Synopses of The Canterbury Tales by Harriet Lee
THE GERMAN'S TALE
The tale is set in a small town in Germany and opens as a man, his wife and young child arrive as strangers to the town. We soon realise that this man’s health is deteriorating and although his family and he are obviously in some rush to push on with their journey, the father's condition detains them within the town. Interest surrounding the family's circumstances soon captures the town’s attention and a group of suspicious inhabitants set about spying on the family. This is made easier as the Prince’s attendant, who has his own designs on the family, takes it upon himself to shelter the family in the abandoned house of the Count and Countess De Roslach situated near to the palace.
It is at this point in the tale that the history surrounding the mysterious family is given and we soon realise that the intrigue has not been misplaced. The family are the descendants of Count Seigendorf of Bohemia. Kruitzner, the father of the family, is heir to the Seigendorf fortune and estate. Kruitzner’s past however is jaded. Disinherited by his father for his indifference concerning the well being of his country, and committed to a scandalous private life, he was disgraced and condemned to a life of exile. Kruitzner therefore fled to Saxony where he continued in his life of shame. It was in Saxony that Kruitzner met his wife-to-be Josophine Michelli, the daughter of a struggling scientist. He married his love and all was well for a few years as his relationship was enough to occupy our protagonists’ appetite for the good life.
It was not long however before Kruitzner’s mind turned to all he had sacrificed and memories of his high birth and royal blood force him to reveal all to his wife and her father. Josophine is shocked but also concerned that Kruitzner’s high social position will sway his opinion and love for her and encourage him to abandon his life with her and return to his aristocratic roots. Josophine’s father in contrast resents the dishonour Kruitzner has shown to his father and his people and this greatly changes his opinion of his son in law. He quite blatantly lets his feelings be known and during a quarrel Kruitzner is left with no other choice but to return to his father and beg for forgiveness. The old Count is wise and behaves accordingly, showing compassion for a son together with the condemnation deserved for a traitor to the state. The Count therefore arranges to have a generous allowance paid to Kruitzner but forbids him to return to Bohemia as the heir to the estate until he has redeemed himself and is worthy of the name of Seigendorf. Kruitzner’s determination to reform is short lived as his wilful ways overwhelm his duty and he returns to his life of debauchery. He becomes homeless and penniless with no means of supporting his wife and child. The old Count soon receives news of his son and disowns him forever. Kruitzner is left ashamed and abandoned, his nature condemning him to a life of self- recrimination.
The old Count, meanwhile, still requires an heir to his throne and believing Kruitzner’s son to still be untainted by his fathers wicked ways takes his son as his own, to be reared as a gentleman, and as a ruler. Years elapse and Conrad grows to be a fine example of a man and a leader. The old Count dies content that his example lives on through his young protégé. There is however, a pretender to the inheritance, named Baron Stralenheim who promptly, on the death of the count, claims Conrad illegitimate and himself worthy of the throne.
As Conrad seeks help from his father, Kruitzner is already on his way with support. He is however hunted by Stralenheim who intends to destroy him. All their paths cross at the small town where the tale began and where Kruitzner’s illness detains him.
Conrad, Baron Stralenheim, and a Hungarian meet together by chance as a storm causes floods to block the route in and out of the town. Neither man recognises the other as they settle down to wait for the floods to clear and they soon begin to share stories of their travels. Baron Stralenheim reveals his plans to track down and murder a man who has claims to the throne that he wishes to succeed. During the conversation an attendant to the prince reveals Kruitzner’s hiding place and Stralenheim plans his attack.
Word of Stralenheim’s presence and intentions finds its way to Kruitzner, causing him to hide in a secret passage which to his amazement leads him to the Baron’s chamber within the palace. Here, he takes the opportunity to read of the Baron’s plans for his own execution and to steal his gold.
It is not long before Conrad is reunited with his parents and together they share all they know of the Barons actions and intentions. Safe within the walls of the abandoned house the Hungarian seeks refuge as he is suspected of the crime within the palace. A plot is hatched to escape back to Bohemia and the secret escape is ready to take place until they are interrupted by news of the Baron's murder. The disappearance of the Hungarian immediately after the murder satisfies everyone as to the identity of the murderer, leaving both Kruitzner and Conrad free to return home to Bohemia.
Kruitzner, freed from the Baron’s evil intentions, succeeds to the title of Count Seigendorf, despite the wishes of his father. Conrad becomes remote and resentful as a result of his father’s actions and refuses to live within the estate with his father. Kruitzner begins to fear that he himself, as his father did before him, will witness the fall of a man and of a son.
It does eventually transpire that Conrad was the murderer of Baron Stralenheim and committed the crime as a means of protecting his father, the father that went on to betray him. The Hungarian returns to seek revenge on Conrad for allowing him to be branded a murderer. Conrad is killed in a fight that breaks out, leaving Kruitzner to live forever with his guilt.
THE FRENCHMAN’S TALE
'The French Tale' follows a rather formulaic pattern and is one of Harriet Lee’s most Gothic Tales. The tale focuses on its heroine Constance who happens to be the most beautiful and most innocent of heroines. Constance lives with her godparents in a small cottage, which lies in the grounds of a large estate belonging to the Marquis de Valmont in Languedoc. Constance, despite her innocence, and perhaps due to it, attracts the unwanted attention of many male admirers and struggles to maintain her virtuous nature. The Marquis’s male guests and even the Marquis himself have certain designs on the young Constance.
Constance’s godparents become increasingly worried for their young dependant and in an attempt to salvage her chastity arrange for her to be sent to stay with friends in Delphine.
Little do they know that the young heroine is far from innocent, as Constance is in love with the Chevalier de Valmont, a man who poses as Valrive, a household servant within the Marquis’s estate whose role is to keep track of the Marquis’s political movements.
Constance and her lover arrange to have one last night together and meet in a secret location in the depths of the forest. However, as they meet for the last time Constance is kidnapped and taken to the Chateau in the heart of the estate. Here she is held captive. It isn’t until three months later that the Marquis returns to his chateau. He certainly has dishonourable intentions concerning Contance’s capture, but his involvement in political issues means he is otherwise occupied in thought and action. It transpires that the Marquis is a fugitive from the French Revolutionaries and is in hiding on his estate.
Constance makes many attempts to escape from her imprisonment and it is in these scenes that Lee borrows most heavily from the Gothic genre. In one such midnight exploration and attempted escape Constance stumbles across a prisoner within the dungeons. Although she is frightened by his physical degradation she has the courage to persevere and she soon discovers that this man is the rightful Marquis of Valmont who has been imprisoned for almost a century by the impostor claiming his position and his land. Despite this discovery it seems the villain's escapades and political mishaps have already secured his capture, leaving Constance free to return home and the rightful Marquis to claim back his title.
The tale does not end here, however. Constance then discovers that the Marquis is her father. He gave up his daughter to his parents for her own safety when his political position became vulnerable. The Marquis’s incarceration has however damaged his health irreparably and despite the time shared with his long-lost daughter, which provides him with comfort and fulfilment, his ill-health eventually overcomes him. The tale culminates with a happy conclusion, the marriage of Constance and her lover.
THE LANDLADY’S TALE
A Landlady is the narrator of this tale and first introduces us to the heroine of the tale; a shop girl called Mary. She tells us of Mary’s affair with an army officer, Captain Manderville, and of how the girl was betrayed and left heartbroken. Captain Manderville is described as a mean, selfish man, who is as careless with other's feelings as he is in life. The misery he causes to others merely aid him in his quest for self indulgence. A broken heart, however is not all Mary gained from the relationship as Mary carries the Captain’s child.
A story of tragedy begins to unfold as Mary travels to seek help and support from the father of her child. She arrives at the Captain’s house to discover her lover with his wife, also expecting a child. Mary leaves, too hurt to confront Manderville and without the heart to shatter his wife’s illusions of a successful marriage. As a result of the shock Mary loses the baby. Some time elapses, yet Mary cannot get over the loss of her child and the ill treatment at the hands of the Captain.
Eventually news arrives of the death of Mrs Manderville and so Mary, still greatly affected by her loss, returns to the Captain’s house to offer her services as a nurse to the motherless child. Successful in her application, she soon moves into the Captain’s house. Mary is happy for some time as the bond she forms with the child satisfies her sense of loss. Captain Manderville’s return, however, shatters the tranquillity. He is furious to find Mary in charge of his son and so immediately dismisses her, ordering no further contact with his son. At this prospect, Mary acts upon pure instinct, rushes to the nursery and snatches the child. She quickly smuggles the child to Newcastle where she boards a ship set for London.
Mary and her boy live in London until the boy is twelve years old. Aware that Manderville is never far behind them, Mary decides to move on to Weymouth to settle down and attempt to live a relatively normal life. Once in Weymouth our narrator, the landlady, employs Mary as a seamstress providing both herself and her son with lodgings. The two remain this way for some time until one day Mary is called back home due to the death of her father. In Mary’s absence, Manderville, unseen and unheard of for many years and now a Member of Parliament, coincidentally arrives at Weymouth and stays with the landlady. Manderville is totally unaware that his long lost son, who is now seventeen years old, also occupies his temporary lodgings.
Whilst the father and son exist side by side, Mary’s boy becomes friendly with Manderville’s groom, a mischievous young lad of the same age. Mary’s son is easily influenced by the groom and is persuaded to ‘borrow’ Captain Manderville’s valuables and pawn them to fund a night of gambling. The groom persuades the young lad that the valuables will be returned before Manderville discovers the theft and so he goes ahead with the crime. The lads are very much mistaken however, as Manderville discovers the crime and is not lenient in his punishment. He decides to sack the groom but not to prosecute, leaving the blame to fall entirely on his son. His son is treated harshly by the law system and is consequently shipped off to Botany Bay.
Mary returns to discover Manderville, and when she hears what has happened, she soon lets Manderville know the boy he has had convicted and banished is his son. Manderville is horrified at his mistake and tries desperately to save his son. All his efforts are however in vein as his son dies abruptly on the outward journey.
The circumstances surrounding the boy’s death affects both parents profoundly. Mary’s heart is once again broken and as a result her senses are lost in grief. Manderville’s health also deteriorates as a result of the loss, although his means of survival always did outweigh Mary’s capacity to survive such emotional turmoil. Eventually public attitude towards him forces him to leave the town; leaving Mary utterly destroyed for the rest of a very lonely life.
THE WIFE’S TALE
In this tale a wife tells of her experiences as a mother and as a wife, the personal and social expectations, responsibilities and prejudices. It is interesting to note the implications of the title; it is almost as if Lee is suggesting we think about the restrictions and connotations associated with the use of the title as reference to a person.
Our narrator tells the story of her wilful daughter of sixteen, named Julia. The wife puts emphasis on the family's need to maintain a prestigious social ranking and puts this concern, quite obviously, before the needs of Julia. Too naive and immature to resist her parent’s pressure, Julia is forced to marry a man of fifty who, although poor in charm and charisma, does have a considerable fortune.
The marriage seems to suit everybody but poor Julia; her new husband has an attractive new asset to his collection and her parents' financial and social position is greatly improved. The marriage goes ahead and as expected Julia is unable to love her husband and unable to behave as he would wish. Julia is inexperienced and her immaturity makes her vulnerable to her husband’s lessons in life. Julia soon becomes an arrogant, conceited woman without any personal values or a sense of moral principle. Julia forms little respect for her self or for others and eventually becomes involved in an adulterous affair. Julia’s husband, who is quick to judge his young wife, soon detects this affair. He informs Julia’s parents who are encouraged to disown their daughter for her loss of virtue. Both her husband and her parents condemn Julia for her promiscuity and lack of self-control. Julia is publicly shamed as an attempt to erase any connection she once had with either family and as a means of salvaging their public respect.
Julia’s parents however loose their position within the social hierarchy, and having squandered their money in order to achieve their rank, are reduced to ruin. In having used Julia’s virtues as a means of gaining high-class distinction by society, that very society exploits this virtue, leading to their downfall.