Monday, 2 November 2015

The Pastons and Chaucer by Virginia Woolf.

Caister Castle - the tower by Evelyn Simak.
Last week I finished reading The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (I'll be writing a conclusion post this week), and as my Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Challenge draws to a close (only the Short Poems left!) I thought I would read Virginia Woolf's essay 'The Pastons and Chaucer', from The Common Reader First Series (1925). 

The essay begins,
The tower of Caister Castle still rises ninety feet into the air, and the arch still stands from which Sir John Fastolf’s barges sailed out to fetch stone for the building of the great castle. But now jackdaws nest on the tower, and of the castle, which once covered six acres of ground, only ruined walls remain, pierced by loop-holes and surmounted by battlements, though there are neither archers within nor cannon without. As for the "seven religious men" and the "seven poor folk" who should, at this very moment, be praying for the souls of Sir John and his parents, there is no sign of them nor sound of their prayers. The place is a ruin. Antiquaries speculate and differ.
Inventory of Books written by
John Paston the younger (died 1479).
She's referring to the home of the Pastons of Norfolk, aristocracy who were once peasants but quickly rose. The first Paston we know is Clement Paston, who died in 1419. The family's letters, referred to simply as the Paston Letters, were found in  1735 and published in 1787, edited by John Fenn. (There's an article on the British Library's site that explains further). As Woolf explains,
The Pastons had risen in the world. People said even that they had been bondmen not so very long ago. At any rate, men still living could remember John’s grandfather Clement tilling his own land, a hard-working peasant; and William, Clement’s son, becoming a judge and buying land; and John, William’s son, marrying well and buying more land and quite lately inheriting the vast new castle at Caister, and all Sir John’s lands in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Then she goes on to imagine 15th Century England and the lives of the Pastons (I'll quote this paragraph in full because I found it very beautiful) - 
The gigantic structure of Caister Castle was in progress not so many miles away when the little Pastons were children. John Paston, the father, had charge of some part of the business, and the children listened, as soon as they could listen at all, to talk of stone and building, of barges gone to London and not yet returned, of the twenty-six private chambers, of the hall and chapel; of foundations, measurements, and rascally work-people. Later, in 1454, when the work was finished and Sir John had come to spend his last years at Caister, they may have seen for themselves the mass of treasure that was stored there; the tables laden with gold and silver plate; the wardrobes stuffed with gowns of velvet and satin and cloth of gold, with hoods and tippets and beaver hats and leather jackets and velvet doublets; and how the very pillow-cases on the beds were of green and purple silk. There were tapestries everywhere. The beds were laid and the bedrooms hung with tapestries representing sieges, hunting and hawking, men fishing, archers shooting, ladies playing on their harps, dallying with ducks, or a giant “bearing the leg of a bear in his hand “. Such were the fruits of a well-spent life. To buy land, to build great houses, to stuff these houses full of gold and silver plate (though the privy might well be in the bedroom), was the proper aim of mankind. Mr. and Mrs. Paston spent the greater part of their energies in the same exhausting occupation. For since the passion to acquire was universal, one could never rest secure in one’s possessions for long. The outlying parts of one’s property were in perpetual jeopardy. The Duke of Norfolk might covet this manor, the Duke of Suffolk that. Some trumped-up excuse, as for instance that the Pastons were bondmen, gave them the right to seize the house and batter down the lodges in the owner’s absence. And how could the owner of Paston and Mauteby and Drayton and Gresham be in five or six places at once, especially now that Caister Castle was his, and he must be in London trying to get his rights recognised by the King? The King was mad too, they said; did not know his own child, they said; or the King was in flight; or there was civil war in the land. Norfolk was always the most distressed of counties and its country gentlemen the most quarrelsome of mankind. 
She writes then of the letters, imagining Mrs. Paston composing them, the children nearby watching, or perhaps not, then of the family's quarrels, and then of the death of the elder John Paston:
But the quarrel was ended, very shortly, by the death (22nd May 1466) of John Paston, the father, in London. The body was brought down to Bromholm to be buried. Twelve poor men trudged all the way bearing torches beside it. Alms were distributed; masses and dirges were said. Bells were rung. Great quantities of fowls, sheep, pigs, eggs, bread, and cream were devoured, ale and wine drunk, and candles burnt. Two panes were taken from the church windows to let out the reek of the torches. Black cloth was distributed, and a light set burning on the grave. But John Paston, the heir, delayed to make his father’s tombstone.
There was, as she previously wrote, rumours and speculation as to why there was no tombstone - some told that the Pastons had fallen, and they had not the money to provide one. Woolf suggests several possibilities, and whilst doing so draws comparisons between the elder and the younger John Paston. She tells of how he loved to read - The British Library wrote about some of the books in the Pastons' possession - 'a boke of Troylus' (Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde), 'þe Dethe off Arthur' (Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur), and other popular romances of the time. Woolf writes of John,
For sometimes, instead of riding off on his horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad daylight, reading. There, on the hard chair in the comfortless room with the wind lifting the carpet and the smoke stinging his eyes, he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming — or what strange intoxication was it that he drew from books? Life was rough, cheerless, and disappointing. A whole year of days would pass fruitlessly in dreary business, like dashes of rain on the window-pane. There was no reason in it as there had been for his father; no imperative need to establish a family and acquire an important position for children who were not born, or if born, had no right to bear their father’s name. But Lydgate’s poems or Chaucer’s, like a mirror in which figures move brightly, silently, and compactly, showed him the very skies, fields, and people whom he knew, but rounded and complete. Instead of waiting listlessly for news from London or piecing out from his mother’s gossip some country tragedy of love and jealousy, here, in a few pages, the whole story was laid before him. And then as he rode or sat at table he would remember some description or saying which bore upon the present moment and fixed it, or some string of words would charm him, and putting aside the pressure of the moment, he would hasten home to sit in his chair and learn the end of the story.
From here the essay shifts from the Pastons to Geoffrey Chaucer, who she writes has the "story-teller’s gift, which is almost the rarest gift among writers at the present day". He had, she writes, an advantage - in the 14th Century,
England was an unspoilt country. His eyes rested on a virgin land, all unbroken grass and wood except for the small towns and an occasional castle in the building. 
She goes on,
But to Chaucer the country was too large and too wild to be altogether agreeable. He turned instinctively, as if he had painful experience of their nature, from tempests and rocks to the bright May day and the jocund landscape, from the harsh and mysterious to the gay and definite. 
She then quotes from the Nun's Priest's Tale - "And se the fresshe floures how they sprynge", writing "he could give, in a few words, or even, when we come to look, without a single word of direct description, the sense of the open air". Nature for Chaucer she argues was a very real presence in his works. His characters are very definitely Chaucer's too:
Chaucer has his world; he has his young men; he has his young women. If one met them straying in Shakespeare’s world one would know them to be Chaucer’s, not Shakespeare’s. 
She draws comparisons with The Prioress, a woman from The Knight's Tale, and The Physician's Tale (I would note that Woolf doesn't write where her quotes come from which may be frustrating):
He wants to describe a girl, and this is what she looks like:
Ful semely hir wimpel pinched was,
Hir nose tretys; hir eyen greye as glas;
Hir mouth ful smal, and ther-to soft and reed;
But sikerly she hadde a fair foreheed;
It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe;For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.
Then he goes on to develop her; she was a girl, a virgin, cold in her virginity:
I am, thou woost, yet of thy companye,
A mayde, and love hunting and venerye,
And for to walken in the wodes wilde,
And noght to been a wyf and be with childe.
Next he bethinks him how
Discreet she was in answering alway;
And though she had been as wise as Pallas
No countrefeted termes hadde she
To seme wys; but after hir degree
She spak, and alle hir wordes more and lesse
Souninge in vertu and in gentillesse.
Each of these quotations, in fact, comes from a different Tale, but they are parts, one feels, of the same personage, whom he had in mind, perhaps unconsciously, when he thought of a young girl, and for this reason, as she goes in and out of the Canterbury Tales bearing different names, she has a stability which is only to be found where the poet has made up his mind about young women, of course, but also about the world they live in, its end, its nature, and his own craft and technique, so that his mind is free to apply its force fully to its object. 
She then refers to Griselda of The Clerk's Tale, saying,
 It does not occur to him that his Griselda might be improved or altered. There is no blur about her, no hesitation; she proves nothing; she is content to be herself. Upon her, therefore, the mind can rest with that unconscious ease which allows it, from hints and suggestions, to endow her with many more qualities than are actually referred to.
That Chaucer paints his characters' personalities quite simply and concisely is something I agree with, and, as Woolf says, this allows both Chaucer and the reader to focus on his tales. He is bright and somewhat airy - that is what I love about Chaucer. Woolf adds that the jolliness of the tales adds to this brightness, and his attention to the everyday -
... he will tell you what his characters wore, how they looked, what they ate and drank, as if poetry could handle the common facts of this very moment of Tuesday, the sixteenth day of April, 1387, without dirtying her hands.
Chaucer was no philosopher, she writes, and so "Questions press upon him; he asks them, but he is too true a poet to answer them; he leaves them unsolved, uncramped by the solution of the moment, and thus fresh for the generations that come after him".

From here she moves on to write about Chaucer's unique style - 
It is the peculiarity of Chaucer, however, that though we feel at once this quickening, this enchantment, we cannot prove it by quotation. From most poets quotation is easy and obvious; some metaphor suddenly flowers; some passage breaks off from the rest. But Chaucer is very equal, very even-paced, very unmetaphorical.
She adds,
... the pleasure he gives us is different from the pleasure that other poets give us, because it is more closely connected with what we have ourselves felt or observed. Eating, drinking, and fine weather, the May, cocks and hens, millers, old peasant women, flowers — there is a special stimulus in seeing all these common things so arranged that they affect us as poetry affects us, and are yet bright, sober, precise as we see them out of doors. 
And with that she returns once again to Sir John Paston:
So Sir John read his Chaucer in the comfortless room with the wind blowing and the smoke stinging, and left his father’s tombstone unmade. 
She writes again of their quarrels, how John Paston read less, saying "My mind is now not most upon books", and the problem of the tombstone. She concludes,
Sir John was buried; and John the younger brother succeeded in his turn. The Paston letters go on; life at Paston continues much the same as before. Over it all broods a sense of discomfort and nakedness; of unwashed limbs thrust into splendid clothing; of tapestry blowing on the draughty walls; of the bedroom with its privy; of winds sweeping straight over land unmitigated by hedge or town; of Caister Castle covering with solid stone six acres of ground, and of the plain-faced Pastons indefatigably accumulating wealth, treading out the roads of Norfolk, and persisting with an obstinate courage which does them infinite credit in furnishing the bareness of England.
Like much of her fiction, this essay has a stream of consciousness element to it. It is a strange essay for the way it's constructed, but it is very readable and very much like Woolf, though so far I've found her essays to have a slightly more formal structure to them. I did like reading about the Pastons, a family I had never heard of until I read this essay, and I do think readers of Chaucer will enjoy this too, and for those who have never read him I think this essay will inspire. 


  1. wonderful post,tx. v.w.'s perception and sensitivity come out in a new way; what sympathy she had; her mind was like a spotlight illuminating the subject, fostering new understandings as if in a new world...

    1. That's so well put - and I agree :)

  2. I have just discovered your fine blog, and I appreciate your commentary; I not very familiar with Virginia Woolf, but your posting encourages me to seek her out. And I will be visiting your blog often. It is superb!

    BTW, my new blog has a question for you:

    1. Thank you Blaine, and I shall check out your blog this evening :)


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