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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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, displaced persons—who are also intent on telling their stories.
The writer moves into a house in Hackney which was once inhabited by Flora Milk, a famous Victorian medium, and by Flora's embittered and envious younger sister. Then there are the confessions of Hat, an Ancient Egyptian princess who apparently was Flora's spirit control. These stories from Ancient Egypt and from Mid-Victorian and late 20th-century London interweave like a multiple haunting. Michèle Roberts's earlier work includes The Wild Girl, which purports to be the fifth Gospel according to Mary Magdalene. In formal terms In the Red Kitchen is more experimental but perhaps less successful than its predecessor. I am not wholly convinced by...
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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 like Barbara Comyns, Rosamund Lehmann and Elizabeth Taylor attuned their sensibilities to every frisson, every nuance and left the Big Picture to the boys.
Roberts's choice of themes—an enduring fascination with the arcane symbols of faith (specifically Catholicism) and attempts to relocate ancient myths through the lives of her modern women characters—are easily dismissed as parochial. At first glance, only the context has changed; the forms, the concerns remain the same. Like her forebears, Roberts is intelligent, serious, high-minded. She abandons shock tactics in favour of careful transformation, weaving the fine threads of language through the new territory of feminism and its ideas about sex, love, guilt and...
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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, Florence Cook, although in In the Red Kitchen Michèle Roberts has adapted the details. More fictional but none the less real to the reader are Hat, Pharaoh's daughter, who speaks of her life in ancient Egypt, and Hattie, a twentieth-century cookery writer now living in Flora's house. The three narratives are interwoven with other voices—Flora's jealous sister, Rosina, and the gullible and self-deceiving Minny, a pregnant Victorian housewife. It sounds complicated and it is, but the confusion of voices is made interesting and cohesive by the themes that link them.
The strongest of these themes is that of the father-daughter relationship. Roberts has a remarkable grasp of the complexities of children's feelings for...
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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 related by Hattie, the ‘king pin’ of the sequence, is inventing relationships or telling what she sees as the truth about the various plots. Flora, a working class London girl, is used by a distinguished scientist for amorous experiments of his own as well as for his genuine research. A pharaoh's daughter in Egypt becomes the wife, and eventually the successor, of her demi-god father. A Victorian wife, Minnie, hints in letters to her mother a discontent to which she will not openly own. Hattie, a modern writer of cookery books and part-time prostitute, buys a dilapidated house in Hackney. However, Minnie is the wife of the scientist patron of Flora; Hattie's house is Flora's former home, as Hattie sees when Flora appears as a ghost at a...
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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 separated by Thérèse's vocation and by Léonie's marriage. Twenty years later, Thérèse returns, having decided to leave the convent, and finds their relationship has curdled.
Pervading both the extended picture of their adolescence in the 1950s, and the framing sections set twenty years later, is an awareness of what happened in the war. The question of their true parentage hangs over the two young women, just as the memories of collaboration and doomed resistance hang over their community. Their journey into adulthood is a process of initiation into the language of their seniors, a language of angry reminiscence about what is past and unalterable.
When the half-English Léonie is brought to France on the...
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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 past for Thérèse and Léonie, cousins of exactly the same age, is literally buried under sand in the wine cellar of the old Normandy farmhouse in which they grew up, now allies and now enemies, in the immediate aftermath of the war. It was in this cellar that the villagers concealed their spirits and wines from the occupying Germans; and it was here that Antoinette, Thérèse's mother, concealed something even more valuable to her and the villagers (it would ruin the dénouement of the book to reveal what it was) and then may or may not have allowed herself to be seduced by a German soldier in order to safeguard that secret.
The cousin's quest for the truth first as adolescent girls and then as grown-ups—is the...
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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 corpse, a nun—she feels compelled to discover the origin of her fear. What secrets in her family are hidden in her past?
In every way, the personalities and morality of “the daughters” are at odds. As a child, Léonie was granted a true vision of the Virgin, though her Lady of the Wood, in red and gold, may be an older divinity than the blue-and-white-robed Madonna worshipped in church, and claimed by Thérèse. And in Léonie's memories of her foster-mother, Rose, the girls' wet nurse (we're in rural France, pre-war), Michèle Roberts achieves a rhapsodic intensity, pushing the narrative towards poetry. “Sweetness was her and it, her two hands grasping, her mouth demanding and receiving the lively flow.” There is...
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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 think nothing of chewing on a carcass, sinking their teeth into muscle and gristle and blood?’ Thus muses the first-person narrator of Life-Size, five foot two inches, weighing less than seventy pounds; Josie, a graduate student in economics, is far advanced along the line of self-starvation. Anorexia nervosa has her in its grip. She has gone far beyond temperance—the observation quoted above needn't seem all that askew if you take it as a prescription for vegetarianism, not near-abstinence—into some ferocious realm of self-denial. Finally her flatmate has contacted her parents and Josie is now installed in hospital, where she battles to maintain the lowest possible weight, to this end subjecting her breakfast, lunch and dinner...
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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 unsentimental fascination for mystical experience and la vie religieuse; her unflinching exploration of the way in which taboos—cancer, childhood sexuality, incest—prey on consciousness. They also show her considerable strengths, above all, her instinct for what makes the forbidden fruity.
Important influences—Toni Morrison's majestic Beloved, the sensual punning and mischief of Colette's Claudine stories—are near to the surface here. So is the autobiographical impulse: her struggle to come to terms with a complex, problematic Anglo-French heritage is harsher and more visible here than in the longer works. None the less, long-standing admirers of Roberts's fiction will see confirmed the ripening of...
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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 then dispensed with; male slips into female and back again. Michèle Roberts constructs her book—one hesitates to use the term ‘novel’—like a set of Chinese boxes, or Russian dolls. Each episode links to the next, each narrator takes on aspects of his/her predecessor. Roberts mixes memory and desire, blurs the boundaries between imagination and reality, between the conscious and the unconscious self.
We are led in this way from 20th-century Soho via the France of the Impressionists, the France of Marie Antoinette, the Veneto at the time of the Inquisition, and the timeless world of the Northern European fairytale—the late Angela Carter is the presiding genius of this book—back, ultimately, to paradise. Cultural...
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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 and seizes the opportunity to disguise himself. “Choosing a dress of flesh-pink chiffon … my second skin”, and using his handkerchief and tie to fill out a bodice, he turns into our Scheherazade. Embarking on a story that will explain away his guilt, he enters a “labyrinth” that unwinds into many other narratives.
The chapters that follow move backwards through history, across continents and centuries, from 1950s London all the way to paradise, and then back again to Soho in the 1960s. Freddy, an adolescent girl in the throes of first love, takes over the narrative from Fred; Félicité, on holiday with her fiancé in nineteenth-century France, assumes Freddy's tale, and so it continues. Each story is “a...
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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.
Freddy is in flight from the appalling conviction that she has murdered her own mother. She sets out on a journey that begins in Soho (coffee bars and art movies) and travels back in time through a convent education, the creation of an Impressionist painting, an arranged marriage between an 18th-century ingénue and a sadistic nobleman, a 16th-century brush with the Inquisition—back as far as folktale.
It is a wonderful read, if occasionally frustrating. There are so many questions left unanswered, so many intriguing characters abandoned to their fate. The themes of Roberts' work hold it all together, exploring eroticism, celebrating France and French culture, championing the feminist cause,...
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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 nothing outside the processes of the psyche so that images, dreams, feelings, words are firstly about the psyche. Therefore, for Jung, all experience and all words about experience have a subjective referent, are psychological but he also believed that words about transcendence have an objective reference as well, are theology.1 In his system psychology and theology operate as two sides of the same thoughts and experiences.
This paradoxical statement works in terms of theory because of Jung's unique definition of the unconscious. Instead of being a powerful receptacle of repression, Jung's unconscious is an independent and continuously creative force upon the ego, containing meaning producing potential structures...
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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. Michèle Roberts has been an important, but resolutely marginalized presence on the British literary scene, her work shunted off into the area of programmatic feminist texts, with Daughters of the House somewhat patronizingly described as a breakthrough novel. Given the disjunctions of cultural history, ethnicity, and literary tradition between their sites of production, does reading the two texts together not risk a reduction of specificity?
And yet uncanny echoes resound between them: Both concern daughters in houses transgenerationally haunted by “unspeakable” histories; both deploy the figure of the ghost as the stubborn trace of that unspoken history. And this is not mere formal accident, but political design....
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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 with her death; nine months later, her incorrupt body is giving off a powerful sweet odour. Newly dug up, the body is first displayed in a church, where people keep biting pieces off and taking them away in their mouths. Two priests then cut the corpse into pieces, so that the evil new Prioress, Sister Maria, can sell them for relics. This scene gruesomely depicts what may once really have happened to saints' bodies, if legends about relics are to be believed. It at once dismisses these legends and makes use of them. It is a feminist Eucharist, with a female body being broken up and distributed. And as a disgusting opening, it challenges you to continue reading.
The religious parody, the overturning of narrative...
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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 mystery of enclosed, contemplative orders. Her books, though repetitive and melodramatic, are hard to forget.
In a recent interview Roberts said Impossible Saints was her final attempt “to exorcise” what Catholicism had done to her as a child. Roberts, one feels, would agree with Kirkegaard that “the closer you keep to God … the worse for you”. Certainly the nuns and female saints in this novel are, humanly speaking, miserable, their lives blighted by the futility of the desires of the flesh and by disastrous relationships with their fathers.
Impossible Saints is a series of interweaving stories, of which the longest is about Josephine, who enters a convent in pique and dejection after...
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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 Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Book: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is passionately concerned with the imagination as part of rebellion.
Play: The medieval mystery plays.
Poem: I love the bee symbolism in Sylvia Plath's Ariel.
Music: A Feather on the Breath of God by Hildegard of Bingen.
In the early stages of your life, which figures stood out as an important influence on you?
My grandmother, Nell Roberts, who was honest, rude, funny and kind. Miss Bates, my English teacher, who encouraged me to love language.
What event during your lifetime has had the greatest effect...
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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 conditions, religious and secular, under which medieval women struggled to cope, contribute, and prevail.
Schulenburg places her historical study, Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society ca. 500-1100, at the intersection of two currently burgeoning areas of historical research. One is hagiography, or the official accounts of saints' lives. The other is the status of women in medieval society and the church.
Historians have generally ignored Latin hagiography as unreliable. Compiled years or even decades after their subjects' deaths, hagiographic writings were extended eulogies, propaganda pieces intended to laud the saintly qualities of their protagonists. However, Schulenburg has...
(The entire section is 865 words.)
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, Christopher, described this in 1851 as a time when “the most licentious theories were propounded” and “all restraints were broken”: Michèle Roberts's intricately plotted story dramatizes the scope of new freedoms and continuing restraints in the lives and loves of a group of women based on Wollstonecraft and Annette Vallon (Wordsworth's French mistress), and on their serving women, Louise and Daisy, unenfranchised figures whose points of view dominate the narrative. The book has a level focus on the possibilities of fellowship between women. Its central event (which only becomes clear on a second reading) is a powerful emblem of the obstacles which might check sanguine hopes of progress in gender politics.
As a historical...
(The entire section is 795 words.)
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, light, almost two-dimensional technique and by her rapidly evoked portraits of life in London and France some 200 years ago.
Then for a short while a cloud seemed to descend on the narrative and I found myself caught up in a sort of feminist dream, imprisoned in a community of pregnant women all in a tremor about the bloody revolution taking place in Paris and the wholesome fruits of the earth that surround them in their rural fastness not far from the city. Oddly stilted, almost copy-book conversations about Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are followed by sickly-sweet references to ‘spoonfuls of cream’, ‘pink scum’ and ‘hot juice and pulp’ as our heroines cook themselves yet another scrumptious meal or snack....
(The entire section is 641 words.)
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 ethical field structured around gender paradigms in the social realist content of the novel but also that it is crucially concerned with ethics in its narrative form. Such a narrative form problematises realism while exposing and challenging theories of psyche implicit in historical categories of gender. In short, the text demands that the reader formulate ethical reading strategies which stage an encounter with the Other under the auspices of feminism. In the Red Kitchen makes direct ethical claims upon the reader and these ethical claims are feminist in two modes: first at the level of social realism by depicting life for female narrators in Ancient Egypt, Victorian and modern London, and secondly at a theoretical level. The...
(The entire section is 5894 words.)
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 through an exploration of the conditions Julia Kristeva calls abjection and estrangement. Roger Luckhurst's recent reading of Daughters of the House points to the usefulness of psychoanalytic insights in reading Roberts's text. His essay, like mine, focuses on the relationship between memory and history; but whereas Luckhurst uses theories of mourning and melancholia to discuss repressed histories, I want to use Kristeva's theories of abjection and estrangement to explore the relationship between women and history and between femininity and repression from a woman-centered perspective. Like Kristeva, Roberts is concerned with alterations in subjectivity and transformations of the symbolic made possible by a confrontation with the...
(The entire section is 10309 words.)
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 daydreamer and storyteller who is sent from the convent to be servant to a widowed café-owner in the seaside village of Blessetot. The details of everyday life are lovingly evoked, as the orphan learns household and garden management, cooks plenty of delicious food and lives in unexpected contentment with her mistress, crying for happiness at the discovery that she at last loves someone and that it is “the most ordinary thing in the world”.
The arrival of cousin Frédéric, “a fisher of widows”, puts paid to this modest idyll. When he moves in and marries Madame Patin, Geneviève's sense of exclusion prompts her to flirt with the despised new husband in order to regain the wife's attention. The strategy backfires,...
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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.
Colette is a writer beloved of other writers for the excellence of her style. She is beloved of women, in particular, for her courage in raising two fingers to the moral and literary establishments of her time. A female writer could be made to feel, if she wanted to commit herself to art as opposed to producing pretty verses for reciting in drawing rooms, that she was less a real woman than some sort of monster. You could deny these splits or, as a good modernist allowing your work to show the traces of how it was made, let them inspire you, build them into your writing. You could live a male-identified life, making male-defined art, or you could redefine what it meant to be a woman, which is what most of the female modernists...
(The entire section is 975 words.)
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 grim 1980s where ‘Victorian values’ have restored homelessness and poverty. The novel hinges upon imagining together two related nineteenth-century issues: Spiritualism with its preponderance of female mediums, and its implications in the succeeding discourse of depth psychology. By depth psychology I refer to the theories of Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung who were both concerned to theorize upon the unruly bodies of women a medical discourse of hysteria, defining as ‘the unconscious’ what had earlier been attributed to the occult. Only the Victorian portion of In the Red Kitchen is assigned historical sources in the ‘Author's Note’, which cites Alex Owen's essay in Language, Gender and Childhood and Elaine...
(The entire section is 5511 words.)
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 half-French, split between nations and identities. She was born in 1949, the daughter of a French mother and an English father, and has published to date nine novels, two volumes of poetry, and a collection of short stories. Her first novel, A Piece of the Night (1978), was the first work of new fiction published by The Women's Press, and immediately established her as an original and powerful voice. In the novels that followed—The Visitation (1983), The Wild Girl (1984), The Book of Mrs. Noah (1987), In the Red Kitchen (1990)—Roberts explored women's identities and passions in complex fictions that suggestively weave together history, myth, and fiction. In 1992 her Daughters of the House was...
(The entire section is 7736 words.)
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, initially at least, culture-specific. (These resonances may change, of course: hot cross buns began their life in ancient Egypt as bread marked with horns for fertility.)1 Both the acceptability of particular foods and what they signify are part of cultural identity. Not only might raw fish, witchetty grubs or blancmange be repellant to people from cultures that do not eat such things, the cachet or dreariness of a particular dish or titbit is likely to be overlooked by outsiders. What, for example, might a passing Martian make of a cake topped with burning candles?
The socially constructed significance of food is many-layered, and increasingly multicultural. Peter Farb and George Armelagos claim that since...
(The entire section is 13359 words.)
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, particularly as told in France (Roberts is half French), and with her relationship to Catholicism and to God, who is very much the Freudian “exiled father” throughout her work. Food has also featured, the sensuality of its pleasures somehow bound up with those of story-telling. In Food, Sex and God (1998), she explained that she thinks of word processors as food processors, preferring to write on a typewriter which enables her to eat as she works. “The mother in me feeds the baby in me”, she wrote.
Playing Sardines is a familiar concoction. The texture of its eighteen stories is insistently female, with “drifts of white lace”, geranium buds “like the tips of lipsticks”, coquettes, soubrettes,...
(The entire section is 773 words.)
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 wrestling with the language and symbols of her religion. Her passionate commitment to women, our sexuality and freedom, compromises and complicates her relation to Catholicism.
In one of her most remarkable novels, Impossible Saints, Roberts works through these contradictions and constraints in the fantastical lives of different women. All the Christian virtues—humility, chastity, forgiveness—become poison in women's lives. We turn into sanctimonious doormats. Better to embrace the seven deadlies. We need our anger, jealousy and lust. Roberts knows this, and she says so, but she has never abandoned the iconography and structures of the faith. Thus, in the stories in this collection, the Virgin still watches and...
(The entire section is 529 words.)
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 leather harness confining its black tail, the crows flapping and cawing above the furrowed earth, the stinging green of hawthorn hedges, the shimmer of bluebells, like stretches of blue water, in the long grass beyond.” Dropped at a crossroads, she watched the “cartwheels tilting as they ground along.”
“Then I shook straw from my skirts, and straightened my wind-buffeted cap. … The whole landscape blinked and winked as the sun darted out of the skidding clouds. The patch of blue sky that appeared meant, I was convinced, good luck. I picked up my box and started off toward Blessetot.”
It is only right to introduce the hypnotically sensuous new novel by prize-winning English-French author Michèle...
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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 gives it another dimension. You do not just read the book, you also smell and see the action.
The Mistressclass is a London novel. The city itself infuses the narrative, a vivid and vibrant backcloth of wet gleaming streets, the river with its detritus, crammed tube trains, the reverberations of the city's past. The three central characters—middle-aged sisters Catherine and Vinny, and Catherine's husband Adam—act out a kind of pas de trois amidst and against the swirl of urban life, their actions and emotions of the present interlaced with the story of what happened in the past, when the sisters were girls. It is in some ways a classic situation of sibling rivalry, and the apposition of siblings, but with...
(The entire section is 585 words.)
Falcus, Sarah. “Her Odyssey: Herstory in Michele Roberts's Fair Exchange.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 44, no. 3 (spring 2003): 237-51.
Falcus explores how Roberts “deals with the making of historical narrative” in Fair Exchange.
Matthews, Samantha. “Scribbling Sisters.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5219 (11 April 2003): 8.
Matthews evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Mistressclass.
Rowland, Susan. “Michele Roberts' Virgins: Contesting Gender in Fictions, Re-writing Jungian Theory and Christian Myth.” Journal of Gender Studies 8, no. 1 (March 1999): 35-43.
Rowland argues that Roberts' novels use narrative fiction to challenge dualisms inherent in Christianity and Jungian theory and reshape feminist desire.
Additional coverage of Roberts's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 115; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 58; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 48; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 231; Feminist Writers; and Literature Resource Center.
(The entire section is 139 words.)