Study Guide

Michèle Roberts

Michèle Roberts Essay - Critical Essays

Roberts, Michèle

Introduction

Michèle Roberts 1949-

(Full name Michèle Brigitte Roberts) English novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Roberts's career through 2003. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 48.

Throughout her collection of works—including novels, short story collections, essays, and poetry—Roberts addresses themes of female identity, passion, and how women struggle against the confines of the Catholic religion and male-dominated family structures. Critical attention has focused primarily on Roberts's novels, many of which interweave the narratives of several female characters living in different historical periods from a feminist perspective. Roberts is recognized for her sensuous, descriptive language and powerful imagery which often draws from biblical, mythological, and Catholic iconography. While widely published, read, and reviewed in the United Kingdom, Roberts has not attracted similar attention in the United States.

Biographical Information

Roberts and her twin sister, Marguerite, were born on May 20, 1949, in Bushey, Hertfordshire, England. Of French and English descent, she grew up primarily in England, but visited her mother's family in Normandy during the summers. Roberts was raised Catholic and attended convent schools, but as an adult she rejected organized religion. She entered Somerville College of Oxford University in 1967 and graduated with honors in 1970. Roberts then studied to be a librarian, earning an Associate of the Library Association degree from the University of London in 1972. After graduating, she held a variety of positions, including teacher, pregnancy counselor, researcher, and librarian. During the 1970s, Roberts was active in the women's rights movement and served as editor of the feminist poetry journal Spare Rib. She also contributed several poems and short stories to various collections, many of which she also coedited. Her first novel, A Piece of the Night (1978), was awarded the Gay News Book Award in 1979. Roberts served as writer-in-residence in Lambeth Borough, London, from 1981 to 1982, and in Bromley Borough, London, from 1983 to 1984. In 1992 she married painter Jim Latter, with whom she lives in England and France.

Major Works

Roberts's stories are usually narrated by female narrators and concern the place of women in history and society. She characteristically intertwines the stories of several women, often from different historical periods or nations, linking them by recurring thematic concerns, symbolic imagery, and significant motifs. Her most prominent themes include women's relationships within the home and family, the influence of Catholicism on the development of girls, and the power of passion in determining life choices. Roberts employs lush, sensual language in her descriptions of specific rural landscapes, the mundane details of everyday life, and the pleasures of physical sensation. Among her most prominent recurring motifs are detailed accounts of food preparation and eating experiences. Roberts's fiction often concerns the struggles of women to free themselves from the constraints imposed upon them by men and religion. A Piece of the Night is written as the confessional narrative of Julie Fanchot, a French Catholic woman who overcomes the domination of her parents and husband to evolve as a feminist and lesbian. Several of Roberts's novels are revisitations of biblical and mythological tales from a modern-day feminist perspective. In The Visitation (1983), Helen, a woman in present-day London, communicates through her dreams with women from the world of Greek mythology. The Wild Girl (1984) is a retelling of the biblical story of Mary Magdalene from a feminist perspective. In The Book of Mrs. Noah (1987), a librarian named Mrs. Noah imagines herself to be sailing on a symbolic ark filled with women from throughout history who discuss the role of womankind in the development of humanity. In the Red Kitchen (1990) combines the narratives of four different women: the frame narrative concerns Hattie King, a cookbook writer who has moved into a house in Hackney, England. The other narrators include Flora Milk, a nineteenth-century medium from London; Minny Preston, a pregnant Victorian housewife whose story is told through letters written to her mother; and Hat, an ancient Egyptian princess, daughter of the Pharaoh, who marries her own father and assumes political power after his death. Daughters of the House (1992) revolves around two cousins, Léonie and Thérèse, who grow up in the same house in a small village in Normandy. The two are separated as young women when Thérèse enters a Catholic convent, and Léonie marries. Twenty years later, Thérèse leaves the convent to return to the family home where Léonie still lives. Together, they must reconcile their personal histories with that of a family secret buried in the cellar and a village secret regarding the massacre of a Jewish family during the Holocaust.

Flesh and Blood (1994) is one of Roberts's most complex novels, both in its narration and conception. The work is again told by multiple narrators of different genders and time periods, all of whom may be imaginary incarnations of the same person. Fred, the central narrator, claims to have just murdered his mother. Fred's narrative segues into those of Freddy, Felicité, and others. The events, locations, and time periods covered by the various narrators include London in the 1950s, the making of an impressionist painting in the nineteenth century, an arranged marriage in the eighteenth century, the Garden of Eden, and Soho in the 1960s. Impossible Saints (1997) incorporates the narratives of several fictional female saints. The central story concerns Josephine, a nun who is declared a saint after her death. After her death, parts of Josephine's corpse are cut off and sold for profit as holy relics. The events of Josephine's life and death are narrated by her niece, Isabelle. Fair Exchange (1999) is set in revolutionary England and France between the years 1780 and 1810, recounting the birth of illegitimate children by two prominent women in the community. The Looking Glass (2000) takes place in provincial France during the years 1913 and 1914. The novel includes the stories of five different narrators, all of them women whose lives have been touched by a fictional poet named Gerard Colbert. The Mistressclass (2003) focuses on two London sisters, Catherine and Vinny, and Catherine's marriage to Adam, a writer. During the course of the novel, Adam struggles to come to terms with the death of his father. A series of flashbacks reveals that Adam and Vinny were in love before Adam married Catherine. Another subplot involves Vinny's interest in the writers Charlotte and Emily Brontë and a set of fictionalized letters that Charlotte writes to a former teacher at a Brussels school. Roberts's short story collections include During Mother's Absence (1993) and Playing Sardines (2001). She has also published several books of poetry, including The Mirror of the Mother: Selected Poems, 1975-1985 (1986) and All the Selves I Was: New and Selected Poems (1995), as well as Food, Sex & God: On Inspiration and Writing, a book of essays on writing.

Critical Reception

The most common criticism of Roberts's fiction has been the claim that her novels are overly didactic, presenting a feminist message and agenda at the expense of storytelling and fully developed characters. Many critics, however, have praised Roberts as a feminist writer whose explorations of women's consciousness, experiences, and place in history are complex, insightful, and evocative. A number of reviewers have found Roberts's experimental plot structures and her interweaving of the narratives of several characters to be highly effective in demonstrating how themes in the lives of the various women cut across socioeconomic and historical divisions. Others have countered this assertion, arguing that her unconventional narrative structure often reads as incoherent and confusing. Roberts has been applauded by a number of commentators for her treatment of such recurring themes as the mother-daughter relationship, conflict between the individual and gender identity, the effects of Catholic upbringing on the development of girls, female sexual desire, family secrets, and the power of sensual experience. Critics have also offered a generally favorable assessment of her descriptive language, variously describing her prose style as vivid and lyrical. Reviewers have been particularly impressed with Roberts's detailed descriptions of landscapes, cooking and eating experiences, and the everyday lives of women throughout the centuries.

Principal Works

A Piece of the Night (novel) 1978

The Visitation (novel) 1983

The Wild Girl (novel) 1984

The Mirror of the Mother: Selected Poems, 1975-1985 (poetry) 1986

The Book of Mrs. Noah (novel) 1987

In the Red Kitchen (novel) 1990

Psyche and the Hurricane (poetry) 1991

Daughters of the House (novel) 1992

During Mother's Absence (short stories) 1993

Flesh and Blood (novel) 1994

All the Selves I Was: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1995

Impossible Saints (novel) 1997

Food, Sex & God: On Inspiration and Writing (essays) 1998

Fair Exchange (novel) 1999

The Looking Glass (novel) 2000

Playing Sardines, and Other Stories (short stories) 2001

The Mistressclass (novel) 2003

Criticism

Patrick Parrinder (review date 22 March 1990)

SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Uncle Kingsley.” London Review of Books 12, no. 6 (22 March 1990): 20-2.

[In the following excerpt, Parrinder comments that In the Red Kitchen is more experimental, though less successful, than Roberts's previous novels.]

[B]oth Michèle Roberts and David Grossman have written novels which pivot on the sentimental privileging of authorship. ‘I want to tell you my stories. I want to record my life with you. I want to give myself a history,’ insists one of Roberts's narrators, a contemporary writer addressing her lover. In In the Red Kitchen her voice mingles with those of the others—like herself, ghosts, spirits,...

(The entire section is 609 words.)

Helen Birch (review date 30 March 1990)

SOURCE: Birch, Helen. “Whispers of Immortality.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 94 (30 March 1990): 40.

[In the following review, Birch describes In the Red Kitchen as an exploration of the feminine unconscious using the narratives of the four central characters.]

Michèle Roberts is an exquisite writer. For her, language is a precious instrument with which she traces the contours of the world, mixing its colours, identifying tone and shade and smell, as if failure to classify would cause it to crumble. Her meticulous realism invites comparisons with that much-maligned genre, the “women's novel” of the thirties, forties and fifties, when miniaturists...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Louise Doughty (review date 6 April 1990)

SOURCE: Doughty, Louise. “Medium with a Message.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4540 (6 April 1990): 375.

[In the following review, Doughty comments that the different narrative voices of In the Red Kitchen are unified by common themes, contending that the book is “a truly post-feminist novel.”]

“I always loved men more than women. It is hard to love women. They want far too much.” These are the thoughts of Flora Milk, a Victorian medium who conjures the spirits of the dead in her Hackney kitchen to the delight, surprise and scepticism of assembled pampered ladies and scientific gents. The character of Flora Milk is based on a real-life mystic,...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

Contemporary Review (review date July 1990)

SOURCE: Review of In the Red Kitchen, by Michèle Roberts. Contemporary Review 257, no. 494 (July 1990): 56.

[In the following review, the critic observes that In the Red Kitchen contains richly descriptive prose but comments that the different narrative voices in the novel are confusing.]

In Michèle Roberts's novel [In the Red Kitchen] four main characters narrate episodes in their respective stories. They range from an ancient Egyptian woman to one who lives in present day Hackney. By various devices their stories interrelate in unexpected, not to say contrived, ways until the final complication involves the question of whether the connections...

(The entire section is 274 words.)

Roz Kaveney (review date 18 September 1992)

SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “Moments of Choice.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4668 (18 September 1992): 23.

[In the following review, Kaveney comments that the strength of Daughters of the House lies in the ambivalence of the characters, as well as Roberts's descriptions of deep sadness, sense of loss, and anguished memory.]

Daughters of the House is an English novel about French Catholic provincial life; an overt but restrained feminism informs it and creates a sense of deep sadness. Cousins Thérèse and Léonie, born during the Occupation in a small Norman village, support each other through puberty and the death of Thérèse's mother, but are...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

Francis King (review date 3 October 1992)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “Too Much Goes into a Best Cellar.” Spectator 269, no. 8569 (3 October 1992): 30-1.

[In the following review, King asserts that Daughters of the House is Roberts's most successful novel to date but finds it lacking in plot structure and character development.]

The past is a palimpsest: so many conflicting memories and imaginations have scrawled their messages across it that it is often impossible and always difficult to decipher the truth. This is the basic theme of Michèle Roberts's sixth and—since it has won her place on the Booker short-list—most successful novel to date [Daughters of the House].

The...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

Judy Cooke (review date 9 October 1992)

SOURCE: Cooke, Judy. “Past Imperfect.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 223 (9 October 1992): 34.

[In the following review, Cooke praises Daughters of the House for a satisfying plot, complex characters, lyrical prose, and psychological insight.]

Daughters of the House begins with a full-blown nightmare, the image of a woman with dead, bleeding feet who clutches “a red handbag … full of shreds of dead flesh”. Starting awake, Léonie runs to the bathroom gagging, feeling that it is her cousin Thérèse, expected home soon after many years in a convent, whom she is vomiting out. Threatened by real and symbolic manifestations of an unmother—a...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Patricia Craig (review date 3 December 1992)

SOURCE: Craig, Patricia. “Non-Eater.” London Review of Books 14, no. 23 (3 December 1992): 28.

[In the following review, Craig criticizes Daughters of the House as “overwrought” and comments that Roberts is “one of those writers who equate obscurity with depth.”]

Jenefer Shute's Life-Size comes garnished with a quote from Fay Weldon, in which enthusiasm has got the better of taste: ‘Terrific! I devoured it at a sitting.’ ‘Devour’ is not a word one would choose to apply to a novel about the suppression of appetites, however jocularly. This book is full of rage and disgust. ‘They say I'm sick, but what about them, all of them, who...

(The entire section is 1490 words.)

Trev Broughton (review date 22 October 1993)

SOURCE: Broughton, Trev. “Edible Imagery.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4725 (22 October 1993): 21.

[In the following review, Broughton argues that the short stories collected in During Mother's Absence are unified by the overarching theme of mother-daughter relationships and provide “an excellent introduction to the central themes of Roberts's fiction.”]

These nine stories [in During Mother's Absence,] provide an excellent introduction to many of Michèle Roberts's preoccupations over the past five years: her compassion for weakness; her warm and witty nostalgia for a childhood spent between suburban England and rural France; her robustly...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Charlotte Moore (review date 10 September 1994)

SOURCE: Moore, Charlotte. “Back to the Womb with a View.” Spectator 273, no. 8670 (10 September 1994): 34.

[In the following review, Moore observes that the unusual narrative structure of Flesh and Blood works to blur the boundaries between memory and desire, imagination and reality, conscious and unconscious.]

‘My mother was my first great love, she was my paradise garden.’ So says Frederica, one of the several narrators of Flesh and Blood. Or are they really several? Frederica, the pregnant artist, has evolved from Fred the androgynous matricide, has merged into Federigo, adolescent observer of female transgression. Time runs backward, and is...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

Kate Alvarez (review date 16 September 1994)

SOURCE: Alvarez, Kate. “The Female Tongue.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4772 (16 September 1994): 20.

[In the following review of Flesh and Blood, Alvarez asserts that the complex narrative structure of the novel is ultimately incohesive and frustrating to readers.]

The title, Flesh and Blood, and the opening words, “An hour after murdering my mother I was in Soho”, suggest that Michèle Roberts's new novel is a murder mystery or perhaps a piece of modern Gothic. What we get instead is an infinitely complex and frustrating set of fictions.

Fred, the criminal narrator of the first chapter, finds himself in a dressmaker's shop...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Judy Cooke (review date 16 September 1994)

SOURCE: Cooke, Judy. “Tales from Paradise.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 320 (16 September 1994): 39-40.

[In the following review, Cooke asserts that Flesh and Blood is a carefully constructed novel that includes multiple narratives unified by a common thematic focus on issues of eroticism, Catholicism, and feminism.]

Artful in the best sense of the word, Flesh and Blood appears to be a collection of stories told with desperate urgency to ward off disaster. Like Scheherezade, the narrator—variously called Fred, Freddy and Frederica—perfects a technique that closes abruptly on one fascinating encounter only to plunge headlong into the next....

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Susan Rowland (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: Rowland, Susan. “The Body's Sacred: Romance and Sacrifice in Religious and Jungian Narratives.” Literature and Theology 10, no. 2 (June 1996): 160-70.

[In the following essay, Rowland discusses the novels Wild Girl and Chymical Wedding, by Lindsay Clark, in terms of Jungian psychology.]

What is distinctive about Jungian psychology is Jung's refusal to divide off psychology from religion or to privilege one over the other as a mastering discourse. To Jung, psychology cannot ‘explain away’ religious feeling nor can theology authenticate subjective psychological intuitions. He believed that primary reality is psychic reality: we experience...

(The entire section is 4823 words.)

Roger Luckhurst (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Luckhurst, Roger. “‘Impossible Mourning’ in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Michèle Roberts's Daughters of the House.Critique 37, no. 4 (summer 1996): 243-60.

[In the following essay, Luckhurst draws on postcolonial theory to find parallels between the novels Daughters of the House and Beloved by Toni Morrison.]

Why these two texts together? Can the link between one of the most celebrated African American texts of recent years and an Anglo-French writer's latest novel be anything but cryptic? Toni Morrison's oeuvre has fostered a massive critical industry; Beloved alone is the subject of some thirty articles....

(The entire section is 8747 words.)

Emma Tristram (review date 25 April 1997)

SOURCE: Tristram, Emma. “The Relics of Religion.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4908 (25 April 1997): 24.

[In the following review, Tristram comments that Roberts's writing style in Impossible Saints is intense, sensuous, and full of evocative imagery.]

In Impossible Saints, Michèle Roberts parodies and criticizes Catholic Christianity with a certain glee. She also enjoys baffling the reader's expectations and upsetting literary conventions. Each time you finish a chapter of the main story—the life of a nun called Josephine—Roberts breaks the flow of the narrative by inserting the life of another fictional female saint. Josephine's story begins...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Jason Cowley (review date 23 May 1997)

SOURCE: Cowley, Jason. “Incest and Holiness.” New Statesman 126, no. 4335 (23 May 1997): 49.

[In the following review of Impossible Saints, Cowley asserts that Roberts's fictions are overly taken with fanciful flights of the imagination and fail to address the real experience of modern life.]

Michèle Roberts is a disarmingly sensuous writer. Her sentences have a voluptuous torpor. She luxuriates in abundance. We read her for her language, for her ornate style and disturbed Gothic imagination. Themes and motifs recur: the relationship of mothers and daughters, the allure of incest, the oppressiveness of Catholicism, the seductive pleasure of food, the...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Michèle Roberts and Stephen Brasher (interview date 4 July 1997)

SOURCE: Roberts, Michèle, and Stephen Brasher. “Influences: Michèle Roberts, Writer and Broadcaster.” New Statesman 126, no. 4341 (4 July 1997): 21.

[In the following interview, Roberts comments on her literary influences and political opinions.]

[Brasher]: Which books and authors have had the greatest effect on your political beliefs?

[Roberts]: Sheila Rowbotham's books helped me to see that you need to be a socialist to be a feminist.

Name one film, book, play, poem and piece of music that you would like everyone to see, read or hear.

Film: I love all Buñuel's films and would recommend...

(The entire section is 354 words.)

Linda Giedl (review date 2 July 1998)

SOURCE: Giedl, Linda. “Double Standard for Women Saints.” Christian Science Monitor 90, no. 152 (2 July 1998): B8.

[In the following review of Impossible Saints, Giedl comments that Roberts is a skilled storyteller but that the novel is uneven in quality.]

Among the summer offerings are two books by women about women—women saints, to be exact. Both are drawn from one of the remotest periods of Christian history, when the Roman Catholic Church was extending its influence all over Europe, and sainthood was a growth industry.

In their books, American scholar Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg and London-based fiction writer Michèle Roberts address...

(The entire section is 865 words.)

Peter Swaab (review date 15 January 1999)

SOURCE: Swaab, Peter. “Revolution's Leavings.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4998 (15 January 1999): 21.

[In the following review, Swaab observes that Fair Exchange is intricately plotted with vivid descriptions of women's everyday lives, but that it is overly didactic in conveying its feminist message.]

Fair Exchange sets its narrative confusions in the convulsions of revolutionary England and France. The action takes place between the late 1780s and 1810, and is suggested by the coincidence that both William Wordsworth and Mary Wollstonecraft conceived illegitimate children in post-revolutionary France. Wordsworth's nephew and biographer,...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Andrew Barrow (review date 16 January 1999)

SOURCE: Barrow, Andrew. “Food for Puzzled Thought.” Spectator 282, no. 8893 (16 January 1999): 30.

[In the following review, Barrow describes Fair Exchange as an “extremely juicy historical romance.”]

This short and extremely juicy historical romance [Fair Exchange] starts with a French peasant woman called Louise summoning a priest. She has something dreadful to confess about her early life. Only at the end of the novel do we learn her terrible secret.

Cliff-hanging chapter-endings and constructions seem to be one of Michèle Roberts's specialities and during the first 80 or so pages of this book I was transfixed by her fine,...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Susan Rowland (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Rowland, Susan. “Feminist Ethical Reading Strategies in Michèle Roberts's In the Red Kitchen: Hysterical Reading and Making Theory Hysterical.” In The Ethics in Literature, edited by Andrew Hadfield, Dominic Rainsford, and Tim Woods, pp. 169-83. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

[In the following essay, Rowland asserts that Roberts utilizes a social realist narrative in her novel In the Red Kitchen to make feminist ethical claims.]

This essay will examine the ethical encounter with the Other in a contemporary feminist novel: In the Red Kitchen by Michèle Roberts.1 I will argue that the novel is designed not only to display an...

(The entire section is 5894 words.)

Emma Parker (essay date winter 2000)

SOURCE: Parker, Emma. “From House to Home: A Kristevan Reading of Michèle Roberts's Daughters of the House.Critique 41, no. 2 (winter 2000): 153-73.

[In the following essay, Parker draws on the feminist theories of Julia Kristeva in an analysis of Roberts's novel Daughters of the House.]

Women writers have a penchant for burning down paternal houses that do not offer their female protagonists satisfactory homes.1 In Daughters of the House, Michèle Roberts prefers to transform rather than destroy the house in which her two main female characters reside, a metaphor for the patriarchal symbolic order,2 and she attempts this...

(The entire section is 10309 words.)

Claire Harman (review date 26 May 2000)

SOURCE: Harman, Claire. “A Poet and a Mermaid.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5069 (26 May 2000): 21.

[In the following review of The Looking Glass, Harman praises Roberts for vivid, sensuous prose that portrays the drama and humor of everyday life.]

Michèle Roberts's eleventh novel [The Looking Glass] returns to nineteenth-century French provincial life with a multilayered narrative centred on a poet called Gérard Colbert. Colbert himself is an elusive figure; it is the women who surround him who tell the story and the humblest of them, the orphaned maidservant Geneviève, whose point of view dominates the book.

Geneviève is a...

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Michèle Roberts (essay date 27 November 2000)

SOURCE: Roberts, Michèle. “On the Novels of Colette.” New Statesman 129, no. 4514 (27 November 2000): 58.

[In the following essay, Roberts discusses the influence of French novelist Colette on her own life and fiction.]

Colette has meant a lot to me both because of the books she wrote and the life she led. As a young writer in the 1970s, entering a literary world that was still dominated by masculine precepts and models, I sought for a tradition of fiction-writing that suggested possibilities of writing riskily, authentically, differently. Colette was a major modernist, producing a new sort of novel. I believe that the life she lived helped her to do this.

...

(The entire section is 975 words.)

Susan Rowland (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Rowland, Susan. “Women, Spiritualism and Depth Psychology in Michèle Roberts's Victorian Novel.” In Rereading Victorian Fiction, edited by Alice Jenkins and Juliet John, pp. 201-14. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.

[In the following essay, Rowland asserts that Roberts's works of historical fiction represent an extension of academic feminist research that challenges traditional history and add a feminist perspective to the historical record.]

In the Red Kitchen by Michèle Roberts is a contemporary feminist novel partly set in the Victorian London of female Spiritualist mediums.1 Its two other temporal sites are Ancient Egypt and London in...

(The entire section is 5511 words.)

Clare Hanson (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Hanson, Clare. “During Mother's Absence: The Fiction of Michèle Roberts.” In British Women Writing Fiction, edited by Abby H. P. Werlock, pp. 229-47. London: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Hanson discusses the recurring theme of mother-daughter relationships in Roberts's novels and short stories.]

Michèle Roberts is one of the most interesting and accomplished writers working in English. Her fiction is vivid, sensuous, and imaginative, its formal inventiveness matching the richness of her vision and insight. Roberts explores many of the key issues facing women today, but from the perspective of a woman half-English and...

(The entire section is 7736 words.)

Sarah Sceats (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Sceats, Sarah. “Food and Manners: Roberts and Ellis.” In Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women's Fiction, pp. 125-54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Sceats discusses the significance of food and cooking to the creation of female identity in the fiction of Roberts and Alice Thomas Ellis.]

Food is an essentially social signifier, a bearer of interpersonal and cultural meanings. It is, and has been, constructed as symbolic in all sorts of ways, either intentionally (Passover, the Eucharist), through custom (harvest suppers and hot cross buns) or by commerce (the ‘ploughman's lunch’); the resonances are,...

(The entire section is 13359 words.)

Sheena Joughin (review date 8 June 2001)

SOURCE: Joughin, Sheena. “A Soubrette among the Espaliers.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5123 (8 June 2001): 23.

[In the following review, Joughin observes that the stories in Playing Sardines include many of Roberts's recurring themes but comments that the stories are underdeveloped.]

In 1979, The Women's Press inaugurated its fiction list with Michèle Roberts's first novel, A Piece of the Night. Fourteen more books have consolidated her position within a particularly female enclosure. Her preoccupations are with mothers and daughters, with female saints, and the lessons to be learnt from their journeys to canonization, the reclamation of history,...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

Patricia Duncker (review date 18 June 2001)

SOURCE: Duncker, Patricia. “Cookery Lessons.” New Statesman 14, no. 661 (18 June 2001): 58.

[In the following review, Duncker observes that the motif of cooking and eating unites the stories in Playing Sardines.]

Food, Sex and God was the title of Michèle Roberts's earlier book of essays, and signalled her central preoccupations as a writer. Food, sex and God are indeed the main themes of her arresting new collection of stories, Playing Sardines. Her approach to each is adventurous, quirky and erotic. Both food and sex, in the orthodox forms of communion and marriage, are sacraments in the Catholic Church. I read Roberts as a Catholic writer, still...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Kai Maristed (review date 22 July 2001)

SOURCE: Maristed, Kai. “Suddenly Last Summer.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (22 July 2001): 8.

[In the following review, Maristed argues that The Looking Glass expresses an immediacy and intimacy unusual in historical novels and asserts that the book contains exciting narrative structure, rich imagery, and deep explorations of character.]

[In The Looking Glass,] Genevieve, a foundling raised in provincial confinement by strict nuns, savored her first taste of freedom at 16. As she rode in a farmer's cart toward an arranged future as domestic maid, her “eyes seized on everything: the swaying rump of the horse just in front of me and the strip of...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Penelope Lively (review date 12 April 2003)

SOURCE: Lively, Penelope. “A Dance to the Music of London.” Spectator 291, no. 9114 (12 April 2003): 42.

[In the following review, Lively offers a positive assessment of The Mistressclass, praising Roberts's “meticulous creation of a time and a place.”]

Michèle Roberts writes some of the most sensual prose around in contemporary fiction. This novel is alight with rich descriptive passages, often springing from the most mundane prompts—having a shampoo at the hairdresser, rolling a joint, the interior of a greasy-spoon café. In other hands, these might seem gratuitous page-fillers. Michèle Roberts uses them to create a climate for her fiction that...

(The entire section is 585 words.)