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14 January 2023

From Edward Stourton to the Wife of Bath: new titles reviewed in short

Also featuring Bad Bridget by Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick and Sold Out by James Rickards.

By Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger, Will Dunn and Christiana Bishop

The Wife of Bath: A Biography by Marion Turner
Princeton University Press, 336pp, £20

Writing a biography of a fictional character may seem an odd pursuit, but if there is any literary creation that justifies it, it is the Wife of Bath. Alison’s story is among the best known of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and her lengthy prologue reveals a well-developed character – the first, according to Marion Turner, of her kind. In this follow-up to her biography of Chaucer, the Oxford professor argues that the Wife of Bath was “the first ordinary woman in English literature”. Alison was certainly radical for her time: she was a strong-willed, articulate working woman who had been married five times. She spoke openly of sex, marriage and domestic abuse.

The Wife of Bath is divided evenly in half, the first placing Alison in her 14th-century context by exploring the real precedents for working women and the marriage market, and the second documenting her afterlife in the cultural imagination, from Voltaire to Zadie Smith. The Wife of Bath may be a work of fiction, but Turner’s scholarly yet lively portrait of her reveals much about the real-life women who were the earliest readers of her tale, and about the cultures that have been captivated by her ever since.
By Pippa Bailey

Confessions: Life Re-examined by Edward Stourton
Doubleday, 304pp, £20

Edward Stourton has been a stalwart of British radio and television news for more than 40 years, as a writer, reporter and presenter for ITN, Channel 4 and the BBC. These memoirs engagingly recount numerous assignments, from covering a Welsh miners’ strike while wearing a pinstripe suit to feeling the breath of a sniper’s bullet “on the back of my neck” in Sarajevo. They cover his upbringing too: he was born in Nigeria, which gained him a permit to cover the presidential election there in 2019, when a consular official saw that he was from Lagos and obligingly listed his ethnicity as “Black African”; he then attended Trinity College, Cambridge (where he had overdrafts at four Cambridge banks) before entering, and rapidly mastering, television news.

Just how deeply embedded he became in the public consciousness was clear in the furore that greeted his mishandled firing in 2008 from the Today programme after ten years: the fuss, he says, “gave me a higher profile than any other event in my career”. It has been a rich life, which he describes with unshowy ease.
By Michael Prodger

Sold Out: How Broken Supply Chains, Surging Inflation and Political Instability Will Sink the Global Economy by James Rickards
Penguin Business, 272pp, £14.99

On 4 January, in his first big speech since entering Downing Street, Rishi Sunak promised to “halve inflation”. He might as well have promised to ensure warm weather during summer, or the continued existence of the Moon: it’s almost certainly going to happen anyway, and for reasons he could never hope to control. As James Rickards writes in this primer on the global complexity crunch, the inflationary forces of 2021 and 2022 are dissipating, to be replaced by a period in which, he claims, “we may be fortunate to avoid a repeat of the 1930s”.

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Rickards is an economic doomsayer. He has also written books on “the coming collapse of the international monetary system” and “wealth preservation in the coming chaos”, and is a contrarian critic of government orthodoxy and “climate alarmism”. But he has a keen understanding of the supply chains and systems that have for decades grown ever more complex while governments around the world maintained blithe assumptions of stability. The value of such catastrophising isn’t necessarily that it’s right, but that it gives a sense of how bad things might get.  
By Will Dunn

Bad Bridget: Crime, Mayhem and the Lives of Irish Emigrant Women by Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick
Sandycove, 336pp, £14.99

In October 1856 Eliza Thompson, an Irish immigrant to the US, travelled to New York to meet her sister, who was arriving from Dublin. After seeking help to find a boarding house for the night, she was placed in the care of a policeman who later delivered her to a brothel. Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick’s social history – which follows their popular podcast – reveals that Eliza’s story was no outlier; thousands of Irish women who crossed the Atlantic to escape the hardship of 19th-century Ireland found themselves sexually exploited and trapped in poverty. By using newspaper reports and public records, the authors piece together these stories, including the more gruesome ones of Bella Anderson, a nanny who kidnapped her two-year-old charge, and the murderer Mary Farmer.

Bad Bridget is rich in detail and thorough in its research. By giving a voice to these Irish women that history has neglected, Farrell and McCormick disrupt the romanticised narrative of Irish immigration to North America that is prominent in popular culture today.

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[See also: Bret Easton Ellis’s death wish]

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis