Gower Bibliography

A Burnable Book

Holsinger, Bruce. "A Burnable Book." London: William Morrow, 2014 ISBN 9780062240323

Review

When I was asked to review Bruce Holsinger's new novel, "A Burnable Book," for the "John Gower Newsletter," I sat for a few minutes trying to recall the last time John Gower was a featured literary character--outside of the self-fictionalizing within his poetry. In the end I could think of only one fictional Gower of note: the John Gower of Shakespeare's "Pericles," that phantom narrator of the grave who so forcefully directs what Ben Jonson once called a "mouldy tale." It was that Gower, perhaps combined with Chaucer's reference to "moral Gower"--and, in all honesty, the oft-repetitive pontificating that can be traced across Gower's career--that has no doubt painted the humorless and relentlessly severe image of "dour Gower" that is the popular understanding of the man. Thankfully, Gower scholars have fleshed out a more nuanced man behind the famed CA. Even so, Holsinger, a medievalist at the University of Virginia whose academic credentials are beyond repute, imagines Gower as a figure who is even more complicated--"compromised" is the term used by the author (p. 442)--than anything scholarship has yet suggested. The Gower of "A Burnable Book" could hardly be further from the single-minded moralist of old, even if his friend Geoffrey Chaucer bitingly chides him there for being so in his writings. Holsinger's Gower is a tortured father, a manipulating blackmailer, an information-hoarding spy, and at times even a sleuthing detective, who at the behest of Chaucer becomes embroiled in a web of conspiracies. A young woman has been murdered in the fields outside 1385 London. By her moving death (which forms a powerful opening prologue), a mysterious book is lost somewhere in the streets of the city, and in the race to find it the corpses and the conspiracies begin to mount. If Gower fails to find the book and unravel its many intrigues, we learn, the next to die may well be King Richard II himself. Holsinger puts together an impressively large cast of characters for this twisting tale, most of them known to history and familiar to scholars of the period. Arguably chief among them is Chaucer himself, who is (perhaps inevitably?) the more interesting of the poets in the novel: in addition to Gower, we encounter sometime-poet John Clanvowe in Oxford. We spend time, too, in Florence: with the dark figure of John Hawkwood and the ruthless men of the White Company, who lurk in Italy like wolves just beyond the light of the lamp. Most of the book is set in London, however, with a swarm of figures that the non-specialist will likely be troubled to keep straight. Even aside from the king, there are numerous figures of the aristocracy who take part in the tale, including John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, Robert de Vere, and Michael de la Pole. There are bishops and priests, a curate and a prioress, and more officials of London than you can shake a yerde at--the vast majority of them indebted to Gower as he blackmails them for one sin or another. And then (speaking of sin) there are the prostitutes. Lots and lots of prostitutes. And a great deal of talk (and action) about what went on in places like Gropecunt Lane. There is also (why not?) a "swerver," the transgendered Eleanor/Edgar Rykener, based on the very real John Rykener--to say nothing of the many tradesmen and freemen who take part in the tale. Holsinger's plot amid this colorful cast is a complex weaving and not without its enjoyments--it's hard for a Gowerian not to smile at a sequence of final scenes in which "moral" Gower comes as close to an action hero as he probably ever will--but the unquestionable star of this novel is London itself. In vivid strokes "A Burnable Book" paints the living, breathing, oft-stinking soul of a late-medieval city. Like a narrative version of works like Ian Mortimer's "The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England," Holsinger's novel carries us from the fine confections of the royal court to the bloody dissections of a butcher shop--and a great many teeming, filth-strewn streets between. There are, moreover, "Easter eggs" for the educated reader: the walk-on appearance of a clerk named Pinkhurst, e.g., or the reimagining of Gower's boatride across the Thames with the king, during which the idea for the CA was supposedly born. Though these many esoteric intricacies at times threaten to derail the thrust of the actual narrative, the reader "in the know" will surely find in them a satisfying kind of delight. The one constant through it all is John Gower--his distance from our own biased expectations serving as its own measure of how little we really know about the man. Holsinger's morally compromised Gower is unexpected and surprising, and as such the scholars of the John Gower Society will no doubt find "A Burnable Book" a quite fascinating book indeed. And no need to put it to the fire. [Michael Livingston. Copyright. JGN 33.1].

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Influence and Later Allusion

Gower Bibliography Editors Only: edit metadata