Elizabeth Spencer, author of 'The Light in the Piazza,' dies at 98

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Elizabeth Spencer, author of 'The Light in the Piazza,' dies at 98
Victoria Clark, left, and Kelli O’Hara in the musical “The Light in the Piazza,” adapted from the novella by Elizabeth Spencer, in New York, March 16, 2005. Spencer, a lyrical Southern writer whose novels and short stories explored the conflicts and inner lives of ordinary people and families and communities drawn from her native Mississippi and from decades abroad in Italy and Canada, died on Dec. 22, 2019, at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was 98. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Robert D. McFadden

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Elizabeth Spencer, a lyrical Southern writer whose novels and short stories explored the conflicts and inner lives of ordinary people and families and communities drawn from her native Mississippi and from decades abroad in Italy and Canada, died Sunday at her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She was 98.

Her death was confirmed by playwright Craig Lucas, who adapted her 1960 novella “The Light in the Piazza” for the stage.

Often compared to the Southern voices of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, or even to Henry James for her portrayals of expatriate Americans caught in crises far from home, Spencer over nearly seven decades produced nine novels, eight collections of short stories, a memoir and a play.

Much of her literary trove was set in small towns in Mississippi, and in Rome, Venice and Montreal. Her work examined racism, subtle class distinctions and a universe of prejudices that bound its male protagonists and its more numerous world-weary heroines to loveless marriages, drunken spouses, bigoted families and oppressive customs.

Her best-known work is “The Light in the Piazza,” the tale of an upper-class American visiting Italy with her mentally disabled adult daughter, who becomes enamored of a young Italian man. Clinging to false hopes of a normal life for her daughter, the mother consents to a marriage but keeps secret the tragic brain injury in her past, while the suitor and his family think she is just charmingly naïve.

Published originally in The New Yorker and selected as a National Book Award finalist, this story of maternal responsibility and love, of emotional innocence and its consequences, was adapted for a 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux and Rossano Brazzi, and by Lucas and composer Adam Guettel for a musical staged in Seattle in 2003 and in New York in 2005. The production won rave reviews and six Tony Awards. (In 1996, the novella was included in “Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales,” which is also counted among Spencer’s short-story collections.)

Spencer’s 1956 novel, “The Voice at the Back Door,” uses a campaign for sheriff in a fictional Mississippi county to examine racial conflicts, corruption and the lives of men fulfilling violent traditions, elderly women living in the past and people overwhelmed by life’s complexities. The book was unanimously chosen by a Pulitzer Prize jury, but the governing committee chose to give no prize for fiction in 1957. Some critics have said that Spencer’s candor about virulent segregationist racism was the reason.

Her short-story prose was often rhapsodic. “I, Maureen” portrays a Montreal wife and mother who veers from madness to compromise with her wealthy husband’s insufferably pretentious clan, walking at last to the end of her tether and looking out a picture window at a snowy lake, before returning to the icy rituals of her life.

“In the winter,” Maureen recalls poignantly, “we had cocktails before dinner in a spacious room overlooking the frozen lake, watching the snow drift slowly down, seeing the skaters stroking outward. We had sherry between church services and Sunday lunch. Then the ice boats raced past, silent, fast as dreams.”

In 2014, Spencer received the Rea Award for short fiction, which recognizes “significant contributions” to the short story form.

Spencer “constructs her stories out of gossip and old memories and anecdotes not so much for their own sakes but as a means of locating the mysteries about people, the things that don’t add up,” author Malcolm Jones wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 2014 on the publication of “Starting Over,” her last collection of short stories.

Elizabeth Spencer was born July 19, 1921, in Carrollton, Mississippi, to James and Mary (McCain) Spencer. John McCain, the Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate, was a second cousin. Her father was a businessman and farmer. Her mother’s family owned a plantation where black servants abounded long after the abolition of slavery.

Elizabeth grew up in a racially segregated town of 500 and in a home filled with books. Her mother, aunts and uncles talked of fictional characters as if they were real people — the sorrows of Victor Hugo’s Fantine, who had to sell her hair and teeth, and of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth, who fell for proud Mr. Darcy.

She began writing stories as a child, up in a tree or in bed with her knees drawn up, and she read voraciously.

“Translations from Greek and Latin were on our shelves, and some originals, and if anybody mentioned Dante, he was there too,” Spencer told The Paris Review. “There were also Melville, Hawthorne, Poe and the New England poets. A host of children’s classics were read aloud to me, and one was expected to know the Bible backwards and forwards.”

She was valedictorian of her high school class in 1938, graduated from Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1942 and earned a master’s in 1943 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she knew Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren. She taught junior college classes for two years and was a reporter for The Nashville Tennessean for a year.

Her well-received first novel, “Fire in the Morning” (1948), created a Mississippi town, with a history of its citizens, conflicts and values. Her second novel, “This Crooked Way” (1952), was also set in the South.

From 1948 to 1951, she taught at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. After a year in New York, she returned to Oxford briefly, then won a fellowship and left for Europe.

In 1956 she married John Rusher, a British businessman. After five years in Italy, the couple moved to Montreal, where Spencer wrote much of her fiction, including the novels “Knights and Dragons” (1965) and “No Place for an Angel” (1967) and a collection of short stories, “Ship Island and Other Stories,” (1968), dedicated to her friend Welty.

Her next collections, “The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer” and “Marilee,” both appeared in 1981, and were followed by “Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories” (1988), “On the Gulf” (1991) and “The Southern Woman” (2001). Her later novels were “The Snare” (1972), “The Salt Line” (1984) and “The Night Travellers” (1991).

Spencer taught from 1976 to 1986 at Concordia University in Montreal and from 1986 to 1992 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she settled. She also wrote a play, “For Lease or Sale” (1989), and a memoir, “Landscapes of the Heart” (1998).

With Walker Percy, Shelby Foote and others, Spencer helped found the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a nonprofit organization that nurtures the development of literature in the South.

Spencer’s husband died in 1998. The couple had no children. She is survived by a niece, Ellen Johnson, a daughter of Spencer’s older brother, James, who died in 1995.


Spencer never lost her soft Mississippi accent, although her literary voice might have been anyone’s, as Michiko Kakutani of The Times noted in a review of the “Jack of Diamonds” stories:

“Whether she takes the viewpoint of a teenage girl, a young newlywed or a middle-aged widow, her ability to capture their voices sympathetically is unerring and precise; and she conjures up, with equal ease, a variety of milieus, moving fluently from the genteel gardens of the South to the grimy streets of Montreal, from the rustic summer cabins of Lake George to the fairy-tale courtyards of Florence and Rome.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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