Sixteen-year-old “Mouse” Bradford feels like a monster, with her companion, Alice, her humpback.
“My God! It looks like a prison,” her father says, driving up the ravine hill of the old Bath Castle property.
Mouse seems a little disappointed that it’s not like Lowood, not decrepit enough.
But the landscape is the “sort of namby-pamby countryside you could imagine Virginia Woolf walking through in long skirts”.
“‘Don’t be silly,'” her step-mother says (it was her idea to send Mouse to boarding school), for they “‘like misfits at those sorts of places.'”
Mouse is extremely shy, but clever. Her step-mother tells Mouse that she reads books written for people who went to university.
“I often thought of Virginia when I felt low, because she was so depressed she drowned herself in a stream with her pockets full of stones. In my opinion, it always helps to remember there is somebody sadder than you.”
When Mouse tells this story, she is certainly sadder than the reader. Something atrocious has happened; there is a trial, with a scalpel and a hockey stick as exhibits, with Mouse as a witness.
In many ways The Wives of Bath is a what-done-she, because the nature of the crime that Mouse’s roommate Paulie has committed is not fully understood until the end of the novel.
But it is also a coming-of age-story which considers the roles and opportunities afforded to women in the world, in the kingdom of men.
“We were all Wives of Bath – from the teachers who terrorized us with their bells and gatings to the overfed boarders and snobby day girls..but no matter how hard any of us struggled…Bath Ladies College was only a fiefdom in the kingdom of men.”
The title is drawn from Chaucer’s Middle-English tale, “The Wyves Tale of Bathe”. In the tale, the wife calls herself Alys and Alyson, but she also refers to some other women by this name, and there are other female characters in the work also named as such. Under consideration? The matter of women’s sovereignty, the degree to which women control their own lives.
In Susan Swan’s novel, Mouse (Mary Beatrice, actually) calls her hump Alice, but her mother’s name was Alice too. And some female characters in the novel strive to conform with feminine gendered expectations, some rebel against them, and most seem to vacillate between these two states of striving.
Mouse’s father decided to send her to boarding school because of his “unfortunate inferiority complex about bringing up females” and the headmistress is a third cousin. But it was Sal’s idea. Sal with her “shaming voice”.
What does it mean to be female? It is, she declared, Mouse’s “least favourite gender”, but her role models are limited: her mother has died, Sal is unavailable to her, she has no significant relationships with women or girls.
Mouse does not know who she is: “…I don’t really understand what an identity is. For one thing, it’s what makes you different from the rest of the world (which is what Alice does for me). And it’s also what you have in common with others — i.e., the way I have something in common with girls.”
And for all that she does have in common with girls, Mouse isn’t convinced that she fits with the models of femininity that surround her.
When she and her roommate discover love letters exchanged between two women on staff, she is both attracted and repelled by the discovery that the rumours about the women on the campus are true.
Some of her confusion erupts in imagined conversations with Alice,which are often centred around genitalia. (Which recalls the novel’s epigraph from Chaucer: “Tell me also, to what conclusion were the generative organs made, And fashioned by so generous a maker?”)
Some is recorded in the letters that she writes and sends (mostly) to the much-admired American president JFK, and of course readers realize that relationship will be short-lived and he will be as unavailable to Mouse as she believes her father to be.
Some with Lewis, to whom readers are introduced early in the novel as Paulie’s brother, with whom she pretends at being a boy, adopting a masculine style and cultivating behaviours which she believes are un-feminine (if not exactly masculine).
Just as Chaucer’s wife broke the rules of her day (divorcing — and more than once — and exercising untoward influence in her household), Mouse — for all her shyness and insecurity — challenges convention in daring and unexpected ways.
Susan Swan’s novel was published nearly twenty years ago, but Mouse’s story — her struggle to understand identity — still resonates with contemporary readers.