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Roberts, Michèle 1949- (Michèle Brigitte Roberts)

Roberts, Michèle 1949- (Michèle Brigitte Roberts)

PERSONAL:

Born May 20, 1949, in Bushey, Hertfordshire, England; daughter of Reginald George (a businessman) and Monique Pauline Joseph (a teacher) Roberts; married Jim Latter (an artist). Education: Somerville College, Oxford, M.A. (with honors), 1970; University of London, library associate, 1972. Politics: "Socialist-feminist." Religion: "Unconventional." Hobbies and other interests: Cooking and eating, painting, mountain walking, dancing, swimming, traveling.

ADDRESSES:

Home—London, England; Mayenne, France. Agent—Aitken & Stone, Ltd., 29 Fernshaw Rd., London SW1O 0TG, England. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Worked as a librarian, cook, teacher, cleaner, pregnancy counselor, researcher, book reviewer, and broadcaster. British Council, Bangkok, Thailand, librar- ian, 1972-73; University of Essex, writer in residence, 1987-88; University of East Anglia, writer in residence, 1992; Nottingham Trent University, visiting fellow, 1995-1996, visiting professor, 1996—. Writer-in-residence, Lambeth Borough, London, England, 1981-82, and Bromley Borough, London, 1983-84; Feminist Writers Group, cofounder.

MEMBER:

Writers Guild.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Gay News literary award, 1978, for A Piece of the Night; Arts Council grant, 1978; Booker Prize shortlist, 1992, and W.H. Smith Literary Award, 1993, both for Daughters of the House; elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, 1999; Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des lettres (France), 2000.

WRITINGS:

POETRY

(Editor, with Michelene Wandor) Cutlasses and Earrings, Playbooks (London, England), 1977.

Licking the Bed Clean, (London, England), 1978.

Smile, Smile, Smile, Smile, (London, England), 1980.

(With Judith Karantris and Michelene Wandor) Touch Papers, Allison & Busby (London, England), 1982.

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

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

NOVELS

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

The Visitation, Women's Press (London, England), 1983.

The Wild Girl, Methuen (London, England), 1984.

The Book of Mrs. Noah, Methuen (London, England), 1987.

In the Red Kitchen, Methuen (London, England), 1990.

Psyche and the Hurricane, Methuen (London, England), 1991.

Daughters of the House, Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.

During Mother's Absence, Virago (London, England), 1993.

Flesh and Blood, Virago (London, England), 1994.

Impossible Saints, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1997.

Fair Exchange, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1999.

The Looking Glass, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.

The Mistressclass, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2003.

Reader, I Married Him, Little Brown (London, England), 2004, Pegasus (New York, NY), 2006.

SHORT STORIES

(With Alison Fell and others) Tales I Tell My Mother, Journeyman Press (London, England), 1978.

(With others) More Tales I Tell My Mother, Journeyman Press (London, England), 1987.

Playing Sardines, Virago (London, England), 2001.

NONFICTION

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

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

OTHER

Contributor to anthologies; author of introductions to books by others; author of play The Journeywoman, produced in Colchester, England, 1988; author of screenplay The Heavenly Twins; contributor of nonfiction to City Limits and of poems to periodicals. Poetry editor of Spare Rib, 1975-77, and City Limits, 1981-83.

SIDELIGHTS:

Michèle Roberts has received much acclaim for her fictional evocations of feminist themes. Born in England of a French Catholic mother and a British father, Roberts grew up speaking both languages and spending time in both countries. As a child, Roberts strongly identified with her mother's faith. She attended a convent school, and throughout her teenage years she wanted to be a nun. "She perceived the convent as a safe haven from a world in which women had no freedom of choice and had to submit to conflicting images of femininity," Genevieve Brassard explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

However, Roberts decided to attend college before entering the convent. While at Somerville College, Oxford, Roberts discovered feminism. After graduation, she moved to London, joined a Marxist commune "in which rooms, possessions, and sexual partners were liberally shared," as Brassard described it, and abandoned her former commitment to Catholicism as petit-bourgeois spirituality. After a brief period of time working in Thailand, Roberts returned to London and became active as a feminist and as a writer.

Roberts writes of strong female characters who rebel against a male-dominated society. She sometimes employs Christian religious symbolism, as in the novels The Wild Girl, about the life of Mary Magdalene, and The Book of Mrs. Noah, in which Mrs. Noah and five other women journey in a metaphorical ark through history to examine the condition of women throughout the ages.

Roberts's first novel, A Piece of the Night, tells of a woman's journey to self-realization—from convent schoolgirl to wife and mother to feminist and lesbian. Writing in the New Statesman, Valentine Cunningham described the novel as "a runaway chaos of inchoate bits, an incoherence that slumps well short of the better novel it might with more toil have become." "Much of A Piece of the Night," according to Blake Morrison in the Times Literary Supplement, "gives the same impression of a book written under the stern eye of a women's workshop group, and not much interested in winning the hearts of those outside the charmed circle."

In The Wild Girl, Roberts writes of biblical figure Mary Magdalene and her life as a prostitute and as a follower of Christ. Because of its frank, fictionalized account of Mary Magdalene's life, The Wild Girl received harsh criticism. "A few people," according to Tracy Clark in Feminist Writers, "went so far as to seek formal accusation of Roberts for blasphemy." A reviewer for Time Out described this work as "a powerful attack on the law of the Father and a timely reminder that old myths do not just fade away." Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Emma Fisher found that "Roberts is intelligent and passionate; by her rich use of symbols and metaphor she transforms feminist cliche into something alive and moving." Kate Fullbrook in British Book News admitted that "the sentiments that animate this novel are fine, even noble. But the fiction itself never comes alive. Mary Magdalene remains nothing but a committed feminist of the 1980s; Jesus becomes nothing but a simple archetype for the non-sexist male."

Religious concerns also figure in The Visitation, the story of Helen, who contacts female archetypal figures in her dreams. Roberts, wrote Laura Marcus in the Times Literary Supplement, blurs "the distinctions between reality and fantasy in a prose which is full, resonant and at times over-charged." Clark found that Roberts employs "lush physical description and enchanting mental imagery. Every once in a while, she also skillfully flashes back to Helen's younger days in order to give her readers a fuller perspective on the adult Helen's attitude toward conventional religion in general, and the Catholic church of her youth, specifically."

The Book of Mrs. Noah is, according to Helen Birch in the New Statesman, "Roberts' most ambitious and carefully conceived novel to date." Mrs. Noah, a librarian, imagines an ark filled with disenfranchised women from all periods in history, all of them wishing to write the story of womankind. "The ark becomes," Birch wrote, "Protean, a womb, the mother's body, containing the history and dreams of all the women." "The trouble," wrote Jennifer McKay in the Listener, "is that as a novel of ideas Mrs. Noah's ideas are not especially novel and they form too heavy a load for the fragile narrative."

Daughters of the House concerns Therese, a woman who is returning to her family after living for many years in a convent. "As is typical in Roberts's work," Clark wrote, "the novel is full of spiritual imagery: the convent, imagined concepts of heaven, and a favorite religious statue. Also present are numerous detailed physical descriptions: Therese's feeling too naked in street clothes because she is used to her thick, brown dress, for instance. This combination of highly styled description, heavy symbolism, and riveting plot was very well-received by critics." Daughters of the House was nominated for England's Booker Prize.

Religious themes also appear in Impossible Saints, a novel about ten people who would be saints, including Josephine, a nun who tries to seduce her father, fails, enters a convent, and successfully seduces a priest, yet still becomes a saint. As Jason Cowley of New Statesman commented, the writing of "Impossible Saints was [Roberts's] final attempt ‘to exorcise’ what Catholicism had done to her as a child." As Roberts explained in an interview on the January Magazine Web site to Linda Richards: "Because … the body is very scorned in Catholicism—particularly the female body—I wanted to rescue the body and cherish it and love it and touch it and smell it and make it into language." Roberts's women, who give into the pleasures of the body yet still become saints, show us "canonization as it might have been if the church were overseen by a matriarchy that celebrated human energy, weakness and desire," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

In The Looking Glass, the story of an early twentieth-century French poet (partially inspired by Mallarme) and the four women who love him, Roberts again returns to her French and her feminist roots. Library Journal critic Rebecca Stuhr called the latter portions of the book "didactic and plodding," while Booklist reviewer Carol Haggas praised Roberts's "powerful prose and poetic imagery." Roberts was inspired to write a story set in France after her mother was forced to sell the cottage where they had spent summers when Roberts was a child. "My theory is that inspiration is born of loss," she explained to Richards. "I felt I proved that with this novel. It just began, ‘It is the sea I miss most,’ and that was my truth. And then I found that the voice talking wasn't my voice…. That's the interesting thing when you write in the first person…. You've been taken over and possessed by somebody else and you write to find out who it is."

The Mistressclass is Roberts's novel featuring two sets of sisters, the Brontes and the contemporary writer siblings, Catherine and Vinny, both in their fifties. Catherine is an English professor who, unknown to her novelist husband, Adam, writes erotic fiction under a pseudonym. Vinny, a poet who loved Adam first then lost him to her sister, continues to long for him from within an alcohol and drug-induced haze. Charlotte, meanwhile, communicates with a former teacher who commands her passion. Haggas described this novel as being a "sublimely emotive portrait of love and betrayal, attraction and rejection." Megan Harlan commented in the New York Times Book Review that "Roberts's sharp but sympathetic character studies give the love triangle uncommon depth."

"With a sassy cartoon sketch on the cover and a sparkly blurb about a woman who can't stop getting married, Reader, I Married Him is packaged as chick lit," wrote Kate Saunders in New Statesman. "Because it is by Michele Roberts, however, it amounts to more than a respected author's bid for a larger share of the popular pound—she couldn't write a bad sentence no matter how hard she tried." Aurora, the narrator, is a thrice-married and widowed woman of fifty. Each of her marriages had been very different, and she now is looking for her true identity and attracted to the sexy Father Michael, a parish priest. She agrees to go on a retreat with her old friend Leonora, a feminist turned nun, and travels to Italy, hiding a gun Leonora has asked her to bring from customs. To Aurora's surprise Father Michael appears at a conference being hosted by Leonora, arriving with Aurora's domineering stepmother, Maude. Aurora also stays at the home of Frederico, an old friend she presumed to be gay and who now is sexually attracted to her. Haggas, in Booklist, wrote that the author "whimsically indulges her passion for favored themes of religion, sex, and food in this riotous and ribald tale."

Roberts told CA: "My writing generally is fueled by the fact that I am a woman. I need to write in order to break through the silence imposed on women in this culture. The love of friends is central to my life."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 48, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Kenyon, Olga, Women Writers Talk, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1990.

Moseley, Merritt, editor, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 231: British Novelists since 1960, fourth series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, July, 2001, Carol Haggas, review of The Looking Glass, p. 1983; August, 2003, Carol Haggas, review of The Mistressclass, p. 1958; February 1, 2006, Carol Haggas, review of Reader, I Married Him, p. 31.

Books Magazine, spring, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. 22.

British Book News, January, 1985, Kate Fullbrook, review of The Wild Girl, pp. 49-50.

Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 1998, review of Impossible Saints, p. B8.

Financial Times, January 8, 2005, Julia Sutherland, review of Reader, I Married Him, p. 32.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), July 10, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. D12.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1998, review of Impossible Saints, p. 521; June 15, 2003, review of The Mistressclass, p. 830; February 15, 2006, review of Reader, I Married Him, p. 155.

Library Journal, March 1, 1998, review of Impossible Saints, p. 129; June 1, 2001, Rebecca Stuhr, review of The Looking Glass, p. 218; May 1, 2006, Christine Perkins, review of Reader, I Married Him, p. 83.

Listener, September 10, 1987, Jennifer McKay, review of The Book of Mrs. Noah, p. 23.

London Review of Books, October 2, 1997, review of Impossible Saints, p. 34.

New Statesman, November 3, 1978, Valentine Cunningham, review of A Piece of the Night, p. 590; May 22, 1987, Helen Birch, review of The Book of Mrs. Noah, pp. 27-28; May 23, 1997, Jason Cowley, review of Impossible Saints, p. 49; July 4, 1997, Stephen Brasher, interview with Michèle Roberts, p. 21; January 24, 2005, Kate Saunders, review of Reader, I Married Him, p. 53.

New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1998, David Guy, review of Impossible Saints, p. 24; September 14, 2003, Megan Harlan, review of The Mistressclass, p. 25; June 25, 2006, Lauren Collins, review of Reader, I Married Him, p. 13.

Observer (London, England), January 17, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. 23.

People, August 20, 2001, review of The Looking Glass, p. 41.

Publishers Weekly, April 20, 1998, review of Impossible Saints, p. 49; July 21, 2003, review of The Mistressclass, p. 173.

Spectator, January 16, 1999, Andrew Barrow, review of Fair Exchange, p. 30.

Time Out, December, 1984, review of The Wild Girl.

Times Educational Supplement, August 28, 1998, review of Food, Sex and God: On Inspiration and Writing, p. 23.

Times Literary Supplement, December 1, 1978, Blake Morrison, review of A Piece of the Night, p. 1404; October 26, 1984, Emma Fisher, review of The Wild Girl, p. 1224; September 27, 1985, Laura Marcus, review of The Visitation, p. 1070; April 25, 1997, review of Impossible Saints, p. 24; October 16, 1998, review of Food, Sex and God, p. 32; January 15, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. 21.

Woman's Journal, January, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. 14.

ONLINE

Cercles,http://www.cercles.com/ (January 31, 2007), Jenny Newman, "An Interview with Michèle Roberts."

Contemporary Writers in the UK,http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (January 31, 2007), biography.

January Magazine,http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (March 7, 2007), Linda Richards, "January Talks to Michèle Roberts."

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