Michèle Roberts Introduction - Essay

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.