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Roberts, Elizabeth Madox

ROBERTS, Elizabeth Madox

Born 30 October 1881, Perryville, Kentucky; died 13 March 1941, Orlando, Florida

Daughter of Simpson and Mary Brent Roberts

About 1884 Elizabeth Madox Roberts moved with her family to Springfield, Kentucky, the town that would become the center of her stories and novels. As a child, Roberts listened to her father's storytelling. An equally important influence on Roberts as a child were family legends, including the tale of a great-grand-mother who had come to Kentucky by the Wilderness Road.

Roberts attended a private academy in Springfield and later graduated from high school in nearby Covington, Kentucky. In 1900 she entered the State College of Kentucky but withdrew from school, probably because of ill health and financial problems. In 1917 she registered at the University of Chicago—a college freshman at the age of thirty-six. Roberts wrote poetry while at Chicago and took part in a group—including such talented friends as Yvor Winters and Glenway Westcott—that met frequently to discuss one another's work. Roberts graduated in 1921 with honors in English. In 1922 Roberts returned to Springfield, where she was to spend most of her life, and devoted herself to writing, even after she learned in 1936 that she had Hodgkin's disease.

The quality of Roberts' work is uneven. Few people would claim greatness for Jingling in the Wind (1928), an allegorical novel of the courtship of two rainmakers, or He Sent Forth a Raven (1935), a highly artificial and contrived novel, but other novels are more successful. The Time of Man (1926) chronicles the life of Ellen Chesser, a poor white girl who is a descendant of Kentucky pioneers. Ellen is fourteen at the opening of the novel. Roberts portrays Ellen's early love affair, her marriage to Jasper Kent, and the hardships she suffers as wife and mother. The real strengths of the novel lie in Roberts' use of Ellen's consciousness as we see her transcend the bleakness of her life and in the poetic quality of the narrative.

My Heart and My Flesh (1927) traces Theodosia Bell's initial rejection and ultimate acceptance of life. Theodosia, with a good family, wealth, and pride, loses her lover, her friends, her home, and her health. She is driven to suicide, but at last reaffirms her love for life. The power of the self to transcend external forces is the controlling thesis of The Great Meadow (1930), set during the Revolutionary War period in Virginia and Kentucky. Roberts' central characters are Berkeleian idealists whose lives appear as spiritual dramas deriving their substance from the mind of God. The protagonist, Diony Hall, chooses to leave the order and safety of her family's farm to enter the wilderness of the frontier. The most notable element of the novel is the mental or spiritual ordering Diony exerts over the chaos of her life and her surroundings.

Roberts wrote poetry throughout her life—her first important volume, Under the Tree (1922), was poetry—and although her output in verse is slim in comparison with her prose, she wrote several first-rate poems, including "Love in the Harvest" and "Sonnet of Jack." Roberts also published two volumes of short stories—The Haunted Mirror (1932) and Not by Strange Gods (1941)—but they are less successful than her novels. Roberts deserves further study and analysis. A fine prose writer whose experiments in stream-of-consciousness narration and feminine characterization seem far ahead of her time, she is of especial interest today for her penetrating analysis of the female consciousness.

Other Works:

In the Great Steep's Garden (1915). A Buried Treasure (1931). Black is My Truelove's Hair (1938). Song in the Meadow (1940).

The papers of Elizabeth Madox Roberts are in the Library of Congress.

Bibliography:

Auchincloss, L., Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine Women Writers (1965). Campbell, H. M., and R. Foster, Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist (1956).McDowell, F., Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1963). Rovit, E. H., Herald to Chaos: The Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1960).

Other references:

Kentucky Historical Society Review (Apr. 1966). Saturday Review (2 Mar. 1963).

—ANNE ROWE

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