(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Godwin is above all a realist. Therefore, when she takes a realistic look at what women now call their “options,” it is not surprising that her conclusions are less than simplistically sanguine. In A Mother and Two Daughters, Godwin shows that, because women’s options are now far more numerous than they were a generation or two ago, contemporary women have even more difficulty mapping out their lives than did their mothers and their grandmothers. At the same time, she dramatizes the plight of those older women who once chose to be full-time wives and mothers and now find themselves not only alone but also deprived of an identity and a reason to live.

Godwin’s women characters are not only interesting in their own right but also represent the different kinds of lives that women live. Nell Strickland, for example, grew up at a time when women were expected to choose marriage as a vocation. She was programmed for her career by her father, who urged her to repress her wilder impulses in order to make herself fit for matrimony. Even though Nell’s husband Leonard was in no way tyrannical, he did rule his household in his own quiet way, and Nell enabled him to do so by effacing herself, just as she had been taught to do. Ironically, after Leonard dies, Nell does not feel a new freedom, but instead panics because she no longer has someone to restrain her. Obviously, she had been thoroughly dependent; she does not know or trust herself.

Nell also worries about what she will do to pass her time. There is a hilarious passage in which she receives the possibilities, as reflected in the lives of those of her friends who are deprived of men. One drinks; one enjoys her ailments; one travels constantly, affecting an interest in architecture. Then there is Taggart McCord, a woman younger than Nell, who, after spending her life shocking society, has killed herself.

One cannot expect Nell to change the...

(The entire section is 791 words.)