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."