Patrick Parrinder (review date 22 March 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609
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 Roberts's decision to thrust her contemporary narrator into a confessional historical novel.
If sometimes the material is close to a Gothic tale, the mood is that of the present-day women's novel, brooding and contemplative rather than melodramatic. The Ancient Egyptian sequences have a momentary grandeur, with the exhilaration of the princess's seizure of power and the creepy mysteries of Pharanoic copulation and burial. But these sequences are unsustained, and their authenticity is perhaps questioned by other parts of the narrative. The spiritual reappearance of Hat coincides all too neatly with the Egyptian renaissance in Victorian architecture, as evidenced by the baroque North London cemetery, full of middle-class tombs like Pharanoic vaults, in which both Flora Milk and the contemporary narrator find inspiration.
The principal historical puzzle in the novel concerns not the Pharaohs but the nature and appeal of Victorian Spiritualism, a craze which spread throughout the civilised world after its inception in 1848 in the United States. Many of the spirit mediums who arose in response to the sudden demand were teenage girls, often of the working class. Success as a medium was a career attended with all the rewards and dangers of becoming a film-star. Allegations of couch-casting, for instance, surround the story of Florence Cook, the Hackney girl who is acknowledged as the original of Flora Milk. The authenticity of Florence's spiritual powers was vouched for by a Victorian scientist, William Crookes, who also became besotted with ‘Katie King’, the spirit whose materialisations were the high point of Florence Cook's séances.
There was no middle ground in the 19th-century Spiritualist debate. Either the voice you heard and the form you dimly saw in the dark really were those of little Johnny who had recently passed away, or you were the victim of a gross mechanical conjuring trick. Not surprisingly, In the Red Kitchen eschews such positivist certainties. Flora may be a genuine medium, a fraud, a hysteric, or some confused combination of all three. Her voice in the novel can only be an imaginative construct, a problematic identity. As the Egyptian princess says, ‘words mean life. The absence of words means death.’ The only séance is the scene of writing, and to cast a spell you simply spell out the words. But the series of soliloquies which make up Roberts's novel amount to a failure or refusal of mediumship.
Helen Birch (review date 30 March 1990)
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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 gender. Her book [In the Red Kitchen] would not look out of place repackaged in dignified, tasteful Virago green.
But comparisons like these only serve to restrict Roberts's work to an audience of Drabble and Brookner fans. The development from her first, self-referential Bildungsroman, A Piece of the Night to her last, fictional reworking of the theories of French feminists Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, The Book of Mrs Noah, shows her becoming more and more ambitious. She refuses stable subjectivities and signs, scrutinises the rhythms of language, questions sexual difference and even writing itself.
In the Red Kitchen takes that well-worn feminist martyr, the witch, out of the closet and uses her to explore the history of the “feminine” unconscious. Sliding between the mid-Victorian era—that cusp of spiritualism and psychoanalysis, when History begun its collapse into modernity—and the present day, the novel links the lives of four women through the figure of a young medium, Flora Milk. As cookery writer Hattie King struggles to cope with the death of her baby, her house in Hackney breathes the spirits of its past inhabitant.
Hattie hears Flora at work in the red kitchen and sees visions of her childish alter ego, the Pharoah's daughter, who adopts the symbols of manhood, draws power by playing king. For ex-convent girl, ex-prostitute Hattie, cooking provides a route into the world: “Inventing then writing down recipes, I unmade and remade the world … learned to discriminate, to speak”. For Flora, mediumship articulates repressed secrets, while gentlewoman Minny, in an acute parody of Victorian epistolary fiction, writes long letters of lies to her mother.
From these ingredients, Roberts conjures a delicately spiced repast. Through their spirit lives, the women share dreams of a common language and experience of incest, hysteria, guilt, death, birth, illusion. Their unspoken connections defy description, yet return to language in dream, in writing, in imagination. And their creator, the literary chef, pulls her words together, recombines them to make sense of the (other) world. In the Red Kitchen is fine, controlled, and yes, genteel. But it does not, for all that, lack a vision of the Big Picture.
Louise Doughty (review date 6 April 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
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 their parents. Hat, the Pharaoh's daughter, marries her own father and on his death defies her courtiers and assumes the throne in her own right. Flora remembers curling on her father's lap as an infant: “putting my hand up to stroke his face, to explore the surfaces of bone under the furred and pitted skin”. Parentless Hattie is abused by an uncle, a dim, horrifying figure in a loosely tied dressing gown. Concurrent with these relationships are the antagonisms between women, mothers and daughters and sisters, all in implicit competition for paternal attention. Roberts does not flinch from showing women hurting or betraying each other, albeit in a patriarchal context. In the Red Kitchen is a truly post-feminist novel, in which women are neither angels nor victims but fully rounded characters engaged in the struggle to survive. Her male characters are shadowy but instantly recognizable; the Victorian hypocrite, the abuser. The only one who is unconvincing is Hattie's lover, a painter, who provides an idealized male figure for her to come to terms with at the end of book.
It has been suggested that In the Red Kitchen marks a departure for Michèle Roberts, from the ghetto of what some patronizingly term “women's fiction”, into the mainstream. She has already made her mark with earlier works, such as the controversial novel The Wild Girl; this book should gain her a new prominence. The writing is descriptive, rich and sensual, full of metaphors and off-beat images: a nun is “A tall black chess-piece with no feet or hair.” A graveyard is described: “Ivy snakes everywhere, grasping strongly at stone crosses, hairy suckers reaching down through fissures in granite slabs to claw at the rotting bodies beneath.” This can be overdone, like the Victorian brocade and Egyptian silk there is so much of. But once the story is under way it pulls the reader inexorably through the heavier descriptive passages. Despite the many different voices, the author exerts perfect control; she deserves admiration for resisting the temptation to let the novel lapse into a sprawling epic. She also avoids full-scale pastiche, managing to give a sense of the nineteenth century and of ancient Egypt through individual perspectives which cut across the barriers of time and place. This is no small achievement in a work which also tackles Victorian hypocrisy, spiritualism, the position of women and much else besides.
Contemporary Review (review date July 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274
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 seance. Ultimately the reader is invited to choose which voice to believe and which to doubt. In spite of the deconstruction required to disentangle these ramifications Michèle Roberts's novel is richly descriptive, observant and revealing of a variety of possible perspectives on apparently transparent characters.
Roz Kaveney (review date 18 September 1992)
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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 ferry, she tries to stay awake so as to be aware of the precise moment at which she will move from one language to another. Adolescence is seen as a pursuit of another such moment, with the additional risk that the choice may prove to be the wrong one.
The strength of Michèle Roberts's writing has always grown out of ambivalence. When she writes of the Magdalen's sexual relationship with Christ, it is with the nervous daring of the cradle orthodox; when she writes of heterosexual or lesbian erotic passion, it is with a fervour commitedly aware of ideological arguments about sexual choice. When, as here, she writes of the choice between compromised continuity or suffering, or even merely of the Anglo-French Léonie's choice of nationality, it is with a strong sense of the lost possibilities it involves.
Daughters of the House derives nourishment from Gothic and detective novels, yet its direction proves profoundly subversive of those genres. When, towards its end, decisions are made and mysteries provided with an explanation, we feel this is a closing down of fertile possibilities, rather than as resolution or enlightenment. Roberts presents tragic events coolly, refusing her characters the extenuation of tragedy; when Thérèse appropriates her cousin Léonie's vision of the Virgin Mary, she is merely being silly, even if her lies proceed to twist the rest of her life.
It is Léonie who has the real vision, but her vision of a swarthy, fiery dancer is not acceptable; when Thérèse tells the priest and the bishop of an acceptably blonde Virgin, her face hidden behind a modest blue veil, they believe her. This accommodation to official iconography is linked to the anti-Semitism which led to the slaughter, by the Germans, of a Jewish family and their peasant protector; the site of the vision is their grave and Léonie marries the dead villager's son. Rootedness and continuity are not a proof of the authenticity which the characters seek, but their absence is clear evidence for a lack of it.
The book is made up of short chapters, all but one of them having as its title the name of a domestic article, part of the house and the legacy which dominate the two women's lives. Where conventional Gothic novels portray houses which are haunted palaces of the mind, full of sliding panels and trap-doors for the unwary, this house is one where the trap of anguished memory is liable to be sprung by contemplation of a shard of a broken dish or a cellar key. The sense of rootedness is reinforced by these powerful everyday objects, but one problem it presents is that the vocabulary of hallucinatory intensity necessary to the presentation of Léonie's vision has already been exhausted in the kitchen.
Daughters of the House is an intense piece of writing, in which the transfigured mundane world of recipes, parental prohibitions and almost ritualized gossip is posed against official purity and religiosity, and shown to be superior. Both Thérèse and Léonie force the issue in order to get what they want, and both suffer as a result; there is no question which has chosen more wisely. This is a book in which choices have consequences, and stories morals, but Michèle Roberts has the wisdom not to make any of these overwhelming.
Francis King (review date 3 October 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819
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 relationship between them merely cousinship or something even closer? Who betrayed a group of Jews, concealed by a heroic village family, to the Germans? Why did Antoinette consent to marry a man socially inferior to her?—has much of the excitement of the detective's hunt for the culprit in a murder-mystery. But whereas even the most ordinary murder-mystery is rigorously plotted, Roberts's complex story of jealousy, distrust and betrayal often has a disconcerting air of improvisation, as though, while hurrying along the path of her book, she had no idea in what direction it might next twist or turn. When the solution is finally vouchsafed, it is almost as an afterthought, and occasions none of the needed shock, or at least surprise.
Each of the girls claims to have seen a vision of the Virgin in a nearby wood; one of them, Thérèse, subsequently becomes a nun. These events are the least convincing of the novel; and there is the further problem that they are like some item of clothing—‘Yes, I'd better take that dress along too’—effortfully stuffed into a suitcase already crammed to bursting point. All too many novels suffer from a paucity of plot; this one, less than 200 pages long, suffers from an excess of it.
If the plotting is never wholly satisfactory, neither is the characterisation. In Antoinette and her sister Madeleine, and in Thérèse and her cousin Léonie, the author was presumably intending to create pairs of people totally unlike each other; but in each case the couple have a strange way of taking on each other's substances, and merging into each other, so that, though physically so unlike, they sometimes appear to be merely different aspects of the same person. One sympathises now with Thérèse and now with Léonie; then, as the book nears its close, one finds that it is difficult to sympathise with either, since both turn out to be so untruthful and untrue.
The village woman, Rose, is another character in whose reality one can never totally believe. Why, for example, should her false eye be of a different colour from her real one? Even in rural France, as in rural England, there is nowadays no problem in matching.
Roberts is remarkably skilful in conveying her characters' transient moods of rapture, anger, envy, hatred, love. But to make characters into living people, it is necessary to assemble all those moods on to a single, coherent and consistent thread. This she seldom succeeds in doing.
What, one guesses, chiefly persuaded the Booker judges to place this novel on their short-list was the wonderful vividness with which the author evokes the life of her Normandy village. She has Colette's gift for lyrical description of a physical world of trees, flowers and fruits, of meals prepared and eaten, of love sought and made. The style by which she achieves this is certainly odd. Sentences are short and staccato, often without a main verb. There are no inverted commas for dialogue, so that one is sometimes confused as to whether one is reading a speech by one of the characters or a comment by the author. Colons are used in eccentric fashion. For example:
French cooking, Victorine asserted: is the best in the world.
But, although idiosyncratic, here is writing of the highest order. Because of this writing, so successful in evoking the day-to-day life of its characters, Roberts has produced a novel which certainly demands to be read.
Judy Cooke (review date 9 October 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450
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 no distinction between eroticism and religious ecstasy as described here. Thérèse, however, experiences neither. Like the village priest, who instigates the desecration of the shrine in the woods, she denies the possibilities of ecstasy in others and in herself. The antagonism between the cousins is carried forward in a satisfying plot involving the exposure of Nazi war crimes and family treachery. A mass grave hides the remains of a huddle of fugitive Jews and their protector.
In a lesser novel (such as those of Iris Murdoch in her middle period), Léonie and Thérèse might have become cyphers. This author allows her characters their full complexity. They are real children growing into adolescence, experimenting with sex, playing doctors—“the surgeon took her own clothes off as well as the patient's”—and coming to terms with the adult codes governing marriage and class. An unhappy, intelligent pair, their rivalry for maternal affection is to prove longer-lasting than any subsequent emotion. This is a fascinating story, full of psychological insight. Its necessary obscurities and slow unravellings are balanced by rich descriptive writing, “speckled beans … like tiny onyx eggs”, celebrations of domesticity and femininity. Roberts has declared her admiration for Colette, whose influence is certainly evident in her own work. Shortlisted for the Booker prize, this novel deserves to win.
Patricia Craig (review date 3 December 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1490
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 trays to uncompromising scrutiny. All right, faced with a plateful of corpses, embryos and fluid from mammary glands, who wouldn't baulk? But there's more to this recoil of Josie's than just calling things by their proper names.
There's more to it, too, than a fear of flab. Josie reacts to food as an ascetic—St Thomas Aquinas, let us say—might react to any assault on his chastity: by lashing out. ‘With a convulsive heave of my knees, I sent the tray crashing to the floor.’ The analogy isn't arbitrary: the two things, eating and sex, are continuously equated. Josie can make an erotic substance of peanut butter—‘imagine eating it lasciviously with a spoon’—and revulsion follows. Sensuality is as alien to her as moderation. Her neurosis disallows insertions of any kind. ‘Someone always trying to force something into you, make you swallow something, pump you full of it.’ The more you take in, the more you get taken in, as far as she is concerned. The first, and worst, offender is in the home: ‘Out of sheer spite, my mother was trying to make me eat three times a day.’
This is where it starts: with an overweight mother, an ineffectual father, intimations of incest … But wait a minute, Josie's imaginings may be no more than that: imaginings. Her brain isn't working too well, they tell her in the hospital, she is a starving organism and her brain is starving too. She knows better: she is closer to pure, elemental consciousness than ever before. It's the pursuit of a kind of truth that has led her to put such effort into paring herself down to the bone—as in the line from a poem by John Hewitt: ‘A tree is truer for its being bare.’ However, when it comes to her ‘recalling’ a rape by a motorcycle gang, even Josie concedes that it may have all been in her head: ‘A common fantasy among young women, so I'm told.’ What did happen may have been more commonplace, if none the less invidious—a slender schoolfriend to emulate, a Barbie doll displaying all its ersatz perfection, the mania for calorie-counting and its coy manifestations: ‘Is it time to banish that untimely bulge?’ What all this adds up to is irresistible advice to cut down, in order to cut a dash. You can't be gorgeous if you gorge: it's as simple as that.
This is a novel about going to extremes, which leaves no aspect of fasting unnoted, or unconnected to its central image, that of Anorexia herself. What's behind the stasis achieved by a mental patient such as Josie is a mishmash of credos and susceptibilities—with glamour, psychosis, feminism, social protest and so forth all playing a part. Josie is, in one sense, making a stand against the lure of gluttony, to which she herself had fallen victim. There are orgies of stuffing described in this book: ‘three doughnuts, a glass of milk, a slice of pizza, most of a package of chocolate chip cookies, a bag of Doritos, a glass of orange juice, an English muffin with butter and jam …’ So the shameful litany continues. Force-feeding isn't in it. Neither is priapism: ‘Perhaps a similar hunger drives men in search of sex—the difference being that my frenzy led me to seek something to cram into myself, while they crave something into which to cram themselves.’
But Josie sees in her present condition a triumph of the will—the will to shape one's life, and one's flesh, in the most radical way. ‘I was an artist: my medium myself, my materials air and bone and will.’ Vanity hardly comes into an enterprise as bleak as this. It is more a question of purity, purity of outlook. We might think of Sylvia Plath's defiant ‘I am too pure for you or anyone’. Josie's seduction, too—described in the novel—recalls the seduction of Esther Greenwood in Plath's The Bell Jar, with both young women assailed by exorbitant bleeding: a very unusual effect. (Among the benefits of anorexia is amenorrhea, in Josie's very distorted view.) You are reminded, also, of George Steiner's comment on Plath's appropriation of the Holocaust—‘a subtle larceny’—when Josie, in Life-Size, makes no distinction between voluntary and involuntary starvation. Fasting, for whatever purpose, or for no purpose at all, strikes a chord with her, as the deadly images jostle for prominence. The Irish hunger-strikers, the Suffragettes, Ethiopia, Belsen, the slimming industry: all these are somehow jammed together to present a standard of achievement to Josie's defective vision. The mortifications of the early female saints—‘women pale and thin with fasting’—are closer in spirit to the practices of the anorexic, with their ill-founded assumptions about consequent grace. But whatever way you look at it, Life-Size is a striking first novel, accomplished, convincing, full of a kind of lucid dementia, and missing nothing of consequence in its investigation of the whole starvation syndrome.
Josie's aberration begins in adolescence, notoriously a time of flagrant maladjustment. Some people are affected worse than others—they stop eating, turn morose and awkward, or go in for wild infatuations. Worst and most tiresome are those who see things. Michèle Roberts's novel, Daughters of the House, has a pair of juvenile visionaries as its central characters. Thérèse and Léonie are cousins—one French, one half-English—who spend their summers together at the family mansion in Normandy. The time is the early Fifties, or thereabouts. The war is not long over, and a miasma of balefulness is lingering in its wake. Terrible things have happened in the district, which the girls are not supposed to know about. Desecrated shrines, massacres in the woods, dark doings in the cellar … Small wonder that Thérèse's mother Antoinette succumbs to cancer, that Léonie takes up with an unpolished peasant addicted to killing kittens, or that first one girl and then the other comes flying home to report a strange experience in the woods. Half-English Léonie enjoys the first sighting of a heavenly lady (a pretty swarthy lady, in this instance), but it isn't long before Léonie's apparition is appropriated by Thérèse and kitted out with orthodox, Lourdes-type accoutrements. (It isn't Bernadette, though, who's Thérèse's model, but her actual namesake, St Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower.)
It is hard to disentangle fact from fancy in this overwrought novel, which proceeds in short fraught sentences. Is it, for example, Thérèse's fancy that a bishop, no less, pronounces over her all-but-haloed head: ‘That little girl's no fake. I don't know when I've seen anything so heavenly as that gesture of welcome she made, that smile that she mirrored.’? We are left in the dark about this and other matters. Michèle Roberts, it seems, is one of those writers who equate obscurity with depth. I suppose the point of the novel is that each of these girls is out to steal as much as she can from the other, whether in the line of mystical experiences, house and home, boyfriend, parents, or identity itself. These subtle larcenies come with a decidedly gothic colouring—as, indeed, does the rest of the story, Nazism, numinousness, pubescence and all.
What bounded the house was skin. A wall of gristle a soldier could tear open with his bare hands. Antoinette laughed. She was buried in the cellar under a heap of sand.
Not only Antoinette (in Léonie's fevered imaginings), but the novel itself gives the impression of something buried in the cellar.
Trev Broughton (review date 22 October 1993)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
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 confidence and power evident between In the Red Kitchen (1990) and the darkly seething Daughters of the House (1992).
Many of the ingredients brought so sumptuously to the boil in the latter novel are temptingly laid out. A reverence for everyday objects—a hand-glazed cup, a dark blue tin of Nivea, a pair of trainers—which provides the structure and the flavour of Daughters of the House, is sampled in “Une Glossaire/A Glossary,” an autobiographical prose poem reminiscent of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. And Roberts's great passions are to the fore: sin, sex and saturated fat.
For a generation terrorized and traumatized by food, Roberts is worth reading, if only for her promiscuous use of butter and cream. The reader can taste Normandy cuisine without expense or calories; sausage sandwiches without guilt. The stories are full of calvados and fragrant coffee, new bread, choux pastry, wilting Camembert. There is Sister Josephine's miraculous triumph over penury and famine in “The Bishop's Lunch”:
the dish of roasted pigeons with apples and calvados, the sliced potatoes and leeks baked in cream, the poached eggs in sorrel sauce. … Perhaps, Sister Josephine thought, my vocation is to leave the convent, train as a chef, and open my own restaurant
and the gorgeous opening breakfast in “Taking It Easy,” a story in which a frustrated writer dissolves her “block” by indulging in edible treats and “a bit of cheery sex”. Food is a kind of language (“My mouth was full of cream-laden spaghetti scented with rosemary and sage. I had the idea that if I kept on eating the memory of my mother wouldn't be able to climb out of my silence …”) and language is a kind of food:
French. The French language. My mother's tongue. My mother-tongue, that I take in along with her milk. The language of my childhood in France (the language of my childhood in England is another matter). My tongue lapping pleasure.
To say that the mother is the brooding presence linking these tales is to state the obvious. Rather, brooding itself, literally and metaphorically, is the keynote. The writer in “Taking It Easy” incubates her unborn story in a snug nest of fine linen and fine food. Auntie, the neighbourhood whore in “Charity,” administers Vick chest rub and boiled sweets to a little girl in between offering her breasts to gentleman callers. And Brigitte, the heroine of “Une Glossaire,” hovers lovingly over her dying father even as her breast is eaten by disease. But for every nourishing, tender presence, every bountifully boobed Charity and every Lady of Perpetual Succour, there is the threat of dereliction, of absence, of a loss to be endured. The narrator of “God's House” hibernates in a “little sweet-smelling box of wilderness. Just big enough to hold me” in order to escape from the reality of her mother's dying; while elsewhere, the mother of a runaway child nurses her daughter's shoes, embracing her loneliness and longing.
This is not a collection praising or blaming mothers. That is not the point. The shrewish peasant woman Bertrande drops her baby in the fire in “Anger” with the same sureness of aim as the mother in “Fish” separates eggs for sauce (“let the white dangle down. Plop”). Instead, the mother-daughter bond—or lack of it—provides the starting-point for a series of meditations on love and power. Like the steel cable on the beach in the story “Fish,” it is an instrument on which the unconscious can play:
It was alive. Inside the tunnel of my clasp it throbbed and vibrated. It was a cord that shook with messages in sea language.
Charlotte Moore (review date 10 September 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596
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 and historical layers are peeled off like onion skins—to the point where language is little more than the articulation of a heartbeat and identity becomes an irrelevance—the narrator becomes ‘Anon’. The poem or chant at the centre of Flesh and Blood indicates that paradise is the womb, the ‘bodysong’, when mother and baby are as one, the pearl within the unopened oyster. This blissful state, Roberts implies, is at the heart of all our longings, all our imaginings. By taking her ‘character’ back and then leading him or her forth to start the track of life afresh, much is mended, much restored. Back we travel, through similar scenes in reverse order. The frozen mother escapes from her block of ice, freed by her daughter's tears. The Italian mother contrives her sinful daughter's escape from the Inquisition; two haggard French prostitutes (‘We are but two but we speak as one’) find their stolen daughter in a circus cage.
Michèle Roberts vaults over the usual constraints and expectations of novel writing. Few episodes are alike. Poems, diaries, pornography, interviews, television scripts—Roberts handles an astonishing range of form. Everything depends on the sensuousness of the writing. The sense of smell—that midwife of memory—is dominant, but the book is full of taste, touch, sight and sound as well. Food, fabric, flowers, costumes, colours, are interwoven to provide strength and coherence to the narrative. The preparation or consumption of a meal, for instance, can reveal all we need to know about a relationship:
Two white hands casting the red chops marbled with fat into the black pan, two red lips parted, the meat seared and scorching as the juices caramelised … Felicite smiled and smiled as she took up the spoon and fork and dug the silver prongs through the crackling skin into the red flesh underneath.
Symbols are resonant, and are employed with satisfying ambiguity. Form mirrors content. Just as the chapters are constructed like connecting rooms, so, with the ‘characters’, we are drawn into a series of small chambers—a bake house, a costumier's shop, a snow-bound garden shed. Are we about to discover Bluebeard's inner sanctum or the heart of Paradise? The success of Flesh and Blood is that it does not let us know for sure.
Kate Alvarez (review date 16 September 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789
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 possible scenario. One more illusion of reality.” Although Freddy claims to tell stories in order to “find out who or what she is”, the different narratives do not explain events or shed any light on each other. What links them together is a vivid, repeated imagery and a convoluted symbolism based on familiar themes—the battle between the sexes, the indeterminacy of gender and Roberts's particular preoccupations: the oppressiveness of Catholicism, the complex ties of flesh and blood and, above all, the sensuality of language.
The historical theatrical settings give Roberts the opportunity to play about with stereotypes. The male characters all turn out to be villains—hypocrites or rapists or both. Freddy's father, a staunch Anglican who designs vestments for priests, keeps a stash of pornography in his bureau; Félicité's fiancé, Albert, thinks that “a house, babies, all that would absorb her energies”; the novel's villainous arch-lecher subjects his naive young bride, Eugenie, to a vicious rape, and then incarcerates her in a chilly castle on a diet of pig's blood and gristle. Elsewhere, heroines and their traditional codes of virtue are ridiculed. Piety gets a cynical examination when the modern heroine, Freddy, begins to collect relics (bits of her mother's snot, ear-wax, toe-clippings and hair) to make a shrine to Our Lady (whom she imagines as androgynous: “smooth, not curved, almost flat. Like a boy”).
What rescues these women from oblivion and maintains their coherence is the power of language. In the chapter concerning Marie-Jeanne (whom we learn is Eugenie's mother), words are part of an erotic exchange with a priest: “We will talk to you for one hour then you give us cash, right?” In the chapter concerning Cherubina, which portrays a vision of paradise, the masseuse who brings the narrator to orgasm is performing “fingertalk”. In “Rosa”, “words of heated ice” are life-restoring; the longed-for but rejecting and rejected mother, who has disappeared in a dreamscape of snow and ice, returns in an ice-coffin which the daughter melts. Words are “sweets on our tongues. Lick them”, and food is always a sensual experience: “two white hands casting the red chops marbled with fat into the black pan, two red lips parted, the meat seared and scorching as the juices caramelized”.
But, for women, “our own talk does not use language”. The central chapter of the novel, “Anon”, re-creates the watery non-language of the womb, where mother and infant maintain a secret and, finally, unintelligible communication:
we is one whole undivided you/me broken now mended you/me restored mamabébé our body of love pickedup putbacktogether
This (un)original language (distinctly reminiscent of Toni Morrison's Beloved) is presumably so deeply embedded in the female psyche that it excludes the logic of reason and the order of grammar.
“Truth” in this novel is a “trick”, a “daring masquerade”, where language itself becomes a “skin of pictures and words”, a disguise which renders all the narrators as cross-dressers. Fred becomes Frederica, George becomes Georgina who might indeed be Félicité. In the penultimate chapter, the narrator asks “Did George/Georgina look at Hermine and Félicité as mirrors, or as himself/herself?” By the end, the reader no longer cares. Through the whirlwind of ideas we have come full circle, back to Soho and the flesh-pink disguise and on into the next “contradictory story”. For ever referring back, Flesh and Blood finishes up at odds with itself.
Judy Cooke (review date 16 September 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525
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, exposing the possibilities of sentimentality and cruelty inherent in Catholicism.
Religious experience, as opposed to dogma, is given full weight as part of ordinary life. Sexuality, and especially lesbian sexuality, surges along the rhythms of prose. The description of landscape, in particular, is written by someone with all her senses on the alert: “The road ran between pastures dotted with grazing cows, fields of oats and barley, potatoes and sugar beet. A green steam rose up from everything, as the sun increased in power and warmth. The smell of the carriage, of dust and chaff and rotting leather … mixed with the smell of the salty breeze, the fresh smells of mud and cabbage and manure.”
What makes this exuberance all the more attractive is the realisation that, far from being a sequence of loose episodes, this is in fact a carefully constructed novel. The pivot is reached with two meditations on paradise—as it is approached, as it is left behind. Centred between them is an extraordinary poem presenting the interdependent bond between mother and baby.
In the second half of the novel, the narrative returns to earlier characters and situations, revealing the other side of the coin and bringing the action up to date. A balance is sustained between the veiled and the explicit, between life and art. And the centrality of each theme ensures that at the conclusion there is no sense of over-plotting, just the immediate temptation to begin reading again at the first page.
It is also tempting to speculate on the author's dual nationality, half English, half French (she divides her time between the two countries) and the differing traditions that may influence her work. Michel Tournier rivals her skill in the use of the fable form; Angela Carter had a similarly anarchic imagination. Michèle Roberts, a wild original, shows her unique talents to best advantage in this new book.
Susan Rowland (essay date June 1996)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4823
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 called archetypes.
This process of the unconscious creating reality and re-shaping the ego, Jung called individuation and he believed that this was also a religious process because it was a dialogue with transcendent forces in the psyche. Theorising that individuation tends towards deconstructing the ego to be a subject of an unknowable governing archetype called the self, Jung made his religious psyche congruent with monotheism and indeed in later works took Christ as a sign of the self because experience of this archetype is said to be indistinguishable from experience of the divine. Since the self, by its definition as an archetype, has to contain opposites such as light and dark (Christ and the Devil), and female and male, Jung's androgynous Christ forms a radical theology. To Jung, unconscious images can be religious images and their significances are related to but not subordinated to the body, and so Jung's psyche contains the possibility for the sacred to have an immanent connection to the body. The rest of this article is going to consider two major forms of individuation narratives, those using Romance structures and narratives about sacrifice, as a way of representing the body's sacred in two contemporary novels, The Wild Girl2 by Michèle Roberts and The Chymical Wedding3 by Lindsay Clarke. First, however, it is necessary to show how Jung's dualist and foundationalist ideas could be relevant to a more ‘postmodern’4 investigation of the sacred.
Jung's dualism is undeniably the structuring principle of his theories. All the major concepts are arranged in antagonistic pairs such as: conscious/unconscious, eros/logos, ego/self, introversion/extroversion, image/instinct, anima/animus etc. Yet, like Derrida, Jung is aware of the violence inherent in oppositional thinking, using words like ‘aggressive’ and ‘hostile’5 and claims that these opposites are a kind of likeness, a metaphor, their property is to be reversible: they are ready to deconstruct, ‘their reversibility proves their validity’.6 Indeed, Jung deconstructs Freud's priority over the dream image. To Freud, the conscious/unconscious hierarchy was paramount and dream images are to be deciphered by the ego or at least contained by a concept. Jung asserted that most dream images were archetypal, they were about the unconscious which in adult life would attempt to dissolve ego dominance, to dismember consciousness and re-member it as subject to unconscious archetypes. This was individuation, an essentially deconstructive process. Of course, like Derrida, he found the abolition of hierarchy, here between conscious and unconscious, a near inconceivable goal and its reversibility difficult. Indeed, conscious priorities would creep into his attempt to privilege unconscious images because his individuation narratives, of many patients, are generically similar, and not coincidentally resemble what he believed to be his own story. However, it is fair to say that Jung aimed at a deconstructive system of ‘oppositions’ rather than the absolute rigidity of separation depicted by Freud.
This has significant implications for meaning in Jung's psychology. Considering the pronounced gender bias in his texts, contrary to the deconstructive mode and his assertion that men can never say anything objective about women, it is easy to assimilate Jung to the traditional humanist subject, especially as he considered himself as a spokesman for the meaning, feeling and value of the psyche. Yet meaning resides in the unconscious, not the ego: it is the property of inherently unknowable archetypes that are also subject to mutual contamination when they manifest themselves in unconscious images. Therefore meaning is located in the unknowable and not restrictable to singular elements: it is dependent upon the Other. He even writes: ‘interpretations are for those who don't understand; it is only the things that we don't understand that have any meaning.’7
This means that gender in the psyche must be seen as fluid and archetypes characterised as androgynous. Sexual difference is still significant but anatomy can be used as a metaphor for constructing the Other, a way of designating the ultimately unknowable unconscious. By his implicit critique of dualism, his de-centering of the subject, privileging the role of the unconscious in making meaning which is fluid, plural, and dependent upon the Other, Jung demonstrates some usefulness to the postmodern project. In later years he also showed the ability to problematize his own empirical discourse. Despite his oft repeated desire to appear an empirical scientist, the Collected Works do admit at one point that complete psychological truth is an infinitely deferred signified, that his text is creative, with only a metaphorical grasp on the unconscious. ‘We may therefore expect,’ he writes, ‘that sometime in the future our attempt at explanation will be felt to be just as ‘metaphorical and symbolical’ as we have found the alchemical one to be.’8 Another insight comes when he insists that he needs alchemy, a system of symbolic narratives he found in written texts in order to articulate his individuation theory, for clinical practice provides only meaningless signifiers. So called empirical evidence needs a pre-structuring myth as he asserts the impossibility of theory from raw data alone:
Anyone who attempted to describe the individuation process with the help of case material would have to remain content with a mosaic of bits and pieces without beginning or end …9
The mosaic of meaningless signifiers can only be assembled by intertextuality10 not by physical ‘reality’. By ‘intertextuality’ I refer to the idea that texts of all kinds do not function as closed systems but operate within the socio-political context of their production, are generated from the writer's encounter with other texts and received through the reader's previous experience of texts. Jung reconstructed his clinical data through his reading preferences. So I would argue that it is possible to treat Jung's theoretical texts as sources of myths and I would suggest that these myths contain within their structures some but not all of the possibilities of their problematization. This article will go on to demonstrate ways of working with Jung in relation to literary texts. The two novels cited use Jungian individuation narratives as fictional structures, as part of the narrative form. They are texts conscious of the dualisms inherent in Jungian individuation; dualisms that can be challenged in ways that allow the immanent sacred to occupy the body of writing.
The Wild Girl uses individuation in the form of the romance of female and male as a structuring device and The Chymical Wedding employs Jung's preferred metaphors of alchemy to explore Jungian ideas of sacrifice. Jung's theories aim to resist the ego's selfish desires to sacrifice the Other and to espouse a more altruistic martyrdom of the ego in the service of the Other. Both writers acknowledge Jungian influences which are apparent most simply in the way in which unconscious images are connected to bodily identity yet can signify the sacred.
Firstly, in considering individuation as romance, we need to appreciate that Jung's employment of the structure involves the subject's archetypal image of the unconscious as a contrasexual figure, so the woman images her unconscious as male, the man as female. Romantic involvement with this psychic figure will both deconstruct the limitations of the ego and promote relationships in the world. Sacred marriage is a frequent motif for this process demonstrating Jung's belief that psychic narratives could embrace the bodily and sexual and the transcendent and spiritual with neither pole being the real explanation. No hierarchy of sexual/spiritual discourses is permitted.
Therefore, in The Wild Girl, the narrator, Mary Magdalen's romance with Jesus is both psychic/religious and sexual. Bodily union becomes also a way of contacting her own psyche, inherently religious in Jungian terms. Thus sexuality becomes a rite, a ‘sacred marriage’ in which she experiences through her body the immanent sacred. Once physical contact is dissolved by Jesus' death, ‘he’ can say to the narrator:
I am your husband in darkness only. I shall remain close to you as your shadow is, and it is in the shadows that we shall embrace.11
Romantic desire drives the novel and it drives it beyond bodily union to the psychic where Jesus becomes Mary's male Other, sign for her unconscious: sexuality becomes also the merging of the ego with the Other as body and as Other within. Notice the use of purple prose here in the ‘melting’ and ‘pouring’ of romance writing.
I no longer knew what was inside and what was outside, where he ended and I began, only that our bones and flesh and souls were suddenly woven up together in a great melting and pouring … I pierced through the barrier of shadow, and was no longer an I, but part of a great whirl of light that throbbed and rang with music … I was pulled back by the sound of my own voice whispering words I did not understand: this is the resurrection and the life.12
Jung's refusal to privilege sexuality over the unconscious in meaning-formation is used by Roberts in this feminist novel to undo the exclusion of women from the divine when that exclusion is based on bodily difference. Jung's undoing or deconstruction of hierarchies, by making it impossible to assign the body or the psyche as the supreme producer of meaning, not only allows a bodily sacred but also is unable to privilege the male body as carrier or producer of significance over the female body. Thus authorship of the sacred texts, the Gospels, can be shared between female and male: Jesus preaches using female symbols from Mary's past life such as a mirror, Mary sings songs, parables.
There was a merchant, I had sung, who was offered a pearl of great price.13
Significantly, the novel's structure follows Jungian romantic individuation as much as the content. Jesus is the narrator's Other and unconscious and is therefore that which is desired by the text channelling the reader through Mary's wants. This process becomes even more explicit when Jesus' structural role is refined by his death. When Mary meets Jesus in the Garden after the crucifixion, his message is not recorded in the text. He remains the object of desire for the rest of the novel but is no longer representable. Even in Mary's dream vision, he is not described and indeed has gone beyond language.
So we reached a point where we undressed ourselves of language as we had done of clothes. I could no longer say him or you. We went out of the waking world of time and words …14
Jesus in the novel becomes the object of desire that the text falls towards in wordlessness and death. He is holy and whole but can only be represented by an absence, a (w)hole in writing. The Wild Girl fulfils the Jungian individuation romance with Jesus as the novel's self archetype: the focus of the narrative's desire as that which forever escapes representation. The novel offers postmodernism as (Jungian) romance and it is this radical structure that nets religious feeling. Indeed the net is one image the novel generates for writing as that which can figure the (w)holes of a desire both romantic and religious. The net is the real fragment given to Mary by Simon Peter and her image of the intertextuality of writing that cannot be ascribed to one source, principally because nobody is simply one.
Apparently in contrast, The Chymical Wedding offers sacrifice as the narrative of making sacred and uses the various modes of alchemy as the discourse that refuses to privilege physical (chemistry) or bodily (sexual) over psychic or metaphysical. The novel uses alchemy on many levels with characters interacting within the traditional alchemical formula, solve et coagula, dissolving of marriages coagulating in divorce and undergoing psychic or inner alchemy by experiencing the sacrifice of the ego as despairing blackness or nigredo. Edward, the aged poet and would-be alchemist, is torn apart by infidelity and his own sense of failure. He says:
… the world was made … by a demented angel. Crazy with loneliness he looked into a mirror and the mirror cracked, and thus the world was made. We can wander about picking up the pieces if we like, but all we ever see is our own face squinting back. Through a crack. Darkly.15
Alex Darken, young blocked poet and failed husband, experiences his psychic nigredo as the all too realistic fear of the demonic sacrifice of everything in nuclear war.
I realized how little thought I'd dared to give to our bleak predicament. I wasn't even sure that real thought was possible. Fear froze it. We were all sacred and what we were frightened of was us … We were all members of this demented dream.16
Much is made in The Chymical Wedding of dualism's literally dia-bolic splitting of minds, of relationships, atoms and alchemy's symbolic properties of uniting, mind and body, spirit and matter, female and male, psyche and religion, as in Jungian theory. Alchemy offers a comprehensive intertextuality in which writing is figured in a complex of processes in relation to nature, matter and spirit. Alchemy is evoked as a narrative to challenge dualism, to structure spaces for the immanent sacred in imaginative participation in Otherness. As one of Clarke's cited sources puts it, Alan McGlashan in The Savage and Beautiful Country:17
Whether the alchemist was searching for that which actually turns base metals into gold, or for its spiritual equivalent, is rather our dilemma than his. He was capable of conceiving a ‘subtle body’ which could manifest itself equally in the mental and physical modes.18
Thus Clarke's alchemy is the physical pottery of Laura, Edward's psychic assistant and lover, and alchemy is also a process operable within reading and writing in this novel of readers and poets. The writers include Louisa, Victorian author of a non-represented alchemy text. Louisa's book, also called The Chymical Wedding, cannot be written until she faces her own psychic deconstruction, her dismembering re-membering, as her (male) unconscious produces an opposition to her conscious desires for perfection. Because alchemy demands completion not perfection, it requires the unconscious be taken into the processes of reading and writing as a kind of darkness, mystery, a completion that cannot be wholly known or controlled. So Louisa can only write alchemy when it becomes a (w)rite whereby conscious control over the text is sacrificed and Alex, the reader's representative in the novel, can only read alchemy texts by allowing the symbols to activate his unconscious. By sacrificing the claim to exhaust all the meanings of a text at one reading, such an alchemic reading is part of individuation itself by incorporating the numinous, recognising the creative input of the unconscious in making meaning. As Edward tells Alex:
Symbols are the deep grammar of experience and the alchemist inhabits a symbolic universe. He means precisely what he says—but one must enter the language on its own terms or the meaning vanishes.19
Writing and reading are both shown to be sacrificial activities in this novel because despite the dancing of signifiers some Otherness is lost to the violence inherent in signification or in the mythic wedding of signifier and signified. However, alchemy and Jungian theory combat the ego's claim to a control over signifying which sacrifices the Other. Such theories represent ways in which writings and readings can be aware of such sacrifice and can renounce the claim to full signification, allowing for divorce and reconstitution. These writings and readings permit the reader or writer to enter a deconstructive process with the text as the Other. Out of such sacrifice can arise authentic senses of the sacred. Alchemic and Jungian sacrifice is a narrative for interpenetration with the Other. It permits the unconscious to generate religious meanings both in relation to the bodies of literary characters and in the act of reading the body of the text. The Chymical Wedding narrative describes reading as a sacrificial act, a process encouraging the unconscious of the reader to provide imaginative experience of the immanent sacred.
Implicitly following Jung's androgyny of the divine, the novel sets Louisa's alchemy valuing the divine Mother as the only cure for the splitting in the mind of Edwin Frere, married Victorian clergyman committed to a Father God alone. At this point, The Chymical Wedding depicts sacrifice or mutilation of the human body, perhaps out of a desire to show a full range of sacrificial acts and meanings.
Frere finds that he can only reconcile the sacrifice of Christ to the Father with a Mother goddess by enacting the sacrifice of Attis, the dying and resurgent male god: he castrates himself. This is an extension of ego sacrifice into the literal, bodily dismemberment, not required by any of the sources cited by the author, especially Jung and alchemy. If, as the novel suggests that a reader is like Isis in re-membering the text deconstructed in a (w)rite then Louisa's subsequent re-membering of Frere can only remain metaphorical. Sacrifices of body and unconscious are not the same and although alchemy and Jungian theory refuse to privilege one over the other, they never merge these distinct areas. Alchemists did not practise human sacrifice and used images of human death and resurrection only symbolically. Bodily involvement in alchemy was likely to be sexual as practising alchemists frequently had a female assistant known as the mystic sister. In an attempt to redress imbalances of power in patriarchy, Clarke employs Frere as mystic brother. Interestingly, Frere's sacrifice of his phallic signifier is the author's only addition to the alchemy motifs in the novel's sources. The other literal sacrifice is just that: the sacrifice of the letter: Louisa burns her book at her alchemist father's behest.
The pages of the burning book turn quickly, leaf over blackening leaf … The fire exhilarates …
‘Look,’ she cries, ‘never was book so easily devoured. Never more completely understood.’20
The image of book burning, here of fire as the perfect reader, is a disturbing one in a post-Holocaust world where it is difficult to perceive it as an unequivocally positive intervention in a novel with moral and social pretensions. However, I think there is also an intentional demonstration of the dangers of unlimited sacrifice. Louisa burns her text called The Chymical Wedding unread within the novel called The Chymical Wedding, written by a man. It thus represents the violence and sacrifice of Otherness within the w(rite)ing and reading of the novel. Fire represents the impossibility of a perfect reading unless it be so divorced from humanity to be utterly destructive. The novel produces ‘quaking’ as its own metaphor for the symbolic holding together of warring opposites. ‘Fire’ is the perfect quaking signifier: even as literal burning it is utterly destructive yet fructifies the earth. The novel suggests fires of passion and inspiration are equally liable to sacrifice, whether of the ego (positive individuation) or of the Other in destruction and even nuclear war. A sacrifice seems to offer a way to the sacred only when it involves that which is truly the property of the individual, the ego. All else involves directing violence outward and the novel does not suggest that the body's sacred inheres in physical mutilation.
It will be perceived, that these novels erect an unsustainable distinction between romance and sacrifice, when we consider a text called The Chymical Wedding as sacrificial and a novel focused on the Christian story as romantic. True to Jungian theory, romance and sacrifice in individuation not only entwine but actively constitute each other. In fact both novels incorporate romance and sacrifice by a distinctively Jungian dualism of ‘difference’ from each other. Such a ‘difference’ is characterized by the need to interconnect, the impossibility of clear separation or sustainable polarisation, and ultimately offers a plural text by problematizing its own dualistic foundations. In The Chymical Wedding, subtitled ‘A Romance’, the expectations generated by the traditional literary genre are also that which is sacrificed. Alex, the young poet, does not rescue young Laura from the aged ‘roue’ Edward but instead is deconstructed from his self-opinionated role as romantic hero to realize his own greenness as immaturity and jealousy. Frere's bodily sacrifice is also a refusal of his romance with Louisa. Yet the novel dismisses the traditional plot of sentiment only to reinstate romance as a symbolic and uniting force both within individuation in dreams etc. and alchemically extended to matter and nature. The novel suggests that romance turns to sour possessive relationships unless it is grounded alchemically in relationships between matter and spirit. What is anti-romance is the signifier/signified bond as a prison, like a Victorian marriage, allowing no Otherness. A sacrifice of that neurotic grasping after certainty is to provide a space for the sacred as part of the structures of romance, so changing the perceptions of reality.
… all the lovely parkland of Easterness betrayed itself for what it was: illusion; a playful, momentary gesture of matter in the immense symmetries of time and space. And yet substantial also, not to be negated; blessedly real …21
Similarly, in The Wild Girl, the satisfactions of Mary's romantic relationship with Jesus, producing meanings in the text, cast a deep and sacrificial shadow. In Jungian individuation, the shadow is an unconscious opposite to ego personality (what the ego has sacrificed) and in Roberts' novel it takes a number of forms. Firstly, as a character in this re-writing of early Christianity, Mary is countered by the relentlessly patriarchal Simon Peter, jealous for Jesus' love and keen to exclude women from a priestly role in the Church. Mary realizes: ‘Simon Peter … represented the dark side of myself I had to keep searching for and marrying …22 However, romance or sacred marriage cannot contain Mary's more psychic and demonic Other, Ignorance, manifested as the Master or Anti-Christ.
You will burn, Mary, the Master whispered: that is your curse. Little prostitute …23
I could not believe it possible that this was the other side of Christ, the anti-Christ, for had not the Jesus I knew and loved been wholly good?24
What Mary does not yet realize is that the claim to know something as ‘wholly good’ casts a deep shadow because that claim itself sacrifices so much that is Other. Romance as full knowledge, as desire fully satisfied in religious and sexual terms is Ignorance because it violently exorcises Otherness so the dark cruelty of the Master, image of Mary's claim to master her own Christian discourse, drives Mary to enact the icon of sacrifice, to crucify again.
Now I knew hate. It was bright and hard in me like a spear, and it was all there was in me. Such a purity … Hate was beautiful … I looked at the Man in the dock and I hated him with all of myself for what he had done to women throughout time and history, and I felt a power and satisfaction I had never felt in my life, for they were single and integrated and undisturbed by any other feeling …
The cruciform figure of Jesus spun before my eyes and became a whirling circle of red.25
If romance does not sacrifice ego control, including the claim to full knowledge and signification, then its other side is violence, a negative diabolic sacrifice that in this novel with its evocation of the Greenham Common Women, like The Chymical Wedding, includes the possibilities of nuclear war. Finally, as narrator, Mary's shadow takes yet another form, the shadow of writing itself. It is the recognition of the opacity of writing, of the impossibility of full presence and meaning, postmodernism as the sacrifice of possessive desires for control, mastery of a text. ‘What my language reveals, it also hides’,26 says the narrator so integrating Ignorance into writing and restoring the possibilities of romance by a positive ego sacrifice that aims to resist the tendencies of myths to lust after purity, to expunge Otherness and turn violent.
In both these novels romance requires the sacrifice of conscious control and the sacred occurs in a romantic relationship in which the Other retains autonomy, some unknowability, mystery and is not colonised or imprisoned by the ego. Both novels employ Jung's theories as fictional structures by encoding and finally challenging dualism. In each text the body's sacred is to be found in the meaning potentials in the unconscious which are capable of figuring transcendence. They use narratives of romance and sacrifice, of desire for the Other and of sacrifice of the narrowly personal in the service of the Other, as an attempt to make ritual out of story—out of fictional forms and out of the processes of writing and reading. Both novels explore failures but suggest that an immanent sacred is formed in a web of interconnected meanings, in the very sliding of signifiers within the structures of romantic desires for the Other and sacrifice of the ego's claim to full understanding. Roberts and Clarke use the techniques of more traditional novels of realism, empathetic characters etc. to draw in the readers' desires for Otherness. Then they explore how a writer's or reader's romantic union with the text becomes sacrificial, both as a violent shadow in the crucifying nature of signification, the signifier necessarily limiting some Otherness, but also the sacrifice of ego control can allow the Other to return as mystery, the immanent sacred of the textual body. By describing romantic passion as a possible religious rite of the body, a postructuralist interrogation of dualistic structures, the novels seek to incorporate the reader into a textual (w)rite. The writing becomes a net to figure the (w)holes of the body's sacred, both as physical and textual body. These novels believe in intertextuality, in that texts and readings are all interconnected to other texts and social and psychic forces but because they are reading Jung this web draws in a meaningful and religious unconscious. All readings will be different, virgin. From the sacrificed textual body, the reader resurrects meanings from the page. The Wild Girl and The Chymical Wedding offer a ‘postmodern’ immanent sacred in discourses of the body, sexual union, the psyche, and in writing itself by using Jung as a source of myths that can be problematized to figure mystery. Arguably, Jung's narratives not only enable the representation of religion but show the religion in the representation. Finally, I might add that this essay purports to show uses of Jung in relation to more consciously postructuralist literary texts and that further problematizing of Jung in relation to the postmodern project must wait for another occasion.
For an exploration of Jung's relationship to Theology see Murray Stein's chapter, ‘C. G. Jung, Psychologist and Theologian’, in Jung and Christianity in Dialogue, Faith, Feminism and Hermeneutics, Eds. Robert L. Moore, Daniel J. Meckel (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 3-20.
Michèle Roberts, The Wild Girl (London: Methuen, 1984).
Lindsay Clarke, The Chymical Wedding, A Romance (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989).
By ‘postmodern’ I am referring to radical critiques of concepts of a unified self with unambiguous access to meanings and secure distances between theorists and theories, challenges to western ‘master narratives’ as ways of structuring discourses and critiques of their foundational dualisms, implications of deconstructive theories for texts of all kinds.
The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, edited by Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham and Gerhard Adler, translated by R. F. C. Hull (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953-77), Volume 7, p. 78.
Ibid., CW9, i, p. 267.
Ibid., CW9, i, p. 31.
Ibid., CW14, p. 173.
Ibid., CW14, p. 556.
For a thorough discussion of Kristeva's intertextuality see the introduction to Intertextuality, Theories and Practices, edited by Michael Worton and Judith Still (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990), pp. 1-44.
The Wild Girl, p. 122.
Ibid., p. 67.
Ibid., p. 59.
Ibid., p. 123.
The Chymical Wedding, p. 442.
Ibid., p. 335.
Alan McGlashan, The Savage and Beautiful Country (London: Chatto & Windus, 1966.
Ibid., p. 37.
The Chymical Wedding, p. 218.
Ibid., p. 525.
Ibid., p. 527.
The Wild Girl, p. 138.
Ibid., pp. 101-2.
Ibid., p. 169.
Ibid., pp. 172-3.
Ibid., p. 162.
Roger Luckhurst (essay date summer 1996)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8747
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. As Homi Bhabha suggests, in this postcolonial moment, the house serves as a privileged figure of the “freak displacements” of the irruptive unhomely: “In a feverish stillness, the intimate recesses of the domestic space become sites for history's most intricate invasions” (Bhabha 141). If figuring that unhomely other operates through “the obscure signs of the spirit-world (147), that ghost is uncanny precisely because it transgresses the border between private and public. “The unhomely moment relates the traumatic ambivalence of a personal, psychic history to the wider disjunctions of political existence” (147).
For both Morrison and Roberts, the ghost that fractures the enclosure of the home is the trace of a disavowed history, specifically, of a genocidal history. The ghost irrupts between the terms of that oxymoronic phrase, for it is genocide that dominant historiography has tried to erase, while history, and the subjects who might speak it, are denied to the victims of genocide. Endeavoring always to avoid collapsing the experience of African slaves in America and the Jews in Europe, readers, nevertheless, could see Morrison and Roberts as adopting comparable narrative strategies. Fragmented, allusive, elusive, both are forced to be cryptic precisely because they address a crypt that has not been sealed and ghosts that haunt because their history has been disavowed. The aim of these texts might be said to be an examination of the blockage that that denial effects and an initiation of a work of mourning.
But how to mourn a genocide? Mourning requires a proper name; as Hawkins states: “Central to this act of memory is the name of the deceased, that familiar formula of identity by which a person seems to live on after life itself is over. To forget a name is in effect to allow death to have the last word” (752). Living on, the proper name, especially the patronymic, exceeds its bearer, and thus is inscribed with death from the very beginning, inscribed with death, but also the very facilitation of memory.1 How, then, can the unnamed, all the “disremembered and unaccounted for” (Beloved 274), be mourned? Mourning also requires a set of reiterable social rituals and a structure of familial memorialization. How can these survive, given that genocide involves not simply the destruction of people, but of culture (Freeman 4)?
The ghost, therefore, flickers between presence and absence, between disjunction and domestication, between possible and impossible mourning. Both texts, while moving toward forms of closure, of accommodation, retain their revenants, still, at and beyond their final pages. And that, I want to argue, is a profoundly ethical hesitation between the possible and impossible, the recognition that the work of mourning, for genocide, cannot be allowed to end. As James E. Young argues: “The surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution” (21).
In what follows I want to examine Beloved and Daughters of the House through the frame of psychoanalytic theorizations of mourning, bearing in mind the pressure of the imperative to move beyond the intrapsychic to account for the overdetermination of personal and historical trauma. I begin with Beloved.
Anxieties attend the use of psychoanalytic concepts in relation to the African American text (see Wyatt 485, n.2). That is especially so with Beloved, because it constitutes a narrative in which Sethe's secret, traumatic act must be comprehended by strategically placing the individual responsibility within a larger historical framework, the institution of slavery. Ontogenetic explanations, even transgenerational ones (Sethe's murder of her child repeats those of her mother), entirely miss the ruthless intervention of slavery into mothering, but also miss the communitarian resolution propounded by the text: the secret must be shared. Critics, therefore, either have adopted objects—relations theory (Shapiro), a revised Lacanian interpretation (Wyatt), or have re-inflected key Freudian terms (Rushdy, “Rememory”) to emphasize the interpersonal dynamics of the text. It might, nevertheless, be useful, in discussing mourning, to begin with “pure” Freud.
“Mourning and Melancholia” (1917) appears to offer a stable division between a “normal” process and an “abnormal” blockage. The work of mourning acknowledges loss and is the painfully slow withdrawal of libido from the absented object. In that, “Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it” (253). After the bit-by-bit withdrawal of the libido from the “innumerable single impressions” (265) of the loved object, “the work of mourning is completed [and] the ego becomes free and uninhibited again” (Freud 253). Melancholia, on the other hand, blocks the process by a strange form of denial. Rather than acknowledging loss, the ego secretly identifies with the object, thus internalizing it. The effect of keeping the absent one present, is to split the ego, with one part now identified with the incorporated object. The self-accusations and public self-vilifications of the melancholic are the result of an interjected identification with the lost object returning to accuse the ego of its negligence. “The Ego and the Id” (1923), however, is a startling inversion of Freud's initial opposition. Identification, previously associated with abnormal blockage, in fact becomes “the operation” … “whereby the human subject is constituted” (LaPlanche 206). “Melancholic” identification is “common and typical” (Freud 367) in that what were object—cathexes have, partly under the pressure of the Oedipus complex, to be abandoned; cathexis becomes identification. Everyone, in effect, must go through what Kristeva terms the “depressive phase” of separation from the maternal object. For Freud, that process “makes it possible to suppose that the character of the ego is a precipitate of abandoned object—cathexes and that it contains the history of those object-choices” (368). The infant's ego, therefore, is constituted by a withdrawal of cathexis from the parents and an internalizing of social structures of identification. In Judith Butler's gloss, gender acquisition is the result of a melancholic process of same-sex identifications that replace a now tabooed homosexual desire.
Melancholic identification is, simultaneously, an event of ego formation and a subsequent incorporated object that comes to attack the ego. Those two parts clash as structures, just as Sethe and Beloved come to clash. For Sethe, there is no decathexis; the sealing of 124, the severance from any external relations, is a blockage around a loss that is denied as loss: “124 was so full of strong feeling perhaps she was oblivious to the loss of anything at all” (39). Before Paul D's arrival “There was no room for any other body or thing” (39); but, as is realized later, “he brought another kind of haunting” (96): where the spirit had both pointed to but also covered over loss, Paul D now brings pictures of the past that maintain melancholic atemporality: “her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day” (70). With the material presence of Beloved, the mechanism intensifies. Melancholy, as opposed to conscious working through in mourning, is an expression of all the unconscious ambivalences toward the object, the “countless separate struggles … in which love and hate contend with each other” (Freud 266). The sadistic element can be seen in Sethe's abasement before Beloved's increasingly imperious demands and figures the “infection” of the superego by the incorporated “lost” object: “The destructive component has entrenched itself in the superego, and turned against the ego. What is now holding sway in the superego is, as it were, a pure culture of the death instinct” (Freud 394). It takes a form of communal intervention to smash Sethe's suicidal melancholia.
For Beloved, the process of identification is more primary. Her fractured speeches have been read as the inexpressible expression of the pre-Oedipal child's indifferentiation from the mother. If that is the case, it is fatally belated and adopts language utterly foreign to that state. Beloved may state “I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop” (210), but that is in absolute contradiction to the terrifying possessive pronoun, “mine.” In that scrambled temporality, it is possible to read Beloved's return not as a continuation of pre-Oedipality, but as the demand that her separate identity, her ego, be acknowledged. That involves cathexis being transformed into identifications, but they are de-figured as literal devourings attuned with the oral-cannibalistic phase. Sethe needs to be swallowed, paradoxically, in order that Beloved can separate from her, form her ego through the effective murder of the mother. That runs parallel to Beloved's demand that Paul D “touch me on the inside part and call me by my name” (116). It would seem, then, that there is a certain chiasmatic structure in Beloved, whereby Freud's two senses of melancholic identification operate simultaneously: Beloved is for Sethe the lost object whose loss is denied, and whose incorporation leads to an intensifying and destructive melancholia; Sethe is for Beloved the mother who must be decathected and “swallowed” in the process of ego formation, the demand that she be known and possess a name.
That analysis may hold a certain explanatory power, but it is plainly inadequate in several ways. First, it unhappily transforms the text into a case history, which worryingly pathologizes Sethe and wrecks the demand that she be placed in the historical juncture of the institution of slavery. Second, it damages, if not destroys, the subtle textual play of the novel and distorts its concerns by overemphasizing a small section of the book. In doing so, it risks confirming precisely what Beloved contests: the near fatal specularity of the dyadic relation of Sethe and Beloved. It takes no account of the multiple dynamics in 124 between Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and Beloved, nor of the haunting's disruptive effect within the community.
Anthropological analyses of communal burial ceremonies can assist here, particularly as Elizabeth Bronfen applies them within a Lacanian model. She offers a narrative that is more immediately focused on the social performance of mourning and keys in to the figural devices Beloved employs. Here, there is not one death but two. The reality of biological death is followed by a necessarily social ritual of symbolic death. Between these two deaths is a liminal phase that is threatening in its blurring of categories: “the person in liminality is dangerous, inauspicious or polluting precisely due to the fact that this person cannot be clearly classified” (198); the corpse remains too close to the living and not yet safely placed in the distancing apparatus of death. In Bronfen's words, the liminality “comes to an end with the second burial, a repetition of the first, which signifies the completion of decay and of mourning, to indicate that the spirit is definitely established in the beyond and replaced with a commemorative monument” (103). The memorial image is the closing seal on the coffin, the safe passage from absented body (soma) to its re-presentation in memorializing symbols (sema). That passage is structured according to the Lacanian notion of “the murder of the thing” in order that it can be symbolized. Mourning is conterminous with liminality and ends with second burial.
Bronfen's analysis is almost exclusively devoted to the ways in which liminality is either prevented from conclusion, or, more radically, the way the move from body to memorial text, from soma to its symbolic re-presentation, can never finally close over and sever the social from its fearful other. In figures like the double, the presumed-dead who return, and the vampire, the liminality of being between deaths is uncannily frozen, caught in a non-space populated by the living dead. The ghost of Beloved is clearly one of that host. There are in fact two ways, following parallel these in Bronfen, of reading Beloved's uncanny presence. One is to read the ghost as a trope for slavery's active disorganization of community: the way it injects death and then enforces the impossibility of mourning. If that explains the presence of Beloved, the narrative effectuates the unblocking of Sethe's inability to mourn. The other reading sees Beloved as non-tropic, always in excess of narrativization, a brute materiality that resists symbolization, and thus forever disrupts mourning.
Ghosts are the signals of atrocities, marking sites of an untold violence, a traumatic past whose traces remain to attest to the fact of a lack of testimony. A haunting does not initiate a story; it is the sign of a blockage of story, a hurt that has not been honored by a memorializing narrative. The geography of Beloved is punctured by traumas that have not been bound into story: “Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead negro's grief” (5); “You know as well as I do that people who die bad don't stay in the ground” (188). The supernatural is here semi-naturalized; Sethe and Paul D calmly recall “that headless bride back behind Sweet Home” (13). That such ghosts mark both the traces of individual histories, stories of the unnamed that remain untold and therefore hauntingly unresolved between two deaths, as well as condensations of the fate of an entire community, is evidenced in Beloved's ambivalent representative status. Number 124 is the site of a specific tragic event, but it also invokes a whirlwind of multiple voices. Stamp Paid, repeatedly beaten back from entering the house by a wall of sound, comes to an understanding: “he believed he knew who spoke them. The people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons” (180-81). The ghost of Beloved and the haunting of 124 are thus iconic condensations of a history, fractured and dislocated in its telling, that resorts to the trope of the ghost to unspeak the historiography that has repressed its unmemorialized participants. Beloved constitutes, as it were, a ceremonial text. If we are to emphasize a movement of closure here, the text could be said to conclude with a second symbolic death that ends the melancholic seizure of liminality in multiple ways. For Paul D, 124 is “unloaded” (264); the border between Ohio and Kentucky is finally, psychically, secured. It is the lesson that “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another” (95). Sethe's final words, “Me? Me?” (273) seem to suggest a reassertion of her subjectivity beyond melancholic entrapment: in responding to Paul D, it is implied she is on the road to “successful mourning” in which she disengaged from a lost object sufficiently to re-cathect to another. Equally, if the closing stages of Sethe and Beloved's fatal embrace hold Stamp Paid on the liminal threshold of the house, unable to get in, it is Denver's breach of this suspended state that begins resolution. Exit from 124 begins Denver's search for “a story that will make sense of the baby's death, mark the baby's disappearance, and lay her to rest” (Wyatt 482).
That is clearly one project of the text; Beloved is a trope for melancholic blockage; her dispersal constitutes a narrative that would allow a narrative of mourning to be set in motion. That interlocks, however, with another significant set of meanings that disturbs a simple ceremony of closure: Beloved as the non-tropic intrusion of the Real, which would resist the smooth symbolizing replacement by memorial text. Beloved remains in the brief coda, “a loneliness that roams … No rocking can hold it down”: “Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don't know her name?” (274). Is the possibility of mourning rendered impossible here?
The text consistently displays how the attempt to symbolize is disrupted. What needs far more emphasis than hitherto is the discontinuous forms of presence of the ghost (Morrison herself describes the defamiliarization the text effects as a “compelling confusion,” in which the reader is “snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign” [“Unspeakable” 32-3]). Both official history (in newspaper and court reports) and history's officials (police, judge, church) seek to close the case precisely through the ritual of burial. And yet, as Sethe recalls, “as soon as I got the gravestone in place you made your presence known in the house” (184). The chiseled word, “bought” in the graveyard, is at once derived from the formulaic words of a ritual and Sethe's private and socially inadmissible reading of her own act: neither, however, names. Her presence in the house is then benign for some years, until Denver's discovery of the secret; what unblocks her ears from Nelson Lord's terrifying question is a shift in the aspect of the hauntings: “From then on the presence was full of spite” (104). The first exorcism is enacted by Paul D.
In a text that is now so well known, it is easy to forget the disturbing gap between the appearance of a young girl—apparently without history or explanation for her arrival—and the eventual confirmation of the impossible—that she is Beloved in her second form of presence. It would require something like Stanley Fish's painstaking reconstruction of the temporal experience of reading to be faithful to the disorientation and disquiet that that hesitation produces on first reading. That disbelief is fostered by a residual trading with cultural conventions surrounding haunting. In a community where the supernatural is “naturalized,” there are, nevertheless, degrees of the abnormally normal; no one can conceive of a material return, especially after an impromptu exorcism. Denver recognizes it early (with cryptic signals; that “the tip of the thing”  is the scar of the handsaw is discernible only on subsequent readings). Sethe only “clicks” late and in a revealing image: “A hobnail casket of jewels found in a tree hollow should be fondled before it is open … No smashing with an ax head before it is decently exhumed from the grave that has hidden it all this time” (176). The symbolizing process, the move from first to second burial, from soma to sema, is wrenched into reverse—the gravestone initiating rather than concluding the haunting—before exceeding the schema entirely. That the impossible Real, the materializing of “actual history,”2 forces itself into the Symbolic is what eventually results in a communal response. Ella, at first the most unforgiving, stops short at spirits in the flesh: “She didn't mind a little communication between the two worlds, but this was an invasion” (257). The second exorcism commences, but in the wordless words of the women there is the recognition of the need to go beyond inscribed symbolic conventions. No prepared ritual can transform the animate ghost into inanimate memorial text; the women's voices rise to find “the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words” (261): the “modality of significance” (Kristeva 22) that operates in the hinge of semiotic and symbolic forms.
Beloved, though, remains. Why, after this unorthodox ritual? One could follow Bronfen's argument that representation can never completely replace the body; representation begins with the “murder of the thing,” and if it stands in for and covers over the murder it also testifies to the absence it fills: “The aporia of representation seems to be that part of putting the real under erasure means articulating it, enacting that is not only how representations falter and stumble before the real but how the real must also fail before representation” (53). Thus, Beloved's ghost will always be in some ways in excess, unassimilable. The text, therefore, seems to offer Beloved as both trope and non-trope and ends with a closure that cannot, in fact, close down.
Those two views are not incompatible, however. Derrida's questions address a structurally similar contradiction:
Is the most distressing, or even the most deadly infidelity that of a possible mourning which would interiorise within us the image, idol, or ideal of the other who is dead and lives only in us? Or is it that of the impossible mourning, which, leaving the other to his alterity, respecting thus his infinite remove, either refuses to take or is incapable of taking the other within oneself, as in that tomb or vault of some narcissism?
Is Beloved's melancholic presence being interiorized, the unhomely brought home, releasing the blockage and initiating the process of a possible mourning? Or are Beloved's remains, her remaining, evidence of an unassimilable otherness that is being respected, announcing the impossibility of mourning? It is not a question of choice; this schema is not tenable, says Derrida. The other and the memory of the other is never fully containable; it exists rather as a non-totalizable trace: “this trace is interiorised in mourning as that which can no longer be interiorised … [it is] in and beyond mournful memory—constituting it, traversing it, exceeding it, defying all reappropriation” (38). The mourning of the trace is at once possible and impossible.
Possible mourning is, as it were, remembering to forget—to work through, interiorize, and then pass over. Impossible mourning is forgetting to remember—in the sense that Erinnerung, “interiorizing memory,” cannot contain the trace of the other. Those senses, I think, can be seen to be run together in Morrison's beautiful solecism: to disremember. It is a term that clashes together both recall and an active forgetting of that recall. It is evident in the utterly contradictory speeches that Sethe addresses, in her mind, to Beloved once she has “clicked”: she can “Think about all I ain't got to remember no more” (182), bring herself to list, in detail, all the memories that can now be forgotten. For memories to be disremembered involves a paradoxical act of simultaneous recall and erasure, one that sustains both effects.
Beloved is “disremembered,” held in that superbly ambivalent reiteration: “It was not a story to pass on” (meaning either to pass on or to pass on, a story to both forget and remember). And if Beloved, nameless, unaccounted for, continues an interstitial haunting, that attests to the ghost's simultaneous role of trope for a possible mourning and non-trope for the impossible. “Sixty million / and more” marks that terrifying and impossible supplement, one whose mourning could never be left off, never completed or reduced to a memorial, for Beloved's representativity extends that more into untold histories. Of the haunting voices that traverse the text there are also those of the native Americans. “Outraged … they growled on the banks of Licking River, sighed in the trees on Catherine Street and rode the winds above the pig yards. Paul D heard them” (155). “And more”: Morrison ends Beloved in a closure that affirms the possibility of a life freed from melancholic seizure, but also leaves open, leaves Beloved open, as a gesture of the impossibility of ever finally working through a mourning that ethically cannot end.
“It was a changeable house. Sometimes it felt safe as a church, and sometimes it shivered then cracked apart” (Daughters 1). The familial home at Blémont-la-Fontaine is also the site for the uncanny emergence of an “unspeakable” history.
Daughters of the House concerns the reunion of two daughters, Thérèse, a nun in a contemplative order, and Léonie, her cousin, married and now living in the house in which twenty years earlier the two had experienced a sequence of traumatic events. Thérèse's return is occasioned by a literal unearthing of that past: “The grave newly opened and desecrated, swastikas in red daubed on the tombstone” (7). Their meeting is propelled by the breaking of the seal of a memorial closure, a commemoration that has attempted to repress a secret remainder that has once more resurfaced. The epitaph that names Henri Taillé silences, covers over, “the tangle of bones of the unknown Jews buried with him” (7).
The text has a complex triple time-frame: the reunion in the present allows a sustained recall of a phase of their childhood in the 1950s, a childhood itself haunted by unresolved events from the German Occupation in World War II. The twenty year suspension of their relationship is marked exactly by the length of time the gravestone keeps it secret below the ground.
But the voices of the Jewish dead that Léonie hears are not the whole story. To turn the text into a narrative solely about the haunting legacy of the Jewish Holocaust distorts the text from its other concerns: the key form of visitation, after all, centers on the competing versions Thérèse and Léonie offer of the vision of the Lady in the shrine at the woods. And then there are the nightmares of Antoinette's dismembered corpse. Can any single frame make these forms of uncanny presence cohere?
Corpses, visions, whispering ghosts, the bones of the dead that continue to return: Daughters of the House contains all the iconography of liminality, of the hesitation between two deaths. But is it a narrative of mourning, or the impossibility of mourning? Who mourns? And what? Does mourning always fall to the woman? “If the family figures mourning, the economy of the dead, … if the house, the place where death guards itself against itself, forms a theatre or a funeral rite, if the woman assures the representation of this, it falls to the married woman to manage, strictly, a corpse” (Glas L143). But Derrida's reading of Hegel's ascription of the remembrance of the family in death to the surviving woman concentrates on the wife in a family enclosed from its own outside. How is it that the daughters have the responsibility of a memory to those who are in part extrafamilial and unhomely? How can they mourn what they do not know? And this has nothing to do with repression; they are possessed by something of which they have no knowledge. In true Gothic tradition, it is the house that infects subsequent generations with a secret that blocks mourning, renders it impossible in the suppression of a crime. If Thérèse and Léonie are instated as the initially unknowing subjects of a melancholic blockage, the blockage cannot be explained through the mechanisms described by Freud or Lacan. It requires another theory of mourning, one that Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok provide.
What is of relevance here is their general theory of psychic concealment, their proposed “poetics of hiding” (Rand, OLR 59). Normal mourning involves the introjection of the lost object, largely in accord with the Freudian notion of decathexis; however, introjection is rigorously distinguished from incorporation. To incorporate the object is to de-figure the swallowing of loss by literally swallowing the object. It is in the topography that incorporation produces that Abraham and Torok depart from theories already discussed: “Grief that cannot be expressed builds a secret vault within the subject. In this crypt reposes … the objective counterpart of the loss, as a complete person with his own topography” (“Introjection” 8). The crypt resides in the ego, entirely unknown, as a kind of artificial unconscious. The strange spatial effect of this entombed living dead, which reduces the ego to a “cemetery guard” (“Topography” 65), is to bring an outside inside, but an inside that remains “heterogeneous to the inside of the Self” (Derrida, “Fors” xvi). As long as the walls of the crypt remain sealed, both mourning and melancholy are blocked; there is no betrayal of the presence of the secret object. Mourning is rendered impossible by incorporation, but the public self-abasements and accusations of melancholy are equally absent, for the potential mourner is equally unknowing, the crypt encrypts even the presence of the crypt itself, it hides its own hiding. The secret place makes itself known “as soon as the walls of the crypt become shaky [and] faced with the threat of the crypt collapsing, the whole ego becomes a tomb” (“Introjection” 14). The stranger within takes over, possesses, begins to ventriloquize the ego; it “comes to haunt the keeper of the graveyard, making strange and incomprehensible signs” (“Introjection” 8).
The new metapsychological theory of the crypt is furthered by that of the phantom. In “Notes on the Phantom,” Abraham begins: “To be sure, all the departed may return, but some are destined to haunt: the dead who have been shamed during their lifetime or those who took unspeakable secrets to the grave” (287). That statement quickly becomes modulated by the suggestion that the phantom, unlike the formation of the crypt, has nothing to do with the individual's psyche, but is the product of someone else's secret: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others” (287). Typically the passage of the secret is from parent to child. The encrypted secret of the parent is passed straight to the child's unconscious3: “The buried speech of the parent becomes (a) dead (gap), without a burial place, in the child” (“Lost Object” 17). Possessed by something that is “radically heterogeneous,” the child is victim to a secret that haunts because it has no acknowledgment, is “without legal burial place” (“Lost Object” 4).
“There was a secret somewhere” (Daughters 132), and Thérèse and Léonie have to sift multiple, incomplete, and fragmented evidences from diverse sources—whispered parental conversations, the oblique and interrupted reminiscences of Victorine and Rose, the isolated phrases that leap from the mass of letters between Antoinette and her sister but remain unread before being reduced to cinders. The daughters of the house are penetrated and to some extent ventriloquized by the encrypted secrets of their parents' generation; they suffer the phantom of a history illegally buried but leaking from the edges of the crypt in disruptive ways.
The haunting of Thérèse and Léonie requires an analysis that triangulates, as it were, the three significant sites at which secret knowledges emerge: the cellar (“entry to it forbidden to the children” ), the bedroom (“The rules indicated forbidden places. Chief of these was the bedroom at the back” ), and the shrine (“You're not going to the woods anymore. I absolutely forbid it” ). If the bedroom “belongs” to Léonie, the shrine to Thérèse, and the cellar to their competing fantasies, the strange lines that secretly connect them must be followed in detail.
Léonie, the “English cousin” (I use quotation marks to indicate the sense in which the secret persistently problematizes her identity) is visited by an encrypted knowledge from the very beginning. The disconcerting status of the opening chapter forms into the garbled shards of a nightmare: “Antoinette was dead, which was why they had buried her in the cellar. She moved under the heap of sand. She clutched her red handbag, which was full of shreds of dead flesh … Sooner or later she would batter down the cellar door and burst up through it on her dead and bleeding feet” (1). The living dead aunt (Thérèse's mother) is the locus of a (literal) body of knowledge that, to re-inflect the term from Beloved is dis(re)membered. Antoinette is the person who attempts to suppress Léonie's sense of being haunted in the bedroom where she sleeps. To Léonie's “I don't like the dark. Dead people come in here and start talking,” she responds: “There are no dead people in this house. Dead people can't talk. They're in the cemetery, at rest” (39). In the fragments of letters that Thérèse reads, however, Antoinette obliquely indicates a recognition of what causes Léonie's disturbance without naming that source: “sleepwalking again. Up and down she goes, talking gibberish. You can imagine what it reminds me of, it's terribly upsetting” (133). The voices of the bedroom “[t]hat cried out, and chanted, and mourned. In a language she did not want to understand” (39) are finally ascribed in Baptiste's revelation that the room housed the Jews on the night before their execution. Léonie's horror at being ventriloquized by the phantom of that crime results in a persistent disavowal of the haunting—“She wasn't Jewish … she would not starve, she would not burn” (138)—but one which is eventually confronted.
Léonie is also the first to feel the presence at the shrine, but the vision comes to “belong” to Thérèse. The shrine is a highly complex switching center for multiple lines of narrative, of interweaving patterns of suppression and emergence. It stands, initially, as a semidestroyed memorial to a noninstitutional, peasant Catholicism; the statue has been suppressed by the Church. Léonie can only blurt an inadequate record of a rapturous vision (“The red lady. The golden woman in red ), but Thérèse's account normalizes the vision into the conventionalized language of the Church. Her smooth narrative voice begins: “She had on a long blue dress. Her hair, which was long and fair, was almost covered by her white veil” (95). Her vision, in effect, resanctifies the site for the re-emergence of an unofficial worship. The institutional response is to suppress again this “pagan nonsense” (110) by refusing authorization to Thérèse's vision and destroying the site; however, the uprooting of the memorial stone effects another re-emergence—the uncovering of the illegal burial of the Jewish bones. The Bishop's political move is to sanction the vision; building a chapel both colonizes the unofficial site and displaces one accidental memorialization (the stone marking the Jews and the Catholic Church's complicity in their murder) with another that is an effective silencing—until the displaced grave once more begins asserting the fact that a secret demands utterance.
The Bishop's action does not exhaust the secret knowledges that surround the shrine; to elucidate that fact it is necessary to turn to the third secret, the cellar. Elusive fragments hint at a possible revelation of events there, but this is the most occluded element of the puzzle the text presents. Madeleine tells Léonie that the cellar was used to conceal the village's wine from the occupying Nazis; that story is plainly inadequate, full of ellipses, and cannot account for the degree of interdiction enforced around the cellar. The reader is in the position of the daughters in trying to connect four incomplete sources: Léonie's repeated nightmares involving Antoinette's dismembered body; Antoinette's delirious pleadings, “in the cellar, don't let him see, don't let him see me” (73); phrases from the letters, “Cellar. Hiding it. He found me. Dark. Held. Couldn't escape” (132); and the oblique conversations of Victorine and Rose, holders of the village's oral history.
The fantasy resolutions offered by Thérèse and Léonie are telescoped and rendered oblique, still, in their in completion. To the implication of Antoinette's rape in the cellar is added the modulation of Antoinette's seduction of a German soldier to save whatever is hidden there. Thérèse seems to imply that this story is itself a screen for some kind of ménage between Louis, Madeleine, and Antoinette. Thérèse and Léonie may not be cousins, but twins, with a paternity that circulates: the products of an illicit, intrafamilial affair, of a rape by or seduction of a German. Shame distorts and occludes any final determination: there is only a liaison of competing voices and fantasies.4
Three sites at which encrypted secrets leak, bringing forth nightmares, voices, and visions of the living dead. Is there anything to connect the poles, Antoinette's corpse, the Jewish bones, the visitation of the Red/Blue lady?
The crypt houses an unspeakable secret, and, to reiterate, “the buried speech of the parent becomes (a) dead (gap), without a burial, in the child” (Abraham, “Lost Object” 17). The phantom evidences the fact of a transgenerationally communicated secret, but need not necessarily give up its contents. One whole armature of Abraham and Torok's theory relates to the oblique evidences of the existence of a crypt: the trace of the secret and the fact of its secreted presence can only be gleaned from cryptic manifestations. Analysis of psychic concealment proceeds by a method of cryptonymy. I take only the broadest notion of the crypt's production of the cryptic here, but the radical uncertainty and incompletion, the fragmentation of Daughters of the House, could be related to the pressure the secret exerts to remain encrypted. The connectedness of its fragments remains hauntingly suspended, often in the realm of the children's fantasies, and where images of dismemberment continually occur, the novel contains in this a self-reflexive image of its own performance in the shattered Quimper dish: it can be pieced back together, but crucial shards remain missing.
Hesitantly, then, the three sites analyzed may produce cryptic lines of connection, each of which relates to stalled forms of mourning, overlapping but not interlocking. The first line marks a cryptic passage between the shrine and the cellar, a line carried through Léonie. It is evident from first reading that a streak of red runs through the text: the first nightmare has Antoinette clutching a red handbag, and struggling from her cellar-grave with two red petticoats; the second revolves around a red suitcase, again stuffed with “red shreds of dead flesh” (52). Thérèse and Léonie uncover a red shoe from the cellar, which Antoinette demands be expelled from the house. Before Thérèse's vision of the Virgin Mary is authorized, there is a confused intermingled testimony of a Blue or Red Lady. What does Léonie's Red Lady signify?
A detour is needed at this point. Daughters of the House is persistently haunted intertextually by the autobiographical writings of Thérèse Martin, The Story of a Soul. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, canonized in 1925, wrote a series of reminiscences of her childhood in the form of letters. These were published after her death at age 24 because the Catholic authorities recognized in them the perfect vehicle for presenting an exemplary self-policing and self-abnegating feminine piety. Roberts persistently borrows elements from these texts. She also clearly trades on the proximity of St. Thérèse's visions to her fevered deliria after the death of her mother, her father's “paralysis,” and the enforced separations from her sisters as each enters the enclosed order; all of those are ruthlessly translated into conventionalized tests of faith. The adolescent Thérèse of Daughters of the House stands in direct contact with that.
A persistent sense of confused identity between Thérèse and Léonie bolsters the obscure nature of their exact familial relationship. And it is vital to note that the peasant celebration of the vision initiates the daughters of the house in divergent ways: Thérèse's religious rapture to Léonie's sexual one. In Léonie's embrace with Baptiste, she displaces guilt by confusing herself with Thérèse, “[H]e's pretending I'm Thérèse … it's not me he's kissing, she explained to the nun in her head” (104). That is crucial, for Léonie's first experience of the Red Lady is clearly sexual: “The deepest pleasure she had ever known possessed her. It started in her toes and across her shoulders and squirmed through her, aching, sweet” (87). Thérèse, haunted by St. Thérèse, icon of self-abnegation and suffering, is further haunted by another saint—Teresa. In Thérèse and Léonie's confusion of identities, Sts. Thérèse and Teresa also communicate, and Teresa figures, of course, for the permeable line between religious and sexual ecstasy. As Lacan says: “as for Saint Teresa—you only have to go and look at Bernini's statue in Rome to understand immediately that she's coming”; she stands for the inexpressible jouissance beyond the Phallus, placing the feminine, in her “mystical ejaculations,” on the side of God (Lacan 147).
If the Red Lady is figuring sexual pleasure, does a cryptic link connect that to her disturbing dreams of Antoinette in the cellar? Is Léonie's vision the phantom-effect of an illicit pleasure, one transgenerationally communicated? Is a scene of forbidden sexuality enacted here? That idea remains highly encrypted, and the crypt contains not only the dead, but a scene of pleasure, one that is forbidden but cannot be let go, and is sealed in, preserved, in a living dead maintenance. That sealing is a stalling that neither allows that pleasure to be mourned as lost, nor sanctions it to be enacted—except through displaced and cryptic compulsive repetitions, illegible to those who perform them.
The second line of connection is Thérèse, but in focusing also on the body of Antoinette, the correction might be inscribed within a more classical conception of stalled mourning. Thérèse's vision has a multiple set of explanations. Her religiosity becomes increasingly intense as her mother Antoinette lies dying of cancer. She is found prostrate before her icon of Mary, in much the same position that she will repeat at the shrine. The vision comes immediately after a high fever following her mother's death—an immediate disturbance of grieving? Then Thérèse has just had her first period—an emanation of adolescent femininity? The curé contemptuously mobilizes that narrative, focusing on the unreliability of the female body. The novel begins with Léonie's dream of the living dead struggling from the cellar; its closing movement contains Thérèse's dream of rememberment: “They were preparing [Antoinette] for burial. They stitched up the torn skin, moulded the features of the face back into position, set the broken bones, then coaxed the limbs to lie straight” (160). Scattered body parts have wrenched the mother out of the frame of possible closure; irreconcilable fragments have drawn to them the “impossible” presence of melancholic denial: “Better fragmented, torn, cut up, swallowed, digested … than lost” (Kristeva 12). Thérèse's actions at the close could be seen as the paradoxical enactment of a re-membering in order to dispense, finally, with a corpse kept suspended between two deaths. The absenting of the mother's body initiates the movement toward language, text, memorial. In the church, Thérèse gives her own commentary: abandoned by Antoinette, her mother, “[S]he'd found herself another mother, she'd been sold one ready-made by the priests of her Church” (165). Her contemplative life is now figured as the perpetuation of a melancholic blockage: it is the only place to preserve her vision intact as a fetishistic disavowal of loss. The decision to destroy that vision sets mourning in train: “It couldn't console her any more for Antoinette's loss. What she needed now was a funeral, a fire” (166).
A moment of closure, then? Of sorts, but these lines remain en famille, in house, organized around the death plot of the family enclosure. That is the “proper” business, the business of its “property”: “one belongs to a family only in busying oneself around the dead: toilette of the dead, institution of death, monumentalisation, archive heritage, genealogy, classification of proper names, engraving on tombs” (Glas L143). But a third aspect remains, something that does not fit: the Jews. Daughters of the House seems to issue the same imperative Lyotard notes in Heidegger and “The Jews”: “It is necessary to ‘explain’ that there might (have) be(en) this stranger in the house, and to find a ‘reason’ for his clandestine entry and unnoticed stay” (17). Multiple phantoms visit Léonie, tangled events from an occluded past; and they transgress the enclosure of the familial proper(ty). Mourning concerns the memorialization of the family, but Léonie is visited by an extrafamilial phantom that demands recognition. For that I prefer to keep the term heterocrypt.5 Impossibly, Léonie is obligated to a work of mourning that is not “hers.”
Léonie constantly fights to suppress the irruptive presences in the house, to police its boundaries by obsessively listing her property, an inventory of familial possessions (the banality of the chapter titles attempts to fix concrete objects in a neutral taxonomy, but each leaks a history). The persistent denials during her childhood of this haunting otherness (“She wouldn't be caught, trapped in the darkness. She wasn't a Jew” ) find direct echo in her adult resentment of Thérèse's return, occasioned by the desecrated grave. It will start again: “The grave in the cemetery had been forced open … [and] out of the grave of the war, the unburied and the undead [were] arriving to lay hands upon them all” (170). But, in parallel with Thérèse, her move is finally toward acceptance of a responsibility, the impossible obligation to listen to the call of the other: “All she had to do was go in and join them, listen to what they had to say, unravel and reravel the different languages that they used … The voices came from somewhere just ahead, the shadowy bit she couldn't see. She stepped forward, into the darkness, to find words” (172).
Yet there needs to be a rigorous distinction of the parallel scenes that close the novel. Thérèse unblocks an intrafamilial (and therefore, in terms of the account Derrida analyzes in Glas, a “possible”) mourning; Léonie can only begin to acknowledge the fact that re-membering a buried history must involve an “impossible” mourning of the other. Roberts invokes the figure of the home as emblematic of a Europe that has repeatedly disavowed the “strangers” in its house, the utterly contradictory anti-Semitism that moves between fears of dilution and fears of nonassimilation, the brute presence of a foreign object in the body politic. Given the suppression of historical trauma, is it surprising that, thirty or forty years afterward, Léonie still hears its phantom-effect? Of the Final Solution, “the events in question may represent for those whose lives have been touched by them, even across the distance of one or more generations, a degree of overstimulation to psychic structures and economies that normal psychic functioning may be interrupted” (Santer 151, my emphasis).
If poetry was rendered barbaric by Auschwitz, is “normal” mourning equally incapacitated? What Kristeva, using Duras's phrase, calls the “malady of death” infects every relation after the bomb, the concentration camp, the gulag: “our symbolic means find themselves hollowed out, nearly wiped out, paralysed” (223). And yet she opposes the temptation of silence, of referential retreat into formal self-reflexivity, and praises Duras's aesthetics of awkwardness, that confrontation with the “nothing” that would register “a disaster of words in the face of the unnameable affect” (258). The catastrophe of history is inscribed there, even in the most intimate of relations; an irruption that recalls Bhabha's analysis of the unhomely invasiveness of the politico-historical.
If genocide is to be mourned, it cannot be through the fixity of a memorial, whether in commemorative epitaph or monumentality of stone. In the apparent service of remembrance, memorial history is premised on a forgetting: by being too certain, too definite, too narrativized, it “closes the gaps … forgets the heterogeneous” (Lyotard 8). James E. Young's historicizing of Holocaust memorials propounds the same argument: the memorial may constitute displacements of the very memory they are supposed to embody, thus “divest[ing] ourselves of the obligation to remember” (5). In a completely different arena, Peter Hawkins's praise for the AIDS quilt is founded on its endless mobility, fragility, its lack of organizing metanarrative or transcendent plea. Morrison and Roberts effect the same concern with process rather than completion, with memory-work rather than the illusion of a fixed, atemporal memorial. These are not histories to be sealed, closed off, completed; their effects remain, haunting. With genocide, “to bear witness to this impossibility remains possible,” given a writing that cannot forget the forgotten and operates according to “a process of mourning to be repeated over and over. Writing and re-writing according to this mourning” (Lyotard 93).
This is a crucial element of Derrida's work on the proper name. For example: “Only the name can inherit, and this is why the name, to be distinguished from the bearer, is always and a priori a dead man's name, a name of death.” The Ear of the Other, 7.
The phrase is Paul de Man's, discussed by Derrida in Mémoires for Paul de Man (52): “The materiality of actual history is thus that which resists historical, historicizing resistance.”
The passing of the parent's secret straight to the child's subconscious has to be related to Nicolas Abraham's radical revision of the infant's development, which develops as an “envelope” around the “maternal kernel.” “The Shell and the Kernel” is a demanding but important critique of what Abraham calls the “pseudology” of the universalizing myth of the Oedipus complex.
See Daughters of the House, 131. In an Anglo-French text, bilingual puns proliferate. The meaning here is initially liaison, “to thicken sauce,” but also runs into “communication.” Liaison also means precisely that: “to run words together”; hence: “From the curdled words sprang a message” (131).
In “Fors,” Derrida makes a rigorous distinction between the crypt and the ghost: “What is in question in both is a secret, a tomb, and a burial, but the crypt from which the ghost comes back belongs to someone else. One could call this a heterocryptography” (119). I am reserving the heterocrypt for that which doubles otherness, as it were: for that outside me and outside the familial enclosure.
Abraham, Nicolas. “The Shell and the Kernel,” Trans. Nicholas Rand. Diacritics 9:1 (1979): 16-28.
———. “Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to Freud's Metapsychology.” Trans. Nicholas Rand. Critical Inquiry 13 (1987): 287-292.
Abraham, Nicolas, and Maria Torok. “Introjection—Incorporation: Mourning or Melancholia.” Trans. Nicholas Rand. Psychoanalysis in France. Ed. Lebovici and Widlocher. New York: International UP, 1980:3-16.
———. “A Poetics of Psychoanalysis: ‘The Lost Object—Me.’” Trans. Nicholas Rand. Substance 43, (1984): 3-18.
———. The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonymy. Trans. Nicholas Rand. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1986.
Bhabha. Homi. “The World and the Home.” Social Text 31-2 (1992): 141-153.
Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1992.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990.
Derrida. Jacques. Glas. 1974. Trans. John P. Leavey and Richard Rand. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P. 1986.
———. “Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok.” 1976. Trans. Nicholas Rand, as introduction to The Wolf Man's Magic Word, xi-xlviii.
———. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. 1982. Trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
———. Mémoires for Paul de Man. Trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, and Eduardo Cadava. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
Freeman, Michael. “Speaking about the Unspeakable: Genocide and Philosophy.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 8:1 (1991): 3-17.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholy” (1917) and “The Ego and the Id” (1923). On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis. The Pelican Freud Library, Volume 11, Ed. Angela Richards, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
Hawkins, Peter S. “Naming Names: The Art of Memory and the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt.” Critical Inquiry 19 (1993): 752-779.
Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.
Lacan, Jacques. “God and the Jouissance of Woman.” Trans. Jacqueline Rose. Feminine Sexuality. Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. London: Macmillan, 1982. 137-148.
Lyotard. J-F. Heidegger and “The Jews.” Trans. Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1990.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. London: Chatto and Windus, 1987.
———. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28, Winter 1989: 1-34.
Rand, Nicholas. “Psychoanalysis with Literature: An Abstract of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok's The Shell and the Kernel.” Oxford Literary Review 12 (1990): 57-62.
Roberts, Michèle. Daughters of the House. London: Virago, 1993.
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “‘Rememory’: Primal Scenes and Constructions in Toni Morrison's Novels.” Contemporary Literature 31:3 (1990): 300-323.
———. “Daughters Signifyin(g) History: The Example of Toni Morrison's Beloved.” American Literature 64:3 (1992): 567-597.
Santer, Eric L. “History Beyond the Pleasure Principle: Some Thoughts on the Representation of Trauma.” Probing the Limits of Representation. Ed. Saul Friedlander. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. 143-154.
Schapiro, Barbara. “The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison's Beloved.” Contemporary Literature 32:2 (1991): 194-210.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. The Story of a Soul. Trans. Michael Day. Wheathampstead: Clarke, 1990.
Wyatt, Jean. “Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison's Beloved.” PMLA 108:3 (1993): 474-488.
Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.
Emma Tristram (review date 25 April 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
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 conventions and the turning of the reader's stomach all continue, perhaps in order to make us think and come to feminist conclusions. The opening chapter, describing a bone-house full of relics, introduces Isabel, Josephine's niece, who seems, at first, to be a subsidiary character in Josephine's story, sullenly being dragged along on her spiritual adventures. Then it turns out she has been telling the story all along; then she admits that some of it was untrue. Josephine's writings play an important part in the book. She writes a lying life of herself to avoid the charge of heresy and please the authorities. Twenty years later, she starts a new, true “life”, to record her real thoughts and visions, written secretly on scraps of paper. Isabel acquires this with great difficulty, loses it, finds it again—and we are never allowed to read it. Josephine's mother, Beatrice, also has some secret books which are discovered by the teenage Josephine; the last, and most mysterious, work—a set of scrolls—is taken away by Josephine's worldly friend Magdalena; much later, Magdalena gives these scrolls back, and they turn out to be in an unreadable script.
The unreadable scrolls are hidden in Magdalena's kitchen, disguised as rolling-pins to keep them from the Inspectors. They may stand for secret, heretical, heroic knowledge handed on by women along with domestic lore. Perhaps they also imply that we need not know what a much-prized book actually says in order to be inspired by it. Soon after she finds them, Josephine decides to found her unusual new order of nuns. She wants to create a double house where one side is a “convent without Catholicism or Catholic beliefs”, in which “Mass is simply a question of cooking a good dinner”; and the other half is “a mixture of club, restaurant, salon, dance-hall, café-theatre, boudoir, opium den and so on”. Her reformed order is small and poor; she dies before she can build this revolutionary annexe. With her last words, she passes on a half-heard joke or revelation to Isabel: “metaphor”. Later, her voice comes to Isabel at night, saying more specifically, “This bread is my body. This wine is my blood. If you believe that you'll believe anything.”
Josephine's story happens in an imaginary time—or not so imaginary—where such statements are punishable by death; where faceless, tyrannical church authorities torture and kill heretics; the Faithless Ones—repositories of scholarly knowledge—have been exterminated; and anywhere other than here is the Far Country. The other saints' lives range between more particular times: St Paul tired with preaching and a modern parish priest on holiday. Piling up symbols with relish, they explore the ways in which women have suffered and sometimes overcome. St Jerome's teaching makes one girl anorexic; she dies. Another, who is chained up in a tower for having wings and visions, cuts off her hand to escape. Two avoid father-daughter incest—one by dying, one by biting off her father's penis—another enjoys it, and is punished by living down a well for twenty years.
The whole book happens in a bright, violent, sensuously described world, full of combinations of sweet and putrid smells, and descriptions of cooking stuffed with symbolic meaning. Michèle Roberts claims the intensity and imagery of religion, while rejecting many of its beliefs; she prefers what our High Anglican vicar calls “the sacramentality of everyday things”. The best things in the book are descriptions of spiritual states: one of knowing God; one of accepting not-knowing, in research and conversation; one of being one body with the earth; one a vision of a Trinity of loving man and woman with child. These more naked, autobiographical passages come as intervals of sympathy in a book which tries too hard to manipulate the reader into a conviction of the redemptive power of feminism.
Jason Cowley (review date 23 May 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569
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 her father rejects her clumsy sexual advances. Dressed in her dead mother's clothes, she summons her father by “rolling her hips [at him] like a whore”. In the convent, she is visited by an ambiguous figure who, she thinks, may be Christ. The nuns, at first alarmed that her “ecstatic night-time meetings” are heretical, later turn her, and her preserved corpse, into an object of wonder and veneration.
Josephine's journey from rejection to canonisation is echoed and parodied in other narratives that explore the tension between sexuality and holiness. The women in these stories endure banishment or internal exile precisely because they are unable to suppress their sexuality. So Thecla, repeatedly spurned by men, ends up living alone in a remote coastal cave. Thais spends 20 years locked at the bottom of a well—her sin was to enjoy “the most blissful experience it was possible to have”, the experience of sleeping with her father. Elsewhere, a virginal adolescent, Agnes, is stripped and expelled from home after her father, walking home drunk one night, mistakes her for a whore and tries to kiss her. Agnes spends the rest of her long life cutting hair in a humble barber's shop, often working in the nude. Well, you would, wouldn't you!
Roberts, like Angela Carter, with whom she is often compared, is drawn to myth and fairy stories. The problem, though, with setting your work in a mythical past is that anything is permissible. Humanly there are no boundaries. You can do what you want. This can be liberating—people fly, death is not final; but also a burden—a reckless extravagance is encouraged, a preposterousness of subject and tone indulged. Roberts is not yet a preposterous writer, although she is edging that way; but she is becoming a reckless one, one more interested in florid flights of fancy than in how we live today. If, as she says, this book really has helped her to exorcise past traumas, then I think the time may be right for her finally to close the gates of the convent, cast aside those childhood fairy stories and start writing about genuine people in a real society.
Michèle Roberts and Stephen Brasher (interview date 4 July 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 354
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 on your political beliefs?
The release of Nelson Mandela.
Which political figure, living or dead, do you most admire?
If you could visit any time in history for just 24 hours, which would you choose and why?
I'd like to sidle in and out of Paris during the Terror.
What do you consider the greatest threat at present to individual freedom and liberty?
On important matters, whose opinion—other than your own—do you trust most?
Decisions about writing have to be taken alone. I talk over everything with my husband, Jim Latter.
Who is the greatest prime minister we never had and why?
Clare Short, who, despite being a politician, has retained her humanity, honesty and integrity. She could job-share with Glenys Kinnock, who's also got guts and vision.
If you could pass one law, what would it be?
I'd like to see all our inner cities massively planted up with beautiful trees and shrubs and flower beds.
Linda Giedl (review date 2 July 1998)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865
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 found in them “incredible richness and an untapped wealth of information for historians studying early medieval society.”
Her book is crammed with skillfully presented, though often repetitious, information about Radegund, Margaret of Scotland, Clotilda, and a host of other Catholic women saints. Distilled from Latin, French, German, and English sources, these accounts unquestionably fill blanks in one's knowledge of the Middle Ages.
The sweep of 600 years is rough-hewn into two periods. The first was marked by a less formalized, structured church. Queens and abbesses could, despite male-generated rules and prohibitions, function to an extent as patrons of the church, founders and administrators of monastic communities, peacemakers, social reformers, domestic proselytizers, healers, educators, and prophets. The church especially valued and rewarded wives and mothers who dedicated themselves to converting their royal sons and husbands—and often, as a consequence, whole kingdoms—to Christianity.
Then came the Carolingian, Cluniac, and other reforms of the mid-8th and 9th centuries—“a concerted attempt,” writes Schulenburg, “at redefining authority and reorganizing society and the Church.” Women's opportunities, already circumscribed, diminished. The number of monasteries for women shrank and, as a result, so did the number of women saints. Over the next two centuries, women found themselves increasingly controlled, segregated, and consigned by church fathers to passive domestic roles.
Schulenburg's title, “Forgetful of Their Sex,” refers directly to the demand for integritas—total virginity. “For women,” Schulenburg points out, “the preservation of virginity was the single most essential prerequisite for a life of Christian perfection. … For their rigorous repudiation of their own sexuality and espousal of virginity, they often won the highest patristic compliment: they were praised for their spiritual virility, for progressing toward perfect manhood.”
She devotes an entire chapter to this subject, showing how fear, suspicion, even misogyny, led to an exaggerated emphasis on chastity, virginity, ascetic practices, and self-mortification.
Other chapters discuss and copiously illustrate medieval marriage and motherhood, women's sibling relationships, the profound importance of chaste friendships among men and women of the church, and saints' longevity.
From cover to cover, Schulenburg is the scrupulous academic. She never really lets her hair down and tells us how she feels about these medieval women, beyond calling the strongest of them “uncommon … independent … intrepid.” If she feels indignation about what so many women suffered during that era, readers won't learn it from this book.
The obvious audience for Forgetful of Their Sex is specialists in medieval and religious studies and women's history. But its subject matter and readability give this book a broader appeal. It will be a kind of “roots” experience for some readers. They will hear the voices, haunted and haunting, of their distant ancestors and understand more about themselves.
Michèle Roberts's collection of short stories, Impossible Saints, is another take altogether on the subject of women and sainthood.
With writing that is subjective and feminist, irreverent and, at times, offensive, Roberts has designed “saints” who are only lightly tethered to Earth or to any historical models. Her very human women aren't there to be loved or admired but to be accepted for what they are and do. They cope, some of them cleverly, some pathetically, with the mostly loutish, insensitive, strange, or selfish men around them.
Roberts is a good storyteller, but her concept of sainthood is unorthodox, to say the least. Sexual references, including incest, abound. The stories are uneven in quality. Some, are flights of fancy not grounded in earthly reality or solid research and seriously lacking in detail and development.
She intersperses chapters of the longer “Story of St. Josephine” among a series of unrelated short stories, but Josephine fares better if her chapters are read as a unit. Roberts bounces back and forth in time, sometimes including characteristics of several eras in a single story. With Schulenburg's book as a reference, Impossible Saints is easier to fathom.
Forgetful of Their Sex makes a substantial and needed contribution to a specific body of knowledge. Impossible Saints, regrettably, doesn't score an equivalent success.
Peter Swaab (review date 15 January 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795
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 novel, Fair Exchange has an oddly unsettled relation to fact, which Roberts acknowledges in the games she play with names. Wollstonecraft, for instance, appears as herself, and there are brief appearances from Godwin, “the poet William Blake” and Helen Maria Williams; but her publisher is Mr Jackson (instead of Johnson). Wollstonecraft soon recedes from the story, leaving her pupil Jemima Boote more central, and Jemima's life includes many circumstances from Wollstonecraft's. The replacement allows Roberts to arrange the coincidences which drive the story, and also to sideline Wollstonecraft's stringency about reason and virtue, and her early anti-sensuality, emphasizing instead her more congenial aspiration for equal civic participation.
Wollstonecraft fades from the story, then, but her lover Gilbert Imlay is suggested in the figure of Paul Gilbert. Annette Vallon, similarly, becomes Annette Villon. William Wordsworth becomes William Saygood, pre-empting any identification with Wordsworth, while unavoidably suggesting a relation to him. Most of the deviations from Wordsworth's biography work to Saygood's disadvantage: he is the same age, or exploitatively older, than Annette (whereas she was four years older than the twenty-two-year-old Wordsworth), his marital “understanding” with his English wife-to-be (unlike Wordsworth's) predates the affair with Annette, and he abandons Annette and the baby in 1792 (Wordsworth did not marry Mary Hutchinson until a full ten years later). In addition, poor Dorothy Wordsworth is horribly transformed into the neurotic, self-obsessed Polly Saygood.
There is an author's note explaining that Saygood isn't Wordsworth, but why in that case does his life replicate so many of Wordsworth's biographical circumstances? The method suggests a phantom case for the prosecution of male poets, and an area where this historical romance crosses over into the didactic novel.
Certainly Roberts presents the idea of “a revolution in poetic manners” restrictively, as a facet of masculine egotism and naivety. The two fathers, Saygood and Gilbert, celebrate their daughters (born the same day) with a poetry-writing competition: “Stick to your pots and pans, my dear”, Gilbert instructs Annette, “and we'll stick to our Muses. In quatrains, I think, William, don't you?” This descent into the style of bad costume drama is uncharacteristic of Roberts's precise and spare writing, and suggests her unwillingness to extend her fictional imagination equally to the men and women.
In general, the book is interestingly unimpressed by the prospects of revolutionary change. Roberts's language, again, betrays her lack of sympathy by unusual lapses into cliché (“the Revolution gathered momentum like a great wave”) and gush (“The world glowed like a lamp freshly cleaned, its light divine”). The real strength of the book lies in its realization of those parts of life that are stubbornly unaffected by revolution. Most of the action is set in provincial France, at a little distance from Paris, and Roberts brings alive the details of the setting with wonderful density. There are a few sensuous descriptions, mainly about the gathering of food from the fields, but her emphasis is on the drudgery of cleaning, child-minding and fatigue: “Louise sat back on her aching haunches and wrung out the rag with which she swabbed the edges of the floor, where the bristles of the scrubbing brush were too coarse to reach. The water had cooled and made her wrists itch. It was brown, with bits of dirt floating in it. The rag felt slimy.” All those textures of discomfort, along with the scrupulous evocations of village economies, are typical of the way she brings a world of material constraint vividly to life. The political conviction of Fair Exchange derives from moments like these, and the undemonstratively compassionate narrative they support.
Andrew Barrow (review date 16 January 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641
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.
Yet food and its preparation, or procurement, must inevitably play a substantial part in a novel in which two of the strongest characters are servants—Louise's counterpart in London is called Daisy—and where a great deal of the action takes place in a kitchen or kitchen garden.
I dare say that some readers, confronted with such an array of references to sultana-studded buns, chestnut porridge, stewed apples, dried sausage, fried fillets of cod and rancid rabbit may, like the pregnant girl on page 67, prefer to escape to another room and throw up, but, after a while, I found, as it were, my sea legs and became indulgent towards Michèle Roberts's luscious style—not to mention her obsession with fruit and vegetables—and increasingly interested in the story she was telling.
Fair Exchange was apparently inspired by the rumour of a secret affair between William Wordsworth and Mary Wollstonecraft. Never mind about that—the author is as much concerned with motherhood as with female rights and with femininity as much as feminism. ‘Oh, I'm hopeless,’ remarks a flibbertigibbet character called Fanny. ‘I can't even carry a tea-tray upstairs.’
The oppressive domesticity I mentioned earlier eventually evaporates and the story regains its momentum. There are several twists and turns in store and when Louise's awful, if somewhat melodramatic, deed is finally disclosed, it will surely come as a complete surprise to most readers.
Nor is the author afraid of using clichés to speed her story along. Louise—or is it Daisy?—has ‘a non-stop battle’ with dirt and vermin. Other characters are ‘full of ardour and hope’, tears come ‘coursing down’ their cheeks, and bread is used ‘to mop up every last bit of juice’. Such yukkiness may be faintly unsettling but is a great deal more acceptable than the author's occasional lapses into schoolgirlish tweeness, such as when, for example, she describes a cat as ‘a tabby puddle’.
Anyway, these mild disappointments are somehow counterbalanced or even justified by the author's sheer exuberance and pride in her own handiwork—in an introduction she pays particular tribute to the lady who has turned her ‘messy typescript’ into ‘beautiful word-processing’—and also by the various potent and original observations which litter the text. At the end of the story, an on-going dialogue between mother and daughter is charmingly described as ‘two lines of words curving round each other like swallows in flight’. My advice to readers of this succulent but easily digested book is to take a deep breath, swallow it whole and then take flight.
Susan Rowland (essay date 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5894
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 theoretical stratum of the novel challenges male generated theories about the feminine, that of hysteria by Sigmund Freud,2 and of femininity by C. G. Jung,3 in ways that inhabit and organise the novel's narrative structure. As a result the reader is offered two models of absorbing the text: that of reading as murder of the Other (where that Other is aligned with the feminine in the novel's narrative form), and of reading hysterically. Reading hysterically means shifting subject position to respect difference in a move that simultaneously makes male theories, at the genesis of psychoanalysis, hysterical.
First we need some account of the narrative structure. In the Red Kitchen has a fragmented narrative form because it has five female narrators whose stories reflect and comment on each other as characters but whose narratives do not add up to a coherent tale. Significantly, they do not read each other's writing but offer conflicting accounts both of events and motives. A good example is the novel's opening in the form of a letter denouncing one of the major narrators, Flora Milk. We later learn that this was written by her sister and rival in love, Rosina.
Flora Milk is a monster in silk skirts. She looks like a woman, but she's a devil underneath, the part you can't see. … She doesn't look vicious of course. Her trick is to charm you. Everyone falls for it at first. You did, sir, just a little, didn't you? Just like all the others.
This immediately positions the reader as one who can be tricked, who can fall for it, and interestingly as one who can take a ‘masculine’ position, erotically enchanted by the all-female narrators.
Three of the narrators are involved in Spiritualism in Victorian London. Flora Milk is a successful young working class medium aided by her sister, Rosina, who may be helping her to fake psychic phenomena. Rosina tells us of ‘[c]ollapsible rods to make spirit arms, trick slates with messages already written on them, rubber gloves to feel like spirit hands …’ (p. 1), but we later learn that Flora marries Rosina's young man George so casting doubt on Rosina's objective status as a witness. Rosina's letters to the sceptical psychic investigator, Mr Redburn do become an erotic exchange ending in her marriage to him and her escape into a middle class existence. Flora is meanwhile patronised by Minnie Preston, middle-class wife of Sir William Preston, physicist and psychic investigator. He experiments with Flora, eventually taking her to Dr Charcot's Salpetrière to be exhibited as an hysteric. Sigmund Freud famously learnt hypnosis, a treatment for hysteria (predominantly a female disease) at Charcot's clinic in Salpetrière.4 The novel traces the transition between psychic symptoms in women being absorbed by the discourse of Spiritualism, at its height in the 1870s, to being later incorporated into the paradigms of hysteria.5 This transition forms a pretext for the genesis of psychoanalysis. Sir William Preston and Flora Milk are modelled on a real psychic investigator and medium: Sir William Crookes and Florence Cook. The novel makes use of the inconclusive Victorian speculation about their relationship (see ‘Author's Note’ to In the Red Kitchen).6 Certainly, In the Red Kitchen's Flora seems to suffer sexual interference from William but the real Crookes never subscribed to the belief that a medium's symptoms could be defined as hysteria. Fictional Flora ends up labelled as either an hysteric or a fraud or both by William and Minnie when she alleges sexual misconduct and returns from Paris, pregnant. Minnie Preston's relations to Flora, the medium are determined by her desire to contact her dead daughter, Rosalie, about whose demise Flora's spirit voice makes some interesting claims. In the seance, Flora's Other becomes the voice of the murdered daughter:
Mother. Smother. Mother, you smothered me. Mother, you smothered me.
Mediumship links the three main narrators of In the Red Kitchen who are Hat, Pharaoh's daughter and later Pharaoh in Ancient Egypt, nineteenth-century Flora and a contemporary woman called Hattie who seems to be living in Flora's house in 1980s London. Hattie is making a life with her male lover, only known as ‘you’, the object of her autobiographical writing and another erotic masculine position for the reader. Flora's spirit-guide could either be Hat or Hattie or both. Hat ends her narrative in Ancient Egypt by projecting herself forward as a ghost, ‘searching for a faithful scribe … [o]ne whose hand will dance to my spelling’ (p. 133) while contemporary Hattie sees a ghost who may be the child, Flora, and records fantasies of being a king in Ancient Egypt. It is clear from this that literal mediumship is not the only way of understanding the links between these three main narrators. There are in fact three ontological possibilities: one, that they are mediums mutually summoning and operating as ghosts; two, that all are figures for the Other's unconscious, loosely drawing upon the theories of C. G. Jung; and thirdly, that they are all in some sense fiction makers, creative writers, figures for the female artist.
Let me say a little more about the latter two possibilities. Michèle Roberts has creatively used Jungian ideas in her novels up to and including In the Red Kitchen.7 Jungian theory is deployed strategically for feminist purposes to represent female identity as authentic (if in process with patriarchal forces), to figure the female artist and female art. The female narrators of In the Red Kitchen are Others to each other in the Jungian sense in that they stand for an autonomous, meaningful and creative unconscious. The narrators as Other promote a sense of female identity at one level simply structurally, by having the other as feminine, so suggesting a kind of feminine autonomy. At a Jungian level, female identity is presented through a conjunction with the unconscious which can develop a sense of self and promote artistic expression, here writing. This does not necessarily replace a cultural model of the female self in patriarchy. Although the Jungian unconscious is creative and autonomous, it manifests itself through images shaped or ‘coloured’ by culture. Therefore a patriarchal culture will still oppress women defined as inferior, but a Jungian model of a pro-active unconscious allows Roberts to propose a positive engagement with the Other which may heal the psychological damage of patriarchy and can figure the female artist as involved with her culture but in part creative of her own sense of self, not wholly subject to received gender paradigms. I am not saying that the novel suggests a kind of whole achieved identity that the postmodern project has brought into grave doubt. Rather, that Jungian ideas allow the novel to figure a sense of autonomy through interaction with a creative unconscious that is far from complete and, in this novel, still subject to patriarchal oppression. The quest model of identity as something achievable in a fully satisfying structure modelled on romance is perceptible in Roberts's first three novels but Jungian ideas do not necessarily form such a paradigm, containing as they do the powerfully deconstructive concept of the shadow.8
Here, it is possible to see how the formation of the mediums as each other's unconscious Other in the novel is coherent with the modelling of the female artist as Jungian and/or medium. The Other that each medium contacts is a figure for her (Jungian) unconscious and/or a spirit. However cultural fictions are another possibility for defining the connection between Egyptian Hat, Victorian Flora and contemporary Hattie. Pharaoh Hat's discourse of spirits may well be her and her culture's need to mythologise their regal power, which resembles Freud's family romance. Hat marries her father and bases her later claim to be Pharaoh and immortal on a fantasy of removing her despised female gender to become male. Much or even all of Flora's spirit manifestations may be tricks or fictions designed to gain her power and money in a society where she has few opportunities to earn a living. Contemporary Hattie's fantasies in her childhood of being ‘Hat’ in Ancient Egypt as well as her perception of the ghost Flora as sobbing child may well be her creative responses to abuse from an ‘uncle’.
At night, in my narrow white bed encircled by white curtains, I escaped into another country called Egypt where I was King.
The feminist ethical claim that all five narrators make at the level of social realism is that all of them are suffering from patriarchal oppression which materially, psychologically, and spiritually impacts upon their lives. Where Hat strives to live out a patriarchal religious and monarchical myth, contemporary Hattie is still traumatised by the abuse that no one believed at the time and Flora, desperate for money, is later also victimised by male discourses of hysteria. Nineteenth-century hysteria, pre-Freud, defined women as pathological and/or morally inferior liars.9 Even the relentlessly patriarchal Minnie Preston is oppressed by her husband's sexual demands and fears death through excessive childbearing. Unlike feminist utopian fictions and all Roberts's earlier novels, In the Red Kitchen does not provide a feminist ethical model of social living: there is no female support group, group of friends or manifesto solidarity. The narrators are by contrast divided by time, history, class and culture differences. Although much of the direct opposition between the three Victorian narrators is structured by patriarchy, there remain real issues of difference between women, of class, culture and sexuality. Even the sisters by blood are not ‘sisters’ in the feminist sense. Flora steals Rosina's lover for reasons that are both erotic and prudent and it is not until she is an old woman that she regrets the loss of her sister and that she valued her daughter less than her dead son. I would like to suggest that the novel makes two feminist ethical moves here: on the one hand we have a feminist politics of respecting difference, the otherness of the Other, but on the other hand, the feminist support group, denied in the novel's techniques of social realism, re-convenes in the mind of the reader. The reason that these very different voices may structure a feminist support group lies in the recognition that they are all oppressed by patriarchy, if in different ways and that they are all needy. The narrative structure of the novel is driven by female desire formed through and against patriarchal modes and the resulting pain. Even Hat, who would appear to win in that she becomes Pharaoh, cannot succeed in eradicating her female gender that marks her as Other to the symbolic of her culture. The writing that embodies the immortality of the male pharaohs will be erased in her case.
She says: ‘The tomb is the first book; the house of life; the body that does not decay because it is written. …’
But in her case:
Now that my name has been hacked off the walls … the sign of my kingship has been broken off me. I am lacking. I am a lack … I am female. …
The shade of Lacanian theory lurks here as some kind of ironic feminist joke in Egyptian culture's religion of divine phallogocentrism in ways that suggest both theory's ability to account for history and history's ability to suggest that theories may be historical manifestations structured through patriarchy. The novel makes one other ethical claim at the level of narrative content which is fashioned for feminist purposes. It is that patriarchy operates upon a binary system where the dominant term seeks to suppress the Other as absolute Other, and that Other, in this novel, is aligned with the feminine. Binarism haunts the text and is most explicit in Flora's medium practice, where the medium's body becomes home to the absolute Other, the dead.
I see the half-dead medium shudder with cold. … She is the point at which opposite charges, opposite impulses, spark and meet: life explodes into death, heat into cold, past into future.
So the novel challenges the ethical validity of binary systems of thought and makes that challenge feminist by the way it identifies subordination of the Other with female experience. In its most acute form, the patriarchal identified women, King Hat and Minnie, both appear to kill other women under the pressure of trying to live out Egyptian monarchical theology and a Victorian marriage respectively. Minnie may well have killed her daughter and Hat can allow no rivals for her father's love so she announces her plan to kill her father-god's favourite concubine the day after she marries him (p. 85). Hat and Minnie's violence is not negated but is identified as being structured through patriarchal pressures. Flora too, wished her mother dead and suppressed the knowledge that her father desired her unborn self not to live.
Admit it, admit it, my tears insist: you wished your mother dead. You wanted her out of the way. You wanted her killed.
Roberts's treatment of heterosexual romance in In the Red Kitchen is to show it structured through and against patriarchy and as a possible response to fear. It is a cultural critique of romance (and ultimately of Freud's female Oedipus complex) that is a feminist ethical condemnation of patriarchy in various historical manifestations.
Having considered the feminist ethical dynamics of the proto-realist content of In the Red Kitchen, I want to turn to the ethical challenge to theory and to the effects of the fragmented narrative form. If the novel aligns suppressing Otherness with oppressing the feminine, then what is distinctive about this novel is that this method is incorporated into reading strategies and into investigations of literal and metaphorical modes of understanding. In the Red Kitchen identifies patriarchal thinking with a literal mode of understanding formed through rigid binary oppositions. To King Hat in Egypt, writing is life in perpetual opposition to death while to William Preston, Flora's spirits are real spirits or, if this ontology cannot be sustained, she is a fraud or diseased. The feminine is placed as a sliding signifier which can occupy only one signified at a time: Flora is a medium or an hysteric or is criminally alleging (or is a victim of) sexual abuse. The novel offers a counter ontological mode: that of a literal-metaphorical continuum where the narrators are Others to each other in a field which includes the possibility of spirits, the creative unconscious or fiction-making. Here the feminine is not confined to one definition which would structure it as purely Other to patriarchy's medical, erotic and occult discourses. At one point also in the novel, this literal-metaphorical mode of reading is particularly stressed. When Flora is exhibited in Salpetrière as a medium now collapsed into an hysteric, so rigidly defined under the patriarchal mode as pathological, she has to puzzle out or ‘read’ what the male doctors are saying about her.
When Dr Charcot starts to speak, William whispers to me that it's all technical medical details, too complicated to translate. I understand one word. It recurs often enough for me to grasp it, turn it over in my hand. Isterry. History? And then famm. History and women?
Impoverished Flora, whose culture, class and gender have given her no opportunities to learn French, thinks that the male doctors are talking about history and women. What happens next is what Flora call a performance. She witnesses a parade of female hysteria patients acting out their patriarchally defined pathology under the orchestration of Charcot, who is variously named ‘magician’, ‘ringmaster’, ‘God’, and ‘great artist’ (pp. 124-5). In this scene, In the Red Kitchen indicts medicine, religion and art's appropriation of the feminine as Other, including the art of the realist novel with its ‘detached’ and ‘objective’ narrators.
Returning to Flora's (mis)reading of Isterry, at this point the two modes of understanding (the literal binary union of signifier and signified identified in the novel with patriarchal methods and the poststructural literal-metaphorical continuum in opposition to the former), these modes are identified with reading strategies. For, the educated reader, who may have heard of Charcot and Salpetrière with his famous performances of hypnotised hysteria patients, is here tempted to overrule Flora's interpretation of ‘Isterry’ as history and conclude that she has mistaken the word for hysteria. A simple over-ruling of Flora here has two ethical consequences: it aligns the reader with the doctors and the male gaze of their theory, so subordinating Flora into the despised Other, and secondly, it represents a choice to adopt the literal mode of reading where a word can only stand for one concept, a mode that the novel identifies with patriarchy. Previously, some narrative forms have suggested a male erotic subject position for the reader, for example in Hattie's writing, always addressed to ‘you’, a male lover and Rosina's opening artful constructions. Now, in Salpetrière, the ethical consequences of adopting solely a male gaze, now aligned with masculine theory, are exposed. The reading position is now a choice because the novel has by now set up the opposing mode of reading poststructurally, the literal-metaphorical continuum where ‘Isterry’ can stand for hysteria but also credence can be given to Flora's construction of ‘history and women’. Such a reading strategy is explicitly feminist because it is designed to rescue the Other from outside signification, to give the Other a voice from within the ‘objective’ (in two senses) gaze of male theory. To read in the literal patriarchal mode only is to miss the feminine voice hystericising male theory of hysteria by suggesting that symptoms of Otherness could also be understood as the history of women's lives.
What the novel does not do, of course, is to suggest that there are female and male modes of reading. In the Red Kitchen is not an essentialist text. It structures a patriarchal literal mode of reading and thinking opposed by a poststructuralist version which is feminist here because the subordinated Other it recuperates is aligned with the feminine. Women can try to operate in the patriarchal mode in order to try to erase their own Otherness from the symbolic order as King Hat and Minnie seek to do. Ultimately, they are unable to overcome patriarchy's situating them as bodies outside phallogocentrism but their collaboration gains them precarious temporary power at the expense of exterminating Otherness as other women: they kill. So I am arguing that In the Red Kitchen makes reading an explicitly ethical process by offering two alternatives: reading as hysteria or reading as murder.
Let me take reading as murder first. If the reader succumbs to the temptation to overrule Flora on the meaning of ‘Isterry’ and hence of the scene at Salpetrière, she adopts the masculine position offered earlier in the text as romance, eros, but now formed as masculine theory defining women as the untrustworthy Other. This not only places the reader with William and Charcot but also with Minnie in her middle class determined adherence to patriarchal norms at the expense of working class Flora. In Flora's account of their relationship, Minnie has murdered her daughter, so the novel formulates an ethical argument that leads straight back to the reader: by allowing no Otherness to interpretation, binding a signifier to one signified, what is Other is then expelled, repressed, ultimately murdered by being cast out into the wastes outside the symbolic. To underline the point we have a further patriarchal-identified woman operating in the literal mode, Hat, who kills in order to secure her place in the erotic political romance that is her union with her father-god. Even so, Hat cannot retain the masculine power she later assumes since her body is to be cast out from patriarchy after her death. The reader in the literal mode adopts the ‘masculine’ position occupied by patriarchy's repressive impulses and murderous patriarchal women.
Minnie, however, represents a further temptation to the reader to murder part of the possibilities of the novel. She is truly ghastly rather than ghostly in her self-justifying, simpering narrative that makes Flora's portrayal of her as a self-deceiving, adulterous child murderer all too sympathetic and plausible. Her usual tone is of sickly childish compliance addressed to her ‘Mamma’.
You are much too good to your naughty child, spoiling her with so many affectionate remembrances and kind messages.
I would not be your daughter if I did not retain a strong feeling of my duty.
Outwardly all patriarchal submission, Minnie's own narrative suggests that tricks and fictions to evade patriarchal surveillance are not confined to the medium. A result is that the liberal leaning feminist minded reader is tempted to murder this voice and to throw all belief onto the side of Flora. It is worth nothing that the novel deliberately structures a conflict between these two female narrators. While Minnie describes her kind patronage of the young medium who repays her benefactress by ludicrous allegations against her god-like scientist husband, Flora tells a history of devious manipulation, erotic attentions from Minnie, adultery, bribery and the revelation of Minnie's murder of daughter Rosalie (see pp. 90-8).
Yet, if reading as murder of the Other is ultimately a patriarchal tool, the ethical arguments against it must apply to Minnie as well. She too, is terrified. She too is a victim, here of her husband's sexual demands that put her life at risk through excessive childbearing. If her simpering history of her daily life cannot generate sympathy, then her record of her own Otherness in the unconscious, her dreams, demonstrates fear.
In the dream … I wait, in dread, for the approach of some monstrous being that lurks behind one of the toppled colonnades; I smell his rank smell, I hear the scrape of his claws and the grinding of his foul jaws.
If the reader chooses to downgrade Minnie's account in order to support Flora and to construct some coherent logical story rather than alternative possibilities, then this is the reader's choice, to murder some of the Otherness in the conflicting narrative voices. What In the Red Kitchen does is to make the reader examine her own desires and prejudices on feminist ethical grounds. Minnie Preston's role is a critique of class oppression and a tempting of the reader to exact a reciprocal revenge. It is also an attempt to give a voice to a female child murderer who is also oppressed. The practice of reading as murder of the Other is allied to patriarchal suppression of the feminine but the novel offers an alternative: reading hysterically.
If hysteria can be described as the failure to find a secure subject position then hysteria is the practice of the ethical feminist reader of In the Red Kitchen. All the narratives conflict at some points and so hysteria is the only way of escaping the temptation to erect a hierarchy of narrative voices. Such a hierarchy would murder some of the Otherness and is structurally allied with patriarchy. The ethical feminist reader needs to learn to shift subject position between the narrators: the novel exposes the temptation to mutilate in order to construct a coherent story. If the novel has some of the elements of a detective story—the whodunit—then it is the reader who done it, if we decide that ‘Isterry’ means only ‘hysteria’ or that Minnie is just a detestable child murderer. The reader becomes the murderer of Otherness in the text where Otherness can signify other possibilities and meanings. Reading hysterically, on the other hand, respects female difference while simultaneously re-convening the feminist support group in the mind of the reader. The reader shifts between narrators in the same way that the text shifts between the discourse of mediumship, the unconscious and creative fictions. Reading hysterically is constructed in In the Red Kitchen as a specifically ethical response to patriarchy's binary oppositions. Now it is worth exploring further the effect of hysterical reading on masculine theory.
Reading hysterically also mounts a feminist ethical challenge to the male gaze and to masculine theory of the feminine. In the first place, the term ‘hysteria’ marks a positioning of and a challenge to Charcot's and later Freud's theories of hysteria. Freud took from Charcot the practice of hypnosis and notions that hysteria was a pathology concerning the interaction of body and mind with particular emphasis on sexuality.10 Neither Charcot nor Freud believed that hysteria was an exclusively female disease although the vast majority of patients of the late nineteenth century were female. Freud famously changed his aetiology of hysteria from real repressed sexual trauma to sexual fantasy and formed his female and male versions of the Oedipus complex.11 Where Freud does appear to be more liberal than Charcot is in his listening to the stories of his female patients, but he practised the literal or metaphorical mode of understanding. What they described was sexual abuse or then fantasy; there was no literal-metaphorical continuum. In the Red Kitchen's hysterical reading hystericises the genesis of psychoanalysis with its crucial transition in the definition of hysteria: taking it from the realm of abuse to the realm of fantasy. The formation of ethical reading strategies in the novel offers a site from which the Otherness of male theory, the challenge to its empirical and objective claims, can speak. Hysteria is also about history and women.
There is a similar hystericising of Jung's theories of the feminine. I have argued that In the Red Kitchen uses Jungian ideas of the unconscious productively for feminism, to represent the female artist. It also offers a criticism of Jung's definitions of a female nineteenth-century medium described in a key early work, his doctoral thesis published in 1902.12 In Jung's text, the medium is described in terms coherent with Freudian definitions of dreams and their relation to the unconscious (as a fantasist disturbed by sexuality). Additionally, Jung's later theories displace the medium role from the feminine to appropriate it exclusively for male subjectivity. The male subject becomes medium-like, interacting with psychic ‘ghosts’, and the feminine is collapsed into a figure standing for the male unconscious, called the ‘anima’. In the Red Kitchen's hysterical reading practice interrogates the so-called objectivity of the male theorist while simultaneously claiming back the medium position for women, as one shifting site where women can speak for themselves in the literal-metaphorical continuum. To read Roberts's novel alongside Jungian writings is to witness the fictional text offering a critique of the gender politics of Jungian theory: the displacement of authentic subjectivity from feminine to masculine positions as female occult mediums become Jungian ‘masculine’ subjects with the feminine as (unconscious) object.
Finally, if there is any underdeveloped structuring of the Other in the narrative form it is that figured by the colonial politics of fictionalising an Egyptian princess. The Owen essay used by Roberts does record the existence of ‘black’ spirits summoned by nineteenth-century female mediums.
Miss Wood, who began her public career at the age of 18, was renowned for her little black sprite, ‘Pocha’, whose favourite tricks were stealing money from sitters and sitting on the laps of the gentlemen.13
In the Red Kitchen retains little trace of ethnic identities in the novel, where the emphasis is on class, cultural and historical differences. Minnie reports that William tells her that Hattie is ‘aristocratic’ (p. 96) and ‘majestic’ (p. 97) in pure contrast to the working class Flora. Similarly Flora recalls that William enjoys class difference.
Then he liked Hattie to move freely, to dance even, if she felt like it; he thought that was what I was like amongst my own people in Hackney, he expected a certain coarseness. It excited him.
Indeed, the blonde Flora models for Hattie in William's photographs with no suggestions of any incongruity. Hattie, the spirit, moves around so William makes Flora pose in Hattie's positions and sexually exploits both of his female subjects.
He lays Hattie on the rug in front of the fire, her knees apart, her robe rucked up over them to show her plump white thighs, the golden tuft at the top.
This passage deliberately mystifies ‘Hattie’ and ‘Flora’ so that we do not know when Hattie is Hattie or when she is Flora modelling Hattie or if the materialised Hattie is always Flora tricking William. Similarly there is no suggestion that contemporary Hattie is dark skinned yet she too can be the ‘Hattie’ that Flora sees. Racial difference is not signalled in the text, perhaps in the cause of promoting the translatability of the three main narrators so that they can be literal and metaphorical, distinct mediums of Other cultures, Jungian Others, and fictions or tricks. The narrators can impersonate each other where racial difference would mark them as discrete.
On the one hand, Roberts's Jungian spiritualism can be defended as a postcolonial critique because the retention of fiction-making or fraudulence means that this is no full appropriation of the Other. The fantasy element in co-opting African experience is inscribed in the structure of the novel. Indeed In the Red Kitchen draws attention to spiritualism as a colonial discourse with its mimicking of Other voices in its claim to embody the absolute Other, the dead.14
On the other hand, Victorian spiritualism was a bleaching of the Other as contemporary photographs show whitened figures very similar to their mediums.15 Some traces of this bleaching of the Other seem to operate in In the Red Kitchen in the way racial difference is blanked out in favour of the fictional and the ability of medium narrators to impersonate each other. Such impersonation is designed to serve feminist ends as the reader's ability to structure these ‘histories’ as fantasies and fictions of each other is a mode to structure female sympathy and solidarity across cultural boundaries. It is possible that the feminist drive in the novel partakes of a Victorian colonial paradigm inhabiting spiritualism.
In the Red Kitchen demonstrates an aspect of contemporary fiction which could be called ‘critical novels’ by which I mean texts deliberately engaging with current controversial cultural, ethical and theoretical debates. Roberts's novel stages an ethical encounter with the Other within narrative structures that offer, but do not determine, an active feminist role for the reader. The reader too is an ethical subject in this text both by how she is treated and the demands placed upon her. In the Red Kitchen's reader is granted responsibility and choice: the responsibility to be hysterical, the choice of exterminating the Other. By situating In the Red Kitchen at the genesis of psychoanalysis in the erotic, psychological and occult field of ideas about femininity, the novel employs the concepts of both Freud and Jung for feminist purposes. It does this by simultaneously offering a feminist critique, through situating male theory culturally and historically, and by suggesting fictional and erotic components to empirical claims. By evolving a feminist reading practice of hysteria, male theory can be made hysterical on ethical grounds, to respect the Others, to murder none.
Michèle Roberts, In the Red Kitchen (London: Methuen, 1990). All further references to this edition are incorporated into the essay.
For Freud's changing views on hysteria, see Selected Essays Vol. 2, Studies on Hysteria, especially, ‘Katharine’, 125-34, Selected Essays Vol. 3, ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’, 191-221 and Selected Essays Vol. 7, ‘Dora—Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’, 1-122. For the Oedipus complex, especially the female version, see The Pelican Freud Library, Vol. 7, On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works, translated from the German under the General Editorship of James Strachey, compiled and edited by Angela Richards (London: Pelican Books, 1977) 371-8.
For a full range of Jung's treatments of the feminine, see C. G. Jung, Aspects of the Feminine (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1982).
See Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 1987). For the career of Charcot, see 147-55; for Freud and Charcot, see 147-8. Roberts acknowledges Showalter as a source in an ‘Author's Note’ at the front of In the Red Kitchen.
For a comprehensive history and discussion of the various definitions of hysteria, see Showalter and Hysteria Beyond Freud, essays by Sander L. Gilman, Helen King, Roy Porter, G. S. Rousseau, Elaine Showalter (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1993).
The ‘Author's Note’ also cites an essay discussing women in Victorian Spiritualism in general, and Sir William Crookes and Florence Cook in particular: Alex Owen, ‘The Other Voice: Women, Children and Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism’, in Carolyn Steedman, Cathy Urwin and Valerie Walkerdine, eds. Language, Gender and Childhood (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985) 34-73; later reprinted in The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Nineteenth Century England (London: Virago Press, 1989).
Michèle Roberts confirmed to me in a phone call on 9th July 1994, that she had used Jungian ideas in novels before In the Red Kitchen as well as in this work.
See Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter and Fred Plaut, eds, A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis (London and New York: Routledge, 1986).
See Showalter, Female Malady, Owen, ‘The Other Voice’ and Hysteria Beyond Freud.
See Showalter, Female Malady, for Freud and Charcot.
See note 2 for the Oedipus complex.
Jung's doctoral thesis, On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena, originally published Leipzig 1902, now in Psychiatric Studies, Collected Works, Volume One, trans. R. F. C. Hull (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957) 3-88.
Owen, ‘The Other Voice’, 59.
There is comparatively little research on Spiritualism as a colonial discourse in the Victorian period. Wendy R. Katz does consider Spiritualism to be imperialist but she is mainly concerned with a slightly later period and does not consider séances or mediums. See Wendy R. Katz, Rider Haggard and the Fiction of Empire: A Critical Study of British Imperial Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 1987) 108-30. Patrick Brantlinger also considers Spiritualism as a frame for imperialist drives under the general heading of the occult but does not analyse the dynamics of séances. See Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1988) 227-53. The ‘bleaching’ argument is my own.
See Owen, The Darkened Room, 171 for photographs of ‘white’ or ‘bleached’ spirits similar to their mediums.
Emma Parker (essay date winter 2000)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10309
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 feminine. Through an evocation of the semiotic, the protagonists of Daughters of the House, Léonie and Thérèse, facilitate a renegotiation of the symbolic order that creates a space within the patriarchal realm not only for women but potentially for all those who are denied representation and are repressed by symbolic law.
The house in the title of Roberts's novel is a house of horror, and that horror is approached through the recollection of childhood memories. The text begins and ends with Thérèse and Léonie as adult women in the contemporary moment, but the main part of the narrative is a remembrance of the traumatic events of their adolescence in the postwar period and the discoveries they made then about the events of the Second World War (before they were born), events so horrifying that they are consequently forgotten or denied. Those events include the discovery of an unmarked grave containing the remains of a group of Jews and a local man, Henri Taillé, murdered by the Nazis. The girls also learn of what may have been the “rape” of Antoinette (Thérèse's mother and Léonie's aunt) by a German soldier. The implication of that ambiguous sexual encounter (it is never clear whether or not she gave consent) is that Thérèse and Léonie are possibly the product of the rape, and may therefore be sisters and not cousins. The girls also have to come to terms with the painful death of Antoinette from cancer when they are thirteen years old.
The horrific nature of these known but repressed events makes Kristeva's theory of abjection a useful way to approach the text. In Powers of Horror she describes the abject as “a deep well of memory that is unapproachable” (Powers 4, 6) and cites as an example a pile of children's shoes at Auschwitz. She further describes abjection as loathing, the state of feeling terrified or disgusted. The abject is that which inspires feelings of horror, specifically, those parts of the body that have that effect and are thus denied recognition and representation. More generally, it is the unspoken and repressed part of the symbolic. Kristeva proposes that a subject's existence in the symbolic order depends on a “clean and proper” body, which in turn depends on the expulsion or rejection of improper, unclean, and disorderly elements of corporeality: the abject (Powers 71). The condition of abjection is caused by the inability to expel that which arouses horror. Kristeva outlines three broad categories of the abject: food, corporeal alteration (feces, corpses), and femininity, particularly signs of sexual difference such as menstrual blood and breastmilk (Powers 93). Abjection centers in substances that cross body boundaries, that traverse physical thresholds. As something that “does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Powers 4), the abject calls categories into question. Moreover, characterized by indeterminacy or ambiguity, the state of abjection challenges monologism. Because the functioning of the symbolic order depends on distinct divisions and clear categories, the symbolic subject must disavow whatever threatens to blur boundaries. Kristeva explains abjection as a perverse form of protection against that which threatens the identity of the subject. The threatening is abjected—found to be loathsome and expelled. For a subject to exist within the symbolic and for the symbolic order to remain stable and secure, the abject must be contained and controlled; but that is never quite possible. Abjection thus testifies to the (potential) frailty of the symbolic order (Powers 69) because the symbolic control of various semiotic processes is, as Elizabeth Grosz points out, “at best, tenuous and liable to breakdown or lapse at certain historically, linguistically, and psychically significant moments” (Grosz 153).
THE POWER OF HORROR: WOMEN'S ABJECT BODIES
Horror, as the title of Kristeva's book suggests, is a matter of power, and abjection is a politically motivated issue. Kristeva understands female oppression to be, partly at least, a product of misdirected abjection. According to her, the condition of abjection stems from the subject's first (presymbolic) attempt to separate from the mother. To facilitate separation, the maternal body is abjected. Kristeva suggests that even after the process of separation is complete and the subject is established in the symbolic the mother's body is still considered a phobic object (abject) because it represents the presymbolic fusion of mother and child and therefore threatens the subject with a potential loss of autonomy. Fear of the maternal body is transferred to women in general and results in misogyny.
In its illustration of how definitions of filth are socially constructed, Daughters of the House echoes Mary Douglas's thesis that “There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder” (Purity and Danger 2), but Roberts's text also highlights how such definitions serve the interests of the dominant group. Before she acquires language and enters the symbolic realm, Thérèse revels in the joy of dirt:
Lino was lovely stuff in Thérèse's opinion. In the corners of the kitchen, where it fitted badly, it could be prised up, peeled backwards, waggled to and fro until a piece cracked, broke off. Chewed, it eased aching gums: a dirty comforter; flexible chocolate. Then in the cracks between the lino strips lurked crumbs, hairs embedded in solid grease. All to be prodded, tested, gouged out. The world balanced, filthy and delicious, on the tip of her forefinger. She licked it and sucked it in.
Her presymbolic response to dirt is pleasure rather than disgust. She eats “dried crusts of mud and dung fallen from people's boots” (32).
Thérèse and Léonie are taught to experience their own bodies as abject. Their attitudes to their bodies are clearly learned, the product of social conditioning, because they change during the novel as the girls grow up. Early on, for example, Rose's song and nourishment (Rose is her surrogate mother) induce a sensation of “milky fullness” that suggests this is a semiotic experience (33). Subsequently, however, Thérèse learns to police the boundaries of the body. She shrieks when she sees menstrual blood on the back of Léonie's legs and is clearly horrified by Léonie's leaky body. She is anxious that nobody else see the blood and advises Léonie to wear a skirt to hide the bulge of her sanitary napkin. That Léonie is less horrified by what is culturally defined as abject suggests, as Kristeva herself argues, that nothing is inherently disgusting. Filth is not a property in itself but is what is excluded or on the other side of a boundary (Powers 69). Léonie's attitude also suggests that boundaries are fluid rather than fixed and can therefore be re-drawn. As a ten-year old, she is fascinated with the outside toilet whereas Thérèse finds it disgusting. Léonie also takes great pleasure in defecating and urinating, although she recognizes that her pleasure cannot be publicly admitted. Léonie does not find the experience of menstruating at all unpleasant either. She describes the cloth given to her as a sanitary napkin as “soft, rather comfortable, a bulky caress between the legs;” she says she feels different but not like the “walking wounded” (122). However, as one of Kristeva's three main categories of the abject, menstrual blood must be disavowed according to symbolic law and Léonie's period becomes her secret.
Luckhurst notes that secrets “leak” out in this text but does not connect that to the girls' leaky bodies and thus overlooks the relationship between the personal and the political, between repressed histories and repressed femininity (Luckhurst 254). Being largely unconcerned with gender issues, he argues that the experience of the two women “has nothing to do with repression” (252). He does ask, “How is it that the daughters have the responsibility of a memory to those who are in part extrafamilial and unhomely?” (251-52), but he does not explore his own question further. By the same token, his question, is Thérèse's vision, which follows her period, “an emanation of adolescent femininity?” (256), suggests that his psychoanalytic theorization of mourning and melancholia is insufficient to illuminate the function of femininity within the text.
For Thérèse and Léonie the repression of signs of sexual difference that arouse horror is accompanied by ritual acts of cleansing in an attempt to construct the “clean and proper” symbolic body:
They walked into the dining-room together only five minutes late. Clean white half-moons of nails held out for inspection, hands reddened from hot water and soap, hair brushed. Proper jeunes filles.
Becoming “clean and proper” entails a repression of the female body and, specifically, female sexuality. Because the nightdresses that Madeleine makes for the girls are almost transparent, they have to be made “decent” and “respectable” (78). Thérèse and Léonie are taught to think of their sex as “little purses that must never be talked about, that they weren't supposed to know they had” (65).
When, at the beginning of the novel, the reader first encounters Thérèse and Léonie as adults, their activities suggest that they have submitted themselves to the Law-of-the-Father: Thérèse is a nun, and Léonie is making an inventory of household objects. Kristeva's assertion that the function of religion is to purify the abject partly explains Thérèse's preoccupation with God (Powers 17). Léonie's obsession with property and material possessions places her within what Hélène Cixous calls the “Proper” economy, a masculine economy, which, concerned as it is with ownership, appropriation, classification and dominance, contrasts with the feminine or “Gift” economy characterized by generosity, pleasure, and openness to the other (Cixous 48-51). The French proper translates both as proper and as clean, underlining again the women's status as symbolic subjects. That both women view the house as belonging to them signals their desire to reside within the symbolic, “the condition of ordered, regulated, and rule-governed signification” (Grosz 151).
The house was strict. The rules indicated the forbidden places. Chief of these was the bedroom at the back on the first floor, at the top of the kitchen stairs. The rules said you mustn't go there.
The house, in other words, is the symbolic order.
Because they submit themselves to the Law-of-the-Father, Léonie and Thérèse abject themselves and each other. Society regards them as abject because they are women and, as symbolic subjects, they regard other women as abject. Abjection thus suggests one reason why sisterhood is problematic for some women. Here, the text creates a slippage between the literal and the metaphorical because, as the reader discovers later in the novel, Léonie and Thérèse find it difficult to accept the possibility that they may be biological sisters. In Léonie's opening dream, she vomits up Thérèse: “Léonie had tried to cut Thérèse out of herself like the bad flesh from an apple. The rotten spot in her. Thérèse stood for the father, for God, for suffering” (171). Léonie's ambiguous feelings toward Thérèse are also characteristic of a subject's ambivalent response to the abject; she is desperate to be rid of her at the same time that she longs for her like a lover (2-3).
Given that for Kristeva incest is one category of the abject (Powers 93), the faintly sado-masochistic doctor/patient game the girls play (then aged 10) and the more explicitly sexual “martyrs” game suggest their abject status. Likewise, Kristeva states that “[a]bjection also occurs where the individual is a hypocrite or a liar” (Powers 4): Léonie and Thérèse simultaneously accuse each other of being a hypocrite when they argue about the past (159).
Their abjection is also indicated by their attitude to the house. Neither of them feels completely at home in the family house. The house belongs to Thérèse, but it is not her home because she does not live there; Léonie lives there with her family but does not feel secure because she fears eviction by Thérèse. The objects buried in the cellar provide a key to understanding why neither of the two women feels at home in the house. The objects are distinctly feminine ones: Antoinette's shoe, which she loses while being “raped,” and the statue of the female saint, symbolizing the repression of the feminine and the marginalization of women within the symbolic order. When they are children, Thérèse and Léonie learn from Victorine about a special place in the woods behind the house where a statue of a female saint once stood and where the saint is rumored to have appeared. Many of the villagers worship there much to the annoyance of the priest who, threatened by what he sees as a rival, declares that the activities at the shrine are pagan. He attempts to exclude (“cast out”) what he experiences as threatening and abjects the female saint by performing an exorcism at the shrine (109). One day the statue mysteriously disappears, and only at the end of the novel the adult Thérèse discovers it buried in the cellar. She surmises that Antoinette and Louis must have buried it there to save it from being destroyed by the priest. The struggle between maternal power and paternal law with which the text as a whole is concerned is thus played out in the opposition between the female saint (femininity and mysticism) and the Catholic priest (masculinity and organized religion).
DAUGHTER(S) OF THE HOUSE OF GOD, DAUGHTER(S) OF THE HOUSE OF FICTION
The note that prefaces the text suggests that Roberts is concerned not only with the position of women in the symbolic, but also, tangentially, with the position of women within a specific part of the symbolic, the Catholic church. The author's note acknowledges her use of the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux as a source of inspiration. A number of direct parallels exist between the life of Thérèse Martin, Roberts's fictional character, and that of Thérèse Martin, the historical person who became a saint. Both are nursed by a woman called Rose; both have mothers who died when they are young; both saw visions of the Madonna; and both have fathers who suffered from paralysis. Although Luckhurst notes those intertextual references, he fails to explore their significance or to consider their political functions and effects.
Kristeva, who coined the term intertextuality, defines it as the “transposition of one (or several) sign system(s) into another,” which “demands a new articulation of the thetic—of enunciative and denotative positionality” (Revolution 59-60). As a boundary originating in the mirror stage and as the basis of all structural relations, the thetic is linked to the paternal symbolic function (Lechte 135). To challenge the thetic is, therefore, also to unsettle the symbolic, and Roberts's use of intertextuality has precisely that effect. Roberts does not simply reproduce the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux; rather she re-creates and transforms it by placing it in a different historical and generic context. Michael Worton and Judith Still argue that intertextual references work to displace and contest the original text (6, 9). The subversive and liberating impetus of such a strategy, the challenge posed to the symbolic order, is clear in the relationship between Autobiography of a Saint and Daughters of the House.
Since her death in 1897 at age 24 and her canonization in 1925, the story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux has been highly lauded and widely disseminated by the Catholic church. She has become the subject of many books, written mainly by men, that represent her as the embodiment of sanctity and orthodox femininity: submissive, self-effacing, self-abnegating, masochistically long-suffering, and sexually pure. As such, she also represents the glorification of oppressive patriarchal ideals of holiness and womanhood. The contrast between the anonymity and low status she experienced during her lifetime and the renown she gained following the publication of her autobiography and subsequent sainthood epitomizes the paradoxical position of women in literary tradition—invisible or highly visible, unrepresented or misrepresented3—and, more generally, in the symbolic order, the stability of which is dependent upon the erasure of women.
Roberts revises the story even as she allusively echoes it. Whereas Thérèse of Lisieux's story focuses on her life as a nun, Roberts's story focuses on her Thérèse's life before she enters the convent. Eventually, the fictional Thérèse leaves the convent and confesses that her childhood visions of the Blessed Virgin were a fabrication. Clearly, Roberts's character is no saint, but her faults, which emphasize her humanity, make her more endearing than her real-life counterpart. Furthermore, Léonie, who is a marginal figure in the autobiography (the only one of five sisters who fails to become a nun), becomes a second protagonist in Daughters of the House. It is Léonie, in fact, who has visions and who, in the bravery she displays at the end of the novel, resembles the supposedly heroic St. Thérèse of Lisieux most closely. Together these changes constitute what Mary Daly calls a movement from hagiography (the story of the lives of saints) to “Hag-ography” (the story of “hags,” women who do not conform to conventional definitions of femininity and womanhood), a movement that Daly argues is essential to the exorcism of paternal authority (Daly 15).
Worton and Still note that intertextuality has the ability to subvert the Law-of-the-Father in its various manifestations:
Imitation and translation may usefully be seen as textual modalities of recognition and transgression of the Law. Analogous to Judeo-Christian laws of obedience to a male-determined God […] and to Freudian and Lacanian theories which posit the (symbolic) father as the agent of the Law because he prohibits the child's desire for the mother, this cultural Law requires respect for fathers and submission to phallogocentricity.
Harold Bloom understands intertextuality in terms of what he calls “the anxiety of influence” and argues that all writers struggle with their predecessors by deliberately misreading their work in order to construct their own creative space (Bloom 5). However, his model for such a struggle remains phallocentric. As he states: “Battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the crossroads; only this is my subject” (11). The struggle that Roberts's daughters face in trying to find a satisfactory place in the symbolic order is analogous to the difficulties that confront literary daughters working within what Lorna Sage, borrowing Henry James's metaphor, calls “the house of fiction”4—working, that is, within an overwhelmingly male-dominated literary tradition that has historically excluded women writers. By invoking and contesting the past, intertextuality allows Roberts to inscribe herself into that tradition in the same moment that she transforms it.
THE POWER OF HORROR: THE ABJECT BODIES OF THE OTHER “OTHER”
Daughters of the House illustrates that the house that fails to accommodate women (the symbolic order) also excludes the social or racial other, in this text, Jews. Abjection works to oppress and disempower various social groups, not just women. Iris Young has drawn on Kristeva's theory of abjection to analyze racism and xenophobia (as well as sexism and homophobia) in her book Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990). Young demonstrates that definitions of the abject legitimate the political status quo and perpetuate the oppression of certain social groups. Abjection explains racism partly as the attempt to construct foreigners and ethnic minorities as ugly, filthy, or degenerate in order to establish the identity of the dominant group as purer and superior. As Judith Butler explains:
[T]he repudiation of bodies for their sex, sexuality, and/or color is an “expulsion” followed by a “repulsion” that founds and consolidates culturally hegemonic identities along sex/race/sexuality axes of differentiation.
As they pass through adolescence, attempting to become “clean and proper” bodies, Thérèse and Léonie learn about the divisions that determine such power relations. The girls are encouraged to see the world in terms of discrete categories and fixed boundaries that determine hierarchies of class and race. Madeleine tells Léonie, “I don't want you mixing with children like Baptiste. You know I've always believed that people from different backgrounds shouldn't mix” (118). That incident, together with the fact that there are no photographs of Victorine (the cook) in the house, illustrates how hegemony is maintained through exclusion. Léonie is taught that such boundaries are impenetrable in terms of race as well as class: “She imagined the children of mixed marriages: striped black and white, like badgers” (118). Likewise, she thinks, “Jews aren't French, they're Jews” (119). That this view is one that is encouraged and endorsed by institutional power structures, in particular by official history, is suggested by the books that the adult Thérèse has in her holdall—“Modern French history. Jewish history” (18). Two books implies two separate and discrete histories and Roberts's punctuation (a period) is indicative of a firm boundary. Daughters of the House illustrates that anxieties about race are related to fears of boundary crossing:
When at Caudebac a couple of Algerian men got on to the bus Thérèse stared at them. Black people didn't live in the green Norman countryside. Surely they all lived in ghettoes on the outskirts of cities.
She overhears other passengers comment, “Far too many of them coming in” (7). A similar anxiety is generated by the impossibility of distinguishing the bones of Henri Taillé from the bones of the Jews who share a mass grave.
Yet even as it illustrates how prejudice is dependent upon the demarcation of boundaries, Daughters of the House reveals, over and over again, the fluidity of such boundaries. Indeed it is preoccupied with the state of in-betweenness, as underlined by the fact that the majority of the text focuses on a time when they are no longer girls but not yet women, the time around the moment they begin menstruation. Thérèse and Léonie refer to each other or themselves as ghosts on several occasions: Léonie says that she feels like a ghost in the empty house (15), she calls Thérèse “a ghoul” for “picking over what's dead and gone” (24), and tells her she has pretended for twenty years that she is dead. When, as a child, Thérèse pretends to sleepwalk in the cellar, Léonie (a sleepwalker herself when young) tells her she looks like a ghost (55). Léonie's split or double identity (half-English, half-French, like Roberts herself) makes her nationality ambiguous, although it transpires that both Léonie and Thérèse are most likely half-French and half-German. All of this in-betweenness is grounded in abjection, and the novel is littered with corpses, ghosts, liminal figures hovering between states or worlds, neither dead nor alive, neither present nor absent. The bones of the dead Jews and Henri Taillé are the most obvious example of that; but, following her death, Antoinette also haunts Léonie and Thérèse's dreams and their dinner table because Louis, her husband, insists on laying a place for her (99). The cellar, which is described as “a sort of tunnel between yard and house,”5 plays an important part in Daughters of the House. As menstruating adolescents, Thérèse and Léonie provide a physical representation of the destabilizing state of inbetweenness. They literally embody it.
Even more radically, Daughters of the House points to the impossibility of establishing firm boundaries and pure categories. The use of intertextuality most obviously undermines the boundary between public and private history for personal events in the domestic sphere and political events in the public arena, constituting official history, are shown to be inextricably entwined. Chapter headings such as “The Biscuit Tin,” “The Ironing Board,” and “The Blue Skirt” are reminders that history resides not only in textbooks and museums but also in the minutiae of women's lives, in ordinary, everyday, domestic, feminine objects. The definite article that prefaces the household items bestows upon them a sense of authority.
The distinction between history and memory likewise dissolves: memory is a kind of personal history and history is a form of public memory. Moral boundaries are undermined by the “good” and “bad” bakeries that look identical. One of the bakeries in the village is “bad” because people mistakenly believe that the woman who runs it was an informer in the war; binary logic dictates that the other bakery is automatically defined as “good.” Yet, the text constantly problematizes binary categories such as those. Dualisms are deconstructed by the apparent contradictions that emerge (Léonie, the hedonist who delights in food and sex, has spiritual visions and Thérèse, the spiritual devotee, is a liar), and mutually exclusive oppositions are undermined by the notion of identity in process (Thérèse transforms from fat to thin and Léonie from thin to fat).
Class boundaries are elided when middle-class Léonie marries Baptiste, a working-class neighbor. Weeds obscure the physical boundaries of the house. They “swarm” around the gateposts at the main entrance making it “untidy” and “wild” (121); the failure of the grounds to be “clean and proper” reflects the abject status of the contents of the house. Roberts's use of italics for French words initially seems to point to two separate languages and to highlight a linguistic boundary, but many of the French words are recognizable to readers who only speak English because they have been incorporated into English: buffet (10), petits pois (15), apéritif (19), choux (46), baguette (81), croissants (84), bourgeoise (88). That prompts the realization that the English language has developed from a number of sources and is far from “pure.” Linguistic boundaries are also subverted by the slipperiness of language—“In English, she remembered explaining to Thérèse once: wicked could mean sharp” (5)—and the arbitrariness of the signifier: La Manche and the channel signify the same thing (35).
Like the word wicked, blood is an equally unstable signifier in the text. Color symbolism plays an important part in Daughters of the House, and red functions as a trope that ties together the different narrative strands. Antoinette's shoe, the suitcase containing a bomb she carries in Léonie's dream, the swastikas daubed on the grave of Henri Taillé and the Jews, the lady who appears to Léonie at the shrine, the girls' menstrual fluid, all of these are blood red and emblematic of either murder or fertility. Kristeva notes that blood connotes both life and death:
It thus becomes a fascinating semantic crossroads, the propitious place for abjection where death and femininity, murder and procreation, cessation of life and vitality all come together.
The color red is therefore a reification of all that is abject in the text.
The political significance of questioning categories and eroding boundaries is perhaps clearest in relation to Roberts's attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust. Daughters of the House and Powers of Horror share an interest in anti-Semitism. The latter part of Powers of Horror occupies itself with a discussion of the literary texts of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which Kristeva uses to illustrate her argument. Like Daughters of the House, a number of Céline's novels are concerned with the Second World War and its aftermath,6 but whereas the examples of the abject cited in Céline's work are virulently and offensively anti-Semitic, abjection in Roberts's text facilitates a deconstruction of the binary thinking that is the foundation of anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Thus Victorine's contempt for the Nazis is self-contradictory. The “sales Boches,” she says, were “very clean”:
One thing you have to give the Germans, they were very clean. Very clean, the bastards. Very polite and correct, that officer, that day. Those scum of sales Boches.
By highlighting such contradictions, Roberts deconstructs the logic of abjection.
There are other contradictions. Although all of the characters in the book decry Nazi crime, most of them are not utterly dissimilar to the Nazis in their attempts to affirm their identity in opposition to and through the exclusion of others. Victorine declares that she hates the Nazis, but her fervent nationalism and jingoistic attitude allies her to them: “Vive la France! Vive de Gaulle!” (45); “French cooking, Victorine asserted: is the best in the world!” (46). Her national pride is dependent upon an implied cultural and racial superiority. Thérèse, staring at the Algerians on the bus, forces otherness on them. Baptiste, Henri Taillé's son, sounds ashamed when he tells Léonie that his father is buried with Jews. Although it is set in France, Daughters of the House also suggests that the English are far from innocent. Léonie recalls that:
English people in the suburb where she lived despised and hated all foreigners. Wogs and wops they were called. Yids. Léonie was addressed by adults and children alike as Froggy.
Roberts suggests that the kind of thinking that in its extreme form becomes fascism is all too common even among those who consider themselves tolerant. At the same time, the text also prompts the recognition that the characters share a certain commonality with those they attempt to deny. Victorine's response to Léonie's description of the red/gold lady she sees in her vision is one of derision: “She was coloured? Victorine roared with sorrowful mirth: oh what a story, well that certainly cuts out the Blessed Virgin” (89). Yet when the villagers worship at the shrine in the woods, the site of the apparition, the Latin words of the hymn they sing are soon superseded by patios, a nonstandard form of speech. Victorine uses an alternative version of “proper” French, like many of the “coloured” people whom, her laughter implies, she dismisses as inferior. The opposition between self and other is not, therefore, as clear-cut as she would like to believe.
Kristeva's conviction that all subjects contain otherness within themselves is reflected in the title of her book Strangers to Ourselves (1991), which explores the relationship between nationalism and racism in terms of abjection. Kristeva states that foreignness gives rise to abjection (Strangers 45), and the opening sentence of Strangers to Ourselves makes clear the relationship between the strange and the abject: “Foreigner: a choked up rage deep down in my throat, a black angel clouding transparency, opaque, unfathomable spur” (Strangers 1). The stranger is abject and invokes abjection. For Kristeva, the conditions of abjection and estrangement are interrelated. Smith sees abjection as a form of estrangement because the subject is beside her- or himself with horror and is thus an exile or a stranger (Smith 3). Because Kristeva argues that the abject can never be expelled fully or expelled with any finality, the concept of abjection is useful for deconstructing racism as it prompts a recognition that all subjects contain otherness within themselves, that we are strangers to ourselves: “Strangely, the foreigner lives within us […]. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself” (Strangers 1). In Daughters of the House, the protagonists' personal experience of estrangement is crucial in enabling them finally to embrace what they find strange or repellent. For Léonie, this is her memory of the ghosts of the murdered Jews, and for Thérèse, it is the figure of the mother.
The theme of foreigners and foreignness (the French étrangers literally means strangers but also translates as foreigners) is central to Daughters of the House and Strangers to Ourselves, both of which deal with issues surrounding the concept of nationality and nationhood in France and both of which echo Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, first published in 1938 just before the Second World War. Like Daughters of the House, Three Guineas draws parallels between patriarchy and fascism and links the exclusion of women with the exclusion of Jews:
You are feeling in your own person what your mothers felt when they were shut out, when they were shut up, because they were women. Now you are being shut out, you are being shut up, because you are Jews, because you are democrats, because of race, because of religion.
Like Kristeva in Strangers to Ourselves, Woolf is critical of nationalism: “the outsider will say, ‘[…] as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world’” (234).7 Like Woolf, Kristeva also sees women as outsiders, but whereas Woolf proposes the establishment of the “Society of Outsiders” (239), Kristeva believes that women can be more subversive as outsiders within. In the position of “outsiders within” Léonie and Thérèse are ultimately able to challenge the categories of inclusion and exclusion.
In Daughters of the House, women and Jews share the status of strangers as well as abject subjects. The Jews are not only metaphorical strangers as they represent the racial “other” to the Nazis and the predominantly blue-eyed people of Blémont-la-Fontaine (59), they are also literally strangers because they come from outside the village. In psychoanalytic terms all subjects are estranged (because of the sense of loss engendered by separation from the maternal body and entry into the symbolic). Ironically, even de Gaulle, the apotheosis of French nationalism, became a foreigner when he was forced to live in exile in London and Algiers during the war (as a Jew, Freud was also forced to flee persecution and emigrated to London in 1938 after the Nazis came to power in Austria). However, Kristeva stresses the particularity of women's status as foreigners because estrangement dramatizes the sense of alienation women feel in the symbolic. That is, Kristeva sees all women as foreigners, strangers, exiles, or aliens in terms of their particular relation to and position in the symbolic order (Smith 28). Because of her dual nationality, Léonie is regarded as a foreigner in both England and France. Even Thérèse regards her as a foreigner after she has been living in France for twenty years.
You think you've laid a real French supper, Thérèse thought: but you haven't got it quite right. I know that. But you don't. You grew up in England, don't forget.
People in the local shops stare at her because she is “the foreigner” (84), and even in the dreams she has as an adult, Léonie still feels like a stranger in the house (4). Thérèse herself is a stranger in the sense that she estranges herself from the house when she joins the convent, becomes a nun, and enters self-imposed exile. Léonie notes that Thérèse made her childhood bed “safely foreign and far away” (4), and returning to the house, Thérèse feels like a “sister returning from exile” (8). Thérèse also feels estranged from her mother; because Rose nurses her when she is a baby, Antoinette is a “stranger” to her (33).
Kristeva explains that the foreigner is stuck within “polymorphic mutism” (Strangers 16). Both Léonie and Thérèse experience aphasia as a result of their estrangement from language. As a child, Léonie cannot find the words to describe the red/gold lady because symbolic language is inadequate to express a semiotic experience (that it is a semiotic experience is suggested by her sensation of jouissance—a sexual feeling associated with pre-Oedipal mother-child relations, one beyond the purely orgasmic and one repressed in the symbolic—by the suspension of linear time, and by her indifference to her sweaty, muddy state, which suggests that she does not experience her body as abject in this moment). When Thérèse returns from the convent, she struggles to express herself: “She had stripped off language like gold necklaces, pearl rings. She had few words ready for use now” (22).
The Jews have a voice, but it is denied. Léonie refuses to acknowledge the voices that she hears haunting her as a child, and the reader never hears those voices. In terms of Pierre Macherey's contention that “the text says what it does not say” (215), the silencing of the Jews in the text speaks of something very significant. Daughters of the House draws attention to the way that this group of Jews is erased from history by erasing their voices (the Jews are denied representation first by being buried in an unmarked grave and then by being buried in a grave that only bears the name of Henri Taillé). Perhaps more disturbingly, this silence also implicates the reader. Because, like Léonie, the reader cannot hear the voices of the Jews, she or he is placed in the same position as Léonie or encouraged to empathize and identify with her. The implication is that the responsibilities Léonie faces at the end of the text are responsibilities that face us all.
Anna Smith's suggestion that estrangement is “unhomeliness” explains why neither Thérèse nor Léonie ever feels completely at home in the family house (17), but Kristeva's assertion that “the sense of strangeness is a mainspring for identification with the other” also suggests that it is precisely their alterity that enables them to confront the abject and so transform the symbolic order (Strangers 189). For Kristeva, estrangement is not necessarily a condition to mourn. As Smith explains, being a stranger has its benefits, for strangeness shatters the known order and is germane to a new way of looking at things. Estrangement can
unsettle the speaking subject in his customary dwelling-place. […] estrangement is a profoundly disquieting experience that turns the house of being upside down and presents its subject with new forms of speech and thought.
The experience of Thérèse and Léonie provides an illustration of the effects Smith describes.
THE HORROR OF THE WAR
The horror that Roberts's text ultimately attempts to confront is the horror of the Holocaust, the atrocities committed against Jews during the Second World War. At the end of the book, Léonie realizes that she knows the names of the hitherto anonymous murdered Jews and the identity of their betrayer—the local priest, the religious patriarch who represents the Law-of-the-Father. Léonie remembers her horror at the moment when Baptiste showed her the room, which she recognized as her former bedroom, where his father and the Jews were kept the night before they were killed:
[…] sawed bloodied pieces of shin and gristle in the butcher's, shoved into a sacking bag and taken home to feed the dogs. That's what a grave was: a dump for torn flesh, broken bones. The Jews were back in the ground again. Mixed up more than ever before. She wanted to laugh. She felt sick […] Grown ups' secrets. She was sick of them.
Léonie's recollection of her vision of the dismembered bodies is anticipated by the scene in which she hides a piece of the broken Quimper dish, a dish that depicted a woman and which, once shattered, represents just one of the numerous dismembered female figures in the text.
Even though Henri and the Jews are murdered before Léonie is born, she knows them because the night before they were shot they were kept in the very room where she would sleep as a young girl. Throughout her childhood, in fact, she is haunted by their ghosts and hears their voices. The house is the site of supernatural, or “strange,” events. In his essay “The Uncanny” (1919), Freud explains that the uncanny or unhomely (the literal translation of the German unheimlich) is related to what is frightening, to what arouses dread and horror and gives rise to feelings of repulsion and distress, and he gives death, dead bodies, the return of the dead, spirits and ghosts as prime examples (17: 219; 241). However, he expands that definition by adding that, rather than deriving from the unfamiliar (as the term itself might suggest), the uncanny “is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (17: 220). It is the return of the repressed, as Freud explains:
[T]his uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it through the process of repression. […] the uncanny is something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.
(“The Uncanny” 241)
Léonie represses (forgets) the names she knows because the room and the voices fill her with such terror that she has to expel them from her conscious mind. In his essay “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” (1901), Freud proposes that the forgetting of proper names is never a chance event (6: 4). Furthermore, according to Freud, repression is an act of self-preservation (“Repression” 147), and forgetting is one form of repression (“Psychopathology” 4). Léonie's amnesia can thus be understood as a defense against a confrontation with the abject, an encounter that has the potential to destroy the subject, as her venture into the cellar later demonstrates. When Léonie first descends into the cellar, the light goes out, the door slams closed, and she finds herself trapped, facing extinction: “She was part of the shadows now. Not Léonie any more. She was dissolving, into musty air” (51).
Although Léonie's amnesia may be the major example of repression in the text, it is not the only one. Almost all of the characters have experienced something horrific that they attempt to repress or forget; nor is it only members of the house who try to negate the past. Kristeva argues that abjection is a universal phenomenon, one coextensive with the symbolic system on both an individual and a collective level (Powers 68), and Léonie's personal experience, her forgetfulness, reflects a larger cultural phenomenon. Léonie explains to Victorine that children do not learn about the war at school because it is considered “too modern” to be “history” (119). Returning from the convent on a bus, Thérèse observes that the advertisements she sees on the street tend to romanticize the past in order to sell their products. Consumerism generated by advanced capitalism, that is, results in a dangerous mythification of history (4).
Kristeva states that the abject must be expelled in order to ensure the security of the symbolic order, but she also explains that it can never be completely excluded. She describes the abject as “the gushing forth of the unconscious, the repressed” (Powers 206). Her concept of abjection is clearly indebted to Freud's work on repression, but she also extends it in an original and invaluable way. Kristeva focuses on, and ascribes significance to, pre-Oedipal states and processes that Freud and Lacan acknowledge but largely neglect. She thus elaborates on Freudian (and Lacanian) theory in a way that revalues the feminine and aims “to make clear an unspoken cultural debt to the maternal body” (Grosz 161). In Daughters of the House, the horror that Léonie refuses to confront erupts through her unconscious in the form of terrifying dreams, nightmares in which what has been repressed returns. The novel is littered with other instances of the return of the repressed. Antoinette's shoe is recovered from the cellar; Thérèse returns to the village from the convent and, as far as Léonie is concerned, from the dead; Victorine shows the girls the boot marks of German soldiers on the floor of the house by peeling back a carpet that is designed to hide them; and the statue of the female saint is discovered buried in the cellar. Although the adults who surround Léonie and Thérèse as children refuse to talk about the war openly, subtle allusions to the war act as reminders of the effect that it continues to exert on the present. Victorine's cookery book and the camp bed date from the war. The vocabulary of war that occasionally seeps in here is a further example of the return of the repressed: Léonie “flanks” a jug of water on the table with wine and candle sticks (14); she thinks of herself as a “spy” as she rummages through Thérèse's bags (18); and the relationship between the two women is itself described as a “war” (4). Léonie also carries the baguette like “a bread rifle” (85).
The horror that the text seeks to represent materializes in a series of abject images (vomit, menstrual blood, excrement, dead flesh), almost all of which point to the abject status of the female body in the symbolic order. When the repressed returns and Léonie finally faces the abject, remembers the names of the Jews and the identity of the informer, she refuses to be complicit in a conspiracy of silence any longer. Her openness to others enables her to promise to give her information at the inquest into the desecration of the Jews' grave. In her movement from a “Proper” to a “Gift” economy, Léonie implicitly embraces repressed femininity.
The consequences of Léonie's information are radical, for it will enable history to be rewritten. Those who have been excluded from official history can now be represented. The text does not suggest that history can ever be complete and objective or that the notion of truth is unproblematic. It remains unclear whether Antoinette is raped by the German soldier or whether she seduces him to prevent him from discovering the wine hidden in the cellar. Like the broken Quimper dish, missing pieces mean that history will never be whole, and Léonie acknowledges the unreliability of her memory and the subjectivity of her account of events. Nevertheless, the text suggests that effort must be made to confront the horrors of history so that they are not repeated. The year of the novel's publication (1992) witnessed poignant reminders of the necessity of that task. Rape was being used as a weapon of war in the conflict in former Yugoslavia, a conflict that highlights the dangers of nationalism. Fascist groups organized violence throughout Europe, and the popularity of Le Pen and the French National Front increased. Roberts's use of the present tense to write about the past suggests that the past shapes the present and the future, and that an understanding of history aids an understanding of the contemporary moment. Daughters of the House is at once a woman-centered revision of history and a comment on the current political condition of Europe.
THE HORROR OF THE (M)OTHER
At the end of the text Thérèse, like Léonie, also resolves to make public the information that she has kept secret since childhood. She confronts the abject and embraces the repressed feminine principle. The repression of her information has helped to maintain the patriarchal status quo, and the revelation of what she knows has the potential to subvert the symbolic order. When Thérèse returns to the house as an adult she is ready to admit that she lied about her childhood visions. As girls, Léonie and Thérèse both have visions of the Madonna at the shrine. Léonie's vision of the dark-skinned red/gold lady is ridiculed and rejected because it does not conform to the conventional image of Our Lady, whereas Thérèse's more orthodox vision of a pale-skinned, fair-haired saint dressed in blue is highly lauded. Thérèse later confesses that she is a fraud, that she simply invented the visions, which are nothing more than a regurgitation of the prescribed patriarchal image of the Madonna. Because, as indicated earlier, Léonie's vision is strongly evocative of the semiotic, Thérèse's acceptance of the red/gold lady represents an affirmation of the semiotic and a rejection of organized religion (she decides not to return to the convent), patriarchal authority, and the symbolic order.
For Kristeva, the maternal is the privileged representation of the semiotic and for Thérèse the acceptance of the red/gold lady is also an acceptance of her mother, Antoinette. That is no easy task because the symbolic order places an exclusory prohibition on the maternal body, which is abjected (Powers 14). As Oliver explains, “The abject threat comes from what has been prohibited by the Symbolic order, what has been prohibited so that the Symbolic order can be. The prohibition that founds, and yet undermines, society is the prohibition against the maternal body” (Oliver 56). Ironically, through that prohibition, symbolic law testifies to maternal authority even as it attempts to repress it. In Daughters of the House Antoinette's body repeatedly evokes horror and is rejected. In Léonie's opening dream, for example, Antoinette comes back to life from where she is buried in the cellar, her mouth “stuffed full of torn-up letters and broken glass,” her feet bleeding, and clutching a handbag full of “shreds of dead flesh” (1). Her body is also abject in the sense that when she is dying Antoinette loses control of her physical self (she floats in and out of consciousness and her limbs fly about uncontrollably). The body that lacks integrity contrasts with the “clean and proper” body. Most important, Thérèse experiences feelings of horror in relation to her mother's body that stem from her childhood discovery of her mother's sexual encounter with the German soldier, which, it is strongly suggested, results in pregnancy and twins (herself and Léonie): “Unchastity is a mortal sin. It means you go to hell. My poor mother […] It's disgusting” (148). As a child, Thérèse transfers the horror she feels for female sexuality onto female flesh in general. She develops a contempt for the female form—“you're so revoltingly fat you disgusting baboon” (79)—and her fear of fleshliness at one point manifests itself in the form of food loathing. That fear, in conjunction with her later rejection of sexuality (the vow of celibacy she must take to become a nun), can be read as a rejection of the maternal body.
However, when, at the end of the text, Thérèse sets fire to the figure of the Madonna in the church and transforms it from blue to red/gold, she not only affirms Léonie's vision and embraces the semiotic, but she also accepts her mother's sexuality, symbolized by the color red. She rejects the myth of the Virgin mother, which Kristeva deconstructs in her essay “Stabat Mater” (1976), and the conventional dichotomy between sexuality and spirituality. In the scene that prefigures her pyrotechnics, Thérèse dreams of her mother for the first time since her death and is thus reconciled with the maternal body she has so far rejected. Luckhurst argues that in the dream in which Thérèse stitches her dead mother back together, she re-members her mother's corpse in order to dispense with it and thus begin the process of mourning (256-57). However, Thérèse's dream also symbolizes healing and regeneration, so much so that Antoinette's body is no longer a source of horror and femininity is no longer associated with death, decay, and castration. In that sense, Thérèse does not begin to mourn but to celebrate her mother. Maternity is rescued from abjection. As Kristeva comments, a confrontation with the feminine that goes beyond abjection and fright is ecstatic, a way of coming to terms with the unnamable (Powers 59). When Thérèse remembers her mother (in the sense that re-membering can be the opposite of dismembering) and when Léonie remembers the names of the Jews and the informer, both women achieve such ecstasy.
Here Roberts and Kristeva part philosophical company because Kristeva accords the father a crucial role in coping with abjection and overcoming the abject mother. She stresses the importance of a strong father.8 In contrast, the fathers in Daughters of the House are emphatically weak. The man whom Léonie knows as her father is dead, absent altogether; Louis, the man whom Thérèse knows as her father, is paralyzed after a stroke. The priest, as the most corrupt character in the novel, is the weakest morally. Louis and the priest also epitomize abject subjects because after his stroke Louis dribbles and cries (144), and Léonie's testimony will, it is anticipated, expose the Curé's corruption. Roberts thus revises the relationship that Kristeva outlines between abjection and maternity, shifting the emphasis onto a new relationship between abjection and paternity. Furthermore, as already illustrated, Roberts's heroine comes back to rather than overcomes the mother.
In that respect, Roberts's text provides a woman-centered revision of, and a provocative challenge to, some aspects of Kristevan theory. Whether or not Roberts has read Kristeva is irrelevant, for her text shows a familiarity with Kristeva in the same way that Terry Eagleton argues that Shakespeare's plays suggest that the Bard was familiar with Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, and Derrida (Eagleton ix). Regardless of the degree to which it is theoretically informed, Roberts's novel clearly cannot be reduced to a fictional regurgitation of theoretical ideas or read simply as an allegory of Kristevan theory, for it is a text that challenges, undermines, and expands feminist thought. In some ways, Roberts is more radical than Kristeva. Because Kristeva works broadly within the theoretical framework created by Freud and revised and developed by Lacan and employs some of their key concepts, Grosz has referred to her as a “dutiful daughter” (167). In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva focuses on male modernist writers and the subject whose psychic development she follows in Powers of Horror is always male. Roberts's work, in contrast, is resolutely woman-centered—not only is she concerned with the daughters of the house but Léonie's children are both girls—and she assumes a position in relation to patriarchy that is analogous to that of her fictional heroines, Léonie and Thérèse, who shift from being dutiful to defiant daughters.
Kristeva has asked, “But is any realist (or socialist-realist) literature up to the horrors of the Second World War?” (Powers 156). Roberts's novel certainly is. Moreover, her representation of horror is one that offers a new logic of abjection and one that establishes a new economy of differences as well as a different system of meaning. For Kristeva, abjection is a potentially life-threatening disorder, but it is also something that can be apocalyptic. She describes abjection as a “resurrection” because it transforms the death drive into the start of new life (Powers 15). Daughters of the House suggests that despite the dangers, abjection has to be confronted for transformation to occur. At the beginning of the novel, there is a sense of stasis. Returning to the house after twenty years, Thérèse notes that “hardly anything had changed” (13), but the events of the novel make change possible. Kristeva and Roberts share the belief that literature is transformative. Roberts herself has stated that “[t]he female body, my knowledge of it, becomes part of my prose questioning whether we simply move in cycles […] or whether our hard-gained feminist knowledge can push onwards our consciousness (from a fuller knowledge of our unconscious) towards change” (Roberts qtd. in Wandor 68). Facing the abject enables a demystification of power and thus a challenge to authority (Powers 210). When Thérèse re-members her mother's body and sets fire to the Madonna, and when Léonie remembers the names of the murdered Jews and the informer, the two women both challenge the Law-of-the-Father and turn the symbolic order, the metaphoric house of the novel's title, upside down. An evocation of the semiotic, which entails a renewed connection to the body of the mother—the first home, a “natural mansion” (Powers 13)—enables Léonie and Thérèse not to leave or reject the symbolic order but to renegotiate their position within it. Just as Kristeva has argued that the symbolic order must be transformed because it fails to offer women a satisfactory place, so the daughters of Roberts's text ultimately attempt to rebuild the house that they inherit to make it a home they can inhabit. That indeed is a legacy worth passing on.
Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1857), Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938), Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop (1967), and Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) are examples of this. Also, when Offred obtains a match in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1987), she considers using it to burn down the Commander's house instead of lighting her cigarette.
In Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), Kristeva offers a psychoanalytic analysis of language and establishes a distinction between the symbolic and what she calls the semiotic. The semiotic is a pre-Oedipal, pre-linguistic realm associated with the maternal and the feminine (because at that stage in its psychological development the child is unable to distinguish between subject and object, itself and its mother) and characterized by fluidity, multiplicity, possibility, heterogeneity, rhythms, and pulses. Entry into the symbolic, characterized by law, order, coherence, stability, and rationality, occurs at the time of the Oedipal crisis and acquisition of language and depends on separation from the mother and submission to the Law-of-the-Father. The semiotic continues to exist within the symbolic but is repressed. As the feminine principle is constantly repressed so it constantly threatens to erupt.
The life of St. Thérèse has been misrepresented by her (mainly male) biographers. Few hagiographies include the incident, related in her autobiography, in which she mischievously defies the orders of a Carmelite friar and refuses to leave an area of a monastery from which she is barred entrance—or the incident in which she argues with the Pope (St. Thérèse 141, 136). Her complaint that “There's no respect for us poor wretched women anywhere” (141) and statements that articulate ardent ambition (a desire to be a priest and to become a saint, ambitions that defy lady-like modesty and indicate a wish to appropriate male power), are rarely included in accounts of her life that seek to portray her as “The Little Flower,” the patronizing nickname by which she became known.
Henry James uses this metaphor in The Art of the Novel (1934) to explain multiple perspective and subjectivity of point of view (James 46), but Sage, expanding on his metaphor, points out that, for women, writing involves demolishing and rebuilding the house of fiction that is their literary inheritance (Sage ix-x).
The significance of the image of the cellar in terms of Kristeva's account of the abject is exemplified by the title of the chapter dealing with abjection in Anna Smith's book: “Into the Cellar of the Native House: Kristeva and Psychoanalysis.”
North (1960), From Castle to Castle (1968), Rigadoon (1974). See Kristeva 153.
To a degree, Woolf is complicit with the power structures that she criticizes. In focusing on “the daughters of educated men,” Three Guineas excludes working class women (Woolf 129).
For an explanation of why this is so see chapter 3 in Kelly Oliver's Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-Bind (1993).
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 1990.
Cixous, Hélène. “Castration or Decapitation?” Trans. A. Kuhn. Signs, 7: 1 (1981): 41-55.
Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: A Metaethics of Radical Feminism. London: Women's Press, 1979.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. 1969. London: Ark, 1984.
Eagleton, Terry. William Shakespeare. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.” 1901. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953-74. Vol. 6.
———. “Repression.” 1915. Freud vol. 14: 141-58.
———. “The Uncanny.” 1919. Freud vol. 17: 217-57.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. London: Routledge, 1990.
Humm, Maggie. A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Feminist Literary Criticism. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.
James, Henry. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. New York: Scribner's, 1934.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
———. Revolution in Poetic Language. 1974. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.
———. “Stabat Mater.” 1976. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 160-86.
———. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.
Lechte, John. Julia Kristeva. London: Routledge, 1990.
Luckhurst, Roger. “‘Impossible Mourning’ in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Michèle Roberts's Daughters of the House.” Critique 37:4 (1996): 243-60.
Macherey, Pierre. “The Text Says What It Does Not Say.” Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents. Ed. Dennis Walder. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. 215-22.
Oliver, Kelly. Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-Bind. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1993.
Roberts, Michèle. Daughters of the House. London: Virago, 1992.
Sage, Lorna. Women in the House of Fiction: Post-War Women's Fiction. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992.
Smith, Anna. Julia Kristeva: Readings of Exile and Estrangement. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996.
Thérèse of Lisieux. Autobiography of a Saint. 1958. Trans. Ronald Knox. London: Fount, 1977.
Wandor, Michelene, ed. On Gender and Writing. London: Pandora, 1983.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. Ed. Michèle Barrett. London: Penguin, 1993.
Worton, Michael and Judith Still, eds. Intertextuality: Theories and Practices. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1990.
Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.
Claire Harman (review date 26 May 2000)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
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, Frédéric responds with predictable brutality and, caught in flagrante, Geneviève flees and tries to drown herself in the sea:
I plunged onwards, throwing myself under a crest of foam; my feet sucked up from under me as I was snatched, spun round and thrown up again; the sea a great mouth spitting me out; then whirled forwards again, gulped down with choking salt streams, gasping, inside a green-veined tunnel.
This is where the poet enters the story, rescuing Geneviève, and taking her to work in his household inland. The narrative continues as a series of diary entries by Millicent, an English girl employed as governess to Colbert's niece Marie-Louise. Millicent hardly notices Geneviève; she is pursuing her own romance, falling in love with her employer and his work. Her “secret” passion is embarrassingly obvious to everyone, most of all the poet's formidable mother (to whom he is devoted) and his mistress, a dressmaker from Rouen who tells her own side of the story later. Gérard's romantic occupation appeals to the fantasist in each of these women—“words dancing and making love on paper” is the servant's unlikely description of his poetry—and they end by playing out their battle to possess him in a game of cards.
Gérard's posthumous fame is revealed in an extract from his niece's memoirs in which she dwells with pride on the “clear references” to her own life in her uncle's master-work, “Men and Mermaids”. Marie-Louise's interpretation of the poem is partial and personal, but Roberts doesn't over-play the irony of this. The five different narrators enable the novelist to dramatize the problems of telling the “true story”, from the passing-on of folk tales to the untrustworthiness of biography. The penultimate section of the book, in which Marie-Louise's not very close but astute childhood friend, Yvonne, disparages her in an interview, complicates the issue nicely.
Roberts evokes Colbert's verse through the uncritical eyes of his niece: “jagged, dissonant lines whose uneven music you can fancy represents the crashing of the waves on to the shore”. She asks the reader to accept that Colbert was a friend and rival of Mallarmé, on whose life the story is, supposedly, partly based. Colbert goes off to attend Mallarmé's famous Tuesday salons at the rue de Rome, though Mallarmé was dead by 1898 and the action is taking place in 1913-14 (Colbert dies in the Great War). Flaubert (1821-80) is also cited as a model for the fictional poet's life, and at this point one begins to suspect the author of having asked rather too many godparents to the christening. The play on mirrors and mermaids (puzzingly referred to several times as having legs) also indicates too much straining after significance. Roberts doesn't need literary props like these; her prose is sensuous and vivid (particularly in her descriptions of the Normandy coast), and she has a fine sense of the drama and humour implicit in ordinary life. For Roberts, as for her unconventional heroine Geneviève, the story is “the most real thing”.
Michèle Roberts (essay date 27 November 2000)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975
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 did. Bursting out of Victorian conventions of femininity, Jean Rhys, Nathalie Barney, H D, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, to name just a few, belong in this gang. And Colette, bursting out of the misogyny of the belle époque, belongs with them.
Colette's life, like her art, was transgressive. She invented new forms for the novel, blending fantasy, sensual realism, letters, fictional autobiography and poetry to create not just one masterpiece, but many; and she disobeyed the male rules about being a good woman and a single-minded artist. As well as publishing many novels and short stories, she wrote for film, opera and theatre, was a war correspondent, an arts journalist, founded beauty salons and sold her own recipe face cream, toured in music-hall revues, posed semi-naked for soft-porn tableaux and photos, trained as a gymnast and a mime, and was an excellent pianist. She went in for all sorts of sexual liaisons, including threesomes and an affair with her stepson. She was beautiful, but she was very greedy, too, and didn't care that she ended up extremely fat. She cannot be fixed in one category, either as a person or a writer. She was too contradictory. Judith Thurman, in her recent biography Secrets of the Flesh, notes that Colette would not have wanted a simple Woolfian room of her own; she would have gone for pink villas complete with swimming pools, flash cars and handsome young chauffeurs.
It is easy for the sort of young feminist I was to seek out simple, two-dimensional heroines. With Colette, that was impossible. She denied any interest in feminism, to start with. She denied any vocation to be a novelist, but wrote bestsellers that were acclaimed as great literature. In her early adult life, she had frequent lesbian affairs, but was ambivalent about the value of same-sex love. Despite writing adoringly about her mother, Sido, she proved incapable of loving her own daughter, and effectively abandoned her. She was anti-Semitic, like others of her time, despite adoring her Jewish husband, Maurice Goudeket. That is certainly a troubling flaw in her character.
Colette's earliest experiences of language showed her its teasing ambiguities and capacity for deception. Words could create not truth, but illusion. Throughout her childhood, Colette's charming and handsome father, a former captain in the Zouaves, a disabled war veteran turned tax collector, shut himself away in his study in order to write. After his death, when the family took down his carefully titled manuscript books and reverently opened them, they discovered that every single one was completely blank. When she left home, Colette stopped using her given name, Gabrielle, renamed herself Colette, her father's surname, and filled in his blanks.
It was Sido who dominated her children's lives in their Burgundian paradise in the village of Saint-Sauveur. Years later, Colette wrote about her mother as a fiercely benevolent and independent-minded country goddess, steeped in intuitive wisdom, who took her dog to church and read novels during the sermon, as much a keen thinker as she was an expert in arcane housewifely lore. It all sounds so quaintly rustic, but the family was, in fact, deeply middle class, and kept three servants and a carriage. Under the beautiful surface of the prose in a book such as Break of Day lurk hints of Sido's possessiveness, her capacity for domination, even cruelty. Like Persephone, Colette had to keep tearing herself away from this too-enveloping love and, right to the end of her life, she wrote compulsively about power struggles between lovers.
The first male god who carried Colette away was Willy, the infamous entrepreneur who kept a factory of hacks ghosting his novels and soon put his young wife to work among them. The Claudine novels, based on Colette's Willy-driven fantasy memories of her country childhood, spiced up with a bit of frou-frou naughtiness, took France by storm. They, and the film version of Gigi, starring the creepy Maurice Chevalier, fixed Colette in the popular imagination over here as merely a decadent It Girl. But when you read novels such as Chéri or La Vagabonde, you discover Colette's profundity, compassion, precise observation, huge vocabulary and originality. I learnt from her that, to write about women, you have to make things up in order to tell truths that have not been told before. She knew all about faking it as the pursuit of art.
Susan Rowland (essay date 2000)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5511
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 Showalter's The Female Malady.2 Specifically feminist histories, these sources mark a new development in the historical novel as the products of feminist academic research of the 1970s and 1980s becomes absorbed into fictional writing. In its examination of the genesis of depth psychology with its gender politics, erotic drives and occluded relationship to Spiritualism, In the Red Kitchen is a continuation of feminist research challenging, but not pretending to replace, traditional history. The novel corresponds to Robin Gilmour's arguments about contemporary fictions with a Victorian setting.3 It is a research novel employing historical material in its portrayal of Flora Milk, fictional descendent of historical Florence Cook, a medium of ambiguous career in the London of the 1870s.4In the Red Kitchen gives fictional voices to the women marginalized in official records of Spiritualism and male-generated theories of depth psychology. By so doing, the novel inverts Victorian norms to suggest fictional, cultural and erotic drives implicated in the theoretical discourses of hysteria, Freud's female Oedipus complex, and Jung's notions of the unconscious. I will be examining a further, uncited source for the novel, Jung's doctoral thesis, to demonstrate how Roberts's fiction both utilizes and critiques Jungian theory from a feminist perspective by situating it historically in its nineteenth-century Spiritualist antecedents.5
Before giving some account of nineteenth-century female Spiritualism and its links to hysteria, it is worth outlining the main events of the novel.6In the Red Kitchen has five female narrator-writers who do not read each other's texts but whose stories comment on each other as characters and give sometimes violently conflicting versions. Three of the five narrators are linked through Spiritualism with Flora Milk, the Victorian working-class medium based on Florence Cook, the pivotal figure. The Hattie she conjures up as her spirit-guide could be the contemporary Hattie who seems to be living in Flora's house in 1980s London and/or she could be Hat, daughter of Pharaoh and later Pharaoh herself in Ancient Egypt. King Hat is devoted to erasing signs of her female gender so that she can rule and be immortal. When her plan for eternal life through the assumption of masculine power fails, she decides to project herself forward as a ghost to find future women to write her spirit, ‘one whose hand will dance to my spelling’ (p. 133), she writes with obvious ambiguity. Similarly, contemporary Hattie sees a child ghost, probably Flora, and King Hat may well be her childhood fantasies of Egypt generated by the abuse she suffered from an uncle. She says: ‘At night, in my narrow white bed encircled by white curtains, I escaped into another country called Egypt where I was King’ (p. 35).
The Victorian site is ‘home’ to the other two narrators: the angry Rosina Milk, Flora's sister and assistant, if and when she resorts to ‘tricks’ in her Spiritualist practice, and Minnie Preston, the relentlessly patriarchal wife of Sir William, the investigator. Flora and Rosina go to stay with the Prestons. While William's cruel probings of Flora and spirit-guide Hattie amount to sexual exploitation upstairs, downstairs, Flora's private seances with Minnie suggest that she, Minnie, may well have smothered her dead daughter Rosalie. The reader has to choose between Flora's and Minnie's version of events since they conflict so violently. Finally, William takes Flora to Paris where she is exhibited as an hysteric at Dr Charcot's Salpetrière hospital. Returning from Paris pregnant, Flora marries Rosina's young man which cements the rift between the sisters. The gravestones which contemporary Hattie finds in a London cemetery suggest that Rosina marries the object of her epistolary narrative, a Spiritualist benefactor named Mr Redburn whom she initially contacted to allege Flora's deceit as a medium. Minnie is not the only patriarchal-identified woman who may well have killed. Hat in Egypt marries her father and decides that she needs to dispose of his favourite concubine. By contrast, the romance of contemporary Hattie with the object of her writing, her male lover only known as ‘you’, is comparatively benign, but she does suffer a miscarriage. The presence of ‘you’, an obvious site for the reader's engagement with the text (in a romantic and erotic sense) serves to underline the novel's status as a feminist text interrogating gender and patriarchal power, not blaming men. ‘Romance’ in the more overtly patriarchal periods, Ancient Egypt and Victorian London, is structured through and against patriarchy, as romance with the father that does not protect the daughter from oppression on gender grounds.
Some details of Spiritualism will be useful to illuminate the novel's critique of Victorian culture. Communication with spirits, supposedly of dead people, has been known throughout history, but the modern phenomenon of Spiritualism began in America in March 1848 with poltergeist activity in the home of adolescents Kate and Maggie Fox. The two young women soon discovered that the knocking they heard showed signs of an intelligent grasp of the alphabet, and a newspaper campaign in the New York Tribune helped to launch their careers as spirit mediums. Spiritualism, noted for its female mediums, spread rapidly to Europe where its appeal was disseminated through populist channels of newspaper journalism. Female mediumship became a lucrative career for middle-class and some working-class women. Spirit communication developed from table-rapping, through automatic writing where the medium held the pen and the spirit supposedly guided it, to the spirit speaking through the body of the medium. Many mediums also managed a ‘materialization’ of a spirit where the medium would probably be tied up and locked in a cabinet, the room darkened and a fully physical bodied ‘spirit’ would emerge who could be touched and held.7
Florence Cook in the 1870s materialized a spirit called Katy King, while her fictional counterpart, Flora Milk, produces Hattie King or King Hat. Clearly, the potential for fraud was immense and some unscrupulous mediums were exposed by Spiritualist investigators.8In the Red Kitchen's Rosina charges Flora with using all the tricks of her historical predecessors: ‘collapsible rods to make spirit arms, trick slates with messages already written on them, rubber gloves to feel like spirit hands […] gauze coated with luminous paint […] tossed out to make a ghostly cloud’ (p. 1).
To turn to specific source material, In the Red Kitchen's use of Showalter and Owen demonstrates fiction's interventions in historical discourse by re-staging historical rumour as a narrative possibility but not unambiguous fact in the novel. Owen gives a succinct account of the known events surrounding the unproven rumours of an affair between the Spiritualist investigator, Sir William Crookes, and Florence Cook, upon which Roberts bases Flora's contested allegations of sexual interference from William Preston:
Florence Cook was born in 1856 to respectable working parents, and as a young medium lived with her family in Hackney. She was the eldest of three daughters, all of whom claimed to be mediums, and began giving séances at the age of 15. At first she was only able to produce vague spirit faces which appeared in the gloom of gas or candlelight, but after ‘Katie King’ became her regular spirit control the manifestations swiftly increased and improved. By 1873, Florence, in complete trance but hidden from view behind a heavy curtain, was able to produce the full-form materialisation of ‘Katie’; that is, a young female figure would emerge from behind the curtain, completely covered from head to foot in white robes, and would pass among the sitters […]. Charles Blackburn, a wealthy and devoted spiritualist, undertook to make a regular annual payment to Florence so that she could remain ‘private’.
During the early part of 1874 Blackburn passed the management of Florence's séances to the scientist William Crookes who was engaged in a laboratory investigation of the young girl's powers. Crookes was clearly enamoured of ‘Katie’, if not Florence, and his ardent espousal of the spirit's authenticity, together with his interest in other young mediums like Miss [Mary Rosina] Showers, began to earn for him the dangerous reputation of a philanderer.9
Here, In the Red Kitchen simplifies its sources. Florence Cook's cross-class friendship with the middle-class medium, Mary Rosina Showers is collapsed so that ‘Rosina’ can be the name of a younger sister with whom the historical Florence did have a rivalry. The early benefactor of Florence Cook, Mr Blackburn, becomes Mr Redburn: first the instrument of Rosina's revenge for the loss of her lover and then her means to a middle-class life as his wife. Florence Cook's spirit guide ‘Katie King’ becomes Hattie King, almost certainly to exploit the greater linguistic possibilities of Hat, Hate, Hattie, but Roberts's Rosina manages ‘the materialisation of Katy King’ (p. 147) in a return of the repressed historical record. William is closely modelled on Sir William Crookes, and Roberts exploits the ambiguities of his relationship with the young working-class medium, Florence Cook.
Owen also connects mediumship to hysteria. As she describes, William Crookes certainly wrote of his faith in the genuine nature of the materialized spirit, Katie King, and while he did not cite any connections to hysteria, there were those at the end of the century who did.
[T]o imagine, I say, the Katie King of the last three years to be the result of imposture does more violence to one's reason and common sense than to believe her to be what she herself affirms.10
The acts of the hysteric, again, are like those of the medium and the poltergeist child … the study of hysteria paints for us in rather coarser colours just such a weakening of the moral sense, such an inextricable mingling of imposture and reality and such examples of unnatural cunning posing under the mask of innocence, as we find in mediumship.11
After Flora is investigated by William (and perhaps sexually abused by him), he takes her to Dr Charcot's Salpetrière hospital in Paris where she is exhibited as an hysteric in his famous public spectacles of female hysteria patients. None of this applies to the historical Crookes and Showalter's analysis of Charcot becomes the source. Showalter quotes a witness to one of Charcot's theatrical exhibitions of his hypnotized female hysteria patients at Salpetrière:
Some of them smelt with delight a bottle of ammonia when told it was rosewater, others would eat a piece of charcoal when presented to them as chocolate. Another would crawl on all fours on the floor, barking furiously when told she was a dog, flap her arms as if trying to fly when turned into a pigeon […]. Another would walk with a top hat in her arms rocking it to and fro and kissing it tenderly when she was told it was her baby.12
This very passage is re-imagined in the novel from a female soon-to-be participant's point of view, not that of the relatively detached male audience. Flora sees the events as an enactment of naked patriarchal power:
Dr Charcot is a ringmaster: the first woman drops on all fours, sniffs the legs of her chair, waggles her rump, barks.
Dr Charcot is a magician: the second woman takes the top hat he offers her, cradles it in her arms, rocks it to and fro as she walks up and down the dais and croons to it.
Dr Charcot is God: the third woman hops on one leg, arms outstretched, squawks, tries to fly.
Dr Charcot is a great artist: the fourth woman accepts the piece of charcoal he gives her and begins to eat it, drooling with pleasure.
In the Red Kitchen does not claim to be history but it does claim to be adding to history a perspective: women's perspective, however fictional in this text, which the empirical written record may have suppressed. Roberts here adopts the metaphor of the circus to display patriarchal power made visible. Interestingly, Showalter points out that Charcot did not believe that hysteria was exclusively a female disease, and that Salpetrière contained male patients although they were not exhibited.13 Roberts omits the implication of masculinity in hysteria, a point not missed by Pat Barker in Regeneration, the first volume of her War Trilogy which draws on Showalter's following chapter on male hysteria as shell shock.14
Before considering the third textual source, that is, C. G. Jung's thesis, I want to elucidate the novel's treatment of women and Spiritualism in its distinctive narrative structure. Flora conjures up contemporary Hattie and/or King Hat. Contemporary Hattie sees a child ghost who may be Flora, while King Hat could be Hattie's fantasies of omnipotence spun in response to sexual abuse. The novel is structured upon the ontological ambiguity of its narrators: mediums or ghosts? Fantasies or tricks? Indeed, the connections between the three main narrators in the novel—King Hat, Flora, Hattie King—could be defined in any one of three ways but not confined to one definition. Firstly, they are mediums connected by Spiritualist practice; secondly, they stand for each Other's autonomous and creative unconscious, and thirdly they are fictions or tricks to each other. In effect, the three main narrators could be mediums, women in touch with a creative unconscious, or fiction writers: they operate in an ontological field which includes all three possibilities in a continuum, not one to the exclusion of the others. In terms of the female figures standing for the unconscious Other, I would argue that Roberts is using Jungian psychology here, as in earlier novels, because this unconscious is proactive, autonomous and compensatory.15 For example, whatever ‘Hattie’ is to Flora, she is capable of guiding Flora out of the prison that Salpetrière becomes for her. Flora says of Hattie: ‘She is my white rope […]. She leads me out. She delivers me, into the sunshine’ (p. 130).
In this narrative form, where the main narrators are mediums and/or Jungians and/or creative writers, it is impossible to find any secure subject position from which to re-construct the story. Hysteria becomes embedded in narrative art. History and fiction are depicted as contingent forms. As mediums, the narrators make the claim that they are recording an historical ‘truth’, but their Spiritualist practice cannot be isolated from the possibilities of unconscious powers and fiction making. Of course, all these ontological possibilities take place within a text defined as a ‘novel’, not the history of Florence Cook and William Crookes. Nevertheless, the text poses questions about the status of the imagined Other and artistic inspiration. Just what powers does an artist tap into when ‘creating’ fictional voices? Do mediumship or the creative unconscious provide appropriate models for narrative art? In the Red Kitchen is not history, but its fictional nature claims to be Other to history, in a way that is differentiated but not wholly different from historical discourse. It is a fiction, moreover, which imagines the voices of women like Florence Cook, which are subordinated in official ‘history’. It offers an hysterical history, employing fiction both to interrogate the apparently disinterested status of traditional accounts and to recover marginalized women in a fictional form that problematizes the concept of fiction in connection with occult and unconscious drives. It is important to stress that not one of these conflicting narratives is presented as the ‘historical truth’, the master narrative which operates to subordinate all the Others. Indeed, the novel deliberately exposes the power structures involved in defining one narrative as ‘history’ and the rest as fiction within the novel's own boundaries. The greatest clash is between the accounts of Minnie Preston and Flora Milk (pp. 90-8). Where Minnie cites her beneficence to the poor young medium, vilely repaid by scandalous allegations against her god-like husband, Flora depicts adulterous deceit and child-murder in Minnie, sexual abuse from William. The sympathetic reader is much more inclined to Flora's side but to over-rule Minnie is to dismiss her own patriarchal suffering and very real fears of death through excessive child-bearing (p. 11).
The novel makes the power operations inherent in such a form of reading visible in the scene where Flora is exhibited in Salpetrière. She hears the doctors talking in French and thinks she hears the subject as ‘women’ and ‘history’: ‘Isterry, History? And then famm. History and women?’ (p. 124). However, an educated reader, knowing the ‘history’ of Charcot and Salpetrière, may conclude that Flora has heard but misinterpreted the word for hysteria; the doctors are talking about hysteria and women. Surely this, historically speaking, is the case? Yet, because this is a novel, not history, and we like the victimized and courageous Flora, I would argue that the reader is given a choice about whether to completely discount working-class Flora and stick to official history. To do this, the novel makes it clear, is to side with the male doctors against Flora, and hence adopt the masculine gaze of theory (here of hysteria) that objectifies women as Other to its dominant modes. In the Red Kitchen makes the reader examine the tracks of desire in interpreting a text as well as offering a feminist critique of history's tendency to encode patriarchal literary forms which marginalize or exclude the feminine voice. Clearly, in the reading of the Salpetrière scene, the reader is not going to ignore the masculine designation of hysteria, but credence may also be given to Flora's definition of the scene as being about history and women: hysteria in this novel is also about the history of women's lives. The novel teaches the reader not to choose exclusive versions of events, not to designate some of the female narrators as wholly Other to the reader's credence or sympathies. Since no hierarchy of narratives is possible in the text without defining one or more women as liar, fantasist or pathological (which is exposed as patriarchy's method), the novel encourages hysterical reading, the failure to find a secure subject position as a way to incorporate an acknowledged fiction like In the Red Kitchen into our reading of traditional history. Such novels claim to be history's Other, both as fiction and as a text aiming to recuperate what has been marginalized in history as feminine, untruthful, occult or fantasy.
To turn to depth psychology is to approach a discourse which also has founding narratives composed by scientific males practising upon female hysteria patients whose voices do not represent themselves in the writings.16 The recent collection of essays In Dora's Case offers a thorough critique of Freud's practice with his female patients.17 Freud's view of the predominantly female disease of hysteria famously changed in the late nineteenth century. Whereas Freud once believed that hysteria resulted from repressed memories of sexual abuse, he later decided that such abuse had no reality outside the mind of the patient, that it was in fact fantasy. Such a theoretical turn fuelled his concept of the Oedipus complex with its female equivalent, the daughter's incestuous desire for the father.18 When In the Red Kitchen takes the reader to Charcot and Salpetrière, it visits the place where Freud learned his technique of hypnosis (later abandoned) and observed hysteria patients.19 In depicting occult disturbances summarily redefined as hysteria, In the Red Kitchen sites itself at the genesis of depth psychology.
However, the novel makes two precise moves in relation to Freudian theory. Firstly it reinstates ‘real’ sexual abuse as a possible cause of psychic symptoms, particularly with contemporary Hattie's traumatic memories of her ‘uncle’. Then the novel suggests that the daughter's romance with the father can be understood as an erotic expression of patriarchal subjection: the daughter's fear of and desire for ‘male’ powers. In other words, a cultural and feminist theory of sexual desire is offered rather than Freud's biological formulation. As Flora alleges about the photographs of an hysteria patient in Salpetrière (documented by Showalter): ‘the mad girl in white. But she's not mad, she's angry’ (p. 130). Just as this fiction offers a different history of hysteria, so it could be said to provide an hysterical version of official psychoanalytic history. An hysterical version may be one that makes use of fictions, performances, art, and which fails to provide a fixed subject position, as in this novel where Flora's account and Hattie's tale of abuse are only single-voiced strands in a plural text with no absolute hierarchy of truth and lies.
Charcot has a distinct historical role and so bears the weight of psychoanalytic history in the text with being a proto-Freudian character. Jung's presence in In the Red Kitchen is more complex. On one level, Minnie Preston recalls meeting a ‘Mr Charles Young, whom I understand to be writing a doctoral thesis on the psychology of the phenomena we were about to witness’ (p. 48). Is this the fictional shade of Carl Gustav Jung, who in reality did not haunt seances in London in the 1870s (the period of Florence Cook and Flora Milk), but whose attendance at the seances of a female medium cousin in Switzerland in the 1890s forms the basis of his doctoral thesis? Jung's document performs the translation of a female medium into an hysteria patient, becoming the opening text of his Collected Works and the inauguration of his later psychology. If William Crookes is the model for William Preston's treatment of Flora Milk only until the fictional characters meet at Salpetrière (for Crookes always believed in Cook as a medium, not as an hysteric), then it is C. G. Jung who anticipates the later William, as an enthusiastic attender of seances but one who is willing to collapse the medium into the hysteric. Moreover, Jung argues that his cousin's hysteria coincides with Freud's revised conclusions about the disease as symptoms of repressed sexual desire. He calls all the stories that the medium provides through spirit voices, ‘romances’, even ‘family romances’. Jung's medium's spirit guide was called Ivenes. He wrote:
These family romances […] had a pretty gruesome character: murder by poison and dagger, seduction and banishment.20
Our patient's ‘romances’ throw a most significant light on the subjective root of her dreams. They swarm with open and secret love affairs […]. It is the woman's premonition of sexual feeling, the dream of fertility, that has created these monstrous ideas in the patient. We shall not be wrong if we seek the main cause of this curious clinical picture in her budding sexuality. From the point of view the whole essence of Ivenes and her enormous family is nothing but a dream of sexual wish-fulfillment.21
This early work shows Jungian ideas at their most Freudian because Jung assimilates his current theory of spirits, that they are repressed desires acting as separate personalities, to Freud's dream theories. ‘As repressed thoughts […] they begin to lead an independent existence as autonomous personalities. This behaviour calls to mind Freud's dream investigations which disclose the independent growth of repressed thoughts.’22
However, if depth psychology had not yet split into two hostile schools, this thesis still anticipates key aspects of a distinctively Jungian theory. One node of future theory is the phrase ‘autonomous personalities’, which alerts the reader to Jung's fundamental notion of the autonomy and creativity of the unconscious. Additionally, the depiction of Ivenes's, the spirit-guide's, role in relation to the female medium anticipates Jung's theories of the ‘self’, a superior governing unconscious personality to which the ego becomes a subject in psychic interactions with the unconscious.23
As well as the Freudian and proto-Jungian elements, there is a third subtext to this seminal document for Jungian psychology which also reappears in In the Red Kitchen, and that is eroticism. Jung's thesis conceals vital evidence about his own relationship to the medium—patient. We do not learn that she is his cousin, that he promoted the seances for years longer than indicated and that the medium's family finally had to remove her from Jung's influence.24 The term ‘romances’ (which is used throughout the English edition read by Roberts) to designate the fictional status of the medium's productions seems to both reveal and suppress an erotic drive within the seances. Jung was also greatly interested in the Spiritualist writings of the historical William Crookes prior to his own attendance at seances. Therefore, when the barely educated medium Hélène Preiswerk produces a spirit-voice claiming kinship with Florence Cook, the reader may wonder at the extent of Jung's own influence on his medium. Is he as ‘objective’ as the erotically invasive fictional William Preston? Jung wrote: ‘Ivenes had to embody herself at least once in every two hundred years; apart from her, only two human being shared this fate, namely Swedenborg and Miss Florence Cook (Crookes' famous medium). [The medium] called these personages her brother and sister.’25
Certainly, if Jung describes Florence Cook as ‘Crookes's famous medium’, he is equally constructing Preiswerk in his doctorate as his famous medium who can be medicalized though his writing for his own professional gain. Effectively, William Preston in In the Red Kitchen is a William Crookes who becomes C. G. Jung. Crookes may have had an affair with Florence Cook but did not assimilate mediumship into hysteria as Jung's doctorate does, writing of Preiswerk's ‘hysterical attacks […] when she enacts dramatic scenes, has visionary experiences etc’.26 William Preston is a fictional re-staging of Crookes and Jung as male scientists theorizing the bodies and psyches of women as Other, occult, or pathological, or fraudulent. By modelling William Preston on Crookes and Jung, In the Red Kitchen posits a web of intersecting erotic, occult and medical narratives at the genesis of psychoanalysis and Jungian psychology, where gender is the silent term in these male-generated theories of the end of the nineteenth century.
In terms of the gender politics of his writings, Jung's theory does not remain interested in female mediums. Instead the feminine becomes relegated to the spirit position, known as the ‘anima’ in Jungian psychology, forming the Other or the unconscious to male subjectivity. When Jung later writes of female psychology, he bases much of it on his notions of his anima, his feminine side: unconscious, erotic, non-rational.27 For both Freudian and Jungian theory, In the Red Kitchen offers a cultural critique of the scientific claims of their discourse by imagining the genesis of theory as historically constituted through culture, not scientifically transcendent of it. If depth psychology claims an interest in returning to ‘the mothers’, then In the Red Kitchen seeks the mothers of depth psychology itself in the nineteenth-century women engaged in Spiritualism. In doing so the novel makes the theories ‘hysterical’ in disrupting their secure foundations and exposing what is Other, fictional, feminine and repressed in Freud's female Oedipus complex, his notions of hysteria, and in Jung's model of subjectivity that treats the feminine primarily as an unconscious ingredient of male subjectivity.
Michèle Roberts's In the Red Kitchen is not a feminist polemic about Victorian patriarchy but a textual space for imagining what is absent from historical record and some of the theoretical writings of the late nineteenth century. It is a novel which represents the history of depth psychology hysterically by suggesting fiction haunting the theories and by using fiction to suggest new aspects to theory in the imagined recovery of female voices. Such a novel, I would argue, is not Victorian literature in the traditional sense of the term, but neither is it wholly separate from our cultural methods of conceiving the past.
Michèle Roberts, In the Red Kitchen (London: Methuen, 1990). Further references are given in the text by page number in this edition.
Alex Owen, ‘The Other Voice: Women, Children and Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism’, in Language, Gender and Childhood, eds Carolyn Steedman, Cathy Urwin and Valerie Walkerdine (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 34-73. Owen's article is reprinted in her book The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Nineteenth-Century England (London: Virago Press, 1989); Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 1987), pp. 147-55.
See Robin Gilmour's essay in this volume.
For a comprehensive account of the career of Florence Cook see Owen, ‘The Other Voice: Women, Children and Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism’, pp. 42-6.
C. G. Jung, On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena, in Collected Works, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 18 vols (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957-77), I, 3-88. Michèle Roberts confirmed in a private conversation with the present author that she had used Jung's doctoral thesis on a series of seances as a source for In the Red Kitchen. For further information on Jungian concepts, Jung's own account is helpful: Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice, eds Mary Barker and Margaret Game (London: Routledge, 1968; repr. Ark paperback 1986). See also Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter and Fred Plaut, A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis (London: Routledge, 1986). The essential differences between Jungian notions of the unconscious and the more familiar Freudian version are, firstly, that the Jungian unconscious is creative, self-healing and not dominated by repression; and secondly that religious experience for Jung is an authentic form of psychic activity, not necessarily to be reduced to sexual or traumatic explanations.
For a powerful study of women, the occult and the feminine in Victorian culture see Diana Basham, The Trial of Woman: Feminism and the Occult Sciences in Victorian Literature and Society (London: Macmillan, 1992). For a comprehensive history and discussion of the varying definitions of hysteria see essays by Sander L. Gilman, Helen King, Roy Porter, G. S. Rousseau and Elaine Showalter in Gilman et al. (eds), Hysteria Beyond Freud (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993).
For a comprehensive history of Spiritualism and psychical research in the period see Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
For example Owen describes lawyer Edward Cox's challenges to Florence Cook and Mary Rosina Showers in ‘The Other Voice’, pp. 44-5.
Owen, ‘The Other Voice: Women, Children and Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism’, pp. 42-3.
Ibid., p. 65, quoting William Crookes, ‘The Last of Katie King’, Spiritualist, 5 June 1874. Repr. in full in Crookes and the Spirit World, ed. M. R. Barrington (London: Souvenir Press, 1972), pp. 137-41.
Owen, ‘The Other Voice: Women, Children and Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism’, p. 67, quoting Frank Podmore, Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism, 2 vols (London: Methuen, 1902), II, 323-4.
Showalter, The Female Malady, p. 148, quoting Axel Munthe, The Story of San Michèle (London: Murray, 1930), p. 296, pp. 302-3.
See Showalter, The Female Malady, p. 148.
Pat Barker, Regeneration (London: Viking, 1991). Barker cites Showalter in the acknowledgements.
Roberts acknowledged the use of Jungian psychology in her earlier fiction in a private conversation with the present author. For more information on Jungian theory see Samuels, Shorter and Plaut, A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis.
For Freud's changing views on hysteria see The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. under the General Editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, 24 vols (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955-74), especially ‘Katharina’, II, 125-35; ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’, III, 191-221; and ‘Dora—Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’, VII, 1-122.
See In Dora's Case: Freud, Hysteria, Feminism, eds Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
For the Oedipus complex and especially Freud's developing views of female Oedipality see The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, XVI, 333-7 and ‘Femininity’, XXII, 112-35.
Showalter, The Female Malady, pp. 147-8, on Freud studying with Charcot and later praising his work.
Jung, On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena, p. 39.
Ibid., pp. 69-70.
Ibid., pp. 77-8.
The best description of the evolution of Jungian ideas of the ‘self’ can be found in Samuels, Shorter and Plaut, A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. See also Jung's own elaborations in Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice, pp. 137-8.
See F. X. Charet, Spiritualism and the Foundations of C. G. Jung's Psychology (New York: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 157.
Jung, On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena, p. 36.
Ibid., p. 65.
See Jung's descriptions of female psychology in C. G. Jung, Aspects of the Feminine (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1982).
Clare Hanson (essay date 2000)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7736
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 short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the W. H. Smith Literary Award. She also published the short story collection During Mother's Absence (1993) and the novels Flesh and Blood (1994), Impossible Saints (1998), and Fair Exchange (1999).
Roberts is one of a generation of British women writers profoundly affected by the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. Like Angela Carter, Roberts sees her writing identity as inseparably bound up with her feminism. In her essay “Questions and Answers” in Michelene Wandor's collection On Gender and Writing (1983), she writes that “accepting and questioning my femaleness is inseparable from accepting and questioning my drive to write” (63-64). In this essay she describes her alienation during adolescence from the view of femininity purveyed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and its adverse effect on her early writing. Only when she discovered the women's liberation movement in 1970 was she able to write authentically, realizing that “I wasn't mad so much as confused and angry” (64). Feminism provided the terms through which identity could be tested, questioned, and challenged, but was itself questioning and fluid—hence the diversity of the fiction it inspired. So, although we can link such writers as Roberts and Carter through their involvement with feminism, considerable differences distinguish their separate works. One could, indeed, see Roberts as a kind of antithesis to Carter, a view which I pursue in this essay. Where Roberts differs from Carter is in her commitment to what she calls “the mother principle, the feminine principle” (65). Carter denies the existence of the feminine: for her the feminine is an invention, a dangerous invention, a social fiction palmed off on her as “the real thing.” Roberts, on the other hand, emphasizes the ways in which “feminine” values have been suppressed in our culture. Just as women have, historically and physically, been oppressed in Western culture, so, she suggests, the qualities traditionally associated with them have been derogated and downgraded. Roberts does not insist on any essential link between feminine qualities and the female body, but she does suggest that the derogation of the feminine is profoundly damaging and destructive for our culture. In this respect her work has, as we might expect, affinities with French psychoanalytic feminism, although it is also nourished by the work of Freud, Klein, and Jung.
Roberts has memorably described her writing as driven by the quest for the lost mother. In 1983 she wrote:
When I began trying to analyse (because I was asked to) my need to write, several years ago, I came up with an explanation I tracked down as echoing aspects of the work of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein. I know that I write out of the experience of loss; the earliest experience of that is the loss of my mother. Loss is an emptiness filled with terrifying feelings: burning hate, sizzling despair, rage that tears you apart. I hated my mother (the fantasy image of her I constructed inside myself) for not always being there when I wanted her, or as much as I needed. She hadn't wanted twin daughters, but a son.
(“Questions and Answers” 64)
As Roberts herself points out, her description of the origins of her writing echoes Melanie Klein's account of the child's need to internalize the mother as “good object” following the early separation between them. Klein describes the way in which the child's initial rage and aggression toward the (lost) mother must be channeled into the creation of a restorative and reparative image of her which can in turn form the basis of the image of the self. In one of her essays, Klein argues that this reparative process structures the entire oeuvre of the painter Ruth Kjar, and a similar dynamic operates in Roberts's fiction. However, this interpretation does not mean that her work should be seen as narrowly therapeutic. Indeed, one of the most important qualities of Roberts's fiction is its movement away from the subjective preoccupation with the mother which marks the work of many earlier twentieth-century writers, most notably Virginia Woolf. As Roberts herself explains in the essay quoted above, she sees the loss of the mother as having a cultural significance that goes far beyond the personal experience of loss. She writes: “I now see the loss as on a different, larger scale, and the reparation likewise. I still think that women, though embedded in the heart, factory and kitchen of culture, are treated as though we are peripheral to it; and many of us feel like exiles. Certainly my new (unfinished) novel tackles the theme of separation on this scale” (65).
This emphasis on the wider cultural context distinguishes Roberts's work and also links it with the work of French feminists such as Luce Irigaray. Irigaray contends that the whole of our culture in the West rests upon “the murder of the mother.” For Irigaray, our philosophical systems depend on an unacknowledged foundation, the unsymbolized maternal-feminine. Women have no identity within the symbolic order: they exist in relation to it as its residue or its waste. As a result they live in what she calls a state of “déréliction,” a term Margaret Whitford translates as meaning “abandoned by God.”1 This definition, I think, comes very close to what Roberts means when she says that women feel “like exiles.” Roberts, raised as a Catholic, emphasizes in her writing the ways in which women are denied not only subject status but also spiritual identity within our culture. For Roberts, as for Irigaray, the loss of the mother, or as Roberts puts it, “the loss of any symbol of the power of the female” (“Questions and Answers” 65), is damaging not just politically, but also ethically and spiritually.
For Irigaray, the unsymbolized mother-daughter relationship constitutes the greatest threat to the symbolic order as we know it. To think this relation amounts to undermining the symbolic order, introducing as it does feminine identity and difference into the economy of the same. Indeed, the exploration of this pivotal relationship lies at the heart of Roberts's fiction, too. Paradoxically, however, Roberts's emphasis on articulating difference is linked to a drive to find unity, to heal the split between the masculine and the feminine in each of us. Both individually and collectively, she suggests, we must own the repressed/oppressed feminine if we are to achieve wholeness. It is perhaps relevant at this point to note again that Roberts is not only half-French and half-English, but also a twin: hence, perhaps, her constant preoccupation with fragmentation and wholeness, splitting and unity. She has written, “That is my myth: the quest for wholeness” (“Write, She Said” 233). It is also worth emphasizing at this point that although Roberts's work bears the traces of a rich mixture of influences and sources, it could never be seen either as derivative or as mechanically “applying” theory in fictional practice. To borrow a metaphor from her first novel, A Piece of the Night, one could say that she takes images and fragments from a range of sources and turns them into a rich and nourishing broth of her own—or witches' brew, perhaps.
A Piece of the Night is a sensuous and dazzling first novel in which Roberts conveys through metaphor and through the texture of her prose the troubled state of the central character, Julie. As a note at the beginning of the novel tells us, “julienne” is a French term for a mixture of vegetables for soup. In the novel this soup is fed to generations of the men in Julie's family, like a kind of domestic version of the body and blood of Christ, only this time the sacrificial body is feminine: “Monsieur Fanchot père called his wife soupe, or else he called soupe his wife, Julie was never sure which: la mère soupe, dabbing with his large white napkin at the traces of carrots, potatoes, onions clinging to his fat silky moustache” (36). The question which the novel brilliantly explores is whether woman can exist independently of her position as “la mère soupe”—or, in Irigaray's more abstract terms, can she have an identity in the symbolic order distinct from the nurturing function? Roberts has also said that this novel “asked and tried to answer the question: how can women love each other[?]” (“Questions and Answers” 67): in other words, the novel approaches the question of women's identity through the “key” of woman-to-woman relationships. The prototype for all woman-to-woman relationships is the mother-daughter relationship, which is central to this as to all Roberts's novels. The relationship between Julie and her mother, one of fluid intersubjectivity and utmost need, conforms with uncanny accuracy to Irigaray's account of the cultural situation of women as mothers and daughters. Irigaray argues that the fluidity of the relationship between mother and daughter is the symptom of their not being represented in the symbolic. Because neither is defined as individual subject but both occupy, actually or potentially, the “place of the mother,” their relationship to each other cannot be properly articulated. Irigaray also argues, more generally, that because the child's relation to the mother is not adequately symbolized, he or she may suffer from an uncontrollable need for the mother, “what is known in analytic therapies as orality, infinite thirst, the desire to be gratified by her that we hear so much about.”2 Such an unsatisfactory and unsatisfying identification with the mother corresponds exactly to Julie's experience:
Love is her duty: a mother gives and gives. I snatch at her fat breast, she winces. We glare at one another. Love is a battle now, between the two of us. I suck too eagerly, I choke on love and sweetness. Am I allowed to go at my own speed, am I allowed to suck to satiety? And why not? She feeds me when she, not I, decides I need it because she, like me, does not recognise that there are boundaries between us.
Roberts links this memory seamlessly with Julie's experience of déréliction, her sense of abandonment by a church which cannot stop her hunger or her need because it fails to recognize either her spiritual being or that of her mother:
Neither of us, the ageing mother, the adolescent daughter, is much impressed with life for women after puberty. We concentrate instead on our eternal hopes. We swallow the Christ, who should be our sufficiency. We are two heretics who get up, sighing still with hunger. … The priest reads the Fathers of the Church on the voraciousness of women.
In exploring the question “how can women love each other?” Roberts uses in this novel what she calls the two “icons” of the nun and the lesbian, both being women without men. Roberts interweaves Julie's story with the briefer and more muted story of Sister Veronica, an aging nun in the convent where Julie has gone to school. Sister Veronica's life appears as one of “patient self-murder.” In her youth she had traveled in Asia, but felt rejected by the gods of Asia, who “exiled” her, denying her a soul because she was a woman. After she takes the veil, the god of the Catholic Church does the same, requiring of her nothing but patient self-abnegation. This pattern reaches its logical conclusion when, feeling ill, she chooses to “accelerate death” by lying out in the rain in the remotest part of the convent garden. Traditionally, the life of the nun has been seen as offering some independence for women: by abjuring all relations with men, nuns gain a spiritual status denied to other women. However, as Marina Warner has pointed out, this status is profoundly problematic, founded as it is on denial of the female body and of female sexuality.3 In A Piece of the Night, Roberts contrasts the path taken by Sister Veronica with Julie's identification of herself as a lesbian and her learning to celebrate the female body and female sexuality. Through her love affair with Jenny, Julie rediscovers the life of the female body which her husband has denied her, and through the mutuality of this woman-to-woman relationship learns to “recognize” herself: “I want you to mirror me, to bring me out of confusion and lack of self into recognition of self and acceptance of a pattern I share and shape, fusion that is not drowning. While you are here, having chosen me, I know who I am” (127).
However, this process of feminine self-discovery has its darker side, and Roberts's exploration of this constitutes one of the most interesting and radical aspects of her fiction. During her marriage, Julie reflects on the fact that, whether by her own or by other women's definition, she has no existence: “in men's consciousness she remains part of the natural world, the perimeter to his centre … a repository for all he fears to be” (68-69). For this reason, in the passage that gives the novel its title, she thinks of herself in negative terms as “a piece of the night, broken off from it, a lump, a fragment of dark” (84). However, in the second half of the novel, although Roberts emphasizes the positive possibilities opened up through Julie's relationships with Jenny, with her mother, and with her daughter, she does not simply jettison or erase all the negative or “dark” imagery earlier connected with the feminine. In Roberts's fiction, a positive feminine identity is possible, but this does not mean that the negative qualities associated with femininity can simply be denied or abandoned. Conventionally, femininity is linked with passivity, nature, and the body, as opposed to the “masculine” qualities or attributes of activity, culture, and spirit. For many feminists, the point of feminism is precisely to challenge these conventional identifications and to enable women to take up a “masculine” subject position. Roberts's fiction, however, insists on the need for both men and women to find a new, plural subjectivity. Within this subjectivity “masculine” and “feminine” would coexist. Such a multiplicity would ideally extend to wider cultural identities and meanings, so that the repressed “feminine” aspects of our culture might be restored and returned to it. Nature, the body, and even death would no longer be consigned to the unconscious: the repressed would be allowed to surface. As Roberts explains it in “Questions and Answers”: “The repressed feminine principle struggles for birth. The female body, my knowledge of it, becomes part of my prose. … I'm back to Demeter and Persephone: what does Persephone's sojourn underground teach her, and what does she tell Demeter on her return?” (68).
Roberts's third novel, The Wild Girl, takes up this question, exploring the connections among the feminine, the unconscious, and death. Perhaps Roberts's most passionate and polemical work of fiction, The Wild Girl retells the story of Jesus through an invented “fifth gospel” of Mary Magdalene. A point of departure for the novel may have been the work done by feminist theologians on the distortion of Jesus' teaching by later Christians, but the novel is important less as part of a debate about history than as a powerful indictment of the disavowal of the feminine in Western religious thought. The novel tells the story of Mary's early life, her imagined love affair with Jesus, and her life with Jesus and the apostles. It imagines a relation of reciprocity between Mary and Jesus, each learning from the other. So, for example, Jesus is led to contest the misogyny of established religious systems after hearing Mary's anger over the priests' rejection of women. He is led to make the most explicit statement anywhere in Roberts's fiction about the need for balance and harmony and the need to integrate masculine and feminine principles. Speaking to Simon Peter, he says:
—So, Simon, be like Mary, for she is trying to join the male to the female inside herself, and to break down the boundaries between what is above and what is below, and what is inside and what is outside, and to become whole. … You must do the same for yourself: first you must know what is male, and what is above, and what is outside, and then you must learn from the woman how to join her and become whole, as Mary is learning from me and I from her.
Jesus here reproduces the metaphors that structure Western religious and philosophical thought. The feminine, seen as that which is “inside” and “below,” is thus linked with the unconscious and the body, while the masculine, both “above” and “outside,” is linked with the transcendent spirit. Roberts seizes on the metaphorical structure which Irigaray has also seen as subtending Western thought. In her analysis of Plato's allegory of the cave, Irigaray argues that Western philosophy is founded on the following structural oppositions:
Between the “world outside” and the “world inside,” between the “world above” and the “world below.” Between the light of the sky and the fire of the earth. Between the gaze of the man who has left the cave and that of the prisoner. Between truth and shadow, between truth and fantasy, between “truth” and whatever “veils” the truth. … Between the intelligible and the sensible.4
The novel explores these issues further through Mary's dream-vision of the creation of the world and Jesus' interpretation of it. Mary's dream offers an alternative account of creation in which origins are dual: masculine and feminine, darkness and light are equally aspects of God. However, Mary dreams that in time the feminine part of God, Sophia, has a son who forgets that he was born of the duality of God, and believes that he has created himself. Sophia names him Ignorance, and his children become “the adversaries of the fullness of God” (82). Jesus argues that Mary's dream is a warning about the consequences of ignoring the wholeness of God:
Men have forgotten the feminine and the darkness, and praise only the masculine and the light. The children of Ignorance are the adversaries of God because they prevent the man and the woman from living out the fullness of God. The children of Ignorance perpetuate a false creation, a world in which one side of knowledge is stifled, in which barriers are set up between man and woman, body and soul, civilization and nature.
Here Jesus voices Roberts's critique of a patriarchal symbolic order, which she sees as a “false creation” founded on oppression and repression. The issue of repression is particularly important for Roberts. She is, as we have seen, a feminist interested not merely in the achievement of equal rights but also in the ways in which, individually and collectively, we repress and disavow aspects of “the feminine” which are currently seen negatively but which in her view need to be re-valued and reviewed. One of the most powerful aspects of her fiction is its evocation of those aspects of the feminine which inspire horror—the body/matter, the unconscious (including the death drives), and death itself. Insofar as possible, death is written into The Wild Girl, through Mary Magdalene's experience after Jesus' crucifixion. In a vision, Mary travels to the place “of the lost Mother, of death, of the dark side of God” (115). In an imaginative tour de force, Roberts describes Mary's journey through the bitter waters of dissolution into a “fierce and chilling sea” (115). In this section, a kind of unraveling of the self takes place as we are taken “back” to the experience of what Julia Kristeva calls “abjection,” that pre-Oedipal state in which we are unable to establish boundaries between the self and the other/mother: “I alternately bobbed and sank for what seemed like an endless stretch of time, with no division between night and day and neither sun nor moon to lighten the deep in which I kicked and tried to stay alive. … My life was not my own: I tossed up and down at the mercy of currents and winds and could not steer” (Wild Girl 115). The “unutterable wastes of black seas” (115) represent aspects of one's own or the maternal body from which one struggles to escape in the process of individuation: here Mary reverses the process, and yields to engulfment in matter. Yet at the limit point of the imagination, the point of death, Mary experiences a rebirth under the sign of Salome, who describes herself as “the ancient one. … She who has many names” (DH [Daughters of the House] 95). Salome, the feminine principle, represents at this point the death which men fear and deny. Mary's rebirth under her tutelage does not necessarily imply a belief in personal immortality; rather, it points to what Roberts in the 1983 essay calls a “mystical” acceptance of the necessary relation between opposing principles: masculine and feminine, life and death. As she writes in “Questions and Answers”: “We're all part of the nitrogen cycle, the dance of atoms. Life begins below ground; the plants push up their green tips after the long death of winter” (68).
The Wild Girl is preoccupied, then, with Roberts's “myth of wholeness,” particularly the affirmation of the life of the body in the context of a religion that denies it. Daughters of the House (1992) takes up and applies further pressure to these themes. In this novel, the Christian myth of the fall from grace into sexuality and death (the fall from the spirit into the body) is replaced as a framing myth by another which derives from Lacanian psychoanalysis and which also structures French feminist theory. This is the myth of the fall from a pre-Oedipal fullness of being into a being-in-language characterized by fracture and separation (a fall from the body into the spirit, as it were). Roberts uses the Lacanian story as just that, a powerful and suggestive myth which she appropriates for her own creative ends: she is in no sense simply “following” French feminist doctrine. As in The Wild Girl, she also stresses the interdependence of aspects of being (such as body and soul) which are conventionally opposed to each other.
The title of the novel points to the inherent importance of the relation with the mother. The house is a metaphor for the body of the mother, and the project of the novel, metaphorically speaking, is to define the relationship of two daughters to a lost mother. (The two daughters are in fact cousins, and no single mother figure exists, but the metaphorical structure is clear.) The daughters, utterly opposed in temperament, appear to represent aspects of a split self. Léonie is the materialist, Thérèse the idealist, and the form and style of the novel reflects these differences, as Roberts herself has noted: “The story of a woman obsessed with material possessions had to be told as her inventory of the contents of her house; the story of the cousin she quarrelled with had to be a saint's autobiography that could quarrel with the version contained in the inventory” (“Postscript” 171). The novel is the story of a struggle over the meaning of the feminine, both inside and outside the Church. Reunited in middle life because of the reopening and violating of a grave, the cousins remember their early life together and the scenes and images that shaped their respective identities. The novel tracks back to the death of Thérèse's mother, Antoinette, which lies at the novel's center. It is after the loss of this mother that the two girls begin to have diametrically opposed, competing visions of the Virgin Mary. Léonie envisions a black and red Madonna—a virgin who is not a virgin but a woman with a sexual life. When she sees this woman, whose sexual, bodily, feminine identity is not denied but affirmed, Léonie is reminded of the earliest stage of union with the mother and of communication by rhythm and touch (the stage which Kristeva calls the semiotic):
Something outside her, mysterious and huge, put out a kindly exploring hand and touched her. …
… Then she remembered it. A language she once knew but had forgotten about, forgotten ever hearing, forgotten she could speak. Deeper than English or French; not foreign; her own. She had heard it spoken long ago. She heard it now, at first far off, thin gold, then close, warm. The secret language, the underground stream that forced through her like a river.
Thérèse, however, sees her lady in the woods as a more abstractly conventional Virgin figure, and happily recites her familiar attributes: “She had on a long blue dress. Her hair, which was long and fair, was almost completely covered by her white veil. Her hands were clasped, and she carried a crystal rosary over one arm. Her feet were bare, and there was a golden rose resting on the toes of each one” (95).
As we move back through the folds of memory and time which structure the novel, we discover that in the place where the girls see their visions, there used to be a shrine with a statue of a goddess holding a bunch of corn, a kind of Bona Dea or fertility goddess, an ancient saint. In the past this was a powerful and magic place, where the villagers came to pray and also to dance at harvest festival time. However, the curé has put a stop to this practice, telling the villagers to pray not in the woods but in the church. The curé, the bishop, and the Church find Thérèse's version of the Virgin infinitely preferable to that of Léonie, for it conforms to religious rather than to pagan tradition. Léonie's goddess is black and red, linked both with strangeness and fertility, whereas Thérèse's goddess troubles none of the conventions surrounding the representation of the sexless Virgin. So while Léonie and Thérèse continue to struggle silently over the meaning of their red and blue visions, the Church accepts Thérèse's version and even builds a chapel to Our Lady according to her specification in place of the old shrine. Subsequently, Thérèse becomes a nun, denying the body in order to advance the spirit, while Léonie lives her life in accordance with her more worldly vision, celebrating the life of the body, marrying and having children.
Throughout the novel, the perspectives of Léonie and Thérèse are held in tension, and although the end of the novel brings surprises and reversals, this tension (or poise) is maintained as each cousin learns to accept the beliefs for which the other stands. At the end of the novel, Thérèse, who has been associated with the father, God, and suffering, dreams of the mother she has denied and whose house she has left. In her dream, she and her sisters from the convent put the dead mother's body back together again, restoring it and making it whole, preparing it for burial. Immediately afterwards, Thérèse goes down to the cellar where she discovers the statue that used to stand in the woods, now buried in a heap of sand “in the airless dark … shut up like a cry in a box, the weight of the house pressing on her.” During the war her mother had hidden the statue, defying the priest and the Church to preserve it, acting for once in her life “in a way that allied her to the villagers not just to the big house” (162). In descending into the cellar (to the unconscious and hidden), Thérèse has rediscovered the buried or repressed feminine principle, the goddess with “a dark gold face.” When she then goes to the church, which is decorated for the harvest festival, she rejects the image of the Virgin sold to her “ready-made” by the priests of her church: “Perfect, that Mother of God, that pure Virgin, a holy doll who never felt angry or sexy and never went away. The convent was the only place where Thérèse could preserve that image intact. Away from there it melted in the heat of her hands” (165-66). Thérèse comes to feel that in accepting the Church's view of women (as virginal or spiritually nonexistent), she has betrayed both her mother and the feminine part of herself. So in a final, transgressive gesture she sets fire to the church and herself, reuniting with the maternal principle in death: “Then, at last, after all these years, she saw her for the first time, that red and gold lady. … She was outlined in gold, she held out her hands to her daughter, to pull her in, to teach her the steps of the dance” (166).
While Thérèse is in the church, Léonie wakes from a dream that leaves her restless and troubled. She tries to calm herself by reciting a litany of her possessions, her household gods, but the formula does not work. Then, just as Thérèse is drawn to the cellar of the house, Léonie is drawn to the first floor, to her old bedroom that used to give her nightmares as a child. Something has been hidden in here too, a memory she has fought against all her adult life. Now the opening of the grave and Thérèse's return force Léonie to rediscover words, names, and identities that she has repressed: the names of the Jewish people who were shot in the war, and the identity of the priest (then the curé) who betrayed them to the Germans: “She twisted the handle of the door. She opened it. She paused in the doorway, then went in. The voices came from somewhere just ahead, the shadowy bit she couldn't see. She stepped forward, into the darkness, to find words” (172). At the close of the novel, as the would-be-saint Thérèse comes to recognize the importance of the mother, the body, and death, so Léonie comes to recognize the importance of the father, the spirit, and language. Without words (the symbolic order) Léonie would be unable to name past crimes, and would be exiled from time and history. The novel ends, then, by balancing the claims of the feminine and the masculine, or, in Kristeva's terms, the semiotic and the symbolic. The loss of the mother (who appears at the end of the novel in the guise of Rose, the surrogate mother of both cousins) is seen as a necessary loss or break, a felix culpa. Still, however, the novel suggests that the suppression of the feminine within the symbolic—the fact that the feminine is not represented in the symbolic—leads to a profound distortion of subjectivity and culture. How can the feminine be written into our culture? Roberts again takes up this question in her recent novel, the dense and poetic Flesh and Blood.
Flesh and Blood is a beautifully and intricately shaped novel, formed like a loop of pearls, moving out to the central jewel, the prose-poem section “Anon,” and then back to its starting point. The novel snakes through time and weaves stories together. It opens with the story of Frederica, who thinks she has murdered her mother: Irigaray's “murder of the mother” is here literalized. This is a twentieth-century story, and Frederica's struggle with her mother is a representative one. As a child she loves her mother, who seems the embodiment of feminine glamour, looking like the soignée models in women's magazines. Her mother has converted to Catholicism, and Freddy tends to mix her up with the Virgin Mary, to the extent that when she decides to create a shrine to the Virgin, she decides that relics of her mother will substitute perfectly well for relics of the Virgin, whose bones have been taken up to heaven. Accordingly, she collects traces of the waste from her mother's body (wax from her ears, clippings from her toenails, hair from her hairbrush) and keeps them for her shrine. As Kristeva argues, this is the material of abjection, and Freddy's bizarre collection points to her difficulty over separating from the maternal body. As she grows older, Freddy begins to assert her difference first through her wish to be an artist, second through sexual independence. The mother has difficulty accepting Freddy's different and separate existence: the two seem locked in a struggle over female identity.
The next section moves back to the nineteenth century and tells the story of Felicité, whose name means “happiness” or “bliss.” Felicité is given happiness despite the repression of female sexuality in nineteenth-century France. She falls in love with a painter, George, whom we discover to be a cross-dressing woman only much later in the novel. George takes Felicité into a house whose owners have left it, empty in the quiet afternoon. They go to the heart of the house, the main bedroom with a four-poster bed and a tall armoire, “like a small castle inside the heart of the house” (FB [Flesh and Blood] 109). The armoire acts as a linen cupboard, clean and sweet-smelling. As an uninvaded, private female space, the cupboard has special significance for Felicité because it is the only positive image she can connect with her impending marriage. This is a space Felicité cannot share with her fiancé, Albert, but she can share it with George, who makes love to her in the dreamlike privacy of the empty house. Later in the novel we may connect the sweetness of this experience with the fact that this is love between women. Violence follows, however, as Albert rapes Felicité to punish her for infidelity. Physical violence leads us into the next tale, which explores some of the more distressing aspects of women's experience in eighteenth-century France. In particular, this section focuses on the power of the Church in shaping, controlling, and distorting women's lives. The central figure, the wealthy Madame de Dureville, aspires to sainthood and, to that end, distances herself as much as possible from the life of the female body. She suffers rather than enjoys her husband's embraces, and when her daughter is born she attempts (successfully) to “mortify her natural desires and impulses,” seeing her daughter very seldom and soon sending her away to school. Madame de Dureville further cultivates the life of the spirit by running a penitentiary where the mothers of illegitimate children (often those of her husband) can be brought to “the most abject state of wretchedness and sorrow that the heart of their preceptress could desire” (58). Appropriately enough, given her belief that female sexuality is wicked and degrading, Madame de Dureville marries her daughter to a follower of the Marquis de Sade, a torturer who shares this view of the sinfulness of women. So Roberts traces the connections between religious misogyny and secular sadism.
The Catholic Church comes under further scrutiny in the next section, which tells the story of a small group of nuns in sixteenth-century Italy. The nuns live in the small convent of Santa Salome, ruled over by the narrator's sister. The convent contains the relics of Santa Salome, midwife and patroness of wandering women, and a central figure also in The Wild Girl. The abbess's name, Bona, also suggests that this is a community of women dedicated to the feminine aspect of God. Inevitably, this community comes into conflict both with the local people and with the religious hierarchy. Rumors spread of “abominable rites” performed by the nuns, and of “lewd activities” among them. As a result, the Inquisition is called in and the story-fragment ends with the abbess under threat.
All the tales so far have tended toward violence and have ended with the heroine in some kind of predicament or danger. Collectively they portray a world of chance and danger, in which women are often physically at risk. However, in the next five sections of the novel, Roberts moves us outside time and history to a realm of the imagination which, through fantasy and dream, provides a seed of resistance and renewal enabling the novel's heroines to change the direction of their stories. In this “inner text” we enter the space of the feminine, transhistorical to the extent that it represents a psychological reality. Here Roberts explores and rewrites the key feminine drama of separation from the mother. In the section called “Rosa,” Roberts takes us to a landscape of bitter cold and privation. The young girl Rosa (whose name, like “Bona” and “Felicité,” forms part of a cluster of “feminine” names in the novel) tells the story of her mother's disappearance in the dead of winter. She simply vanishes, leaving her daughter bereft, tormented by need, physical hunger, and guilt. An angel appears to guide her to a dream landscape which figures both the lost maternal body and that pre-Oedipal stage in the girl's development which Freud describes as “grey with age and shadowy and almost impossible to revivify”: “Our insight into this early, pre-Oedipus, phase in girls comes to us as a surprise, like the discovery, in another field, of the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization behind the civilization of Greece.”5
Rosa's dream-country is fertile and well irrigated, “a great garden” full of fruit and flowers in which images of female creativity abound (the tumbledown bread oven, for example, “like a tiny mosque”). Among images of ease and plenty we are taken back to the origins of self in the bodily relation to the mother. A naked masseuse (with stretch marks on her stomach) traces on the body “love messages for your shut eyes to read”: “mamabebe love you are here with you together us now over and over so non-stop mamabebe so wanting you born this love us so close skinskin talking heartbeat belonging with you allowed love home flesh my mamabebe our body singing to you so beautiful love listen mamabebe listen” (109). This lyrical evocation of a state of closeness to the mother seems to haunt the imagination of twentieth-century women writers. Other writers who have attempted to represent it include figures as diverse as Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. Does this preoccupation continue because, as Irigaray has claimed, in the early relation with the mother—before she is recognized as mother/other within the symbolic order—the germ of an authentic woman-to-woman relation may be found? Irigaray argues that new ways of speaking about relationships between women must be invented if pressure is to be put on the symbolic order that excludes them. A woman must be able to identify with her mother in a way that does not objectify her: “It is necessary for a woman to be able to speak her identity in words, in images and in symbols within this intersubjective relation with her mother, then with other women, in order to enter into a relation with men that is not destructive.”6 Such speech is, perhaps, what Roberts attempts in this section of Flesh and Blood, a generative section that signals and supports a change of direction in the text. So, as Rosa is guided back into time and history, the narrative begins to play with oppositions that had previously seemed ineradicable and binding: between masculine and feminine, virgin and whore, scholar and whore. We learn that these oppositions are not immutable, but simply “the way they do things out there” (116). This fact holds out a possibility of freedom and change which is built on as Rosa restores her dead mother to life. In this reversal of the story of Demeter and Persephone, it is the daughter who brings the mother back from the underworld, melting the ice of death with her own bodily fluid, her hot tears: “I kissed her. My lips burned and blistered on the casing of ice. I kissed her again and again, I sucked and bit her glass flesh, I threw my salt tears on to her, to make her cool surface start to melt, I drove my kisses at her, I hammered an iron spike of crying into that ice block and shivered it to splinters” (116). Here the daughter's tears are like the mother's milk, feeding and sustaining.
The next story yet again turns round the mother-daughter relation, as Bona's mother rescues her from the clutches of the Inquisition. Again the question of female identity is paramount. We learn of the rituals that Bona instituted as abbess, rituals in which the body of women, as opposed to the sacrificial body of Christ, formed the ground of worship. In question here, of course, is not the literal worship of the female body but rather the introduction of the (symbolic) female body into the iconography of religious discourse: “The Abbess bared her breast. She said: this is my body, which was broken and given for you, and this is my blood, which was shed for you. … Then each of the nuns came forward and kissed the Abbess's breast, and let her mouth rest there, as though she was an infant being nursed by her mother” (135). We then move to a story “about a beautiful maiden and her quest,” revealed as another mother-daughter story in which one of the “magdalenes” treated so badly by Madame de Dureville searches for the daughter who has been taken from her. After many years, she finds not her own daughter but Eugenie, the daughter of Madame de Dureville, who has fallen on hard times and is kept as a freak in a cage at a fair. Marie-Jeanne joins her in her cage, to nurture her and heal the split between mother and daughter.
The split between the masculine and the feminine within the self is healed in the next chapter, which discloses the double life of George/Georgina, a late-nineteenth-century painter. She/he lives as a woman in England and as a man in France, joining the separate parts of herself: she made herself into a marriage. “She married two split parts of herself, drew them together and joined them, and she also let each one flourish individually” (156) Despite the stress on wholeness, the representation/creation of female identity/subjectivity remains at the heart of this section. In one of the most striking scenes of the novel, for example, George returns to Felicité as a heavily pregnant woman. Instead of rejecting this image of fecundity, Felicité receives her with the utmost kindness and insists on giving her the best linen from her own trousseau, a gift that recognizes the validity of the woman-to-woman relation between them. This theme continues in the last sections of the novel, in which we return to the twentieth century and to Freddy/Frederica, whose prayer for her daughter is also an elegy for her mother, and who draws on the past to create an image of female identity for the future. The novel offers itself, its own texture, as an optimistic answer to the questions that have haunted Roberts throughout her career: “I write novels to understand the wordless images, spin a story around them that will lay them, like ghosts. Also to answer questions: can mothers truly love daughters? Does a woman belong in this world and is she allowed to have a house of her own?” (“Postscript” 171).
Margaret Whitford, Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (London: Routledge, 1991), 77.
Margaret Whitford, ed., The Irigaray Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 40.
Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Random House, 1983).
Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985), 246-47.
The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 7 (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1977, rpt. 1987), 372.
Irigaray, quoted in Whitford, Luce Irigaray 45.
Selected Works by Michèle Roberts
All the Selves I Was: New and Selected Poems. London: Virago, 1995.
The Book of Mrs. Noah. London: Methuen, 1987.
Daughters of the House. London: Virago, 1992.
During Mother's Absence. London: Virago, 1993.
Fair Exchange. London: Little, Brown, 1999.
Flesh and Blood. London: Virago, 1994.
Food, Sex & God: On Inspiration and Writing. London: Virago, 1998.
Impossible Saints: A Novel. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1998.
In the Red Kitchen. London: Methuen, 1990.
Mind Readings: Writers' Journeys Through Mental States. London: Minerva, 1996.
The Mirror of the Mother. London: Methuen, 1986.
More Tales I Tell My Mother. London: Journeyman Press, 1987.
A Piece of the Night. London: Women's Press, 1978.
“Postscript.” The Semi-transparent Envelop: Women Writing—Feminism and Fiction. Sue Roe, Susan Sellers, and Nicole Ward Jouve, with Michèle Roberts. London: Marion Boyars, 1994. 171-175.
Psyche and the Hurricane. London: Methuen, 1991.
“Questions and Answers.” On Gender and Writing. Ed. Michelene Wandor. London: Pandora Press, 1983. 62-68.
Tales I Tell My Mother (fiction, with Zoe Fairbanks, Sara Maitlad, Valerie Miner and Michelene Wandor). London: Journeyman Press, 1978.
Touch Papers (poetry, with Judith Kazantziz and Michelene Wandor). London: Allison and Busby, 1982.
The Visitation. London: Women's Press, 1983.
The Wild Girl. London: Methuen, 1984.
“Write, She Said.” The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. 221-35.
Selected Works about Michèle Roberts
Luckhurst, Roger. “‘Impossible Mourning’ in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Michèle Roberts's Daughters of the House.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 37.4 (Summer 1996): 243-60.
Sceats, Sarah. “Eating the Evidence: Women, Power, and Food.” Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Sarah Sceats and Gail Cunningham. London: Longman, 1996. 117-27.
White, Rosemary. “Five Novels as History: The Life and Times of Michèle Roberts' Prose Fiction.” Bete Noire 14-15 (1996): 144-57.
———. “Michèle Roberts” [interview]. Bete Noire 14-15 (1996): 125-40.
Sarah Sceats (essay date 2000)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13359
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 eating is something we normally do every day, it is a major means of self-definition, as well as an important channel for the transmission of culture, eating habits being the most conservative of behaviour patterns. Eating is influenced, they claim, by the whole cultural system: by the means through which a society adapts to and exploits its environment; by social structures created for order and to train the next generation; and by ideology, the world-view of the particular society.2
The effects of ideology in relation to food are more easily seen at a micro than a macro level, although particular food conventions are sometimes used ideologically, as in the British ‘digging for victory’ campaign in World War II, for example, or the prohibition of alcohol in Islamic Arab countries. More generally, ideology permeates food and eating practices almost invisibly, through family and social structures which perpetuate particular patterns. Gender is clearly a factor; not only have women traditionally done the domestic cooking in western culture (while male chefs annexed the more celebrated aspects of culinary exhibition), food is also subtly categorised. Men barbecue steaks and carve joints, hearty slabs of meat being deemed masculine; caring mothers produce comforting soups and stews and sweet puddings. So, more or less, run the stereotypes.
In British culture some foods are inextricably bound up with class: the exclusivity of grouse, lobster or venison, the middle-class nicety of cucumber sandwiches and the sustaining comfort of Lancashire hotpot bear only partially on the cost of the ingredients. A ‘mixed grill’ and a ‘fry-up’ may both centre on bacon, sausages and chops, but inescapably connote middle-class order and working-class informality (complete with recycled leftovers) respectively. The contrived, transnational egalitarian connotations of McDonald's burgers with relish and French fries entirely lack the specificity of the English, historically generated associations of fish and chips and pickled onions.
In Foucauldian terms, food is given meaning within specific discourses and discursive practices, including recipes, reports on diet and health, advertisements, government rhetoric, newspaper articles, ‘foodie’ literature, religious rules and cultural rituals (not forgetting those of class). Less obviously ideological but of no less influence are parental guidance, peer group advice and self-made regulations. Food itself is not bound within any single discourse, but becomes impregnated with meanings from the many and various frameworks within which it figures—and this is a major reason why it is so rich a resource for writers.
The intricacy of meanings and influences both enriches and complicates eating, making it difficult to always understand the conventions of any particular eating situation. All participants at a gathering need to subscribe to the same discourse and ‘read’ the situation in the same way, so that the implicit rules, codes and interpretations are equally understood. In the same way, readers must learn to decode the significance of the foods and eating occasions in fiction. There is a potential problem here: how can a writer assume a shared cultural understanding with his or her readership? Toni Morrison, in whose writing cultural differences are of the essence, confronts this problem head-on, referring to ‘strawberry shrug’ and ‘raised bread’, ‘goobers’, ‘cobbler’ and ‘meal-fried porgies’ without explanation.3 She makes no apology for writing specifically and overtly for an African-American readership, for whom these (and many other things) do not need to be explained. They may be only partially decoded by other readers, but this, she suggests, is part of the deal; if others choose to read her work then understanding it is their problem: ‘I would not footnote the black experience for white readers. I wouldn't try to explain what a reader like me already knew.’4 Though less obviously, this is the dilemma of all writing and reading, for strangeness is most vividly felt in relation to food. Part of what Morrison is doing, it seems, is to evoke (eating) experiences in which her characters and a proportion of her readers feel very much at home; those who do not can experience what it feels like to be an outsider.
What it means to feel at home in a culinary tradition—where the practices are understood and some of the meanings attaching to foods are familiar—is important to many women writers. Angela Carter often deliberately locates her fictional characters in relation to archetypal English food, Melanie with tea and cake in The Magic Toyshop, for example, and Wise Children's Chance sisters with ‘cockney’ food: eel pies with mash, bacon sandwiches, sausages rolls. Margaret Atwood's comfort eaters have recourse to simple foods: the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of their childhoods, oatmeal porridge, toast and jam, boiled or poached eggs, apple sauce. These, like the comforting stews, corned beef, mashed potatoes, canned peaches and even Tony's tuna casseroles, are the unsophisticated meals of post-war North America.
For Michèle Roberts, writing between French and English traditions, the question of location within a cuisine is a major theme. But I will come back to this, after considering more broadly why food seems to be of such importance and how Roberts handles it in her novels, for she evokes food almost as a constituent of female sensuousness and contingency, suggesting a knowledge and understanding more visceral than cerebral. The multiplicity of foods' associations is central to her fiction. Certain foods recur: bread, soup, wine, eggs, grapes, lamb, dried fruit, water and fish all have particular weight, incorporating not only existing associations (such as Christian resonances of bread and wine) but significances that are discovered, teased out and elaborated by Roberts, and some that she effectively creates through her poetics.
The egg is a good example, inherently laden with potential for symbolic use. As suggested earlier, the egg represents rebirth, new life, the containment of future possibilities. In its very essence embryonic, its unbroken state none the less suggests completion and wholeness. It is as discrete an item of food as you could hope to find, yet, at the same time, one of the most versatile (an Alice Thomas Ellis character, citing mayonnaise in proof of the existence of God, lists meringues, omelettes, cakes, custards, soufflés, poaching, frying and boiling).5 Out of their shells, raw eggs are slippery, slimy, semi-liquid but lumpy, suggestive of all that is antithetical to the cool shape of the unbroken whole. It is, of course, broken eggs that Michèle Roberts is drawn to focus on in her explorations of femaleness.
In Roberts's The Wild Girl, a rewriting of the story of Mary Magdalene, the ten-year-old Mary, intoxicated by the rhythm and strength of her mother's beating eggs on a summer evening, is impelled to join in somehow, and tosses her basket of eggs in the air so that they ‘crack and splatter in a splendid gold mess on the yard's stone flags’.6 The rhythm lives on in the slaps of her punishment, leading her to discover her gift for songs, but the occasion also suggests a transition, a birth, a dramatic rupture, even a mixing together of elements previously separate—all of which could be taken as prefiguring the disruptive events to come, and especially Mary's embracing of mess and contingency.
Such mess is for Roberts quintessentially female, and the later travails of Mary explore, through the ‘mess’ of myth and dream, the problem of understanding and embracing a womanhood that includes both female spirituality and sexuality. In Roberts's hotpot of women's histories, The Book of Mrs Noah, the Re-Vision Sibyl's cooking meditation, while she listens to evensong on the radio, puts a more physical gloss on the problem, emphasising the Church's traditional discomfort with women's bodies. Imagining the choirboys ‘in frilly white drag’ she senses the chilly misogyny of the male choir:
She breaks egg yolks into a bowl, whips them with sugar and flour, boils them with milk. Beats and beats with her wooden spoon to remove lumps. Lumpy female bodies. Lumpy bellies and breasts. Eggs breaking and splattering, warm mess of sweetness on the sheets, warm flow of sweat and blood. We can't have that in our nice Anglican chapel. Only male chefs please.7
The ‘breaking and splattering’ eggs and ‘mess’ recall the infant Mary, but they also suggest sexual activity and childbirth, rupture and conjunction, breaking up and mingling. In this metaphorical scheme, it is scrambled eggs that Hattie and her lover enjoy after close and trusting coitus in In the Red Kitchen,8 having on first meeting eaten fried eggs on toast, the unshelled and spread out but whole egg forming a sensuous bridge between the potential of an unbreached egg and the intermingled quality of scrambled egg or omelette. (Hattie's lover falls in love with her in response to her appetite). The Re-Vision Sibyl's earthy categorisation of the inviolate Church as antithetical to female ‘mess’ is echoed here, with the image of the enclosed space of the abbey at Fécamp ‘empty yet full as an egg’ (10)—unbroken, presumably.
It is not simply a question of female contingency (an arguably essentialist characteristic in any case, though one suggested both by post-Freudian stress on the pre-Oedipal and sociological analysis of body types outlined in earlier chapters); in focus are a particular female physicality, sensuousness and sensibility, all profoundly related to food. In Daughters of the House the young teenagers Léonie and Thérèse take a secret midnight feast of mouthwatering leftovers up on to the roof:
Fingers greasy with lovely chicken fat, mouth attacking the crisp salty skin, the flesh scented with maize and herbs … They made sandwiches of Roquefort and sliced peach. The cold veal, meat jelly and rice, scooped up with their fingers, was one of the best things, they agreed, they'd ever eaten. Léonie licked Thérèse's fingers to see if they tasted the same as her own …
They toast themselves in unwatered red wine, which they are determined to like although it makes them choke. Not only is this tactile episode an antidote to the terminal illness of Thérèse's mother, Antoinette, and an exquisite bonding (for the girls have recently quarrelled), but a rite of passage, pointedly completed with the onset of Thérèse's menarche. Food, feelings, femaleness, the body's rhythms are all connected.
Elsewhere in the novel, specific foods become a sort of pathetic fallacy. Thérèse struggles with stuffed tomatoes at supper, not only because she hates her puppy fat but because she is bursting with grief and anger at her mother's terminal illness. Tomato and child here uncannily mirror each other. Later, Léonie abandons stripping the tomato plants so as to accompany Thérèse to the cemetery. Tomatoes thus become metonymically associated with death, a connection repeated in the image of the dead rotting ‘quietly, like the dropped fruit you found hidden under the leaves of the tomato plants’ (107).
This is not to suggest that there is any absolute relationship between food, or any particular foods, and women (though there is certainly a semiotics of food in which women may figure). It is rather a question of the way Roberts writes about food conveying profound physical, emotional and imaginative, as well as socially constructed connections. Any food may develop potent associations according to the nature of a particular occasion, or become temporarily imbued with certain characteristics related to a cook's mood or emotions. At the beginning of The Book of Mrs Noah, the Babble-On Sibyl, still mourning a stillborn baby, perceives the salmon she is preparing as ‘dead’, on a silver ‘bier’, anointed with a ‘home-made chrism’ of mayonnaise (28). There are several things going on here. There is the projection of grief onto the fish (not unlike what happens with the stuffed tomatoes). Then there is the connection of dead food with dead bodies, a vegetarian observation (the ethos of this novel being dominantly vegetarian) which also recalls the waste matters of abjection. Finally, there is reference to women's roles in cooking and laying out the dead, roles which are linked to the female body when, towards the end of the novel, it is Noah's wife who must kill, gut and prepare the ‘Gaffer's’ fish for cooking, both because this supper involves the taking of life, and because it is a messy, bloody task that the Gaffer sees in terms of ‘some hideous pagan menstrual rite’ (189). The preparations for cooking thus become something arcane, mysterious and feminine, as well as being associated with death and female sexuality, the smell, mess and menstrual associations of the fish adding to its mythological and Freudian sexual symbolism.
The Gaffer's perception represents the unease of western religion with both femaleness and the messier aspects of incarnation, a species of holy abjection, perhaps. For Roberts is concerned not only with food in relation to women's bodies and lives and sense of self, but with the effects of its various ‘external’ meanings and their cultural resonances. In The Wild Girl she affords lamb very much the religious and teaching significance to be expected in the Judaeo-Christian tradition: following the roast lamb provided by Nicodemus, Jesus recalls the lamb as it had been alive, using this concrete image as the beginning of a lesson about the food of eternal life that will culminate in the first communion with bread and wine. By the end of the book the Passover lamb has become transformed into an anniversary remembrance of the Lord's death, and Jesus is referred to unselfconsciously by his band of followers as the ‘Lamb of God’. Roberts embroiders only a little on the grafting of Christian symbolism onto the pre-existing Jewish associations of lamb, so as to underscore Mary's holistic polemic. As suggested earlier, culturally established meanings adhere to food, whether or not they are overtly evoked. For the lapsing adult Léonie in Daughters of the House, the Christian connection with lamb is vestigial, but the link is still tenuously there: she goes conventionally to Mass every Sunday with her husband and children and afterwards sips her apéritif bathed in the smell of roasting lamb.
In recent years, meat has come to have increasingly less innocent resonances, and Roberts's fiction reflects this too, characterising dead-animal flesh very much in relation to its bodily origin and the revulsion that this may cause. In The Book of Mrs Noah Jack's wife refuses to allow more death after the flood and will not agree to sacrifice a lamb (curiously recalling—or, biblically speaking, anticipating—the terms of Jesus's lesson on the lamb in The Wild Girl). Her stomach confirms her belief: the meat stew nauseates her ‘as though it were boiled up from dead babies’ (85), her ‘body knowledge’ paralleling that of Lessing's Anna Wulf or Atwood's Marian MacAlpin. Thus strengthened and confirmed, and with a dream of the harmony of all living things, she separates from the others and takes to a vegetarian life. Later in the novel, Roberts includes a further dig at the inconsistencies of a body-disciplining, abjection-inducing, animal-slaughtering religiosity as the Correct Sibyl remembers being told to eat up her meat by the nuns: ‘think of the starving millions who'd be glad of your leftover scraps of gristle and fat. Mortify your body. Spoon up the food that revolts you …’ (102).
If the given meanings of meat are contradictory (embracing both redemption and culpability), women's involvement is also shown as ambiguous. Mrs Noah confesses that reading meat recipes used to be her form of pornography, a revelation that calls to mind Jenefer Shute's Life-Size, Angela Carter's The Sadeian Woman and Atwood's comments on the ‘sybaritic voyeurism’ of cookbooks.9 The Re-Vision Sibyl focuses on torture. She begins to avoid butchers' shops, ‘those white-tiled laboratories of death’ with their smell of blood, cruel hooks, ‘sloppy piles of purple liver, dripping red hands fumbling for change in the till’ and ‘dishes of tripe like white knitting’ (130). This last is a poetic image, defamiliarising, even enchanting, but it is also more; along with the hooks, the dripping hands, the reference to meat as ‘corpses’, peered over by ‘terrible women’, it evokes the spectacle of public torture and execution, the knitting a product of some Madame Defarge des animaux. Meat, in this book, is inseparable from death and corruption, while vegetarianism is grounded in an empathetic connection with human flesh. Women are associated with both.
So far, the emphasis has been very much on the material reality of food. Equally important is the symbolic freight of certain foods, how their figurative meanings impact on women and how Roberts uses and manipulates these meanings. The most symbolically saturated food in western culture is probably bread, heralded as the essential food and widely used in metaphor: ‘give us this day our daily bread’; ‘don't take the bread out of someone's mouth’; ‘you must earn some bread’. Christianity is a major source of the symbolic use of bread, most obviously in the association of bread with Christ's body at the last supper and the ensuing Mass or Eucharist, associations that, though usually unexpressed, give bread a special status in western culture. Bread has connotations of intimate communion too; as Michèle Roberts and Alice Thomas Ellis both point out, ‘companion’ means someone with whom bread is consumed (Latin: com = with; panis = bread).
Roberts invokes bread's symbolic and metaphorical associations and she also adds a few of her own. She offers bread as a basic necessity; the story of Meg Hansey in The Book of Mrs Noah has Meg sending her wages home to provide bread for her brothers and sisters, and the narrator of the book recalls surviving on brown bread and carrots as an impoverished student. Roberts also makes a connection with the powerful and sometimes nostalgia-inducing associations of childhood—indeed egg sandwiches act as a sort of Proustian madeleine in both Roberts's and Alice Thomas Ellis's writing. In The Visitation Roberts sketches idyllic after-school teas in the garden, with marmite and cream-cheese sandwiches and chocolate cake, but she also details inedible ‘thin slices of white bread soaked and glued into sandwiches with lemon curd’ in the unappetising paper bag of tea thrown from an upstairs window to Helen in the garden by her mother when they visit her godmother.10
Bread is associated with the boredom of long meals by the children Roberts places in France; in A Piece of the Night and again in Daughters of the House the children make grey bread-sculptures while longing to leave the table. In both novels, however, jam-soaked tartines offer the children comfort as well as sustenance. The childhood associations of certain forms of bread are so strong that when the narrator of In the Red Kitchen sees some ‘modernised’ nuns eat and gossip over tea, their bread and marmite somehow emphasises a childlike quality in their homeliness. Bread has both a literal, stomach-filling and a metaphorically sustaining role, instinctively felt by the unnerved adult Léonie in her longing for fresh bread, butter and apricot jam to ‘wall off the uncertain future. To shore her up.’11 The obverse of this walling up is a walling in; teenage Léonie stuffs her mouth with bread on the day of the Mass for dead Antoinette to separate herself from Thérèse and Louis, but also to prevent her feelings bursting out, a taking of bread that ironically echoes the actions of the Mass she is not allowed to attend.12
If many of these bread associations tend to emphasise the personal and the familial, the combination of bread with wine unfailingly calls up the religious and Roberts explicitly uses the elements of the Catholic Mass, both in relation to its participants (Julie in A Piece of the Night taking the ‘thin white disc’, knowing she ‘must never chew it, for it would be the Christ she gnashes and mutilates’),13 and, more radically, to its creators. In The Wild Girl the ‘new rite’ of bread and wine, flesh and blood, that Jesus invites the mystified disciples to join in at the Last Supper is perceived by Mary Magdalene as a union of the spirit and the word, of understanding and wisdom, of female and male.14 Thus, as well as saturating the ritual, and therefore the bread and the wine, with broadly spiritual meanings, Roberts backdates a politicising of the practice, investing the combined food and drink with contentious significance when she has Mary perceive the prohibition on women offering ‘the supper of bread and wine’ as running directly counter to Christ's teaching.
Mary's experience of wine suggests the two contradictory associations of release and communion. Roberts represents wine in Mary's early life as deeply disturbing to her, ‘smeared on women's mouths like blood’ at a Dionysiac feast (55); it is a token of ecstasy and an unstable communicant, as she discovers to her cost through her own wine-fuelled indiscretion. However, her passage through the underworld, a personal marriage of heaven and hell which contrasts a vision of unity to the separation, hierarchy and murmurs of witchcraft promulgated by the male disciples, is consummated with the drinking of a special wine. And wine, with bread, continues to symbolise communion for the women and their followers in exile, as they combine the elements of their simple lives into a ritualised, almost pantheistic remembrance.
Elsewhere, Roberts inverts existing associations, this time by suffusing wine in its unconsumed state with danger. In Daughters of the House the wine and cider the villagers have hidden in the basement are laden with the associations of German occupation, collaboration, resistance, secrecy and guilt. The wine becomes substituted for the hidden Jews; indeed, the imprisonment of the Jews in the upstairs back bedroom of the house sets them as polar opposites to the concealed bottles: discovered, taken and, as it were, consumed by the Germans. Through the cooperation of the villagers the wine is saved; because—within the village and fracturing its community—the priest is an informer, the Jews and Henri Taillé are slain and, metaphorically and metonymically, wine becomes associated once more with blood, with dissension and with religion. Wine's public significance is imbued by Roberts with connotations of peril and betrayal as much as with the religious associations of communion and fulfilment.
Betrayal is a concept that seems to have a ready affinity with food, though not necessarily with any one particular food. There are various possible explanations. To begin with, both cooking and eating experiences always run the risk of disappointment, of the mild betrayal of hopes and expectations. Eaters are always vulnerable, since eating is an act of trust, and history and literature are full of poisonings that show such trust betrayed. Then, too, there are the betrayals that take place during the course of a meal, a common arena for dissent, especially within families. To go back to the Bible, the Last Supper is so drenched in imminent betrayal it is not surprising that Christ is referred to in terms of the slaughtered Passover lamb. It is only curious that lamb as a food has emerged unmarked by such association.
With some sagacity, Michèle Roberts picks fish for imprinting with betrayal in Daughters of the House. As already seen, fish has psycho-sexual connotations as well as an interesting history of mythological connection with women.15 Fish also has strong Christian resonances, including the use of the Greek word for fish as a mnemonic by early Christians16 and the widespread featuring of fish both literally and in parables in the New Testament. The gospel according to St Mark, in which Jesus recruits the fishermen Simon and Andrew to be ‘fishers of men’, contains the famous miracle of the loaves and fishes (reframed by Roberts in The Wild Girl as a parable of good housekeeping) and in St John's gospel the story of the risen Christ advising Peter and the other luckless fishermen to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, where they are filled, is followed by a meal of fish cooked on a fire of coals on the beach, a sort of spiritual barbecue. There is also, of course, the practice of eating fish on Fridays, a fixture in the post-war Catholic France of Daughters of the House.
On the day that Thérèse's father Louis returns from the clinic after his stroke, the lunchtime mackerel becomes embroiled in the most complex cross-currents of power and desire. Thérèse half-prepares it; robbed by her aunt Madeleine of the chance to get her father's room ready for him, she imagines herself coaxing him to eat, and decides upon a herb sauce as more original and more tempting to his appetite than mayonnaise. But as she cooks, her thoughts are filled with her aunt, rival for her father's attention and, Thérèse feels, usurper of her dead mother's place. The mustard she splashes reminds her of Madeleine's bright yellow dress and reflects her own fiery and unhappy feelings. In the event, Madeleine appropriates the looking-after and coaxing of Louis, feeding and petting him, while Thérèse is driven to enact a revenge on them all, and on her mother for dying, by asking the Bishop for permission to enter a convent as soon as she is sixteen. For, while Léonie and the others have completed the cooking, Thérèse has been glorying in the shrine in the woods and it has become the Bishop's lunch. The sexual associations of the fish (played out in the Electra triangle of Louis, Madeleine and Thérèse) becomes overlaid with the Christian and worldly manifestations of the clergy.
The fish is inscribed with multiple betrayals: of Thérèse's desire for her father; of Louis's hopes for his daughter and Madeleine's for her niece; of the Bishop's pretended humility by his greed—and, more distantly, there is the betrayal of Christ himself. Underlining the food/betrayal connection, it is when the Bishop raises his glass to Thérèse and congratulates her on the fish soup with rouille and the poached mackerel in its delicious sauce that she makes her punishing request. But there is a further and more poignant betrayal over the fish: the betrayal of Léonie by the whole company. She is wrongfully denounced by the curé as mistaken, muddled and, worst of all, ‘half-English’ for having spoken of her own (sincere) vision; here, even her mother speaks not a word in her defence for she is absorbed with stroking and reassuring Louis. After waiting in vain for deliverance, Léonie goes out to fetch the salad.
It could be argued that the food is really incidental to the events here, and indeed nowhere do Roberts's characters explicitly associate fish with betrayal. Nevertheless, the pre-existing associations of fish, along with Roberts's metonymic manipulation, do help to create a figurative density in the five chapters spanned by the cooking and the lunch, so that fish, sexuality, religion and betrayal become, in effect, enmeshed. The interplay is subtle and suggestive like the food itself, and it is only afterwards, when the girls quarrel over the washing up and Thérèse burns her mother's old letters, that accusation becomes overt, as Thérèse cries ‘They've betrayed me. I don't want you as my sister. I want Papa’ (148).
Writers take advantage of the pre-existing associations and significances that food is impressed with and may, like Roberts, elaborate their own, but even common associations are mutable, and foods can take on certain characteristics according to the occasion. The meat pies, sausages, bacon and ham that the nuns eat for breakfast on Sister Veronica's ‘wedding day’ in A Piece of the Night are special by virtue of the fact that the normal diet of the nuns is frugal. Similarly, with Christmas food: in the Victorian Milk household of In the Red Kitchen, the smells of boiling pudding cloth and hot sweet punch are inseparable in Flora's memory from the extravagantly cheerful holly, ivy, candles, red berries and wafting smell of pine from the tree. Christmas teatime is special; there is a whole list of food: ‘slices of boiled ham, bread and butter and watercress, custard tarts sprinkled with nutmeg, fruit cake covered with marzipan stuck with sugar roses, mince pies’ (32-3). At Flora's wedding, along with (then inexpensive) fresh oysters and crab patties, watercress and boiled gammon make their appearance again, cheesecakes closely replace the custard tarts, and the plates, a synecdochal reminder of the Christmas decorations, have ivy leaves around the rims. Luxury in this relatively poor household results not only from the comparative richness of the ingredients and from the inclusion together of dishes that would normally be served as alternatives, but from the association of particular foods with festivity.
Roberts's writing of food is not only a matter of female consciousness and symbolic richness, however. Food provides, as Farb and Armelagos so importantly note, a primary means for the transmission of culture, establishing habits and confirming patterns of behaviour and expectation within the discourses of class, gender, nationality. In his introduction to All Manners of Food, Stephen Mennell stresses that taste is not innate but acquired, sometimes in the face of initial revulsion (as is frequently the case with coffee, caviar or cigarettes, for example).17 This is an anthropological observation, not a psychological one; approved responses are determined by particular groups, rather than the individual, and include amongst others hunger, pleasure, disgust and even (see Farb and Armelagos) intoxication. According to Lévi-Strauss's classic analysis in The Raw and the Cooked, methods of cooking are equally tribally determined (a general principle borne out in this country in the class and cultural differences between, for example, the ‘roast beef of old England’ and boiled beef and carrots).18
The reasons for a group's approval or otherwise of particular foods or cooking methods are in British society inextricably bound up with class, and Roberts reflects this. When, at the Hannibal Dining Rooms in In the Red Kitchen, Flora and her sister choose kidneys and peas and tripe and onions, followed by apple dumpling with custard and suet roll with butter and sugar, they are opting for simple, sustaining meals for working people, redolent of cheerful bluntness and commonsense. Flora scathingly contrasts such food with the middle-class dinner party fare her patrons will eat: ‘while Minny's picking her way through some dainty mess in a French sauce we'll be feasting on a nice bit of boiled beef and carrots’ (74). Boiled beef is an archetypal English working-class dish, as are the suet puddings, steak and kidney pies, mutton chops and treacle tarts favoured by Flora's husband, George (though it must be said not in fact eaten with any regularity in this period by the poorer working class, whose diet was meagre and monotonous). Poor people must eat cheap, readily available foods and those who work physically must be well supplied with fuel, hence the popularity of suet and batter puddings, pies, stews, potatoes and bread. Minnie, by contrast, prefers more ‘delicate’ food. Exclusively depends on rarity and expense, but also on lack of necessity; the most ‘upper-class’ foods are the most unobtainable or expensive and are valued precisely for this reason, especially if they are quite inessential to a healthy diet and thus truly luxuries.
In much of Roberts's writing, enculturation has particular significance for women, because it so often occurs through the preparation as well as eating of food and because it involves special rules. Food preparation provides not only a means of training young women but an inculcation into some of the mysteries of adult female roles and perceptions. In Daughters of the House Roberts constructs a web of social interaction around the ‘hill of beans’ which the two girls help Rose and Victorine to prepare at the kitchen table. The descriptions of topping and tailing or shelling the different varieties of beans are painterly and sensuous, detailing the ‘fresh green smell’ of one sort, the ‘silky inner case’ of another and the pink speckled beans ‘like tiny onyx eggs’, evoking the pleasures of trickling shelled beans between the fingers and speculating about the delicious ways in which they might be cooked (69-70). For Léonie the activity is not only pleasurable on account of the beans themselves, but because she can absorb the conversations of Rose and Victorine. Their talk is largely gossip, but it is hugely important, for it is by means of this food-handling dialogue that they rehearse, process, absorb and come to some kind of understanding of their lives:
While their fingers flew in and out of the earthy heap of beans Rose and Victorine talked. They described village life to each other in intricate detail. They passed it back and forth. They crawled across their chosen ground like detectives armed with magnifying glasses. They took any subject and made it manageable. They sucked it and licked it down to size. They chewed at it until, softened, it yielded, like blubber or leather, to their understanding. They went over it repeatedly until it weakened and gave in and became part of them. Tragedy, disaster; they moulded them into small, digestible portions.
Léonie, silently listening, feels invisible and powerful because the women converse intimately as adults and she is witness to a discourse from which she would normally be excluded. She also feels empowered because she is able to increase her knowledge, her piecemeal understanding of the world, in particular those aspects of it that have previously been concealed from her. The food preparation and the eating metaphor together give the impression of a nourishing and sustaining ambience, the repeated activities providing both the security of familiarity and the thrill of overheard gossip and digestible portions of adult knowledge.
A similarly enlightening process, but this time concerned with a major historical and political issue, occurs over the gâteau à la peau de lait that Léonie helps Victorine to make, for she punctuates the cake-making with questions about the bones found in the woods and about Germans and Jews. This cake, ‘everyone's favourite’ also crops up in ‘Une Glossaire’ (Roberts's French inventory in During Mother's Absence) under the entry for ‘crème’, but in the novel the juxtaposition with the story of the Jews spikes the appetising description with sinister suggestion.19 When Léonie weighs the flour there is a full paragraph describing the scales; scales connote justice, and the little weights, like children ‘herded into line’ (119, my italics), reinforce the implication of injustice. To reinforce the point, when Léonie asks why the Germans hated the Jews, Victorine balances the cake tin on the palm of her hand, frowning at it. In this context, Victorine's beating of the cream, slapping down of the cake tin, greasing it with rapid strokes and clattering it into the oven all somehow suggest, like background noise, the brutality of what had taken place. Even the name of the cake, with its evocation of goods made from human skin, has an echo of Nazi atrocity.
What is most thoroughly and indelibly learned through food is a feeling of belonging and this is something that Roberts, with her own childhood shared between England and France, is acutely aware of. The contrast between the two traditions and the potent familiarity of certain foods, which gives that sense of belonging, reappear several times in her novels. When in A Piece of the Night Julie Fanchot compares the sauces, stocks, wines, eggs and cream of her childhood with the pork pies, fish and chips, bread pudding, haddock and greasy sausages she experiences at Oxford it is the high-minded contempt of the Oxford scholars for food that she remarks. The richness and complexity of French rural middle class gastronomy contrast sharply with a cultivated English intellectual asceticism. Later in the same novel, though, when Julie returns to England, her thoughts are of eggs and bacon and hot tea: home.
The sense of being at home in a culinary tradition is particularly vivid for children, an explanation, in part, for the nostalgic persistence of the remembered food of childhood. The insecurity and divided loyalties of a bilingual (or bi-nutritional) upbringing in two countries are acutely illustrated in Daughters of the House by the conversation between Léonie, Victorine and Thérèse over the making of potato soup, gougère and a cake for supper:
French cakes, Léonie mused: aren't as good when they come out of the oven as English cakes. No currants and raisins. No icing. No hundreds and thousands or anything.
French cooking, Victorine asserted: is the best in the world!
Her blue eyes narrowed to marble chips. She pushed back a long fair curl with one hand. She whacked butter and eggs with her wooden spoon.
Suet pudding with slabs of butter and white sugar, Léonie recited: fried eggs and bacon, fish and chips, kippers, marmalade, proper tea, Eccles cakes.
Thérèse flicked a piece of muddy potato peel across the table.
Everyone knows that English food is terrible, she stated: soggy boiled vegetables in white sauce, overcooked meat, I don't know how your mother could stand it, having to go and eat stuff like that. She stopped being really French, everyone says so. The English are just heathens, aren't they Victorine?
Heathens was a word Victorine applied to foreigners. Who were not Catholics. The people in the famous circus, for example, that she was always telling them about.
Léonie frowned very hard so that she would not cry. She concentrated on her potato, gouging out its deep black eye with the serrated tip of her knife. The potato was called Thérèse.
The skill of young girls in applying verbal torture is keenly caught. Léonie's dreamy speculation, her thoughtful balancing of the one tradition against the other and her dispassionate but judgemental rebuttal of Victorine's sweeping statement (‘proper tea’) are all nullified by Thérèse's dismissal of English cuisine, the attack on Madeleine and the imputation that as part English—and thus guilty by association with ‘terrible’ English food, ‘stuff’—Léonie is simply beyond the pale.
Food, clearly, is a signifier of belonging. Though Léonie might feel herself to be part of two traditions, she is made to feel she belongs to neither, for she is not French (her mother having ‘stopped being really French’) and English cooking is too awful to associate with. When the conversation turns to outsiders—gypsies and then Jews—Thérèse announces that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion, that they were ‘as bad as the communists’ and must be prayed for. As Léonie licks cake mixture from the bowl she remembers going to tea with Jewish school-friends: ‘delicious food. Bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, pumpernickel bread, gherkins, rollmops, chollah bread, pastries rich with poppyseed and cinnamon’ (48). As with the Milk family Christmas, the presence of a list signifies pleasure. Silenced by Thérèse's assertions, however, Léonie denies this memory for its connection with her English self and with a despised ethnicity—thus adding her personal betrayal to the history of the Jews. (It is after this conversation that Léonie's mother tells her about the hidden wine, initiating the metonymy that trades Jews for wine.)
Léonie's denial and self-denial deprive her of richness. The need to belong, to be unequivocally included in the family, to be part of the village, to be French, impels her to deny membership of a larger community, and, indeed, to deny the knowledge offered by the voices of the dead Jews in the back bedroom, until Thérèse's return forces her to reexamine the past. The irony is that she cannot become wholly French either, for she is who she is. As a child even her palpable enjoyment of eating is impaired by her knowledge that it is English eating, that she eats too fast and doesn't adequately savour the food. For, Roberts suggests, alimentary belonging really matters and these childish claims do not go away; when Thérèse returns and Léonie claims to cook just like Victorine, Thérèse muses to herself, ‘You think you've laid a real French supper … but you haven't got it quite right. I know that. But you don't. You grew up in England, don't forget’ (15).
If food's associations are generally culturally specific and to a large extent understood, the (sometimes convoluted) surrounding conventions, taboos and manners carry even more weight. When the adult Thérèse, returning to the house, doesn't eat much of the leek and potato soup, roast veal and petits pois that Léonie has cooked for her, claiming she is used to eating simply, Léonie, feeling rejected and disempowered, points at Thérèse with her fork, commenting on how thin Thérèse has become, and asking if she is ill. While pointing a fork is not quite as nakedly aggressive as pointing a knife, it is certainly threatening, and is invariably considered to be bad manners. In her cultural history of eating, Margaret Visser makes a great point of the fact that meal times are so hedged around with etiquette precisely because of their potential violence.20 Forks share the prohibition on pointing; they may be less threatening, but are rude by virtue of having been in our mouths. The fork here recalls Léonie's toying murderously with the cooking knives while waiting for Thérèse to arrive; her pointing with a fork is aggressive and accusatory, though it does make some concession to the proprieties.
Léonie and Thérèse are jeunes filles bien élevées. The girls may play with their leftover bread at the table, but they obey the bourgeois rules, talking to each other in low voices, never interrupting, speaking when they are spoken to and remaining seated until dismissed. Dinner time rules are of great importance in western bourgeois culture; over the centuries there has been a progressive imposition of spatial boundaries at table, (individual plates, upright chairs, keeping the elbows tucked in, not taking food from another's plate), with the result that conversation has become the major or even sole channel for expressions of community and interconnection (or indeed polite animosity). Conversation, so heavily loaded, is therefore hedged round with protocols concerning content, vocabulary, precedence and the participation or otherwise of children.
Léonie chafes at the restrictions and the conventions, fantasising about the freedoms she will indulge in when she grows up: she will eat fast, read at the table, talk loudly and lengthily, lay the table as she pleases without being corrected for laying the cutlery the wrong way up. There are two important things about this fantasy. As with the accepted symbolism and associations of certain foods, so here the humour and poignancy of the fantasy depend upon the reader's appreciation of the conventions and on the foregrounding of rules of behaviour that might otherwise be taken for granted. The restrictions under which Léonie suffers draw attention to differing conventions in table-laying and to a locally fierce adherence to these conventions as ‘correct’. From the child's point of view, these rules are restrictive, even oppressive, and this raises the second point: instilling a code of manners, especially where the quiet behaviour of children or young women is concerned, is a matter of discipline, control and the cultivation of conformity. Polite behaviour is characterised by the difficulty of what is attempted, such as sitting very upright or balancing food on forks, and the appearance of effortlessness in actions which in fact require considerable physical control.
Good manners are highly conventionalised, as anthropological research, etiquette manuals and almost every travel book testify. Ostensibly functioning to facilitate social ease and order, manners are ideally based on awareness of and consideration for others, but underlying this is the reality that, if we share the same standards—as with rituals, eating customs and food preferences—we feel secure. The conventions work two ways, however: they may facilitate, ease and comfort, but they can also exclude and put people in their place—as both Good Behaviour and Daughters of the House illustrate. The internalised rules of eating behaviour effectively function as a means of maintaining the status quo, which often means an inferior status for women and children, though the rules also reinforce other hierarchies to do with family, community, class and privilege.
In practice and certainly in literature), the status quo is frequently assailed, at least locally, through manipulation or even outright challenge of the conventions. Foucault's model of power as not monolithic but manifested through a network of ‘micro-powers’ suggests how this works.21 Every interaction with the various discursive practices surrounding food and eating (including ‘good manners’) allows the possibility of challenge and therefore of shifts in overall power relations. This is both a danger for the unwary and an opening for the opportunist. When both (or all) parties are aware of a struggle for supremacy, it may become a linguistic game, participants manipulating the particular discourse in attempts to gain advantage. There is an element of this in some of Roberts's writing—baiting the Gaffer in Mrs Noah, the verbal skirmishes of Léonie and Thérèse—but Alice Thomas Ellis brings such struggles to centre stage.
The exercise of power through food is, traditionally at least, a peculiarly female activity (which is not to say there have been no powerful male chefs). Cooking, like sex, has been considered a mode through which women can express their feelings, rewarding the husband with a special dish, or producing a late or unpleasant dinner as a punishment. As suggested earlier, too, the cook is rendered powerful through the eater's trust. As Visser points out, poison is a female weapon in all folklore, whereas men have knives—emblems of the private and the public respectively. Ellis's fiction fully occupies this private, female domain, which it takes for granted as the most important (to the extent of marginalising men and generally reducing them to ciphers). She thoroughly annexes the lethal power of the cook. Indeed, her characters happily speculate about invisible methods of despatch: tigers' whiskers in the case of Mrs Munro in The Skeleton in the Cupboard (89) and various methods of poisoning by Aunt Irene in The 27th Kingdom (104). The power gained even in the imagination provides a source of self-satisfaction not always easy to categorise. These extreme solutions may be fantastic, but the covert sway and manipulative skills of Ellis's kitchen impresarios are far from illusory.
The power and power games that Ellis details have several strands. There is the food itself, its content, preparation and serving; there is the manipulation, or sabotage, of the associations attaching to foods as discussed earlier; there are linguistic play and battles involving particular customs and codes of manners. Within the various power displays and struggles can be detected a plethora of personal motivations, assumptions and prejudices, as well as revelations concerning class, culture, gender and value. Power is not merely oppressive, imposed from above, a means of maintaining a fixed and unthreatening social order, but positive; according to Foucault, it produces reality, and is inseparable from knowledge.22 Power and knowledge are self-evidently mutually necessary, not only for the wielder of power or dominant party, but for whoever subverts power (and thus claims it).
Ellis's use of food, though in a manner quite unlike Roberts's, is potent, its effectiveness relying on a degree of implied knowledge often hidden from the other characters, and not always spelt out for the reader. The pre-cricket match dinner in The Sin Eater, a planned sabotage, achieves its effect both through linguistic voodoo (the main course conjuring ‘out for a duck’) and because it is a disingenuously lavish meal, with excessively rich ingredients: ‘Evidence of ill-will lay openly, but unrecognisably, on the table: numerous egg shells, orange peel, chocolate wrappers, heavy cream, oil and butter and sherry, three ducks thawing flaccidly on a charger in a cold pink pool of blood.’23 There is no mistaking the intention here, nor the (sardonically narrated) concealment: ‘While there were many ways of killing a cat, the easiest was to choke it to death with cream: it involved no coercion, no show of force, and even looked like kindness’ (99).
The appropriation of power often involves manoeuvres that are tacit, covert, unrecognisable except to the initiate, and that rely upon the major English sanction of embarrassment. Closely allied to shame, the effects of embarrassment can be both physical (blushing, stammering, trembling, nausea) and psychological (ostracism, humiliation, wretchedness). It is thus a highly effective form of social coercion. Ellis's gameplayers, who frequently use impeccably good manners as a front for being diabolical, seek to create embarrassment in their victims by outdoing them in a fastidious conformity to accepted etiquette, by parody, or by flagrant transgression, reinventing the rules for themselves and carrying this off by sheer bravura. The one taboo they invariably break is the injunction not to behave oddly or draw attention to another's oddity (a solicitude eccentrically evident in the many versions of the etiquette story of a host who drinks the water in the finger bowl so as not to embarrass a guest who had ignorantly done so).
Rose, in Ellis's first novel The Sin Eater, is positively dedicated to drawing attention to what she perceives as other people's oddity, and embarrassing those she sees as offenders. Her chief weapons are culinary theatricality and parody. She prepares prawn cocktail, steak with decorative chips and pavlova for a Midlands client of her husband, a ‘nice man’ who doesn't realise he is being mocked. She gives boiled eggs to Cousin Teddy when his head is bandaged following an accident, so that he appears, metonymically, to be cracking his own skull. Most ambitiously, she organises a faintly anachronistic plebeian post-cricket match tea complete with sandwich spread, meat and fish paste, sausage rolls, packet biscuits, swiss rolls and tea from an urn. She only regrets her action when the ‘gentry’ arrive, for whom she would prefer to have provided a 1930s tea, as self-conscious as its description implies: ‘a cake disguised as a tiny cricket pitch and little rolled sandwiches with flags describing their contents’ (152), or a grand formal Edwardian tea on the lawn to frighten her sister-in-law Angela.
Rose wishes to frighten Angela because she perceives her as a self-serving, self-righteous and stupid snob. She contrives to mock, anger or discomfort her on every eating occasion, parodying her with damp cucumber sandwiches and unsettling her by switching from clichéd ‘drawing room’ cups to thick white china which make Angela think, uncomfortably, of a ‘lorryman's caff’. Such instances are accompanied by a constant but subtle baiting about class, religion, nationality, permissiveness—general subjects, but each of which pertains directly to Angela. Angela is uneasily aware that Rose is goading her, but does not take full measure of the parody and pastiche, and neither does she have the wit to play Rose at her own game. The purchase Rose achieves, and her unfailing ability to manipulate Angela's responses, reside precisely in this gap; Rose's detachment permits her to see and play upon English upper-middle-class mores without herself feeling controlled by them, whereas Angela is fully defined by her class-bound lifestyle.
Rose's combination of wit and unscrupulousness nevertheless require, theatrical as she is, an audience that has some grasp of what she is up to (a condition that applies equally to Ellis's readership). The over-excited young visitors at the pavilion tea, for example, are beyond Rose's control, protected by their own innocence and inexperience; they do not understand the nuances of ritual, tradition or expected behaviour, and so cannot read the cricket tea as we are induced to and as Ermyn and one or two of the older middle-class visitors do. The common ground here is missing; these young people are unembarrassable.
So what are all Rose's efforts for? Why is she dedicated to catering as parody, self-display and the subversive exercise of power? Ellis twice supplies a cook's agenda that provides part of the answer. In The 27th Kingdom Aunt Irene is described as ‘an artist … [who] needed an appreciative audience’ (14) and for whom people form part of the ‘raw materials’ in her domestic and culinary art. Rose, similarly, is: ‘greedy and clever and cynical, qualities essential to a good cook, and sometimes she used her ingredients like a witch, as social comment, to do mischief, or as a benefice’ (17). Ellis's cooks' purpose is thus partly aesthetic but also involves social comment, wicked satirical fun and endorsement of certain specific values and relationships, such as a mother's care for her children.
Rose's more particular motives are also hinted at: an outsider by virtue of her Catholicism, her Irishness and the finer gradations of class (she is the daughter of a vet), she enacts a kind of revenge, confirming her exclusion from and sense of superiority to the secular and class-bound English. She insults Angela's husband, implying a lack of manliness and the failure of both aesthetics and nutrition in his background: ‘I expect he had rickets. So many upper-middle-class kiddies did, because their nannies fed them on rice pudding and boiled cod’ (51). And through her catering, she manipulates people into behaving like caricatures of themselves, thereby manifesting the most unlovely aspects of English upper-middle-class manners. The negative, repressive, self-selecting, exclusive and sometimes simply preposterous nature and effects of such manners are thus highlighted, taking Rose's ‘purpose’ distinctly beyond the personal.
Two points are worth adding here. The first is that Rose, who refuses to go back to work or education, is portrayed as relishing the highly domestic power she wields; through cooking and catering she increases her dominion and transforms a disempowered position into a nearly invincible one. The second point is that her battle with Phyllis, the (Welsh) family retainer, is quite different from her baiting of the upper classes, since both dislike the English, are unembarrassable and unscrupulous, have strong maternal (or grandmaternal) feelings, and are eerily kindred spirits, inexplicably laughing together in the kitchen at night. These two engage in a contest whose unspoken rules they equally understand.
Many of the conflicts centred on cooking, food and eating in Ellis's writing seem to revolve around class, but class seen not so much from a political as an ethical or moral point of view. Part of what she draws attention to is a singular lack of awareness displayed in some upper-middle- or upper-class manners, the mindlessly arrogant assumptions that allow a young girl visitor to demand, ‘Well, I want something to eat … Where's the little man with the goodies?’ (85), or an Angela to claim complacently, ‘I think it's marvellous how class distinctions have completely gone’ (107). Such attitudes betray a thoughtless, smug and self-deceiving perception of social structures. Angela's mother can play at slumming by eating jellied eels at a street party without losing any of her own social prestige because of a profound confidence that an increase in equality will not require her to relinquish anything of her own privilege and position (the inverse, incidentally, of Lessing's May Quest, who cannot afford to slum precisely because of her psychological and economic insecurity).
With a perception of social structures and power relations as static, it is easy enough to cling to customs and precepts that reinforce the status quo. Rose's rule-breaking eating occasions are designed so that conventions will not protect, for example when she breaks with the tradition of an exclusive pre-cricket match lunch, opting instead to serve a buffet in the kitchen. The effect of this kind of lunch is to erase the distance essential to the maintenance of class distinctions, a distance so constituted that if the upper classes condescend to socialise, the lower orders must nevertheless know their place. Not only does this lunch satisfyingly antagonise Angela, it also reveals the pettiness and stupidity of meanly class-bound behaviour, as Jack and Gomer, smartly dressed in their whites and aware of the special occasion, are nevertheless at home and quite comfortable, blithely impervious to both Angela's acid observations and Michael's patronising sociability. The class battles in Ellis's writing are by no means clear-cut, just as they are not necessarily political (at least in the sense of class war). Mutual game-playing is a common form of middle- or upper-class power struggle, acted out through the medium of ‘good’ behaviour or polite manners, and it is apparent in several of Ellis's novels (as it is in Good Behaviour). Lydia does it in Unexplained Laughter, as does Lili in the trilogy, in which Mrs Munro is also tempted to; Kyril, in The 27th Kingdom, is annoyed that Valentine will not play, so unaware is she of his worldly game.
In the same novel, Aunt Irene and her appallingly genteel cleaning lady Mrs Mason engage in a running warfare; Mrs Mason, as acutely aware of position as Angela, is at pains to demonstrate that she is middle class (impoverished maybe, but not really a charlady), and Aunt Irene that she is above class (though possibly of grand descent). Once again, the struggle is played out through food:
Mrs Mason was having a little snack when they got back home. She had put a lace tray cloth on the end of the oaken kitchen table and chosen a Spode plate and matching cup and saucer to place her biscuit on and drink her tea from. She behaved with grotesque politeness, putting down her biscuit after each nibble and her cup after each sip and folding her hands in her lap like a child pretending to eat and drink.
Aunt Irene felt like pulling out the tray cloth and jumping on it. She ate because she liked eating, not as a demonstration of manners: sometimes she put her elbows on the table and waved her fork to emphasise a point. Now she took a biscuit and bit it with her right-hand teeth, keeping her mouth open and causing crumbs.
Even the language used to represent Mrs Mason's actions is deliciously and horribly genteel: the ‘oaken’ table and ‘placing’ of her ‘little snack’ and the fact that she ‘nibbles’ and ‘sips’, whereas Aunt Irene is described in much more robust terms. The battle represented here is between two displaced women whose relationship is hardly at all defined by the respective roles of employer and domestic help. Mrs Mason loses no opportunity to inconvenience or annoy Aunt Irene or enhance her own position (telling the tax man she is Aunt Irene's ‘housekeeper’, for example), just as Aunt Irene does everything she can to distance herself from Mrs Mason, deciding to cook a daube rather than cold food for her party, for example, simply because Mrs Mason has suggested ‘a cold table’ (‘“Cold table” indeed! It sounded so hideously refeened’ (98)).
When it comes to working-class characters there is undoubtedly an element of stereotyping in Ellis's women—the clever char with a heart of gold—but this is offset by instances of criminal behaviour, malice, stupidity, appalling taste, involvement in the game-playing, and the fact that nobody is immune from Ellis's satirical and ultimately misanthropic eye. Untrammelled by class pretensions, her cleaning women are frequently the most perceptive and sensible of her characters, and are equally the most robust cooks. The watchful Phyllis in The Sin Eater, diligent dispenser of pastry, corned beef, bacon, eggs, fat tomatoes, bread and cakes for her son and grandson, is the first to identify Michael's homosexual relationship with Gomer. In The 27th Kingdom, Mrs O'Connor, who makes ferociously strong restorative tea, efficiently doses the Major's DTs with concentrated orange juice, recommends hangover remedies and recognises Aunt Irene's horse-meat stew with a down-to-earth commonsense and generosity, is also the first person to perceive and revere Valentine's miraculous powers. Edith, in The Other Side of the Fire, who despises Claudia's purposeless lifestyle and fancy food, and herself provides for a husband who demands traditional working-class food (three meals a day, all prompt and all with meat, not forgetting Yorkshire pudding on Sundays), is the only person to realise that something is going on between Claudia and Philip. Her perception itself is powerful; Claudia reacts by cooking ‘bangers and mash’ for lunch, as though metonymically influenced for the moment by Edith's plain cooking and ungarnished self.
Edith displays the same hearty contempt for Claudia that almost all Ellis's working-class characters express for the ineffectual middle classes, and she is triumphantly delighted to see a fall in standards when Claudia buys a frozen shepherd's pie. There is a kind of complicity, however, between such characters and the more raffish and rebellious middle-class women: Rose and Phyllis in The Sin Eater, Aunt Irene and Mrs O'Connor in The 27th Kingdom, Mrs Munro and Mrs Raffald in Skeleton in the Cupboard. Mrs Raffald and Mrs Munro, in particular, have an equality and an intimacy that Mrs Munro recognises with satisfaction would be deemed shocking by the prevailing mores of middle-class Croydon.
It is the particularity of the tastes, rituals and rules of behaviour of any exclusive group, however small or large, that is likely to give rise to friction and awkwardness in dealings with other groups in the community. Ellis states this explicitly through the partially reformed Lydia in Unexplained Laughter: it is ‘the constraints of formality, the manners and mores of different groups that caused alienation’.24 The suspicions and hostilities between Welsh and English in The Sin Eater and Unexplained Laughter are similar to class inasmuch as discord and embarrassment may result from social or cultural expectations as well as from deliberate actions. Discomfort, tension and conflict can even be so common as to become embedded in occasions themselves, rather as symbolic meanings are imprinted on foods. This chapter will conclude with three such eating occasions: afternoon tea, Christmas dinner and the picnic.
Afternoon tea is potentially the most awkward eating occasion, especially in English culture, and one which writers have frequently exploited for maximum social unease. Oscar Wilde's teatime battle between Cecily and Gwendolin in The Importance of Being Ernest is the very pattern of a mealtime conversational struggle for supremacy. Though afternoon tea has fallen from its formal height at the beginning of the twentieth century, it has always been what Angela Carter acutely describes as ‘that uniquely English meal, that unnecessary collation’, and Ermyn, in The Sin Eater, muses that the Devil presides over the tea table, since it is a less necessary and thus less convivial event than supper.25 Afternoon tea is the most public and artificial of meals since its function has more to do with social intercourse than nourishment, and its rituals of tea-pouring, cake-passing and polite conversational exchanges are not really conducive to intimacy. Thus Aunt Irene's conventional friends in The 27th Kingdom hold the view that eating with ‘original’ people is only permissible at tea time. Even where children are concerned, tea is the most public occasion, the time at which they may eat in friends' homes, which is why Ermyn's bleak childhood teas in The Sin Eater set her insistently apart, rendering her almost dysfunctional; when she arrives at the Plâs at the beginning of the novel, she sits just out of reach of the tea-table.
If its function is very often to do with children, afternoon tea is nevertheless associated very much with women. The combination of female space, ritualised intercourse and the (literary) association of teatime with battle almost prescribe certain kinds of exchange. Both the overtones of formality and veiled hostility are in evidence at the uncomfortable afternoon tea Ellis provides in the trilogy for the elderly Mrs Munro, her unwilling daughter-in-law-to-be and Lili. Ellis does not develop the tensions into any kind of sparring: this particular tea party is a disaster because so much is unspoken. Its silences and lacunae instigate action, however, as the unspoken undercurrents begin the process that draws Lili and Mrs Munro seditiously together, gives Mrs Munro licence to indulge in drinking and smoking and leads to Lili's exhibitionist rescue of Margaret from marriage to the odious Syl.
Mrs Munro's ultimate desire in The Skeleton in the Cupboard is to ‘ride across the boundaries which separated the done from the not-done thing’,26 a phrase that presupposes a thorough understanding of which is which. What is ‘done’, approved, is conventional, the proprieties depending once again on class, ethnicity, nationality, family and culture. As Mrs Munro's tea party demonstrates, what is ‘done’ may even contain or herald its opposite. By sketching the ritualised eating occasions, Ellis demonstrates how they are ideally constructed and suggests some of their cultural freight; she measures and tests her characters against the events as they are culturally conceived and holds these constructions up to scrutiny in the light of the pressures they bring to bear on women's lives.
With the exception of weddings, the most pressurised occasion in British culture—with widespread and deeply embedded rituals and traditions, some religious, some commercially induced and some culinary—is Christmas. The core traditions—cards, tree, presents, Christmas dinner—are common to Christians and the irreligious, and are surprisingly consistent. The eating of a roast turkey or other large bird or joint with traditional trimmings, followed by a dark, fruity and spicy pudding, is so well-established that mass catering (schools, hospitals and canteens) almost always features a ‘Christmas dinner’. Obviously, there are local variations, but there is an entire etiquette of festive behaviour, a compound of social and family traditions dictating who should carve, who be served first, how children should behave, when crackers should be pulled and so on. As with the ceremony of the main meal of the season, so with the whole Christmas package, from ritualistic shopping to tacit expectations of over-indulgence.
The combination of Christian remembrance with pagan celebration has become gradually altered and overlaid—to the point of cliché—with commercial excess, greed, inertia and indulgence, and this is at the core of Ellis's The Birds of the Air. Not only is the religious element of Christmas largely overlooked, she suggests, but egalitarian carnivalesque is reduced to the hollow gestures of parties, family politics and petty drunkenness. Ellis has a Catholic agenda that is not part of my concern here, but she also sees Christmas in secular terms as a time at which resentments and disputes come to a head; there is certainly nothing of the nostalgic charm Michèle Roberts evokes in In the Red Kitchen, though a similar regard for appropriate celebration may well underlie both representations. Social intercourse in Ellis's Christmas world is simultaneously forced and restricted, by culturally sanctioned custom, internalised expectations, commerce and, once again, the fine discriminations of class.
Christmas involves expectations that cannot possibly all be met and which place particular burdens on those who cook or entertain; both the expectations and the burdens are in evidence in The Birds of the Air. Office parties or their equivalent also often provide unwelcome revelations. Barbara organises two Christmas gatherings: pre-lunch drinks for a few of Sebastian's undergraduates, and a party for his colleagues; both occasions represent aspects of her duty to her husband. The first is part of the ‘relentless hospitality’ shown to unfortunate or unpopular students who have not gone away or home and holds no pleasure for any of its participants. The party for Sebastian's colleagues is for Barbara striated with anxiety and apprehension about her teenage son Sam's looks and behaviour and filled with hospitable obligations towards people who seem quite alien to her. To cap it all, she witnesses her uncharacteristically ‘playful’ and ‘lascivious’ husband Sebastian feeding a piece of turkey to a colleague's wife, thus learning through food of his extramarital affair.
Expectation, ritual and duty here clash with shock and transgression; amidst the sharply satirised exchanges, through which the adolescent Sam promenades as a mute critic with his tape recorder, Barbara strives to dissemble, to perform her expected part, to be like all the others who seem to be enjoying themselves. She conflates infidelity with rudeness, gasping at her own temerity when she pretends that a guest's smoke is responsible for her tears: ‘Oh, she thought, I wasn't brought up like that. I was brought up to be faithful and polite’ (34). Barbara is paralysed by the inability to divorce her feelings from the rules of behaviour she has thoroughly internalised, and it falls to her son Sam to disrupt the party by broadcasting the unflattering and hugely amplified tape-recorded conversations of the guests, thus loudly and rudely expressing his mother's feelings through his own distress.
A number of factors apparent within this party recur on Christmas Day, including a foolish adherence to preconceived expectations of what the occasion will be like. Ellis provides a typically unstable mix. Barbara's mother, Mrs Marsh, is determined to have a traditional ‘family’ Christmas complete with snow and everyone being cheerful and nice to each other, a foolish but culturally endorsed fantasy. The family circumstances are particularly inauspicious: Barbara's grieving sister Mary simply doesn't care about the occasion; Barbara herself is fully prepared for her mother's expectations, but, still stunned by the knowledge of Sebastian's infidelity and perpetually anxious about Sam's nonconforming adolescent behaviour, is tranquillized; Sebastian, like Mary and indeed Sam, wonders rather desperately how he will survive the few days; Sam, in adolescence preternaturally sensitive to the pain and discomfort of others, can only manifest his feelings disruptively.
The comedy is black. Mrs Marsh is propelled—by loss and a pained inability to adapt to change, by a sense of motherly duty, by awareness of social position and by a total absorption of cultural expectations—to pursue her ideal of benevolent Christmas. Mindful of the proprieties, she is almost overwhelmed by the logistical difficulties of organising such a disparate, disaffected and increasingly inebriated group of individuals through the lunch, tea and evening drinks she has planned. Despite the authority vested in her as senior member of the family, mother and hostess, she has no power at all. There is a parallel here with the limits of Rose's power in The Sin Eater: the very sad (Mary) or the very drunk (Barbara) may be immune to constraints policed by embarrassment.
The social dysfunction resulting from a combination of unexpressed negative feelings, alcohol and a paralysing expectation of conformity to polite good manners is so acute that Mrs Marsh is reduced to coercion, announcing for example that ‘lunch must now be served’ (110, my italics). Ellis neatly illustrates that power depends on others' compliance and that people generally expect everybody else to conform, even if they grant themselves licence. Mrs Marsh, after learning of Sebastian's infidelity, takes the pepper mill from him to show him how to use it, grinding a lot of pepper over his food in a childishly transgressive act of judgement.
These apparently decisive actions are, like Barbara's ineffectualness, a function of Mrs Marsh's disempowerment and her frustration that she cannot control events. Unable to regulate the quantity of wine being consumed, she frets about timing and serves the pudding in a spirit more chivvying than generous: ‘She dumped glass bowls in front of everyone, splashing a few spots of freshly melting brandy butter on Seb's cardigan. He dabbed at it, tutting, instead of ignoring it as a proper man would have done’ (120). She even neglects to offer the Stilton and biscuits, deciding resentfully that they would make too many crumbs and rationalising to herself that everyone has had enough to eat anyway. The kitchen, too, is beyond her control, cluttered as it is with part-filled dishes and glasses and the disordered evidence of her neighbour Evelyn's slovenly helping. Mrs Marsh is worn out: by the cooking, the anxiety, the desire to make everything ‘nice’ and the impossibility of realising such niceness. She is exhausted by the responsibility. For although she wants to be in command she does not have Rose's interest in power; she feels responsible for everybody. As their hostess, their temporary provider, she owes them a duty of care. Aunt Irene, in The 27th Kingdom, has a similar view: ‘once you'd fed people you had admitted responsibility, like saving a life’ (53).
This is a moralist's perception of the cook's role, diametrically opposed to that of Rose's power games and closely related to models of nurturing. Responsibility is undoubtedly connected with power but the two may operate independently, and indeed conflictingly. Women's sense of responsibility for others' needs (as daughters, wives, mothers and carers), for example, is arguably a construct of patriarchal power. Morality may conveniently be invoked, in other words, for political manipulation. While Ellis's novels display a lively sense of morality, her more feisty protagonists are at pains to distinguish true goodness from commonly approved and regulated behaviour, to shun a disempowering, conventionally ascribed responsibility. These women's self-conscious manipulation of the roles of guest, hostess and cook, and their disruption of accepted mores represent a refusal of the burdens Mrs Marsh unwittingly takes upon herself and a rejection of the controlling effects of conventional good manners; their interest is directed firmly towards empowering themselves.
Lydia in Unexplained Laughter is just such a protagonist, eschewing responsibility for her guest, Betty, who herself takes on the cooking and cleaning in a spirit of ‘looking after’ the lovesick and jilted Lydia. This is not because Lydia cannot cook (her culinary skill is sketched by reference to her bread sauce: ‘the best bread sauce in the world with a great deal of butter, nutmeg and black pepper’)27 but because she reacts by opting out in the face of Betty's domesticated earnestness. While she recognises that Betty is really much nicer than she is, Lydia nevertheless indulges her own spite and pleasure in power in true Ellis game-playing fashion, baiting and manipulating her guest. Power and responsibility are split: Lydia wields and seizes power; Betty assumes responsibility. The one occasion on which she demurs is in the preparation of Lydia's pheasant, a refusal which, given the lack of any such request from Lydia, underscores her self-appointed role.
Lydia is aware of goodness, both common humanity and the fierce unworldly innocence of the trainee priest Beuno, whom she carnivorously labels ‘not for human consumption’ (82). The trouble is that behaving badly is more fun. It is also more empowering. This is why Lydia cannot resist the idea of staging a picnic near the priapic rock drawings of Dr Wyn, to his potential disgrace. She is ambivalent, however, and almost immediately decides to make it a ‘nice picnic’. She vacillates between several positions: indulging her spiteful desire, wishing she had not conceived of the picnic at all, realising that she can have it as an ordinary picnic and seeing her mischief-making plan as sad and trivial by comparison with the prospect of engaging in battle with her ex-lover Finn. If Lydia's attempts to be good represent responsibility and her succumbing to mischief-making a pursuit of power, then the two can be seen as fluctuating throughout her approach to the picnic. Betty, by contrast, is all responsibility, making quiche and cake, boiling eggs, mashing sardines, slicing bread and tweaking and prodding at Lydia's conscience.
The etiquette of picnics is quite unlike that of other meals. Normal rules and hierarchies are overthrown as people sit on the ground and eat with their fingers; the possibilities of gaining power through parodic manipulation in the Rose manner are limited. The event is nevertheless orchestrated to some extent, and Lydia does decide upon and take credit for the venue which, in a concession to goodness and responsibility, is situated away from the rock drawings. She even makes an effort to keep a desultory conversation going, though Betty has to come to the rescue by producing the food.
By the time the food is eaten, however, Lydia has relinquished both responsibility and power over the picnic through quarrelling with Finn, the group has begun to disperse and Dr Wyn and April have gone off for a walk in the direction of the rock drawings. A vestigial sense of culpability makes Lydia cry ‘Hell’, but it is too late. Her original abandoned plan is now fulfilled so successfully that she even feels sorry for the doctor, and she regains control by ‘mercifully’ releasing him with the announcement that it will soon be time to go. In charge once more, she orchestrates the post-picnic leave-taking. Ever adept at engineering slight shifts of power to her advantage, she also stifles the possibility of a relationship between Finn and Betty by ‘blessing’ them and smiling knowingly. Even though she offends all those closest to her, she is able to reclaim both power and affection through her intimate understanding of what is expected, by her unstinting manipulation and as a result of occasional spontaneous benevolence; an easy moment's sincere warmth at parting secures Betty's loyal goodwill. Power, for this hostess, is a sustaining game.
See Peter Farb and George Armelagos, Consuming Passions: the Anthropology of Eating (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980).
Toni Morrison, Beloved (London: Picador, 1988), 137, and Sula (London: Triad Grafton, 1982), 33, 104, 113.
‘A Terrible Privacy’, interview with James Wood, The Guardian (April 18 1992), Weekend section, 5.
Alice Thomas Ellis, The 27th Kingdom (London: Penguin, 1982), 84.
Michèle Roberts, The Wild Girl (1984; London: Minerva, 1991), 13.
Michèle Roberts, The Book of Mrs Noah (1987; London: Minerva, 1993), 26-7.
Michèle Roberts, In the Red Kitchen (1990; London: Minerva, 1991), 115.
Margaret Atwood, The CanLit Foodbook: from Pen to Palate—a Collection of Tasty Fare (Toronto: Totem Books, 1987), 1.
Michèle Roberts, The Visitation (1983; London: The Women's Press, 1986) 24.
Michèle Roberts, Daughters of the House (London: Virago Press, 1992), 170. French bread is apparently more comforting than English.
Cf. Josie in Jenefer Shute's Life-Size (London: Mandarin, 1993), 209.
Michèle Roberts, A Piece of the Night (London: The Women's Press, 1978), 29
Margaret Visser describes the Mass as crossing all boundaries and spanning all meanings, and lists many examples of both. Unlike Roberts but like the Church, the boundary between male and female is one she omits to mention. Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners (1991; London, Penguin, 1993), 37.
See Robert E. Bell, Dictionary of Classical Mythology: Symbols, Attributes, Associations (Santa Barbara, CA, and Oxford: ABC-Clio, 1982) and Betty Radice, Who's Who in the Ancient World (London: Penguin, 1973).
Representing the words Jesus Christ God's Son Saviour.
Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985).
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, vol. I (1964; London: Jonathan Cape, 1970).
Michèle Roberts, ‘Une Glossaire/A Glossary’ in During Mother's Absence (London: Virago, 1993), 131-81.
Visser, The Rituals of Dinner, 90-9.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol. I, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1979). See especially part 4, chapter 2, ‘Method’.
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), 194. See also Alan Sheridan, Michel Foucault: the Will to Truth (London: Tavistock, 1980).
Alice Thomas Ellis, The Sin Eater (1977: Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 101.
Alice Thomas Ellis, Unexplained Laughter (1985; London: Penguin, 1986), 138.
Angela Carter, Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings (1992; London: Vintage, 1993) 55.
Alice Thomas Ellis, The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1988; London: Penguin, 1989), 127.
Alice Thomas Ellis, Unexplained Laughter (1985; London: Penguin, 1986), 95.
Sheena Joughin (review date 8 June 2001)
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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, midinettes, “red words of wanting and desperation” and cafés “scented with vanilla and hot sugar and yeast”. The characters fall mainly into two categories; they are either women dressed in jeans and black leather who drive MGs and “terrify” men, or delicate flowers who celebrate their difference from the bludgeoning patriarchy by, for example, cherishing the tissue paper that fruit-packers use. The vocabulary is often recondite, as a gesture against sloppy autobiographical writing perhaps; espaliered apples, furbelows, a domed baldaquin, a tourmaline and a hypsipyle are duly noted.
There is an abundance of food, which glistens as moist and silky as photographs in Sunday supplements. “Fat pink and white asparagus with hollandaise, new broad beans in cream sauce, tarragon eggs in aspic, artichokes, spinach soufflé, carrots simmered in butter and white wine”; “Sardines alla siciliana, stuffed with chopped sultanas, anchovies, black olives and garlic, a sliver or two of lemon peel”. This is clearly meant to make the reader feel pleasantly replete, but it doesn't always do so, because with these teeming fantasies of oral gratification comes the smuggled threat of the infant that lives to bite—the needy lover, the “jealous possessive monster”.
Rage is depicted as explicitly oral. “The Easter Egg Hunt” tells of a child sent to her grandparents when her brother is being born. “I hated him”, she snarls. “My hatred was scarlet, and twisted inside me like a plait, and snapped in my mouth like the metal brace I wore on my teeth.” She suppresses her anger by imagining an Easter egg. These pages are crammed with punctured women trying to fill themselves. Roberts stuffs their mouths, and would have us believe that constitutes emotional nourishment. “Recipes are like poems”, one heroine muses, as she eats to forget her husband's indifference. Having consumed many “furious cigarettes”, she decides to leave him. She takes up painting and is resolved. “A Feast for Catherine” finds a married woman abandoned by her lover in Rome. She decides to have lunch anyway. Remembering St Catherine, who starved herself to death for love of Christ, she is relieved to be self-sufficient, as she concentrates on what to order next. Those who do find love here seem to regress to the state of breast-feeding babies. “Love makes you feel you're being born all over again … swinging you by the heels … that midwife love, laughing as you roar”; “a dandled child, rocked and tickled and caressed”, who is “tucked up”, “cradled”, “your face turned endlessly towards his … wanting to create the world anew”.
The collection's claustrophobic mixture of greed, feeding and emotional deprivation makes one over-aware of Roberts herself. “You have to give yourself to the writing”, she wrote in a published notebook in 1993. “I fear that because it brings up the pain rage terror of childhood, writing makes me re-experience that, too painful.” Playing Sardines is indeed painful to read. Nothing develops. The most Roberts's women achieve is a girlish delight in each other, as they turn from adult relationships, “gossiping, painting their toe-nails, reading novels, listening to music, watching videos and eating take-aways”. “Can you love without hands?”, asks a woman who finds a handless statue of the Virgin Mary in “Miracles.” You probably can. But can you write about it, as Roberts clearly wants to, if you are so fearful of the depletion involved that you must feed yourself as you type?
Patricia Duncker (review date 18 June 2001)
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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 protects; and in “The Miracle,” an Italian prayer to St Anthony actually works.
There are several delicate and suggestive tales of the supernatural in this book. In “Fluency,” a London flâneur, roaming the City, finds that she has made an imaginative leap to Paris. In “The Easter Egg Hunt,” a French child, jealous of her baby brother, is sent to stay with her grandparents. But the grandfather is dying. The visionary conclusion, in which the child sees her dead grandparent hiding the Easter eggs in the garden, is both disturbing and convincing.
Roberts is never sentimental. Her stories contain several successful and engaging murderers who get their man and get away with the crime (one of the more ladylike murderers, in “Lists,” flies off to Rio with the parish priest). And she calmly describes children planning to do away with their siblings.
Women writers have often used the short story to experiment. Roberts tries on different registers, modes and styles as she would different dresses and shoes. There are two very funny pastiche novelettes in miniature: “Blathering Frights” (Wuthering Heights) and “A Bodice Rips.” I laughed out loud while reading these.
The dominant mood of the collection is sensual and lavish. And the motif that unites the stories is food. The book itself is like a meal, demonstrating the virtuosity and variety of the cook's talents. In “The Cookery Lesson,” a mad stalker becomes obsessed with a TV cook. The meals become more deadly, elaborate and delicious. But it is in the title story, “Playing Sardines,” that Roberts makes explicit the connection between cooking and writing. “I used to read this cookery book at night after my husband had fallen asleep, savouring its poetry, its precise vocabulary. Recipes were indeed like poems …” So writing, that process of making something sensuous and beautiful, is carried on after dark, when our husbands are well out of it.
Kai Maristed (review date 22 July 2001)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747
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 Roberts, in its assured, image-rich language. This early passage hints at many of the pleasures to come: certainly the reverent eye for workaday objects, the Matisse-Monet-like brush-loads of color and the writer's deft establishment of a time (early last century, before the age of the automobile) through precise telling details rather than ham-fisted declaration. All of which adds up to a palpable immediacy, an intimacy not usually associated with historical fiction.
“Her sympathy lurked underneath, and she would measure it out carefully … like putting a spoonful of eau de vie into coffee to give you courage on a cold morning.” These early scenes are deceptively conventional: shades of Bernanos, Mauriac. Genevieve's new employer is Madame Patin, bistro keeper and no-nonsense widow of a fisherman. Soon the orphan has shucked off her piety; she prowls by the rough sea, discovers a knack for baking rissoles and turning a sou and catches the eye of Madame's traveling-salesman fiancé.
Aha, one thinks, another girl-to-woman bildungsroman, and Genevieve's early experiences fit the mold, although they are shot through with a physicality reminiscent of Marguerite Duras and rather short on dramatic event—like a life. Well, but does Genevieve fall in love? Of course, although not with a man. It is Madame she craves, with the fierce passion of a child, nearly grown, who never had the chance to be one. And Frederic, Madame's fiancé, who blocks her from the sunlight, will force her to betray her love.
Just as the high point of Genevieve's transgression and shame is reached—all captured in the ornate mirror of Madame's barroom—her tale breaks off. A new and quite different voice chimes in that of self-satisfied young Millicent, English governess in the household of gentleman-poet Gerard, his snobbish mother and preternaturally well-behaved little niece. In passing, Millicent mentions the servant, Genevieve, “a very simple character” whose company Gerard unaccountably seems to enjoy.
The structure of The Looking Glass is shifting, fluid. In succeeding sections, various women reveal their lives within the tale woven around Genevieve. Often she appears merely as a background figure. Eventually five distinct voices overlap, like the scales of the deadly, lovesick mermaid of Madame's folk tales, who haunted Genevieve's dreams as monster and alter ego.
The Looking Glass weaves a pattern more exciting than the standard tic-tac-toe of plot. Similarly, Roberts' characters at first meeting are unabashedly “types”: the dreamy orphan, the practical widow, the handsome gold-digger, joined later by the poet's pretty, pleasure-addicted mistress (dress-maker to the family Flaubert, in a wry little twist), but Roberts explores these apparently familiar figures tenderly, respectfully and deeply, mining the archetypes for their inherent life.
In the course of that search, some threads of narrative are left dangling. On the other hand, connections come clear; motives rise through layers of the past with the grace of revelation. For a reader to close a book with the sense of “Yes, so this is why, and this is the only way it could have been!” is one of fiction's deepest rewards. It is almost consolation for having to say adieu to Normandy and “the sea endlessly writing its life into ours,” in the last summer of innocence, 1914.
Penelope Lively (review date 12 April 2003)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585
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 its own idiosyncratic flavour. The effect is powerful, and not least because of this author's extraordinary ability to conjure up a scene. When Vinny—a latter-day hippy, penniless poet, dressed by charity shops, with tufted hair dyed henna-red—goes to the party given by her careful, house-proud sister, the whole evening leaps to life as though the reader were an intent voyeur; Catherine moving deftly amongst her guests, Vinny creeping upstairs for a furtive inspection of the matrimonial bedroom, with that enigmatic nude painting above the bed.
Adam's painter father, Robert, is recently dead. Long ago, Vinny, Catherine and Adam spent some summer months with him at his French hideaway. It would be heavy-handed to go further into what happened there; suffice it to say that that time has directed their lives, all three of them. Unfinished business hangs over the present; business moreover that never can be finished. This is a fictional examination of the way in which the past fills the present, inescapable.
The novel is also about reading and about writing. Adam and Vinny are both writers, novelist and poet respectively, and both unsuccessful in conventional terms: they don't make a living. Catherine, who teaches literature, writes soft-porn fiction for women readers on the side, furtively, to keep the family finances afloat. And another voice drifts in and out of their story—that of Charlotte Brontë. Imagined letters from her to M. Heger, the Brussels tutor with whom she was so famously infatuated in her girlhood, punctuate the narrative of today's characters. I was a little puzzled by this device, but seduced by the power and passion of the Brontë voice that Michèle Roberts creates, wisely going not for pastiche but rather a reflection in the language of today. The link would seem to be Vinny's lifelong immersion in Jane Eyre, and the abiding power of intense emotion, remembered not in tranquillity but with terrible immediacy; and, of course, the image of another pair of sisters, far apart in character and inclination, but deeply dependent upon one another. And, here too, there is meticulous creation of a time and a place, completing the multi-faceted effect of this compelling novel.