Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions

By (author) Lynn Staley

Paperback - £28.95

Publication date:

15 September 1994

Length of book:

240 pages

Publisher

Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271025797

Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions, a contextual and historical study of the Book, focuses on Kempe’s ability to construct a fiction that exploits the conventions of sacred biography and devotional prose as the means of scrutinizing the very foundations of fifteenth-century English society. Thus, though the Book is cast into a communally sanctioned "female" form, Kempe uses the very conventions that tended to define that form to test its outer limits. In producing a text whose apparatus locates it in a communal context, she signals her grasp of the relationship between both gender and genre and genre and public, but her underlying technique works to dissolve the very community she thereby constitutes. In so doing, she creates a work that is open to radically opposed readings.

Each of the book’s four chapters considers a key aspect of Kempe’s fiction: her manipulation of the tropes of authorship; her exploitation of the conventions of sacred biography; her use of the language of gender as a means of exploring the issue of spiritual authority; and her handling of such important contemporary issues as vernacular translation and nationalism. The conclusion addresses the issue of community that is radically opposed to contemporary views of the English body politic.

In situating Kempe in relation to contemporary texts and to contemporary issues, such as Lollardy, Lynn Staley provides a radically new way of looking at Kempe herself as an author who was fully aware of the types of constrictions she faced as a woman writer. As the study demonstrates, in Kempe we have the first major prose fiction writer of the Middle Ages. Her Book is a tribute to her keen understanding of conventional forms and modes and thus to her ability to reshape traditional materials. It is also a tribute to her understanding of the ways in which she might exploit the conventions and values of a patriarchal society to her own ends. Rather than Margery, the hysteric, Staley insists on Kempe, the controlling author, who, like Chaucer and Langland, creates a fiction that dramatizes the weaknesses of the social and ecclesiastical institutions of her day.

“Staley has used and made advances on the best recent writing on Margery Kempe, and her book is a consolidation of the new position that has been won for the Book in English literary culture and history. Her distinction of ‘Kempe’ and ‘Margery’ will become the standard mode of reference, I think, and her argument concerning the narrative purposes and ‘fictional’ status of the story, and its implication in questions of authority, in the broadest sense, will be generally accepted as definitive.”

—Derek Pearsall, Harvard University