Permeable Borders, Possible Worlds: History and Identity in the Novels of Michele Roberts

By White, Rosie | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Permeable Borders, Possible Worlds: History and Identity in the Novels of Michele Roberts


White, Rosie, Studies in the Literary Imagination


Since the publication of her first novel, A Piece of the Night, in 1978, Michele Roberts continually has returned in her fiction to epiphanic moments which elide divisions in time and space. Roberts uses her own experience as a woman of two cultures (English and French), as well as fictionalized histories of other women, to inform powerful narratives in which the borders of history, culture, and identity are blurred and rewritten. This piece will address the extent to which such fictions engage with contemporary debates about the fragmentation and reconstruction of feminine identity. While certain French feminist theorists have come under fire for a depoliticized and elitist reconstruction of femininity, I will argue that siting such discussion within narrative fictions offers a logical and accessible location for theorizing the (im)possible.

Michele Roberts's first three novels, A Piece of the Night (1978), The Visitation (1983), and The Wild Girl (1984), interrogate established notions of history and identity through an unconventional form of Bildungsroman. These narratives are uncomfortable within their covers, wriggling within the confines of the novel as a place in which female characters traditionally have been written as wife, daughter, nun, and whore (DuPlessis 1-19). The Book of Mrs Noah (1987), In the Red Kitchen (1990), and Daughters of the House (1992) can be read differently--as attempts to escape the closure of these "resolutions of romance" (DuPlessis 1) and to imagine something beyond them. If the first three novels set about exploding particular mythologies of femininity, Roberts's later work attempts to imagine a feminine identity which is productive rather than restrictive. Her increasingly overt use of historical material as the bases for her fiction indicates a continuing fascination with literally rewriting history, re-imagining the past in order to imagine different possible futures. Yet even in these reconstructive narratives, each solution is heavily problematized, placed under scrutiny and found wanting.

The paradox evident in all these novels parallels that found in contemporary feminist theory: that of the desire for and distrust of a static and unitary identity. Contemporary feminist fiction and theory frequently appear to be in dialogue in their attempts to describe a position within the social and cultural order which does not impose untenable restraints on the feminine gendered subject, but frees her up to a productive and creative existence in relation to herself and others. For the last two decades, essays have been appearing in feminist books and journals which debate "the identity crisis in feminist theory" (Alcoff), and none addresses the issue so poignantly as those which employ the metaphor of "home" (Adams; Alcoff; Martin and Mohanty; Soper). The mobile, negotiated sense of home-in-process which such essays evoke is evident in Roberts's work in the manner in which identity is constructed through history and space and claimed in relation to a particular account of time. These narratives draw parallels between women who exist in different times. Each protagonist is shown working to construct her own sense of self through a reconstruction of time and space, in more and less successful ways. Certain protagonists, such as Hat in In the Red Kitchen, adopt masculine authority in an attempt to inscribe themselves within linear history, while others, like Flora Milk in the same novel, produce a masquerade of femininity in an attempt to evade or control the masculine economy. Each narrative's form reflects such linear and non-linear tactics. There is an uncanny tension in all Roberts's novels between the apparent construction of a linear narrative and the implicit or explicit deconstruction of that narrative. This tension reflects upon a similar tension with regard to identity, as the unity/fragmentation of the narrative offers commentary upon the unity/fragmentation of the female protagonists--a relationship played out most explicitly in idiosyncratic Bildungsroman narratives which veer toward Kunstlerroman. …

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