They were reading Marivaux’s La Surprise de l’Amour when Jim met Jo met in the summer of 1972. The two young graduate students were taking Ron Rosbottom’s 18th-century French literature seminar, which assembled in Williams Hall. Roberts was an attractive redhead from Virginia, brimming with energy and intelligence. Gaines, the bright son of working-class parents from Massachusetts, had come to Penn from Michigan State to do his graduate work in French literature, and was increasingly drawn to the 17th-century world of Moliére.

She first noticed him when he was cleaning out his wallet—in class—as preparation for an upcoming trip to Dijon, where he would be lecturing. He doesn’t remember much about their initial conversation, but he doesn’t have any trouble remembering his first impressions.

“There was definitely a wonderful chemistry there,” says Gaines. “She was from Virginia, which was a bit exotic for me, being from Massachusetts. I was very intrigued by her.”

At the time, Roberts was also working in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library at Van Pelt, where she welcomed visiting scholars and looked after the rarities. Within a couple of weeks Gaines was stopping by the library after classes, and the two would head out to La Terrasse or an Indian restaurant for a bite.

They had plenty to talk about. Roberts was working on her dissertation on Philip Sidney, author of the Arcadia; it was later published under the title Architectonic Knowledge in the New Arcadia (1590): Sidney’s Use of the Heroic Journey. Sidney, incidentally, was Lady Mary Wroth’s uncle—and one of the characters in the Arcadia was a shepherdess named Urania. One thing soon led to another.

“Jo was already acquainted with the Urania, and thinking about it,” recalls Gaines. “Well before she left Penn, she was mentioning this wonderful field of study that relatively few people had gone into, and she was already collecting bibliographical references and talking about visiting England and all these castles to track down some of the literature and references that were fuzzy or lost.”

By the time they were married in 1975, Roberts had received her Ph.D. from Penn and Gaines had finished the course requirements for his. Despite the dismal mid-seventies job market, Roberts had a number of offers from universities around the country, and finally accepted a tenure-track position at Louisiana State University. Gaines took a job at a local high school teaching geography and sociology while he worked on his dissertation on “Social Structures in Moliére’s Major Plays,” then landed a position at Southeastern Louisiana University, some 50 miles away.

Life was different in Baton Rouge—where even Roberts was seen as coming from “up North”—but unquestionably good. Even after they moved to the eastern edge of town, Gaines still had a 40-mile drive to SELU, but Roberts’ commute was a relatively easy one across town, mostly along Interstate 10. And in case their lives weren’t full enough, they added a baby boy to the mix in 1982. They named him John Manley Roberts Gaines, honoring both of their fathers.

Roberts, who would be named the William A. Read Professor of English Literature, was becoming a very popular professor at LSU, both at the undergraduate and the graduate level.

“She really was beloved,” says Gaines. “She had a very strong following, both among her undergraduate and her graduate students. She got several awards at LSU for her teaching and research. Unofficial ones, too—one of her undergraduate English classes got together and gave her a plaque all on their own.”

“Jo was a great mentor to me,” recalls Dr. Mary Villeponteaux, who chose Roberts to be her dissertation director at LSU and now teaches early modern English literature at the University of Southern Mississippi. “She gently kept me on track; she helped me refine and develop my ideas; and she really never stopped helping me, even after I graduated. I think she was that way with all her students. She didn’t just help you with your academic work; she helped you with your life.

“I knew her quite well for several years,” adds Villeponteaux, “and in all that time I never once heard her say anything negative about anyone. If you know English departments, you know how rare that is!”

For all her quiet modesty, Roberts was also a rising star as a scholar. In 1983 LSU Press published her landmark collection of Wroth’s poetry—The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth—complete with a lengthy critical introduction that included a short biography of Wroth. As she put Wroth on the literary map, Roberts was doing the same for herself.

“She seemed to me then, as she does now, the perfect scholar, one who is not driven by a desire for fame, but by a true love of the subject,” wrote Dr. Sigrid King, a former graduate student and research assistant of Roberts’, in Pilgrimage for Love: Essays in Early Modern Literature in Honor of Josephine A. Roberts. The fact that King (now an associate professor of English at Carlow College) undertook such a book speaks volumes about its subject.

One of the best sources of Wroth’s work is the Newberry Library in Chicago, which had several copies of the published First Part of the Urania, not to mention the only manuscript of the unpublished Second Part. Roberts spent a good deal of time there, often joined by her husband and, later, her son. Jim Gaines would sometimes help her decipher Wroth’s handwriting and spelling, and otherwise aid in her scholarly detective work. Once, when Roberts was baffled by a reference in the Urania to “the island now called Robollo”—which didn’t appear on any maps, new or old—he tapped an unlikely source of knowledge.

“I liked the James Bond movies,” he recalls, “and I was watching For Your Eyes Only, part of which takes place in the Aegean. At one point Bond has a snack with a character who turns out to be the villain, and they’re eating caviar and crab or something, and the villain says, ‘May I suggest a white Robolo … ’”

Gaines soon discovered that Robolo (also known as Robola) was a wine once made by Venetian monks on the island of Cephalonia, and was well known in Wroth’s day. Scholarship works in mysterious ways.

Roberts was also making a name for herself in feminist-scholarship circles. “She became increasingly interested in feminist studies, especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” recalls Gaines, noting that her interests were widespread, ranging from Hildegard of Bingen in the Middle Ages to Virginia Woolf and other 20th-century British writers. “Had her career gone on longer, she might very well have done something in that area,” says Gaines. “She was reading very widely and was beginning to cast out her critical tendrils and develop bibliographical lines.”

But for now, she had her hands full with Lady Wroth. And the heart of Wroth’s work was the Urania.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/29/04

Strange Labyrinth
By Samuel Hughes

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