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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1775

First published: 1921

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: Rural England

Principal Characters:

Joanna Godden, a wealthy landowner

Ellen Godden, her younger sister

Arthur Alce, Joanna’s perennial suitor

Martin Trevor, Joanna’s betrothed

Albert Hill, Joanna’s betrayer

The Story:

After her father’s funeral, Joanna Godden took immediate command of her sister Ellen and of the prosperous farm, Little Ansdore. She had always had many notions about making the farm even more productive, and she proposed now to execute these ideas, although her neighbors and her advisers thought her a stubborn and foolish woman. Her perennial suitor, Arthur Alce, stuck by her, although he knew he could never change Joanna’s mind about the farm or about accepting him as a husband.

In addition to the farm, her sister Ellen consumed much of Joanna’s energy. Ellen must be a lady. To this end, she was sent to school and humored in many other ways. Joanna, however, was the boss. No matter how much she babied Ellen, Joanna still made all decisions for her. Ellen was pliable, but she secretly planned for the day when she could escape her sister’s heavy hand.

Little Ansdore prospered under Joanna. She shocked her neighbors by painting her house and wagons in bright colors and by appearing in loud clothing and jewels as soon as the period of mourning was over. In spite of their distrust of her, they were forced to admire her business acumen. Many men failed while she accumulated money in the bank. Through it all, Arthur stood by her and ran her errands. Once she felt stirrings of passion for one of her farmhands, but she quickly subdued the feeling because the ignorant lad was unsuitable. Joanna knew vaguely that she was missing something every woman wanted, something she did not completely understand but still longed for.

When Joanna met Martin Trevor, the son of a neighboring squire, she knew almost at once that Martin was the kind of man she had waited for. Although they were at first antagonistic, they soon were drawn together in real love and announced their engagement. Joanna was happy; Martin made her feel she was a woman first and a successful farmer second. The sensation was novel for Joanna. Martin’s father and clergyman brother accepted her, in spite of a social position lower than theirs. Poor Arthur Alce grieved to lose her, even though he had never possessed more than her friendship. He sincerely wished her happiness.

The only thing that dimmed their happiness was Joanna’s insistence upon waiting for the wedding until there should be a slack time on the farm. Martin knew that if he gave in to her, he would forever play second fiddle to Ansdore. One rainy day, on a walk, he begged her to marry him at once, both to please him and to show him that he was first in her heart. She refused, but at home a few nights later, she knew that she must give in, for herself as well as for Martin. When she hurried to his home to see him the next day, she found Martin gravely ill. He had not been strong, and the walk in the rain had caused a serious lung congestion. Joanna, realizing that her happiness was not to last, felt no surprise when Martin died. Her grief was so deep that she could feel nothing, only numbness. She felt that she had missed the only real happiness of her life.

The farm claimed her once more, and she gave all of her energy and hope to it. Ellen also felt Joanna’s will. Seventeen years old and finished with school, she was a lady; but Joanna was not pleased with her. Ellen had more subdued taste than Joanna, and the two girls clashed over furnishings, clothing, manners, and suitors for Ellen. Ellen usually submitted, but her one ambition was to get out from under Joanna’s domination. Marriage seemed her only course. When Joanna began to ask Arthur to escort Ellen various places so that the young girl would not be so bored, Ellen thought it would be a good joke to take Arthur away from Joanna. Joanna herself, however, thought a match between Ellen and Arthur would be a good thing. Unknown to Ellen, she asked Arthur to marry her sister. Arthur protested that he loved and would always love Joanna. In her usual practical way, she overrode his objections and insisted that he marry Ellen. Finally, he proposed to Ellen and was accepted. Ellen believed that she had stolen her sister’s lover.

At first, Ellen was happy with Arthur, for she was genuinely fond of him, but she resented his continuing to run errands for Joanna. She attributed these acts to Joanna’s domineering ways, never realizing that her husband still loved her sister. Because Ellen also resented not meeting any of the gentlefolk of the area, Joanna arranged for her to meet Squire Trevor, Martin’s father. It was an unfortunate meeting. Ellen became infatuated with the old man, left Arthur, and followed the Squire to Dover. When she asked for a divorce, Arthur refused. Joanna was alternately furious with Ellen for her immorality and sorry for her heartbreak. At last, Ellen went home to Little Ansdore. Joanna took her in and treated her like a little girl again.

When a neighboring estate, Great Ansdore, was put on the market, Joanna bought it. Her triumph was now complete; she was the wealthiest farmer in the area. New power went with the land. She chose the rector for the village church and in other ways acted as a country squire. But she still longed for Martin, or perhaps only for love. When Arthur refused to stay after Ellen came home, Joanna for the first time saw him as a man she might love. Too sensible to risk more trouble from that quarter, however, she brushed off his good-bye kiss and turned her mind back to Ansdore.

After a time, Arthur was killed in a hunting accident at his new home. In his will, he left his old farm to Joanna and thus made Ellen dependent on her sister as before. Ellen was furious, but Joanna could see no harm in Arthur’s having left his money to his friend rather than to his faithless wife. Meanwhile, Joanna would take care of Ellen, who would no doubt marry again.

Time began to take its toll of Joanna. Following her doctor’s advice, she combined a business trip and a vacation. During that time, she met Albert Hill, a young man thirteen years her junior. Thinking herself in love with Albert, Joanna the strong, the moral, the domineering, gave herself to the young man. They planned to marry; on second thought, however, Joanna realized that she did not love Albert and could never marry him. Learning that she was pregnant, she confessed to Ellen, who demanded that she marry Albert to protect their family name; but Joanna wanted her baby to grow up in happiness and peace, not in the home of parents who did not love each other. She would sell Ansdore and go away. As she made her plans, Martin’s face came back to her and gave her strength. He would have approved. The past seemed to fuse with the years ahead. Her home, her sister, her good name, and her lover all gone, Joanna Godden still faced the years with courage and with hope.

Critical Evaluation:

JOANNA GODDEN is a novel about a remarkable woman who not only survives but thrives through her efforts to carve out a niche for herself within a man’s world. Her strength and independence are such that she wastes no time after her father’s death in building her inherited property, Little Ansdore, into a prosperous farm. She manages to accomplish this at a time when many men are financially sinking in similar enterprises. Her gift for management and insight into business matters finally earns her the grudging admiration of her neighbors who had been at first so disapproving of what they considered her indecorous and unfeminine behavior.

Sheila Kaye-Smith creates the character of Joanna with skill and sensitivity; her heroine is a vibrantly real figure who blends both strength and vulnerability, sharp judgment and naivete, staunch independence and the need for human relationships within her personality. Through an unfolding of her interpersonal relationships with her younger sister Ellen, her devoted admirer Arthur, her fiance Martin, and the father of her child Albert Hill, the author reveals Joanna as a very complex and deep woman. Her almost paternal relationship with Ellen, for example, brings out both the loving and the controlling, dominating sides of her character. In her tender affection and instinctive desire to protect her weaker sister, she exerts such control that the latter feels stifled and longs to escape into some kind of independence.

Likewise in her relationships with men, Joanna is an odd mixture of strong and weak, sensible and foolish. She feels nothing for Arthur, the man who truly loves her. She is actually able to pressure him into marrying Ellen, yet when he finally leaves Little Ansdore, she begins to see him as more desirable; and after he is dead, it is his memory and the imagined approval of her actions that give her strength in selling the farm and refusing to marry Albert. When Joanna finally does meet a suitable man in Martin Trevor, her tough-minded devotion to the farm causes her to delay the marriage; she decides too late that Martin’s love is more important than the farm: he becomes ill and dies. When an undesirable man comes into her life in the form of Albert Hill, the woman who can unerringly choose the best sheep or barter for the highest price is unable to judge a potential lover wisely. Nevertheless, it is this very blend of qualities that make Joanna Godden such a human and sympathetic heroine.

Sheila Kaye-Smith is dubbed the “Sussex novelist” by some critics to suggest a comparison to her contemporary, the “Wessex novelist,” Thomas Hardy. Like Hardy, she sets her story against the rural setting of the Sussex countryside. The novel is rich in local-color detail; it abounds with loving descriptions of both the people, their habits and dialect, and the beauty of the land. In JOANNA GODDEN, Kaye-Smith realizes her early ambition, recounted in her autobiography, to become an excellent novelist of rural life; in so doing, she brings that life back for her readers.

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