In ‘Taking It Easy’, one of the stories in During Mother’s Absence (1993), Michèle Roberts provides a recipe for a deliciously female mode of creative imagination. Her heroine, a freelance short-story writer of many genres and pseudonyms (Alexis K. Triffel, Virginia Lindisfarne, Jay C. Dacey), leaves her London life with its perpetual diets, its writing ‘squeezed in’ between domestic errands and maternal obligations, its dual enemies of ‘sleep and food’, to stay for a few weeks in the house of her friend Angèle’s mother in South-West France. Here she hopes to overcome her writer’s block and fulfil her ambition to produce a collection of stories ‘rivalling those of Colette and Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys all put together’. Angèle passes on advice from her brother Jim, a painter: ‘You have to make the problem part of the subject. So, obviously what you should do is write a story about writer’s block.’
In the cottage at Cahors, however, the words from her ‘unwritten stories dance mockingly in the corners’, and finally she decides to let sleep and food become her friends. Gradually she gives in to breakfast in bed (croissants with apricot jam, Camembert, muscat grapes); rich lunches of olives, rabbit pâté and figs; leisurely dinners of saucisses de Toulouse, fried aubergines, peaches and red wine. She luxuriates in the rituals and décor of the boudoir – a nightgown of ‘eau-de-nil silk with pencil shoulder straps’, coral toe-nail polish, laceedged linen pillows, vases of mauve sweetpeas. For three days she dozes, eats and writes, and when brother Jim turns up, takes him to the double bed, where her stories lie scattered, as a final sensual indulgence. Littered with ‘pages thin and crisp as onion skins’, the bed is the place where all tales start.
‘Taking It Easy’ is a woman writer’s fantasy of the zipless book, of the writing that comes from feminine self-indulgence, from doing exactly what you want. Words flow from the female body like blood or milk, and men come to serve and worship, not to censor. The body is timeless, maternal, a cradle of imagination which makes writing play. These flattering images of the female creative imagination have inspired not only contemporary women’s fiction (‘X ... writes brilliantly about food and sex,’ reads an all-purpose, one-size-fits-all blurb) but also a genre of feminist literary theory, influenced by Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, among others, which links women’s authentic writing to the pre-Oedipal union with the mother’s body.
For all of her teasing delight in these images, and her willingness to be seduced by French theory, Roberts knows that while in fantasies there are no crumbs in your bed and no pâté on your proofs, in real life writing don’t come easy. The daughter of an English father who admired C.S. Forrester and Dornford Yates, and a French mother who read Alfred de Musset, Roberts grew up with a sense of the bisexual imagination ‘rooted in the memory of my parents, so different in their culture and religion and language, yet their books all tumbling together in the big bookcase and their words tangling and dancing at family mealtimes’. In her own novels, most notably in Daughters of the House (1992), Roberts has shown herself to be both a voluptuous and a disciplined writer, whose work is as much about a family romance with reading as it is about mothers and daughters. In her eighth novel, Impossible Saints, some narrative devices – circular form, magical realism, revised fairy-tale plots, Gothic frissons, lush sensual imagery – suggest the modern literary conventions of female release, but the complex plotting and the economy of the writing speak of control, while its dangerous subtexts subvert every trace of sentimentality.
Impossible Saints juxtaposes two narratives: the Bildungsroman of Josephine, loosely inspired by St Teresa, who leaves her convent to become a writer and to found a feminist community of her own, a utopian colony of women writers; and the lives of 11 women saints whose martyrdoms comprise The Golden Legend. Roberts has used the linked-tale device before in Flesh and Blood (1994), and her erotic reworking of saint’s tales also recalls Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. In Carter’s stories, the gory Gothic chamber in which Bluebeard pleasures and butchers his wives is also a metaphor of the womb, the bloody centre of female sexuality and reproduction. Female mastery of the chamber’s myths is empowering, and women’s creativity comes out of cruelty and lust, as well as tenderness.
In Impossible Saints, Roberts describes a ‘golden chamber’, a chapel stacked with gilded reliquaries containing the bones of St Ursula and eleven thousand missionary virgins who were slaughtered by pagans as they slept off a ‘delicious breakfast’ of 11,001 croissants with apricot jam (obviously a favourite on her menu). The golden chamber is a museum and a tomb; the story (apparently based on the Golden Chamber of St Ursula’s Church in Cologne) frames Roberts’s meditation on the preservation, remembrance and necessary desecration of the legends of women’s art.
In an essay written to mark the recent relaunching of Virago, Roberts praised Carter as a writer who ‘refused to fit into the categories offered to her ... a liberating example to those of us who’ve come just after her’. But Impossible Saints is more than a pilgrimage to Carter Country; like The Bloody Chamber, it’s the book which best deploys the author’s own idiosyncratic imagery, and takes it to its fullest realisation. Roberts’s fiction is highly allusive – she can sound like Anita Brookner, Monique Wittig, Aubrey Beardsley or the Marquis de Sade – but it’s not generic. As a woman writer of the Nineties, she has inherited feminist literary criticism as well as feminist writing, and she deliberately invokes the devils and saints of women’s writing, its feminist genealogy and its problematic codes.
Thus Impossible Saints is primarily about becoming a woman writer, with Josephine, her mother Beatrice and her niece Isabel representing three generations or phases in a female literary tradition, and recapitulating the history of women’s writing through their experiences. For Beatrice, reading and writing are secret pleasures to be concealed; she keeps her books and her own stories in an ebony chest, wrapped in red, yellow, green or blue silk. As a child, Josephine identifies with an Atwoodian fat lady tightrope-walker she sees at a fair, a ‘ridiculous and touching figure’, with ‘the courage to be more than herself, not held back by fear or gravity, twirling herself so delicately into dangerous space’. But when Josephine reads the forbidden red books (they turn out to be medical treatises) after her mother’s death, her father burns everything and sends her to a convent. Here she learns to tame her own writing to placate the priests: ‘The sentences she wrote knelt down. Her prose was modest, humble and grateful. She referred to herself as “this unworthy woman”, “this great sinner”, “this woman, the worst of all”.’ But at forty, Josephine leaves the convent, begins to write ‘more hasty, more honest’ stories, incoherent and disturbed; and to plan a woman’s house that is both a room of one’s own and a window on the world. The house is double, facing two ways, with one side a secular convent and the other a commune, a ‘mixture of club, restaurant, salon, dance hall, café-theatre, boudoir, opium den and so on’. Although Josephine dies unfulfilled, her niece Isabel takes up her story, editing the saints’ lives which echo the seeming dualities into which women are forced.
Is Impossible Saints another instalment in the saga of Shakespeare’s sister, the woman genius destroyed? While in some respects Roberts is writing what is by now a familiar, even classic narrative of the saving power of sisterhood to resist women’s cultural silencing, her work has a violent subtext that tells another story. Along with conventional post-Freudian images of female selfhood as treasure-chest, secret chamber or dream house, are images of mutilation, dismemberment, chopping, wounding and biting. Roberts writes lovingly about food, but almost all her ‘saints’ are hunger artists who slice into vegetables as if they were animals, and salivate over books. Josephine cooks like Jack the Ripper, stabbing ‘the thick violet skins of the aubergines’, slashing their ‘spongy, cream-coloured flesh’, packing spices into the wounds, and stewing the ‘little corpses’ in a pan. When Josephine dies, a priest cuts her up into tidy parcels of meat so that the Cardinal will not claim the body: ‘His knife sank in as easily as though he were slicing up melon, or cheese. Arms, legs, hands, feet, he cut them into neat pieces, some small and some tiny.’ Tyson-like nuns have already chewed off their own relics, scurrying off with ‘little chunks’ of Josephine’s flesh ‘concealed in their cheeks’. They have nibbled the earlobes, fingernails, toenails, eyebrows and eyelashes; ‘someone had torn open the habit and bitten off her nipples.’ Saint Uncumber bites off her father’s penis; Saint Christine bites off her own tongue.
Roberts’s sensual saints are so bloodthirsty that, going back to ‘Taking It Easy’, I wonder whether the heroine seduces her visitor or eats him. On the other side of repression, her women artists are voracious and omnivorous, Balzacian in their creative appetites, but struggling to limit themselves to domestic narrative spaces which they have long outgrown. Neither the Elle decor of the mother’s bedroom nor the utopian amusements of the convent-spa can satisfy heroines who have burst from their female cocoons into monstrous butterflies, crackling with energy, shaking out, as she writes in one of Josephine’s visions, ‘great wet, dragging wings that were stuck together’. In this lush novel, Roberts seems to have consumed every imaginative morsel of her plots: writing about the problem of women’s writing is now a self-consuming artefact.