In Michèle Roberts’s Impossible Saints, the central character Josephine is taken as a child to a festival at which she sees a fat lady attempting to walk across a wire she has hung between two parked wagons.3 The fat lady is a ridiculous figure in her gaudy costume and the crowd for the most part ignore her, but Josephine is entranced as she watches the fat lady delicately launch herself into the dangerous space ahead, twirling her wand for balance. Josephine cries at the fat lady’s daring to be more than herself as she progresses across the wire, and she realises, as she recalls the incident some thirty years later, that her own life by contrast has been circumscribed by fear and that her religious vocation is a lie. The terror the Church has induced her to feel is graphically illustrated, as Josephine remembers how a few hours after seeing the fat lady she watched the heretics sentenced to death by the Inquisition being tied to their stakes. The wood for the heretics’ fires came from the wagons the fat lady used to secure her wire, and as the flames kindle it seems to Josephine that they consume her intrepid, pirouetting figure.
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