Godwin, Gail (Vol. 31)
Gail Godwin 1937–
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Godwin's main concern in her fiction is to create intelligent, thoughtful characters who try to rationalize the problems they encounter and who decide on the best ways to lead their lives. In her early novels, The Perfectionists (1970), Glass People (1972), The Odd Woman (1974), and Violet Clay (1978), Godwin's female protagonists often find their answers through artistic pursuits or by surrendering their independence to a man. Although some reviewers place Godwin within the feminist literary tradition, her themes are universal in scope, encompassing the relationship of art to life, the influence of the past on the present, and, most importantly, the struggle for freedom and self-fulfillment in a relationship with another person.
Godwin's novel A Mother and Two Daughters (1981) is a conscious broadening of her canvas. There are three central female characters instead of one, and her portrayals are more compassionate than in her previous novels. Critics have also noted that Godwin's male characters are more sympathetically drawn in A Mother and Two Daughters than in her other works. Some have found similarities with the Victorian novel, citing her large cast of characters and expansive format.
The stories in Mr. Bedford and the Muses (1983) are perhaps Godwin's most autobiographical works. They deal with the artist's relationship to her material and the conflict between wanting to gain experience in the world and having to adapt to a more dependent lifestyle. Critics have generally commended these genial, humorous stories.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 22; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
A Mother and Two Daughters is a novel of genuine consequence, a spacious and generous book into which Gail Godwin has entrusted worlds of feeling and understanding. It has nothing to do with the cramped, narcissistic, self-indulgent novels now in favor among the literary elite; it is a populous, exuberant expansive novel in the Victorian tradition. It is everything that a novel should be: funny, sad, provocative, ironic, compassionate, knowing, true. It does what only the best fiction can do: it slows the reader down, insisting that he progress through it at the author's own pace. Making that journey is a remarkable experience.
It is a novel about that richest of all subjects, families, and it takes its inspiration from Montaigne: "To storm a breach, conduct an embassy, govern a people, these are brilliant actions; to scold, laugh … and deal gently and justly with one's family and oneself … that is something rarer, more difficult, and less noticed in the world." It is a novel about the death of a man to whom these words were precious, who made it his true life's work to live up to them, and about the emptiness his death leaves in the lives of the three women in his family….
[The] daughters come home for the funeral, their friends and neighbors gather about them, and Leonard is buried. For his three women, it is an end and a beginning. Though Nell remains in the house where she and Leonard lived for...
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Gail Godwin's heroines have abandoned their soapboxes, and thank goodness for that…. Her complex and fascinating characters, like Jane Clifford in The Odd Woman and Violet in Violet Clay, have until now suffered from two crippling flaws: they have repeatedly indulged in long, often boring, interior monologues … and they have had no sense of humor whatsoever.
However, the news of Godwin's latest novel, A Mother and Two Daughters, is good, in fact, very good indeed. Nell, Cate, and Lydia Strickland, the three women who dominate the stage, are—like Violet Clay and Jane Clifford—thoughtful, well-educated, self-analytic people, but Godwin hustles them along at a brisk pace through this long, but definitely never tedious tale. They don't opine about the meaning of love or the perils of George Eliot, but do share with us their attempts to make a good job of an ordinary daily life familiar to us all. (p. 39)
Only a few times in this long novel does Godwin falter. A digression on contemporary fiction seems jarringly self-conscious. The requisite eccentrics are skillfully drawn, but show up right on cue: the overbearing, curious spinster aunt Theodora and the disfigured Uncle Osgood with his heart of gold and his redemptive role for latter-day sinners. The middle-class black couple seem plopped down in order to stir up a few thoughts on prejudice and change. All the characters take themselves very...
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[The] tension between individual vision and the constricting power of circumstance finds a fresh and distinctive expression in Gail Godwin's "A Mother and Two Daughters," a novel about three women who try to "renovate" their lives.
Here, as in her previous novels, Gail Godwin has drawn on the tradition of American individualism and adapted it to her concern with female lives….
"A Mother and Two Daughters" extends this faith in the individual toward a vision of community, within the family, the town and, ultimately, the nation. In this novel, Gail Godwin's individualists are the female members of a family in crisis over the death of husband and father. The widowed mother and her two daughters have lost their first illusions; their bulwark is gone. Their necessity is to pull together….
As each woman exerts her claims on the others, as each confronts the envy and anger the others can inspire, Gail Godwin orchestrates their entanglements with great skill. (p. 3)
As Lydia moves toward independence, as Cate strives toward a greater acceptance of others, and as their mother reconstructs her life, Miss Godwin achieves a richness of affirmations. In this generous novel, illness and age are enablers. And if time has taken the illusions and promises of youth from these women, it has also pressed them toward recognizing the serious courtesy due one another's pain. In one of the...
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[A Mother and Two Daughters] quotes Gail Godwin as saying that she's trying for
a vision of America, where we've been and where we're going…. I see A Mother and Two Daughters as an attempt to penetrate, often humorously, the way a certain group of characters behave both as their stubborn unique selves, and as part of the interweaving, interacting system we call society.
She has succeeded, I believe. Certainly the three women represent three very different styles of coping with the modern world; and their individual histories reflect enough about their culture to interest an alert sociologist. (pp. 39-40)
A Mother and Two Daughters has much to say about modern society, but it speaks even more affectingly and more resonantly about the tiny, cataclysmic events that make up domestic life. A grown woman, long since proven competent and successful, still has a feeling of miserable inadequacy when confronting her older sister. A wife supposedly accustomed to widowhood experiences her grief all over again when she discovers the emerging crocuses planted by her husband over twenty years ago. And her grief is unsentimental, unglorifying, and therefore all the more poignant….
The little world of Mountain City is as meticulously documented—the rituals of Christmas party and book club meeting; the maid who goes home to the slums...
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John B. Breslin
[A Mother and Two Daughters] has its flaws, as annoying as they are unnecessary, but the complex pattern it weaves, the subtle analyses of motive and memory it sustains and the rich evocation of place and time it provides should render readers benevolent toward its stylistic lapses. Indeed, the book's strengths and weaknesses are bound together as inextricably as the lives of the title characters; and the title itself, provocative in its banality, promises neither more nor less than what the author delivers: a detailed portrayal of the interlocked crises that alternately unite and divide the lives of three contemporary women.
The novel begins and ends with a party. But where the first commemorates an old order dying and concludes with a fatal accident, the latter celebrates a wedding and a new order being born. It is a measure of Gail Godwin's skill as a novelist that these disparate notes harmonize rather than clash; the story is a comedy in the classic sense, moving from dispersion to reunion and, indeed, the final gathering on the lawn with minstrels playing could as easily be set in Illyria or the Forest of Arden as in rural North Carolina. But the specific questions under discussion and the circumstances of the women's lives are unmistakably late 20th-century American: mid-life identity crises, academic vagabondage, interracial permutations. Nell Strickland and her two daughters, Cate and Lydia, perform their family dance...
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In an author's note appended to the six delightful fictions in ["Mr. Bedford and the Muses"] Gail Godwin reflects on muses—on the need for them particularly when writer's block attacks in any of its unpleasant guises; on one muse in particular, a turtle named Mr. Bedford, who helped the author to finish the long story, really a novella, that is named after its boxy, slow-moving inspiration.
In the course of her reflection, Miss Godwin also indirectly acknowledges fashion as a spur to creation….
This point set me to wondering whether Miss Godwin's appeal is a matter of fashion. Is it the conservative mood of the times that enhances one's enjoyment of her astonishingly vivid characters, who make their ways or founder in a world that is comfortably removed from absurdity? Or is it just that with each succeeding book … Miss Godwin keeps getting better? Actually, one could make a case for the culturally progressive attitudes that underlie her vision. But the form of these stories is classical and familiar, and readers of all tastes will find themselves at home in them….
[All] the stories are about the relationship of artists to their material. In each of them the drama that unfolds with wonderful humor and variety is essentially the conflict between the writer's hunger to go forth into the world and acquire experience and the opposing pull to withdraw into passive dependency….
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Mr. Bedford and the Muses is an unusually personal book, one that leaves the line between "fact" and "fiction" quite intentionally unclear….
[The] most useful service Godwin has provided in Mr. Bedford and the Muses—quite apart from the pleasures she offers in the best of these stories—is to admit that the tales are to one degree or another autobiographical and then to show how they are, in the end, works of pure fiction. Taking a bow to her Muses, she acknowledges "this welcome band of inspirers who have appeared to me over the years in the most unpredictable disguises," but then leaves no doubt that "what Henry James called 'the virus of suggestion'" will come to nothing unless the imagination of the author seizes it and turns it into something quite different and unique.
The stories themselves focus, though not exclusively, on the origins and the process of creativity. The central mystery of "Mr. Bedford" is the dark secret of the enigmatic Eastons, but the real purpose of the story is to tell us what that relationship taught the aspiring young writer, Carrie Ames…. Carrie comes to learn that the artist, though sympathetic, must be merciless, plundering real life for the raw material of fiction.
Similar, or related, experiences await Constance LeFevre, in "Amanuensis," and Charles St. John, in "St. John."…
Of the other stories, the most interesting...
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Gail Godwin observed in a 1979 essay that "the most serious danger to my writing … is my predilection for shapeliness. How I love 'that nice circular Greek shape' … or a nice, neat conclusion, with all the edges tucked under."…
In general, Miss Godwin's gifts (like Margaret Drabble's) have been best served by the spacious dimensions of the conventional novel. Her talent lies in creating intelligent woman protagonists—usually middle-class and imaginative, often with artistic aspirations—who struggle to lead examined lives in the face of self-imposed as well as cultural constraints. Blessed with humor as well as perceptiveness, they are nearly always sympathetic, even when they behave badly….
In any case, her reflective characters come to life slowly, emerging as much from thought as from action, and Miss Godwin's novels have generally accommodated them. I especially liked the edgy perversity of "The Perfectionists" (1970) and the irony and insight of "The Odd Woman" (1974), as well as the gentler but widening vision of "A Mother and Two Daughters" .
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about "Mr. Bedford and the Muses," a short novel and five stories. The stories have the more obvious problems, which are at least partly due to brevity and partly to their tucked-in edges. Shapeliness is deadly in short fiction. At best, it creates an excess of charm; at worst, it kills the story on the...
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Gail Godwin's best is spectacular (if you haven't read The Odd Woman, you might wish to do so, instantly). Her latest book, Mr. Bedford and the Muses, is not her best. Say her fourth best—that's still not too bad.
One problem with Mr. Bedford is that Godwin's prose requires quite a bit of room, more than it gets in these five stories or even in the novella-length title piece…. Prose is fast and sharp these days, and Godwin is almost as slow and deliberate as a Victorian novelist. All very well, but not best suited to the compressed short story form.
Another difficulty is the nature of these pieces. Most writers fight the ever-present temptation to write about writing. Godwin has given us five authors out of six protagonists; three are women in their early twenties, first-person narrators…. This doesn't make for great variety of tone. "Revisionist autobiography," says Godwin unhelpfully. (pp. 25, 36)
"Desultory" exactly describes these stories at their weakest.
Yet at their strongest—well, somehow Godwin is a writer to trust. She says in this collection she was "re-interpreting and re-fashioning my own past." She does this with a cool, unsurprised tone. These young women are not treated with any particular tenderness. "There I was," she seems to say, "or someone like me, and it's strange, isn't it, what seemed to be happening back then."
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