The Book of Margery Kempe is widely considered to be the first autobiography in the English language. Unlike previous texts, in which a presumably truthful narrator voiced the story of the characters, Kempe is the author of her own story. As readers from an age in which autobiography and fiction are long-established literary forms, we may not find this at all strange. However, this would have posed a problem for readers of the time period, who were used to one specific form of literature, if indeed they had been exposed to books at all. Kempe’s voice differs from that of the traditional narrator not only in the basic structure of her work, but also in that readers are directly presented with a less than flattering view of her as a character—she sins, cries excessively, and is widely despised. Although an older Kempe may be voicing the story, the portrayal of her younger self as a widely decried sinner could easily jeopardize her credibility for readers regardless of how much time has passed. Specifically, during the passage in which she gives birth to her first child and soon enters a state of hysteria, convinced for six months that she is hearing demons that want her to kill herself, one might reasonably have doubts about her mental stability and trustworthiness as a narrator. However, her moments of moral redemption depicted in the text, both after this period of madness and when she first discovers God, could potentially serve as a reason to disregard these other factors to a certain extent. Suffice to say, there are many competing reasons to trust or distrust Kempe’s story. How do we as readers reconcile them and determine to what degree these factors cast doubt on her account of her life. Moreover, is such an assessment fair in the first place? After all, to what degree is Kempe, trustworthy or no, actually telling her own story?
The dual nature of an autobiographical narrator as simultaneously author and subject (or ventriloquist and dummy) may be completely familiar to modern readers, but the style of Margery Kempe indicates at least some degree of anxiety about it on the author’s part. There may be major differences, both temporally and personally, between Kempe the narrator and Kempe the character, but several stylistic choices actively work to separate the two further. The primary one is the use of the third-person point of view throughout the text. Although the intimate knowledge of her own prior thoughts and actions makes it clear that Kempe is narrating, she is careful to avoid the “I” statements we expect from today’s autobiographies, and makes no reference to her narrator self. In this superficial way, the work reads more like a novel with a typical omnipotent narrator. One choice that does hint towards a separate authorial persona is the consistent referral to Margery Kempe as a “creature,” which reflects a definite and opinionated point of view on the author’s part. Although effective at distancing the narrator from her younger self and youthful indiscretions, this choice also jeopardizes the erasure of the narrator achieved by the book’s third-person point of view. Kempe the narrator cannot satisfactorily distance herself from Kempe the character without also bringing herself squarely back into being in the world of the book and the minds of its readers. This obviously creates a certain amount of tension—we as readers don’t know whether to accept her as an invisible narrator or a new self almost paradoxically lent credibility through recognition of her own folly. Further complicating the issue of whether or not Kempe is a reliable narrator is the book’s authorship. Rather than the book being conceptualized and written by her alone, it is dictated by her and written with the help of three different scribes. The first drafts the work in an unreadable mix of English and German, the second has difficulty with the first’s handwriting, and the third finds himself unable to read the draft. Even once it is completed, Kempe’s inability to read and write means that she can’t edit her story and correct inaccuracies. The result of this complex creative process is a work narrated not necessarily by her alone, but a compound persona. This poses another obstacle to judging the accuracy of the book’s account of her life. It’s certainly more probable that an account ghost-written by three other people is flawed to a degree, but how do we determine to what degree? On the other hand, does the addition of multiple authors remedy the potential fallibility of Kempe’s narration, or distort her story further? Furthermore, to whom should the text’s potential inaccuracies be ascribed? After all, Kempe may have the ability to pray and cause another person to write her story, but she lacks the capacity to give herself that same power. This suggests a limited control of the final product, and by extension, a limited responsibility for any inaccuracies it contains.
In one passage, “the creature” is about to give birth to her first child with her new husband, but begins to fear for her life during childbirth. To ensure that she’ll go to heaven, she tries to make confession right after her child is born, but the man serving as a witness stops her before she can reveal “a thing in conscience which she had never shown before that time in all her life,” and she is too afraid to finish her confession (7). Throughout her life, the devil has told her that doing penance alone would be sufficient. However, the creature now doubts this, and becomes so afraid of going to hell because she has failed to confess all of her sins that she goes out of her mind, and spends six months convinced that demons are tormenting her. Sure that all is lost, she slanders her new family, begins to sin again, and tries to commit suicide, tearing and biting at her own skin. The struggle she experiences in consistently expressing loyalty to God and not the demons is reminiscent of Steven Connor’s theory of the good and bad voices. His example links the “bad voice” to an infant’s screams, and the “good voice” to a mother’s voice, but the theory applies here as well. The bad voice/demons come to her angrily because of her feelings of guilt about not confessing to her sins fully. In Kempe’s immature and vulnerable state, she is unable to overcome this failure in any way other than self-destruction. The good voice/God cannot reach her again until six months of torment have passed. In Connor’s original conception, the good/bad voice dichotomy is experienced by a screaming baby, comforted by a soothing tone it can’t yet seem to replicate. Similarly, Kempe finds herself trapped in the “bad voice,” a cycle of self-perpetuated hurt and hatred, unable to soothe herself and forced to wait for God’s “good voice” to protect her once again. Although she appears to recover when Jesus tells her, “I forsook never you,” we as readers are left unsure whether or not the recovery is permanent (8). If such a quick descent into madness could occur once, who’s to say that Kempe the narrator is still recovered and not suffering from the same insanity that plagued Kempe the character? Moreover, who’s to say she ever truly recovered at all?
One theme in the work that may lend the narrative voice more credibility is that of self-invention or reinvention. Just as there exist temporal and personal distinctions between Kempe as character and narrator, significant moral changes also occur over the course of the text itself. Specifically in the passage describing her descent into madness after childbirth, she is able to recover from a period of time in which she “knew no virtue nor goodness; she desired all wickedness; just as the spirits tempted her to say and do, so she said and did” (7). After being visited by Jesus, she regains her previous faith and sense of morality, and once again “did all other occupations that fell to her to do wisely and soberly enough” (8). In terms of the narrator’s reliability, this represents a clear distancing of her new self from the unrepentant sinner she originally was. Regardless of any potential return to madness, this recognition of previous error and clear distinction between the morally right and the morally wrong lends the narrator a certain degree of ethos. Beyond increasing her trustworthiness in the eyes of readers, this focus on Kempe’s return to morality increases the legitimacy of the book itself.
The dual nature of Kempe as character, and at least partial narrator of The Book of Margery Kempe, creates major barriers to easily assessing the reliability of the work. Although there is a need to consider the effects of co-authors, madness, and moral redemption on readers’ willingness to trust her narrative self, determining a final answer to “Is Kempe a reliable narrator?” is much more difficult than it might seem at first. Furthermore, why does the accuracy of the story matter? What is the significance of this possible lack of narrative trustworthiness? Although to an audience not yet familiar with the concept of literary fiction and autobiography, this may have been problematic, modern age readers are much more comfortable with the possibility of an unreliable narrator. If we’re able to find meaning and purpose in reading or analyzing literature that is clearly stated to be fictional, couldn’t we do the same with an autobiography that falls somewhere between truth and fiction?