Godwin, Gail (Vol. 125)
Gail Godwin 1937–
(Full name Gail Kathleen Godwin) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and librettist.
The following entry presents an overview of Godwin's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 8, 22, 31, and 69.
Gail Godwin is a gifted popular writer whose work has been praised for its convincing development of characters. With story lines closely paralleling her own life experiences, she writes about issues pertaining to women—male-female roles, marriage, family, personal freedom, self-concept, and self-actualization. Often her characters define themselves through the art or literature they create or study, graying the line between reality and fiction. She has based many of her characters on her own family members and tragic incidents in their lives that have affected her. Thus, Godwin's narratives can be perceived as analyses of her life. While not all of her novels are set in the South, her southern upbringing pervades each work through settings, events, cultural references, or characters struggling with Southern traditions and stereotypes. A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) launched Godwin into the ranks of best-selling authors.
Godwin was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in a "manless little family" by her mother and grandmother until she was an adolescent. They were dissimilar role models. Her grandmother was a traditional Southern woman who ran the household and set aside her interests for others. She is represented by Edith in The Odd Woman (1974). Her mother, Kathleen Godwin, was a reporter for the local paper, a junior college teacher, and weekend romance writer. She imbued Godwin with a love of storytelling. Kathleen would become Kate in the Glass People (1972) and Kitty in The Odd Woman. When Godwin was eleven years old, her mother married Frank Cole, with whom she never developed a close relationship. He figures as the stepfather Ray in The Odd Woman. Godwin finally met her charismatic father, Mose Godwin, who had left the family shortly after her birth, at her high school graduation. She lived with him briefly while attending Pearce Junior College in Raleigh, North Carolina; later he would commit suicide. The lovable Uncle Ambrose who kills himself in Violet Clay (1978) and the disconsolate Walter Gowan in Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991) are patterned after Mose. Godwin's uncle and half-brother also committed suicide; the latter's story was retold in A Southern Family (1987). After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Godwin took a job as a reporter with the Miami Herald. She was fired a year later because she persisted in infusing her stories with human-interest details rather than just presenting the facts. During the same year, she was married for three months to newspaper photographer Douglas Kennedy. This union would be fodder for Godwin's first novel, "Gull Key." This novel, however, was never published because she sent the only manuscript copy to a publisher whom later she could never track down. In 1962 she went to London, where she worked for the U.S. Travel Service at the American embassy, traveled, and took writing classes. She met her second husband. British psychiatrist Ian Marshall, in one of her classes. Her first published novel, The Perfectionists (1970), is based on her second, also very brief, marriage. Upon her return to the United States, Godwin studied writing and pursued her postgraduate degrees at the University of Iowa, earning her M.A. degree in 1968 and her Ph.D. degree in English in 1971. Her thesis was the novel The Perfectionists. While in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she studied under Kurt Vonnegut along with fellow student John Irving. Later, as Irving was writing The World According to Garp and she was writing Violet Clay, they exchanged chapters as they wrote them. Besides novels, Godwin has written short stories and essays and has been the librettist of musical works by her companion, Robert Starer. She has garnered many honors, including a National Book Award nomination for The Odd Woman, American Book Award nominations for Violet Clay and for A Mother and Two Daughters, a Janet Kafka award and Thomas Wolfe Memorial award for A Southern Family, an Alabama Library Association Best Fiction award for Father Melancholy's Daughter, as well as National Endowment for the Arts grants in creative writing and for librettists, and a Guggenheim fellowship.
Godwin forces her protagonists, who are nearly without exception women, to reevaluate their lives and desires when confronted with an adversity, be it a sudden death in the family, a breakdown in a marriage, or some other incident. In The Perfectionists Godwin describes the disintegration of American Dane Empson's "perfect but unhappy marriage" to a British psychiatrist while on vacation with his sullen three-year-old son and a patient. Dane struggles to understand what she wants from the marriage and what her role is in it. Another unhappily married woman, grappling with the same questions of self-abnegation and resolution, is the protagonist of the Glass People. Cameron Bolt adores and pampers his wife, Francesca, but stifles her personal growth until she literally bolts for freedom. Freedom brings complications for which she is unprepared, and she ultimately returns to her welcoming husband, although she is pregnant by another man. The book confirmed Godwin's talent, but The Odd Woman demonstrated a significant advance in her development. In the novel an unmarried literature professor, Jane Clifford, engaged in a love affair with a married man. Gabriel Weeks, mulls over freedom, identity, and self-fulfillment by examining the lives of real and literary women. Following the death her grandmother. she analyzes the roles of her mother (a romantic, accommodating wife), her grandmother (a traditional Southern lady), friend (a militant feminist), and colleague (a successful, married career woman) and reflects on how she twines literary fantasies into her life, especially in her relationship with Gabriel. This novel is twice as long as Godwin's previous ones because of her inclusion of more flashback, fantasy, and actual incidents and of the characterizations of several women. In Violet Clay Godwin explores the relationship of the artist and her art, as the title character seeks to establish her self-identity. Violet is a Southern woman who goes to New York to become an artist, but settles for being an illustrator of romance novel covers. Shaken by losing her job and her lover, then her Uncle Ambrose's suicide, she moves into her uncle's cabin to gain insight into his stagnated writing career and to rediscover her artistic self. The narrative of Godwin's next two novels, A Mother and Two Daughters and The Finishing School (1985) also evolves from death. In A Mother and Two Daughters Godwin explores relationships, Southern stereotypes, the New South, and such issues as abortion as the central characters aspire to selfhood after the death of the father. It is the first book in which Godwin tells a story from the perspective of more than one character. These characters include the recently widowed mother, Nell Strickland, and her thirty-something daughters Cate, a twice-divorced college professor, and Lydia, a mother who has left her husband. In The Finishing School a middle-aged actress recalls the summer she was fourteen and she and her mother stayed at her aunt's home following the death of her grandparents and father and she became the protégé of a failed actress. The book presents a good portrait of adolescence using a style that is both mythic and folkloric. A Southern Family is based on the suicide of Godwin's half-brother. In the novel, author Clare Quick is visiting her family in North Carolina when her brother, a divorced father, kills his girlfriend and himself. The book delves into the reactions of the survivors (the family and the community) and the family history and relationships that might shed light on such an unpredictable event. Godwin derived the despondent father in Father Melancholy's Daughter (which focuses on role reversal) from her own father's experience with depression. After her mother runs off when she is six, Margaret Gower assumes the role of nurturer as her Episcopal priest father is unable to overcome his heartbrokenness. This book is a combination of domestic fiction, mystery, and religious novel. Godwin returns to the theme of matrimony and its complexities in The Good Husband (1994). The story involves four characters undergoing profound changes. Alice Henry, who recently had a miscarriage, is contemplating divorcing her eccentric, Southern novelist husband, Hugo, and is becoming interested in her friend Magna Dowers' husband, Francis Lake. Caring and steadfast Francis, who is ten years younger than Magna, left the priesthood to marry her. But now as she is dying, Magna encourages Alice's interest in him.
Although she produces a new novel every few years, and has experimented with various literary modes and techniques. Godwin has consistently won the respect of reviewers. As Mary Ann Wimsatt noted, "During slightly more than twenty years of an active career, Gail Godwin has established herself as one of the most gifted, prolific, and popular late twentieth-century Southern novelists." Most of her books are characterized as well written, well executed, readable, witty, and having vivid, believable characters. "Her meticulously controlled fiction," wrote Paul Gray, "creates the illusion of life unpredictably unfolding and of characters trying to make moral sense out of experiences that overwhelm thought." The Odd Woman, The Finishing School, and A Southern Family attracted favorable reviews and a large popular audience. However, Violet Clay and The Good Husband were less appreciated by reviewers, the former for being too intelligent, the latter for being overambitious and too symbolic. Despite such criticism, Godwin remains highly regarded for her depiction of authentic female protagonists whose private struggles and insecurities reflect those of many modern women. Wimsatt added, "All Godwin's novels, from The Perfectionists in 1970 to Father Melancholy's Daughter in 1991, center upon young women struggling to attain their independence, establish their identity, and successfully pursue their work despite the restraints of male-dominated culture and with or without the companionship or support of men." In a review of A Southern Family, Gray concluded, "Born in the South, Godwin appears to be one of those writers who inherited a subject for life; then she developed the wisdom and talent to make her birthright seem constantly fresh and enthralling."
The Perfectionists (novel) 1970
Glass People (novel) 1972
The Odd Woman (novel) 1974
Dream Children (short stories) 1976
Violet Clay (novel) 1978
A Mother and Two Daughters (novel) 1982
Mr. Bedford and the Muses (short stories) 1983
The Finishing School (novel) 1985
A Southern Family (novel) 1987
Father Melancholy's Daughter (novel) 1991
The Good Husband (novel) 1994
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SOURCE: "Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman: Literature and the Retreat from Life," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XX, No. 2, 1978, pp. 21-32.
[In the following essay, Lorsch examines the significance of literature and imaginative thought for the female protagonist of The Odd Woman. According to Lorsch, "The Odd Woman centers on the relation between literature and life, especially on the effect that literature—and the lies it often tells—has on those who believe it."]
Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman (1974) does not at first glance seem to be in the currently popular mode of self-conscious fiction—and perhaps for this reason has not attracted the critical attention it deserves. Neither a work as involuted as one by Borges nor a Kuenstlerroman, The Odd Woman centers on the relation between literature and life, especially on the effect that literature—and the lies it often tells—has on those who believe it. Of special interest is the novel's focus on fiction's traditional portrayal of women and its effect on women's relations with and reactions to men.
For Jane Clifford, the protagonist of The Odd Woman, words possess an almost magical quality. The novel opens with Jane lying in bed trying to overcome her usual insomnia by pondering the written records of sleeplessness left by other insomniacs. To Jane, words seem imbued with...
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SOURCE: "The Role of the South in the Novels of Gail Godwin," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXI, No. 3, 1980, pp. 103-10.
[In the following essay, Smith discusses the influence of Southern culture and values on the protagonists of Godwin's fiction. According to Smith, "Beyond family ties and soft accents, the most significant positive trait is the willingness to dream, which Godwin seems to attribute to Southerners."]
Gail Godwin, who was born in Alabama and raised in North Carolina but has lived in the Midwest and New York, is a novelist and short story writer concerned with the problems of developing self-identity and seeking the "best life." Many of Godwin's characters attempt to counteract their inclination to dream, or to retreat from life, by finding solutions to their problems by compromising their dream in life. When a character cannot find true love, when one wants to write the perfect book or article, or when one is searching for the perfect visual theme, these characters at last, after considerable brooding, act in order to cease the inactivity of dreaming: cutting off the love affair, committing suicide, or actually working. While perhaps not true in fact, the myth surrounding Southerners is that they are dreamers of an illusive reality based on unattainable absolute ideals. The role of the South in Godwin's novels is best seen as a welcome retreat from the harsh realities,...
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SOURCE: "Romance Turned Upside Down," in Time, January 25, 1982, p. 72.
[In the following review, Gray offers praise for A Mother and Two Daughters.]
In simpler times, happy stories ended with a marriage proposal or a wedding. A Mother and Two Daughters is decidedly cheerful: but living happily ever after, in the old-fashioned sense, is the very fate its heroines struggle to escape. They find themselves in a romance turned upside down: girl meets boy, boy offers her his hand, she shakes it and marches on.
In four earlier novels and a collection of short stories, Author Gail Godwin, 44, has presented a distinctive gallery of rogues, female, troubled and courageous. They tend to have Southern backgrounds, with all the accompanying luggage of traditions and social forms, and an unsettling inclination to think and act on their own (Godwin was raised in Asheville, N.C., and has taught English and creative writing at Vassar and Columbia, among other places). The author's fifth novel repeats previous patterns on a grander scale: more main characters, broader swatches of life to dazzle and puzzle them.
The catalyst for all that follows is the fatal heart attack of Leonard Strickland, a gentle North Carolina lawyer fond of Montaigne and Cicero. After 40 years of his benign companionship, his widow Nell doubts her ability to go it alone: "He protected me from so much …...
(The entire section is 959 words.)
SOURCE: "With Men and Without," in Progressive, Vol. 46, May, 1982, p. 59.
[In the following review, Schwartz offers positive assessment of A Mother and Two Daughters.]
Historically, novels by and about women have been taken less seriously than novels by men. This pattern is changing, however, as publishers seek to capitalize on the feminist market. A good many feminist writers deserve this new attention, and it is no longer possible to count on the bones of a single corset the women who write fiction of quality about women. Gail Godwin is one such writer, and in A Mother and Two Daughters she continues to explore the concept of independence from men, the theme of her previous novels.
The women of the title are educated Southerners. Nell Strickland, the mother, is adjusting to the loss of her well-to-do and devoted husband and experiencing independence for the first time in her life. She savors life on her own for a few years but then commits herself to a man unworthy of her and inferior to her first husband. Cate, the elder daughter, is known as the family radical for having married twice and engaging in the mildest of 1960s-style protests. A professor and a romantic, she pursues her quests for a university appointment and a perfect lover. Her sister Lydia, the mother of two sons, leaves her stodgy husband in search of the greater fulfillment she has heard is available to women...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
SOURCE: "Narrating the Self: The Autonomous Heroine in Gail Godwin's Violet Clay," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 66-85.
[In the following essay, Frye examines the relationship between narrative design and self-creation in Violet Clay. "By granting Violet the power of the narrative process to explore possibilities and to assess patterns," writes Frye, "Godwin has given her heroine the capacity to be 'the subject of her own destiny,' a destiny created and renewed with each new choice."]
Though both contemporary fiction and current literary theory are often concerned to tell us that plot is passé, few of us are actually prepared to relinquish the idea of narrative pattern: the process of narration is too closely bound into our sense of humanity. Even from an existentialist perspective, which accurately identifies the reliance on stories with bad faith and inauthentic living, stories remain a human necessity: fiction is "deeply distrusted and yet humanly indispensable" or "'fiction' designates an apparently unavoidable tendency to reconstitute the self in more comfortable categories." We know, of course, that we cannot expect our lives to respond to easy plotting, but we nevertheless feel a recurrent need to narrate the events of our lives to ourselves and to each other, to give shape to the disorder of lived experience. We use narration to identify...
(The entire section is 8450 words.)
SOURCE: "Gail Godwin and the Ideal of Southern Womanhood," in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 55-66.
[In the following essay, Rhodes explores Godwin's treatment of Southern values concerning motherhood and female duty in her novels. According to Rhodes, "Godwin's writings dissect the conservative feminine myth of the South not just to expose its debilitating central demand for a selflessness that precludes self-discovery, but also to present remedies."]
Gail Godwin's fiction has reflected many of the myths and manners of the South. Some of her most sympathetic characters have been Southern women whose struggles toward self-discovery required them to reject traits demanded by the traditional ideal of Southern womanhood. In her novels published during the 1970s, Godwin often depicted that ideal as alive and deadly: it entailed a set of values bent toward restraining Southern belles to narrow notions of grace and duty. In her social criticism, Godwin spoke even more explicitly of the dangers of the old ideal of "Southern Womanhood," with its constricting effects on the docile daughters of the misguided mother who tried to model and impose the tradition of shallow ladyhood. Only in her latest novel have the three featured Southern women attained the balance that Godwin admires: without fleeing the South, they manage to...
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SOURCE: "Deliberate Speed, Stunning Effect," in Time, February 11, 1985. p. 87.
[In the following review; Gray asserts that The Finishing School is Godwin's "most artful and accomplished novel and an old-fashioned, irresistible page turner."]
With A Mother and Two Daughters (1982), her fifth novel. Gail Godwin joined that select circle of critically praised authors who have also produced best-sellers. This happy event entitled her longtime admirers to mixed emotions. While it is pleasurable to see a favored writer receive the success she deserves, it is irksome to realize that membership in a small club of discriminating readers has suddenly been thrown open to multitudes. If so many people, the reasoning follows, liked Godwin's loose, loving chronicle of three plucky females, then maybe we should find it disappointing. And whom will she write for next time, all of them or us?
The Finishing School should thoroughly satisfy both of Godwin's constituencies. It is at once her most artful and accomplished novel and an old-fashioned, irresistible page turner. The plot, like that of A Mother and Two Daughters, is set in motion by the death of a father and the adjustments demanded of the women he protected. But this time Godwin has made things harder on the survivors, particularly a young daughter who must endure a brief but harrowing rite of passage toward...
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SOURCE: A review of The Finishing School, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 24, 1985, pp. 2, 10.
[In the following review, Mitchell offers qualified praise for The Finishing School, while pointing out some of the novel's technical flaws.]
What do actors do to survive between plays? Not as in how do they pay their rent, but in where do they live out their dramas? With and for whom can they perform? What do they do to avoid the dreaded "ordinariness"? For 40-year-old Justin Stokes, with successful New York plays to her credit, she becomes obsessed with a desire she had during the summer that she turned 14.
An appealing subject, since we all probably have had a summer that became the summer; one special section of intense joy and pain that remains forever roped off in enchantment from the rest of our lives. It may have involved a first job, a memorable trip, a change in family circumstances, but, inevitably, if there was real magic, it involved a person. For young Justin, it was Ursula De Vane, a dynamic, unconventional 44-year-old woman with "a flair for improvisations," and actress manque with her own need for an audience. That need is at least one explanation for the sophisticated Ursula to encourage so young a girl into such an intense friendship. There is no wonder at all for the girl's infatuation with her.
Justin is a stranger...
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SOURCE: "Maiden Voyage," in New Republic, February 25, 1985, pp. 31-2.
[In the following review, Pritchard offers praise for The Finishing School, which he concludes is Godwin's "best novel."]
The "finishing school" is in fact an old stone hut by a pond in Clove township, upstate New York, where at the beginning of her 15th year and over the course of an extraordinary summer, Justin Stokes comes of age. The agent who plants formative aspirations within her is Ursula DeVane, an unmarried woman of 44 who—with her reclusive brother Julian, a talented concert pianist reduced to giving lessons to neighborhood children—lives in her father's old house and grounds, selling off his acres as economic necessity directs. By contrast with Ursula's rootedness, Justin has been painfully uprooted. Her own father recently dead, she has been wrenched from the established routines of a comfortable home in Virginia and relocated in the unfamiliar and largely unappealing confines of Lucas Meadows—a small community most of whose members work for IBM, eight miles away in Kingston, New York.
Justin, her mother, and younger brother live with her aunt Mona and cousin Becky in a house which is, alas, everything Ursula DeVane's is not (it has seafoam wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room, protected by clear plastic runners leading to the various sitting places). Aunt Mona has redone Justin's room...
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SOURCE: "Polite Forms of Aggression," in Time, October 5, 1987, p. 82.
[In the following review, Gray asserts that in A Southern Family "Gail Godwin again displays the narrative verve and generosity that won critical praise for her early works…."]
Clare Campion, 42, a successful novelist living in New York City, pays one of her infrequent visits home to Mountain City in western North Carolina. There she finds her mother Lily, her stepfather Ralph Quick and her two half brothers. Theo, 28, and Rafe, 26, all of them behaving incorrigibly in character and thereby reminding Clare of why she had left them and the South in the first place. Her only respite from what she calls "the ongoing theatricals of the family" is the companionship of her childhood friend Julia Richardson. Years earlier, Julia gave up a promising career as a historian and returned to Mountain City to teach in the local college, take care of her dying mother and then look after her father. These two women manifest the attraction of opposites. Clare has apparently broken free of her past and asserted her talent in the world at large; Julia has surrendered her future to duty. Each regards the other as a path not taken.
All the elements seem to have been assembled for a spirited feminist parable about the oppressive choices that society forces on women. Indeed, that story can be found within A Southern Family,...
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SOURCE: "Time and the Single Girl," in Spectator, October 17, 1987, pp. 36-7.
[In the following review, Brookner offers positive evaluation of A Southern Family.]
Thirteen years ago Gail Godwin wrote an extraordinarily capacious and sympathetic novel entitled The Odd Woman. Both the title and the theme were taken from George Gissing's novel, The Odd Women, a bleak and chilling account of what happens to women who are not married. According to Gissing they are forced into menial work and end up in institutions, drunk or mad or both. The shame of spinsterhood was apparently at its peak in the sunset years of Victorian values. Gail Godwin took over the burden of this lament, but by 1974 that shame had mutated into mere uncertainty of status: the unmarried woman, honourably furnished with a lover and a university career, overcame her disadvantages but felt lonely, unprotected. This was before the days of networking, assertiveness training, and power dressing. Spinsters today manage better, may have babies, can achieve solvency and viability. At some point they may even soar over the top into triumphalism, surveying their good fortune at doing without the tedium or the torment of a man and comparing themselves favorably with their exhausted married sisters.
All this is illusion, of course, as Gail Godwin's Jane, the Odd Woman of the title, knew in her heart even in 1974. For...
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SOURCE: "The Odd Woman and Literary Feminism," in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 173-84.
[In the following essay, Brownstein explores literary feminist themes in The Odd Woman and Godwin's opposition to "feminist categorization" among contemporary critics. According to Brownstein, "The Odd Woman suggests that real, interesting women must imagine and construct their identities in the terms of traditional fiction, so as to revise them."]
At the age of four or five, Jane Clifford, the protagonist of Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman, was already concerned with the representation of women in fiction. She asked her mother, Kitty, a college teacher who wrote love stories on weekends:
"Why don't you write a story about a woman who teaches school at the college and writes love stories on the weekend and has a little girl like me?"
"It wouldn't sell, that's why." replied Kitty.
"Oh, I think it would be very interesting to read," said Jane.
"It would be interesting to people like you and me," Kitty said, "but I can assure you, Love Short Stories wouldn't buy it."
In an article about writing fiction, the author of The Odd Woman recalled that...
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SOURCE: A review of Father Melancholy's Daughter, in New York, March 11, 1991, pp. 86-7.
[In the following review, Koenig offers negative assessment of Father Melancholy's Daughter.]
An upbeat novel about depression, an inquiry into the meaning of the Passion and the Resurrection—Father Melancholy's Daughter goes into some strange territory for mainstream fiction. The trouble is, it goes in there with all the old paraphernalia of not only mainstream but women's fiction, all those cleft sticks and hip boots of romantic yearnings, endearing twinkliness, and recipes to try in your own home.
The daughter of an Episcopal rector, Margaret Gower has devoted most of her twenty-year-old life to looking after him. When Margaret was six, her mother left their insistently nice Virginia town one day with an old schoolmate (female) to Find Herself in the art world of New York. Some months later, Mrs. Gower died in an accident, her legacy a husband who is continually drawn behind the "black curtain" of depression and whose religious beliefs prevent him from relying on drugs.
As well as tending to a gloomy man who is useless around the house, Margaret tries to make sense of her mother's departure, to imagine why a woman would desert the husband and daughter she always said she loved. She protests to a friend that her parents never fought; the girl suggests, "It could...
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SOURCE: "The Secrets of St. Cuthbert's," in Times Literary Supplement, May 24, 1991, p. 21.
[In the following review, Armstrong lauds Godwin's Father Melancholy's Daughter.]
Early in Gail Godwin's new novel [Father Melancholy's Daughter], Daddy, the "Father Melancholy," of the title, Episcopal Rector of St Cuthbert's and its contracting Virginian congregation of the early 1970s, holds hands with his guest and family to say Grace at dinner. The reaction of incredulous cynicism from his wife's friend, Madelyn, his wife Ruth's embarrassment, his six-year-old only daughter's fury at the sophisticated stranger's intrusion, and Daddy's always slightly exasperating goodness, are caught in the unassuming virtuosity of Godwin's writing. A complex interaction between the members of this linked circle is registered in the briefest of episodes.
The making, breaking and re-making of relationships among these characters form the inner circle of this narrative. It is as subtly restricted by the boundaries of a small-town Southern church and its parishioners as the life of Margaret, daughter of the depressive Rector, is circumscribed by her duty to him. The efforts of father and daughter to understand Ruth's betrayal of them after she has been carried away by Madelyn, a director of blasphemous avant-garde plays in New York, is the main theme of the book. Their obsession is the more poignant...
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SOURCE: "Dismantling Stereotypes: Interracial Friendships in Meridian and A Mother and Two Daughters," in The Female Tradition in Southern Literature, edited by Carol S. Manning, University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 140-57.
[In the following excerpt, Jones examines Godwin's presentation of an interracial friendship and Southern racial dynamics in A Mother and Two Daughters. "Stereotypical thinking exists in Gail Godwin's world," writes Jones, "but not between blacks and whites who know each other personally."]
For various reasons, the average, struggling, nonmorbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America. His revelation to the public is the thing needed to do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear and which ever expresses itself in dislike.
—Zora Neale Hurston, "What White Publishers Won't Print"
We must recognize differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each other's difference to enrich our vision and our joint struggles.
—Audre Lorde, "Age, Race, Class, and Sex"
When pondered together, these meditations on difference raise some perplexing questions. How do we discover a shared humanity without erasing difference? How do we use difference to enrich our vision if we fear it?...
(The entire section is 4232 words.)
SOURCE: "Visions and Versions of Self: The Other/Women in A Mother and Two Daughters," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 155-63.
[In the following essay, Pelzer examines the quest for self-identity among the female protagonists of A Mother and Two Daughters. According to Pelzer, "Visions and versions of other women, other selves, always, inevitably, and necessarily lie behind the identities of Godwin's heroines, for as A Mother and Two Daughters attests, women become and are in relation to each other."]
Gail Godwin's novel A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) charts the struggle to selfhood of three women bound by the inextricable ties of family relationship. To define their selves and to achieve their own identities, Godwin's heroines confront community, family, and their own opposing other selves to achieve their own sense of individuality and self-worth. Their successes and failures are measured against the visions and versions of self that people the novel.
Like the novels that precede it, A Mother and Two Daughters reflects Godwin's ongoing concern with women in the process of self-creation and her examination of the fictions by which they define themselves. Self-aware and self-questioning, her heroines, as Carolyn Rhodes characterizes them, are "women who fear failure, and who are distracted by differing...
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SOURCE: "The Wife Every Woman Wants," in New York Times Book Review, September 4, 1994, p. 5.
[In the following review, Maitland complains that Godwin's The Good Husband "is overloaded with attempts to make it a larger scale book that it is."]
Gail Godwin is a good writer, but The Good Husband is not a good novel. This is both sad and slightly puzzling, because it ought to be. Certainly all the right ingredients seem to be in place. The four main characters are interesting and convincing; their difficulties are real and persuasive; the principal plot is well constructed and involving. Most important, Ms. Godwin has a remarkable capacity for the subtle presentation of real insight. The novel includes a stillbirth, the description of which is brilliantly delayed until the effects of that death and the personal needs of both parents are established; it moved me to tears with its sensitivity. And this is no solitary instance of the novel's superb writing.
The central theme—a dying woman reflecting on her life and having a profound effect on those who travel that last journey with her—is not new. But in Magda Danvers, who has decided against any heroic measures as she enters the last stages of ovarian cancer, Ms. Godwin has created a character well equipped to explore the meaning of her own death, and with a complex enough history to create convincing questions in other...
(The entire section is 1087 words.)
SOURCE: "Facing a Grim Future," in Times Literary Supplement, November 4, 1994, p. 22.
[In the following review, Fleming offers unfavorable assessment of The Good Husband.]
Gail Godwin's ninth novel [The Good Husband], set in an imaginary college in upstate New York, is a meditation on paths not taken: on early death, vocations abandoned, careers not realized, marriages fractured, a child strangled in the womb. Its melancholy sweetness results from the fact that each of its four protagonists learns to abandon his or her early certainties and aspirations in favour of a grimmer, sternly tentative future.
The courage to accept the drastic re-routing of life is exemplified by Magda Danvers, a university professor who, dying of ovarian cancer at the age of fifty-eight, is famous in her community for the courage with which she announced her illness: "Well, I was always a good student; now I must see what I can learn from my final teacher." But cancer increasingly shatters her body, dignity, memory and mind; and the novel closes on Magda's realization that even the will to learn from experience must ultimately be given up: "Let it go, let it all go. How foolish and arrogant of me to expect that my mind would somehow to the very end be exempt…. Let it all break up in pieces and find its way into the dark stream."
Magda's husband, Francis, is an anomaly in the...
(The entire section is 711 words.)
SOURCE: "A Servant or a Saint," in Spectator, November 5, 1994, pp. 51-2.
[In the following review, Brookner offers positive evaluation of The Good Husband.]
Here is a capacious and substantial novel which will impress its readers as either extremely moving or extremely sentimental. The charge of sentimentality will arise from the fact that all the characters are virtuous, even the baroque and self-aggrandising woman professor, even the redneck novelist with writer's block and an attitude problem.
Gail Godwin has made something of a speciality of writing about unsuitable attachments, which neither her heroine, nor perhaps the author herself, perceive to be unsuitable. In Godwin's fine novel of 1974, The Odd Woman, Jane goes to meet her married lover, or rather tries to meet him, in New York: she has been harried into buying an unsuitable dress, the weather is unsuitable, her lover is unsuitable, and the cast of her mind is unsuitable, all of these factors unfitting her for her unsuitable relationship. In Violet Clay the heroine is devoted to a lachrymose uncle, whom she supports with vast and undeserved quantities of encouragement. In Father Melancholy's Daughter the daughter of the title wastes her life in devotion to two priests, neither of whom is worthy of her attentions. And in the present novel the good husband renounces his priestly vocation to love and nurse...
(The entire section is 901 words.)
SOURCE: "A Modern Death," in Christian Century, November 16, 1994, pp. 1088-91.
[In the following review, Bush offers tempered criticism of The Good Husband.]
Deathbed scenes were a staple of novels in the 19th century, when writers could only hint at sex. In this century, as the novel has dealt more and more explicitly with sex, death has been the taboo. But recently some authors have again considered the process of dying as a fit subject for literature. In Gail Godwin's novel, the main character attempts to order, her life and to find the meaning of that life as she prepares for death.
Magda Danvers, a brilliant 58-year-old academic, is dying of ovarian cancer. Refusing treatments that can do little to prolong her life, she decides that she will spend her remaining months learning all she can from our last great teacher, death. In her dying, as in her living, Magda is cared for by her husband, Francis, an ex-seminarian 12 years her junior who provides loving, self-effacing service.
As Magda declines, many of her friends stop coming to visit. The few who continue to do so are helped by her example to work out troubling issues of their own lives. Foremost among these is Alice Henry, who is trying to recover from the loss of her baby and to cope with the emptiness of her marriage. Meanwhile, her husband, Hugo, a renowned southern novelist, regains his sense of vocation...
(The entire section is 1086 words.)
SOURCE: "Gail Godwin, the South, and the Canons," in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 86-95.
[In the following essay, Wimsatt examines Godwin's critical reception and elements of autobiography, Southern culture, and feminism in her fiction. According to Wimsatt, "Any suspicions that Godwin's popularity has diminished her artistic achievement may by be silenced … by a glance at her skill in various literary modes and her persistent experimentation with technique."]
During slightly more than twenty years of an active career, Gail Godwin has established herself as one of the most gifted, prolific, and popular late twentieth-century Southern novelists. She has published eight substantial novels, two collections of short stories, numerous perceptive reviews of books by fellow writers, and several long essays setting forth the connections between her life and writing. Indicating her increasing prestige within the literary community are her long-time residence at the artists' colony in Woodstock, New York, the commendations of her work by such established authors as Joyce Carol Oates, John Fowles, and Kurt Vonnegut, and the claims of reviewers that—in a typical though trite observation—she carries forward "the Southern tradition of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty."
As Godwin herself has repeatedly said, much of her fiction is autobiographical in nature....
(The entire section is 3525 words.)
Cheney, Anne. "A Hut and Three Houses: Gail Godwin, Carl Jung, and The Finishing School." Southern Literary Journal 21, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 64-71.
Examines the significance of Jungian psychology and the archetypal symbolism of the house in The Finishing School.
Cheney, Anne. "Gail Godwin and Her Novels." In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge, pp. 204-35. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
Provides an overview of Godwin's life and an analysis of her novels.
Clemons, Walter. "Three Women." Newsweek (11 January 1982): 62, 64.
A tempered review of A Mother and Two Daughters.
Davenport, Gary. "Styles of Recent American Fiction." Sewanee Review XCIV, No. 2 (Spring 1986): 296-302.
Offers positive evaluation of The Finishing School.
Frye, Joanne S. "Beyond Teleology: Violet Clay and The Stone Angel." In her Living Stories, Telling Lives: Women and the Novel in Contemporary Experience, pp. 109-42. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986.
Provides analysis of alternative narrative...
(The entire section is 313 words.)