For her most recent book, Making Chaucer's Book of the Duchess: Textuality and Reception (U of Wales P, 2015), Jamie Fumo read and studied more than 300 articles and book chapters published on the English poet's first major narrative poem. The process initially intimidated the medieval scholar, but that sense of feeling overwhelmed eventually developed into excitement as Fumo realized she was working "to become the steward of a single Chaucerian poem."
"Chaucer's Book of the Duchess has always struck me as an underappreciated and rather enigmatic poem, and I wanted to give it more currency in Chaucer studies today," Fumo says of the Middle English work written in the late 1360s to the early 1370s, when Chaucer would have been about 30 years old. "I came to this book project intrigued by the momentousness of the Duchess as the point of origin of Chaucer"s corpus, as the first work to express a Chaucerian 'signature.' The fact that the Duchess also can be understood to have inaugurated a new English literary tradition of courtly writing, despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that its texture is essentially French, is a paradox that I wanted to explore in depth."
As Fumo explains, Chaucer was still at an experimental stage as an up-and-coming writer as he was composing Book of the Duchess. French was the official language of the English royal court and of polite society, she points out, and any fashionable literature was almost exclusively francophone - the English language received little cultural respect.
"One should be careful not to place too much emphasis on any single artistic moment, but in an important sense the Book of the Duchess redrew the map of literary possibilities in English, in ways that later English writers were quick to pick up on," Fumo says. "The Duchess accomplished in the English language, for the first time, what had reached an apogee in the sophisticated French courtly poetry produced by Chaucer's fourteenth-century contemporaries Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, and Eustache Deschamps - and it did this not by rote translation of those French materials but by free creative reinvention."
She adds that the poem contributed to Chaucer being given the title Father of English Poetry - "an oversimplification, but one with longevity," she says - even though it emerged from French tradition: "the Duchess is what I like to call a study in 'interlingualism': being between languages," Fumo says.
In addition to the poem's literary and cultural heritage, Fumo says "there are many stubborn and quirky puzzles in the Duchess's interpretive history, and I thought it would be a service to the field to consolidate these and provide a critical roadmap of sorts." There is strong evidence that the poem was composed for John of Gaunt, uncle of Richard II. Gaunt's first wife Blanche of Lancaster died of the plague in 1368, Fumo says, and the Duchess is a coded elegy that commemorates her loss.
"Yet there is no record of the poem having been commissioned by, or publicly performed for, Gaunt - we can only speculate about its actual historical occasion," she says. "It's unclear whether it was written immediately after Blanche's death or several years later, perhaps even after Gaunt remarried. And as an elegy, it's quite bizarre."
Chaucer framed Duchess as a dream-vision with a first-person narrator, and Fumo says the narrator's self-absorption to some extent obscures the poem's main theme. She explains that the poem mixes comedy with sorrowful expression and melds numerous genres, although in the final account Chaucer leaves unclear whether consolation has been achieved.
"As I emphasize in my book, the Duchess seems above all concerned with the process of its own making, which is recorded in the course of the poem: not only is it a work between languages, but one that explores problems of communication and authorship in self-conscious ways," Fumo says. "My goal was to bring all this - the Duchess's interpretive history in modern scholarship, its evocation of textuality, and also the story of its early literary reception - into a unified analytical framework."
Fumo worked with University of Wales Press, which was beginning a new series, the New Century Chaucer series (distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press), to make her book the inaugural volume in the series. Only one full-length book, appearing in 1968, was devoted to Book of the Duchess before Fumo's, and no cohesive collection of essays was available to Fumo for her research. Instead, she started by reading all of the existing material in chronological order, focusing on how interpretation and critical controversies of the poem evolved over time.
"It was striking how often old questions got circled back upon in new guises," she says. "This really made the need for an integrated critical history clear to me: often scholars of the last couple decades were replicating older critical positions unreflectively, and I noticed that the overall critical field tended toward compartmentalization, even polarization. So, while there was a mass of scholarship to be combed through, it lacked an ordering structure, and that is what I had to develop."
One of Fumo's other objectives was to present her findings in a way that would benefit both experienced scholars and newcomers to Chaucer's early poetry. Her approach was to use an argumentative structure "that follows an arc from reading to writing to rereading," adding, "these textual processes converge upon the Duchess first on the level of modern Chaucer scholarship, then within the poem's own creative moment, and finally in its transmission and imitation by early modern editors and poets in the first centuries after its composition."
"I did not want the book merely to trace a critical history: I wanted to unpack the dynamic aspects of textuality that are such a fascinating and innovative aspect of Chaucer's poem," she says. "My hunch was that the poem's own textual self-consciousness, its fascination with bookishness and its own coming-into-being, was the common denominator both of its turbulent critical history and the pathways of its early literary reception.
"Understanding how the poem was encountered and understood by its early readers, and the ways in which it impacted the construction of Chaucer as a canonical author in the early modern period, is essential for a balanced view of the poem's significance today."
Reviewers for Making Chaucer's Book of the Duchess praise Fumo's scholarship and her breadth of scope.
"Everything Jamie Fumo writes about Chaucer is essential reading," says C. David Benson, professor emeritus of medieval English at the University of Connecticut. "Her new study of the Book of the Duchess brings all her learning, originality and wit to bear on this mysterious and underappreciated poem." Harvard University Professor of English James Simpson says "The bad news: you want to know about Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, but you're too busy and the textual territory (sources, the text itself, its late medieval reception, modern scholarship) is vast. The good news: Jamie Fumo's singularly generous and massively learned book gives us the entire field - everything. For Fumo, writing is at the core of the poem; her unfailingly clear book exfoliates from that perception to the entire field of writing before, in and after the poem itself."
Now that Making Chaucer's Book of the Duchess is available, Fumo hopes that the book sparks a new beginning for discussing the poem. She thinks the poem could be taught more frequently in undergraduate and graduate literature classes.
"The Duchess is a skeptical and prolifically 'open' text that invites readerly participation. It both models and provokes textual intervention," she says. "Certainly my interpretive history highlighted critical dilemmas that I am unable to solve, particularly concerning the poem's literary relationships in the sphere of French and English writing, and I consider the book an open invitation to scholars to revisit those cruxes with new tools and perspectives."
Fumo even sees some connection between the poem's "play with textuality" and the "participatory culture of writing that dominates new media today."
"The Duchess is a 'postmodern' medieval poem insofar as it experiments with the possibilities of 'making' in various communicative scenarios," she says. "It's an interactive text, one that is transformed by contact with other texts, and as such seems especially germane to twenty-first-century textualities."
Fumo's next project is to edit and publish a collection of original essays on Book of the Duchess, which will "bring into coherent dialogue for the first time the major voices in criticism on the poem today as well as the perspectives of emerging scholars," she says.