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Remembering Elizabeth Spencer

Elizabeth Spencer slipped away from us, quietly in her sleep, on December 22. She was 98. For those of us who knew her in Chapel Hill, where she had lived since 1986, the loss is keenly felt: she was a trusted confidante, a wry conspirator, and a cherished friend. More broadly, she is remembered for a distinguished writing career spanning seven decades and three countries; she published nine novels, six short story collections, a play, and a memoir. Between those two poles, the deeply personal and the plainly factual, lies the story of a rich life of a native Mississippian, a child of the Old South, who was not content to stay there.

Carroll County, where Spencer was born and raised, was in her childhood a waning plantation economy, majority Black, dominated by genteel old white families like hers: the Spencers and the McCains, her mother’s family, which continued to farm extensive holdings with Black labor. Lynchings were still common, although she would have been largely protected from that knowledge. She could hardly be shielded from the bullet holes in the county courtroom walls, though. Her repeated questions about the terrible deed behind that assault were met with vague and deflecting answers. Nonetheless, she gleaned enough to be able to inscribe its essence into her most highly acclaimed novel, The Voice at the Back Door (1956).

The Voice at the Back Door rewrites the Carrollton Massacre of 1886, in which more than 20 Blacks were killed by an anonymous mob for claiming their rightful access to justice. Spencer advances it in time to form the backdrop of a political drama set in 1952. When an idealistic new sheriff launches a progressive agenda in matters once euphemistically called “race relations,” he runs straight into that history, complicated, as always in Spencer’s work, by entangled personal histories. The ensuing plot line rings tragically true to its pre-Rosa Parks, pre-Brown moment. The Voice at the Back Door is the one Spencer novel that has never gone out of print. It would make illuminating reading in the present time of racial reckoning.

Spencer has been called a writer’s writer, a term I take to mean an exceptional prose stylist who has not gained the deserved public attention. If that were ever the case, all changed in 2005 with the award-winning Broadway production of a musical version of “The Light in the Piazza,” first published in The New Yorker in 1960 and made into a successful Hollywood film in 1962.

She wrote the story in Montreal, to which she had moved with her English husband John Rusher, whom she had met in Italy. Its popularity bemused her. She had dashed it off in mere weeks, a project to bring Italy back to her in a gloomy Canadian winter: an ingenious love story set in Florence about a winsome, though mentally disabled, American girl, a bright Italian boy, and the girl’s mother, Margaret Johnson, whose desires for her daughter cannot be entirely separated from the precarious state of her own marriage. Whereas The Voice at the Back Door engages one historical period with another, “The Light in the Piazza” juxtaposes two phases of a woman’s life, simultaneously celebrating young love and suggesting what love can come to as it evolves into the worn grooves of traditional patriarchal marriage.

“The Light in the Piazza” was Spencer’s first extended work in which the central preoccupation is a woman’s dilemma, as Peggy Prenshaw has noted. The themes Prenshaw identifies of a woman’s self-possession, identity, and purpose are themes that would play out in less conventional, even more psychologically complex narratives. “Ship Island” (1964) is notable for its combination of class commentary, interior depth, and delightful touch of magical realism. Young Nancy Lewis’s family yearns for acceptance into the middle-class circles of a coastal Mississippi community, but Nancy has no such aim. Slipping away from a young man who is the perfect social match, she accepts the invitation of two dubious older men to set off for New Orleans, an adventure more suitable to her mood. On her return, just before slipping away completely by dissolving into the sea as a mermaid, she says without apology to the perfect young man, “I guess it’s just the way I am. I just run off sometimes.”

Less dramatically, but not infrequently, women in other stories slip away. It’s an impulse for negotiating an impasse, for opening up a safe imaginative space, a way out, perhaps a new way in. In “Knights and Dragons” (1965), for example (the dark companion-piece to “The Light in the Piazza”), Martha Ingram’s job supporting U.S. cultural diplomacy in Italy affords her a certain freedom from the ex-husband she left in the States; and yet she finds herself haunted by him, drawn to self-destructive behavior. In the end, she is so tormented that she may have either lost touch with reality or broken through to new freedom: “She was of those whom life had held a captive and in freeing herself she had met dissolution, and was a friend now to any landscape, a companion to cloud and sky.”

Themes of female identity and self-possession are taken up with greater intensity in The Snare (1972), a novel finding a more receptive audience today than it did upon publication. In bare outline, the story follows Julia Garrett, by rights a proper society girl living with relatives in New Orleans, as she rejects her expected role in favor of the city’s notably dark and nefarious depths. Through flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness, and other strategies of narrative ambiguity—the very techniques that troubled early reviewers—Spencer conveys the slender purchase on reality of a woman who may have experienced sexual trauma.

In these months since Spencer’s death, The Snare is being recommended as “essential reading” on #MeToo reading lists: “a feminist novel, far ahead of its time in its handling of female sexuality and desire, as well as the influence of early and unwanted experiences,” writes one new admirer.[1] Spencer considered The Snare her best novel. It would please her to know it is finally being understood.

Her friends gathered one final time for her funeral on February 1, at Chapel of the Cross, in Chapel Hill. The service followed the Episcopal order of burial in all aspects but one: no homily was offered. That was her wish, a brilliant move. No one, at least not then, was going to define Elizabeth Spencer on terms other than her own. She just slipped away, companion to cloud and sky.



Forthcoming are two new collections of Spencer’s work: one, a volume in the prestigious Library of America series, edited by distinguished critic Michael Gorra; two, a volume collected and introduced by Sally Greene that brings together Spencer’s play “For Lease or Sale,” which features the character Edward Glenn, and the three subsequent short stories in which he appears.


Elizabeth Spencer: ____________. Ed. Michael Gorra. Library of America, forthcoming 2021.

The Edward Tales, by Elizabeth Spencer. Ed. & intro. Sally Greene. University Press of Mississippi, contract pending.

[1] Caroline McCoy, “‘The Snare’ Captures How Women Internalize Trauma,” Electric Lit, 1 May 2020,