Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

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.

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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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