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Roberts, Michèle (Brigitte)

ROBERTS, Michèle (Brigitte)

Nationality: British. Born: Bushey, Hertfordshire, 20 May 1949. Education: Oxford University, B.A. (with honors) 1970; University of London Library Associate, 1972. Career: Has worked as a librarian, cook, teacher, cleaner, pregnancy counselor, and researcher; writer-in-residence, Lambeth Borough, London, 1981-82, and Bromley Borough, London, 1983-84. Poetry editor, Spare Rib, 1975-77, and City Limits, 1981-83. Awards: Gay News Literary award, 1978, for A Piece of the Night. Agent: Caroline Dawnay, A.D. Peters, 10 Buckingham St., London W.C.2, England.

Publications

Novels

A Piece of the Night. London, Women's Press, 1978.

The Visitation. London, Women's Press, 1978.

The Wild Girl. London, Methuen, 1984.

The Book of Mrs. Noah. London, Methuen, 1987.

In the Red Kitchen. London, Methuen, 1990.

Psyche and the Hurricane. London, Methuen, 1991.

Daughters of the House. London, Virago, and New York, Morrow, 1992.

During Mother's Absence. London, Virago, 1993.

Flesh & Blood. London, Virago, 1994.

Impossible Saints. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1998.

Fair Exchange. London, Little, Brown, 1999.

Short Stories

Tales I Tell My Mother, with Alison Fell . London, Journeyman Press, 1978.

Poetry

Licking the Bed Clean. N.p., 1978.

Smile, Smile, Smile, Smile. N.p., 1980.

Touch Papers, with Judith Karantris and Michelene Wandor. London, Allison and Busby, 1982.

The Mirror of the Mother: Selected Poems 1975-1985. London, Methuen, 1985.

All the Selves I Was: New and Selected Poems. London, Virago, 1995.

Other

Food, Sex and God: On Inspiration and Writing. London, Virago, 1998.

Editor, with Michelene Wandor, Cutlasses and Earrings. London, Playbooks, 1976.

Editor, with Sara Dunn and Blake Morrison, Mind Readings: Writers' Journeys through Mental States. London, Minerva, 1996.

* * *

Michèle Roberts is one of a group of novelists who emerged from 1970s British feminism and has become recognized as an important author concerned to represent the body, particularly the female body, in writing. Using realistic and non-realistic modes, Roberts has always been concerned to recover the lost body of the mother/female experience and female art. Influenced by both Freudian and Jungian theory, her novels seek out the unconscious as a creative force and explore ways of recuperating religious experience from patriarchal structures as Roberts reinterprets her Catholic heritage. All her novels engender their own authors using Christian, classical, artistic, and maternal myths to try to free female creativity from a patriarchal culture.

A Piece Of The Night, the first novel, strongly reflects the contemporary British feminist movement. In realistic form, it charts the career of Julie, insufficiently mothered, who marries in a state of dependence, is trapped into domesticity but finds liberation in lesbian love. Later novels give more space to problematic heterosexuality. This novel also struggles with problems of representing women in a radical way and finds Julie's Catholic heritage offers only images of repression, submission, and death, leaving women to feel themselves only "a piece of the night."

The next work, The Visitation, begins Roberts's project of rewriting Christian myth to figure the independent woman since it uses the New Testament friendship of Elizabeth and Mary (here Beth and Helen) to privilege the relationship of two heterosexual women and represent female creativity in motherhood and in writing. Beth becomes pregnant but the Virgin birth seems to be Helen's novel, possibly The Visitation itself. Just as religious myths are now available to be rewritten, so is the unconscious; dreams are a sustaining force for female selfhood. These two aspects of Roberts's style are particularly prominent in her next, most controversial, text, The Wild Girl, purporting to be the fifth Gospel as told by Mary Magdalen. This novel is a marvellous fusing of Roberts's theme of the meaningfulness of the female body, religious experience, and female authority as religious teacher, as author. Significantly influenced by feminist Jungians, it is structured around a sexual romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalen becoming a sacred marriage, an initiation into the unconscious which is also religious. Like the earlier two novels the form resembles a romance but the intensity of The Wild Girl also figures as tragedy. The Book of Mrs. Noah tries to escape the dual structure of romance and tragedy by containing a more multifarious plot, leaving realism for myth and fantasy and adopting comedy. At one level it continues earlier works by restructuring the Old Testament story of Noah's Ark, offering an Ark devoted to female writers. This brings in the contemporary narrative as the sibyls who visit the Ark are all representatives of the peculiar struggles of the female writer in a male-dominated society. They tell stories on the Ark that rewrite Christian heritage while Mrs. Noah, the narrator, ponders the fraught issue of motherhood. Much of the comedy of the Ark comes from the stowaway, the Voice of God, a male artist suffering from writer's block after his blockbuster, the Bible. This is a complex work suggesting for the first time that feminist problems cannot be solved easily but it asserts the healing power of the unconscious, here the Ark, as manifested in storytelling.

In The Red Kitchen, the fifth novel, returns to realism while investigating father-daughter bonds in a series of female histories linked by spiritualism, that female-dominated movement that preceded the birth of psychoanalysis. Based on a real case, Victorian Flora Milk has as a spirit guide Hat, an Egyptian princess who acquires power through incest with her father. Flora becomes involved with the middle-class patriarchal marriage of Minnie and William and with the mysterious death of their daughter. In turn, Flora haunts Hattie, a single woman living in her house in contemporary London who is a cookery writer because she has a vision of a giantess in a red kitchen (the repressed place of female creativity).

Perhaps Roberts's most successful novel is Daughters of the House, which mingles autobiography with a saint's life, using the story of Saint Therese of Lisieux. An intensely poetic piece, it tells the story of two cousins, Therese and Leonie, who spend summers together in post-war France. What comes up from the Catholic and historical repressions of the period is Leonie's archetypal visions of a "red lady" connected to the villagers' suppressed worship of a goddess. This causes the discovery of a grave, the murdered remains of Jews who had been betrayed by the priest. Therese also claims to have visions, but orthodox ones, and becomes a nun. The novel again privileges female relationships but here in a political context.

Flesh and Blood is an almost Gothic series of interlocking stories focusing on female sexual experience through history in France and Britain. Impossible Saints is an even more intricate offering, intertwining the lives of numerous women who tried to be saints with that of Josephine, a nun with a lust for life (and other things). Both books prove Roberts an important contemporary explorer of female identity and creativity, a dazzling sensualist in her writing, and an adept spinner of interwoven plot lines.

S.A. Rowland,

updated by Judson Knight

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