words and phrases in our literature, without alienating our reader?

For Evaristo, the expansion of accepted novelistic languages is a welcome one, and she argues that writers and artists should have the freedom to write from any perspective (while amused by the fact that, as a self-titled black writer, she should be seen as more limited in subject matter than a white writer, given the vast cultural richness and experiences of the 54 countries of Africa and 33 countries of the Caribbean, not to mention the Americas and Britain itself). Indeed, in her 2010 short novel Hello Mum, she sought to get inside the mind of a teenage boy, conducting extensive research in youth detention centres and carefully mimicking the style of speech she found. For, as Evaristo says, “How do we begin to claim ownership of something as nebulous and transitory as culture?” It is not the right voice, but every voice, that should be heard through literature.

The annual William Matthews Lecture at Birkbeck is made possible by a bequest from the estate of the late Professor William Matthews for a lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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