A Mother and Two Daughters, Gail Godwin’s finest novel, is a story of people adapting to change, surviving, and growing. Although focused on the characters of the title, Nell Strickland and her daughters, Cate and Lydia, it draws in the people of their world and explores the social structure of a small Southern city as it, too, changes under the pressures of modern life.
Most especially, the novel depicts the community mores that women create in Mountain City, a North Carolina town (presumably based on Asheville, North Carolina, where Gail Godwin grew up). The evening party with which the book opens is given by Theodora Blount, who dominates her own social circle and attempts to control any person and any group with which she has any connection. Heiress of the man who developed the famous “Energy Tonic,” and doomed to maidenhood when her fiancé jilts her, Theodora has crowned herself “Queen for Life of Mountain City,” where the Republican Women’s Club, the Episcopal Church, her book club, and the New Hope House (for unwed mothers) all benefit from her attention. A small group, most of whom are at odds with life or changing times, or both, are at her beck and call at the party. So, too, is Azalea, the elderly black servant to whom Theodora is deeply attached and to whom she would give practically anything—except a minimum wage. Most recently, Theodora has adopted a protégé, the pregnant Wickie Lee, who is not willing to say anything whatever about where she comes from or who has fathered her expected child.
Those who are part of Theodora’s world allow her the power she assumes for herself. Midway through the novel, another social occasion, the monthly meeting of the book club, reveals in elaborate detail the customs of her monarchy. There is a whole ritual to be known and followed: what to serve, when to seat the guests, what the centerpiece should be. Theodora not only presides over the business meeting but also determines the program (a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, 1850), riding roughshod over the program chairman’s selection. Although Theodora maintains her reign by inheritance (her grandmother was the book club’s founder), as well as through her own determination, her aristocratic pretensions are exposed as flimsy, going back no further than her backwoods grandfather’s success with the strong alcoholic “tonic.”
Shown through the eyes of Nell Strickland, still somewhat an outsider in her feelings even after many years in Mountain City, the customs, rituals, and power-plays of Theodora’s tight little world are evoked with skill and a satiric bite tempered by a certain affection. Gail Godwin has a gift for exact detail and revealing speech. Theodora is dreadful and entertaining, typical and individualized, irritating and sympathetic. The lives and personalities of those in her “social set,” moreover, illustrate both the binding force of the social structures and values of this community and the new loosening of the bonds. Nell’s husband, Leonard Strickland, a scholarly lawyer whose decision not to go to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War still looms large to him, quotes Michel de Montaigne to justify his placid, ordinary life, as if there were some new need to justify it. The dim-bulb mentality of former Congressman Latrobe Bell struggles in vain with the political problems of 1978. The Stricklands’ outspoken daughter Cate has already alienated her god-mother by accusing Theodora of atrophying. Wickie Lee—in whom, Cate observes, Theodora meets the Third World—refuses to allow her life to be completely dominated by her patron. Theodora is rich enough to maintain control over her own life to the end, but her social dominance is eroded by a tide of new customs, new values, new ideas.
Nell Strickland and her daughters find that change results in greater freedom and independence. One key to their lives is the question that Cate claims is at the heart of The Scarlet Letter: “Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live?” Nell Strickland has always survived by adapting and continues to do so. Nell, who loses her husband in the early pages of the novel, is faced with loneliness, grief, an unwished-for self-reliance, and a new, unfavorable position as a widow. At sixty-three, she believes she would have been better off dying in the automobile accident caused by her husband’s heart attack. Slowly and calmly, however, with the gentleness she has learned from living with a husband who could not abide “scenes,” and with her humor and natural strength, she becomes independent. Her second marriage, to another gentle, idealistic man, one for whom the inability to endure change in the Episcopal Church has led to retirement from the ministry, proves as successful as the first because she is able to keep old and new in steady balance, reconciling conflicts as she has done all her adult life.
For Nell, life is less difficult than it is for her daughters because she moves always and without too much pain inside the middle-class rituals and values that are fundamental to Mountain City—values which have constricted the lives of every character in the book. For Lydia and Cate, the overwhelming and unavoidable...
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