Elizabeth Spencer (1921–2019)
From Elizabeth Spencer: Novels & Stories
The great Elizabeth Spencer, author of such classic novels as The Light in the Piazza and The Voice at the Back Door, would have turned 100 next Monday, July 19. In fact, she died just nineteen months ago, in December 2019, at the age of 98.
Early in her career she was lumped in with other Southern authors of the period, including her early champion Robert Penn Warren and fellow Mississippi writer Eudora Welty. It was an association Spencer certainly never denied—although she often was perplexed by comparisons to either writer, since their prose styles were so different.
“You certainly can’t know where you are until you know where you were,” she wrote. “Where I was, was Mississippi; in many ways, I’m still there. There are images—especially, it seems, to Southerners—that never go away; they do not even fade.” She soon, however, became a world traveler, spending time in Europe before settling in Montreal with her husband, a British citizen. “Some writers invent their new terrains; I preferred to go and look for mine. First and last, for me it was Italy. One after another, scenes I remember from that abundant Mediterranean world have wound up in my work.”
One of Spencer’s stories set in Rome is “The White Azalea,” which features the combination of detached humor and off-stage tragedy (here, in the form of bad news) that readers can find in several of her stories. We present it in full as our Story of the Week, which includes an introduction that explains more fully how she ended up writing about Southerners in Italy.