Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Violet Clay, by Gail Godwin, is a terrible book. Not terrible in the sense of bad literature. In fact, it's excellent. No, it's terrible in the sense that it inspires terror. It's a story of loneliness, fear, self-doubt, and survival by sheer bloody-mindedness. Anyone who reads it with a modicum of self-awareness will cringe in recognition of the interior journey the title's eponymous artist makes, from despair right through to liberation. It's the stuff of nightmares and, as one reads, of suicide. It's brilliant, and you should read it. You should also check out the excellent study guide available on this website.
The book is often called "feminist" because it portrays a female character in positions usually available only to men. That's true in the literal sense, because Violet is the protagonist and wields all the emotional power in the story. But it's not a feminist story in the way that feminism is supposed to mean women getting agency and getting power over their lives, like men do. Violet struggles to affect anything, even her own well-being. She certainly doesn't exert influence on the important things or people in her life. Even her own beloved, inspiring uncle escapes her, followed by what she thinks is her artistic talent, igniting a frenzy of self-pity. What she manages to claw back by the end of the story isn't agency but self-respect. Feminists might enjoy this novel, but it's hardly an empowering tale.
Violet Clay is, though, a lesson to everyone, feminists included. If you want talent, implies the author, you must summon it. That means shedding all the emotional baggage, pretensions, and lies you tell yourself. It means getting power over your own ego, so you can see yourself as you really are in the world, not as you think you are. Anyone who's done this knows it's a harrowing experience, hence the name of Violet's employer, perhaps. In another context, someone once said, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." That's about right for Violet.