“The Bishop’s Lunch” appears in During Mother’s Absence, a collection of Michèle Roberts’s short stories that was first published in 1993. The collection may be considered an unofficial sequel to Roberts’s novel Daughters of the House (1992), which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and was awarded the W. H. Smith Literary Award. Like the novel, each story in During Mother’s Absence foregrounds maternal absence in a young woman’s life. The emphasis is placed not on the loss itself but on the way in which physical absence cannot sever the bond between mother and daughter.
Michèle Roberts’s religious background is rooted firmly in Catholicism although as an adult she has rejected its formal structure, which was imposed upon her as a child. She often, however, invokes God and religious themes within her work. These themes are contextualized within a feminist agenda and are used to expose the patriarchal values underpinning the foundations of Catholicism.
“The Bishop’s Lunch” is the story of Sister Josephine of the Holy Face, a novice who is responsible for the kitchen duties at the convent. This includes preparing a banquet for the Bishop during his traditional visit on Easter Sunday. She knows the Bishop will expect a sumptuous feast much different from the nuns’ normal fare. Sister Josephine is no great cook and fears she will not be able to prepare the feast; her fears are alleviated when she opens her black notebook and finds that her mother has copied her family recipes into it. To obtain the necessary ingredients for the recipes, she must borrow the gardener’s shotgun as well as secretly raid the henhouse for eggs before they are sold. The nuns never connect these mysterious disappearances with the Bishop’s lunch, and Sister Josephine’s feast is considered a miracle.
In this story, Roberts combines two of her most prevalent themes, food and God, while subtly demonstrating the lasting power of maternal influence. Initially, Sister Josephine is portrayed as having rejected her mother in favor of the Church. In fact, she is unhappy with her kitchen responsibilities because they remind her of her mother’s life. Josephine never learned to cook from her mother because she “hungered for transcendence, for the ecstasy of mystical union” (85) and was not interested in learning domestic chores. Yet these are the duties she is asked to perform at the convent. She appeals to God for assistance with her culinary dilemma, something she would not normally do as “God, being male, [is] above such trivia” (86), but it is her mother who answers her prayer. With her mother’s assistance, Sister Josephine performs an Easter miracle.
Plummer, Patricia. “Re-writing the House of Fiction: Michèle Roberts’s Daughters of the House.” In Engendering Realism and Postmodernism: Contemporary Women Writers in Britain, edited by Beate Neumeier, 63–85. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.
Roberts, Michèle. During Mother’s Absence. London: Virago, 1993. Wandor, Michelene, ed. On Gender and Writing. London: Pandora Press, 1983.