Gail Godwin

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Gail Godwin
Born Birmingham, Alabama
Alma mater University of Iowa

Gail Kathleen Godwin (born June 18, 1937)[1] is an American novelist and short story writer. She has published one non-fiction work, two collections of short stories, thirteen novels, three of which were finalists for the National Book Award and five of which have made the New York Times Bestseller List. She has also published two volumes of her journals under the title, The Making of a Writer.

Godwin was born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Asheville, North Carolina by her mother, Kathleen Krahenbuhl Godwin Cole, and grandmother, Edna Rogers Krahenbuhl.[2] She attended St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines from 2nd through 9th grades, before her mother married Frank Cole, and they moved for his job. She attended Peace College in Raleigh, North Carolina (a women's college founded by Presbyterians in 1857) from 1955 to 1957, and graduated with a B.A. in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1959. She worked briefly as a reporter for the Miami Herald, and then traveled to Europe and worked worked for the U.S. Travel Service at the U.S. Embassy in London. She returned to the U.S. after six years, and attended the University of Iowa, earning her M.A. (1968) from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and PhD (1971) in English Literature. While at the University of Iowa, she signed a contract with Harper & Row for her first novel, The Perfectionists. In 1976, Godwin settled in Woodstock, N.Y., with composer Robert Starer, her companion until his death in April 2001.[3]

Godwin's body of work has garnered many honors, including three times being named a National Book Award finalist, a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Five of her novels have been on the New York Times best seller list.

Gail Godwin's Contributions to Literature[edit]

Early feminist

In the 1970s, Gail Godwin emerged with her first three novels as a leading voice in a shifting society, carrying forward the traditions of Jane Austen and George Eliot into the era of women’s liberation, psychoanalysis, sexual freedom, and existentialism. The Perfectionists (1970) placed a mismarried woman on a sun-drenched island with a multitude of strong characters pulling at her. Glass People (1972) trapped a woman with little sense of her identity in a marriage to a master egoist. The Odd Woman (1974) became a benchmark in the literature of intelligent women.

Godwin had grown up in a three-woman household—composed of her grandmother, mother, and herself; attended a deep-thinking private school run by a progressive order of nuns; read voraciously; looked to Thomas Wolfe, whose presence pervaded their common hometown, Asheville, North Carolina; and was sensitive to her family’s lowered class standing. In other words, she had a lot in common with the intelligent, restricted heroines of 19th century British classics.

Reviewing The Odd Woman, a National Book Award finalist, the Chicago Sun-Times stated that it was “one of the most realistic, intelligent and skillful character studies of a contemporary woman to date.”[4] Women-in-fiction scholar Rachel Brownstein noted the novel’s landmark status. “In the mid-seventies,” she observed, “real and fictional literary women like Jane Clifford [the novel’s protagonist] were fascinating to themselves and others as never before—or perhaps since.”[5] Brownstein also noted that, in 1985, Godwin, despite her celebration by feminists, had “brought down upon herself [their] wrath” by voicing disapproval of feminist categorization in Godwin's New York Times review of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.[6]

Self as artist

With her fourth novel, Violet Clay, also a National Book Award Finalist, Godwin took a new turn, as she has continued to do throughout her career, not getting rooted to one type of novel regardless of best-sellerdom or sales. Violet Clay sets aside the problem of women’s roles to reveal a universal story about the traps into which one falls when tempted, tricked, or coerced into playing pre-scripted parts in society’s casting. Joanne Frye, writing in Contemporary Literature, recognized how, with this novel, Godwin committed herself to a “complex exploration of the significance of narrative design in the full claiming of selfhood.”[7]

To achieve a far-reaching exploration of selfhood, Godwin incorporates the metaphor of personality-as-artist into her characters’ lives. This distinctive construction has enabled her to survey cultural influences within a fluid, sympathetic voice rather than within the alienated meta-fiction of post-modern literature.

One shining example of the artist-as-archetypal-personality is Madelyn Farley, the theater art director in Father Melancholy’s Daughter. When she had been a girl, confined to her room with illness, Madelyn had made a doll into whose magician’s hand she’d placed a “Hot Wand,” a revelation of power. Madelyn waved the doll’s wand, and then transformed her bedroom into a fantasy environment. It presaged her career. Having achieved success in her field, she visited her old friend, Ruth, wife of a minister and mother of the heroine, Margaret; and whisked Ruth away. She also appropriated Margaret father’s career, gaining notoriety as the creator of a play about the death of God, using the liturgical symbols and costumes of Margaret’s father’s religion. Margaret, in the meantime, struggled with fulfilling roles that had been laid out, unconsciously, by her parents.

The most extensive exploration of the theme plays out in Godwin’s 2009 novel, Unfinished Desires, in which girls at a private school; their teachers (nuns); and their parents and guardians put to the test their artistic-religious powers in what turns out to be a deadly game of personal politics.

Concept of personality

Godwin’s artist metaphor has additional usage and power. She turns it, at times, to illustrate a Jungian view of the nature of personality—not a single or essential being, but a mental stage drama, made up of a cast of life influences (characters), who impinge on and are directed by a single director (one’s self).

Jane Clifford wonders if “the concept of the ‘self’ was a myth which had died with the nineteenth century. Had there ever been,” she asks, “such a thing as a basic personality?”[8] Later on, she meets the man whom her family had miscast as the eternal villain, and tells him, “I’ve lately become interested in drama, the way drama relates to the way we live our lives, the parts we act…What I am interested in is: do we create the roles, or do they create us.”[9] In her journals—an unmatched record of a writer’s experiences and thinking, composed from 1961 to the present[10] —Godwin applies the concept to herself, at times separating out a troubling aspect of her personality, inventing a character out of that inspiration, and then having a heart-to-heart conversation with it.

Autobiographical sources

The exercise, cited above, typifies one of Godwin’s fictional processes, which is to take a conflict or mystery from her own life and cast it as something larger than and different from herself. In a 1976 conversation with the author John Hawkes, Godwin cited as an example of such a work, Rainer Maria Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke, an Austrian, creates an aspiring writer character based on his young self, and makes him Danish. “When he finished the book, it was a completely imagined character, but the experiences in that book,” she noted, are ones “he had taken from his own letters.”[11]

This life-inspired approach falls within, but is more transforming than, the literary movements termed life-writing and autobiographical fiction.

Life-writing is a term that has been used to refer to many things.

First, there’s its avant-garde application to the crossing of literary boundaries. Max Saunders in his 2010 book, Self-Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature, applies it to modern experiments in mating autobiography and fiction, with James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man given as a notable example.[12] Godwin engages in this kind of writing mainly in her Christina stories, with Evenings at Five[13] as a key work of hers in this mode.

The rise of non-mainstream voices in literature, including those of indigenous cultures, has required the application of the term “life writing” to the literary presentation of oral narration. The distinction from autobiography is significant. On the one hand, the teller fuses her/his individual story with that of her/his culture. And on the other hand, the work often involves collaboration with a sensitive editor.[14]

The use of autobiography as a medium for collective history has also excited critics of established authors. Reviewing Annie Ernaux’s Écrire la Vie in the Times Literary Supplement, Michael Sheringham proclaims that she has captured “the intertwining rhythms of collective and individual experience” and “exemplified the advent of a new style of ‘life-writing.’”[15] Godwin’s edited and published journals represent this approach.

Autobiographical fiction, an expansive category, hinges on whether the writer maintains control over point of view or yields to the dictates of fictional protagonists. This goes beyond the literal distinction of whether or not stuff is made up. Godwin’s autobiography-derived fiction yields to her protagonists as well as to thematic and dramatic design. Her main intent is to explore the mysteries of personality and existence, and her strategy is to use material that offers the most realistic complexity and depth, namely, her personal experience. The development of her fiction then requires empathy with characters and, also, subject research.

Method of empathy

Godwin has on occasion related her interest in character empathy to Ortega y Gasset’s concept of transmigration into others’ souls.[16] “Ortega says that a person is a barbarian to the degree that he can’t take others into account,” newly graduated Emma Gant tells her friend, Alex de Costa, in Queen of the Underworld. “That’s because he lacks the capacity to go out of himself and imagine life from someone else’s point of view. Ortega says the capacity for ‘transmigration into another soul’ is the highest form of civilized sport.”[17] The “sport” becomes deadly serious in Violet Clay[18] when the heroine tries to imagine the state of mind of her uncle, who had shot and killed himself in the cabin in which she is staying. Empathy as a counterpoint to barbarism makes a distinction based on spiritual achievement rather than social class. As a writing skill, it involves the spiritual development of the writer.

Organic plot structure

Development of character, in Godwin’s fiction, goes along with her development of design. Her notebooks reveal how ideas branch into a web of associations. The underlying structure of her fiction is organic, and expresses itself in plots through various devices, including incidental flashbacks, as opposed to ones that are demarcated.

For example, in Flora, Godwin’s 2013 novel, ten-year-old Helen Anstruther walks away from a conversation with her guardian, Flora Waring, after Flora had stunned Helen by characterizing the girl’s childhood as strange. Descending her driveway, the bad condition of which provokes the issue of ruin, Helen passes the mailbox and thinks of the kinds of letters that had filled it over the years. Two pages later, Godwin resumes the story of Helen’s walk, but not before Helen has reason to think of her mother’s, father’s, and grandmother’s imprints on her personality.[19] The swirl of mixing realities makes Helen dizzy.

Godwin uses such memories and intimations to layer her stories within a fluid narration. The resulting architecture distinguishes a creative approach to story construction comparable to Henry James’ house-building analogy. “Henry James,” Godwin noted in her Feb. 17, 1964 journal entry, talks about “the finer vibrations” of a living character’s being.[20] “But what loving patience it takes to record, probe, circumvent—build not only in layers but in spokes.” Godwin’s take on vibrations leads to a musical metaphor for the architecture of stories. “What you might do,” Hugo Henry, a writer in Godwin’s 1994 novel, The Good Husband, tells a student, “is find connections within the information you’ve already given us and then set about making them resonate. Create a little string quartet of meanings.”[21]

A kind of Gothic

Godwin’s plots feature protagonists who put their questing mentality to the test, seeking full consciousness and competence in deceptive and threatening settings. She has created a modern form of Gothic—psychological, developmental, and ethical rather than supernatural and violent. Her early attraction to authors such as Emily Brontë, Daphne du Maurier, and Isak Dinesen indicate some influences. In Godwin’s novels, the Gothic threat is to the development of self; the sublime goal is higher consciousness; and the horror comes in many forms, some of them traps pathologically set by the self itself.

Godwin’s Gothic interests are presented front-stage in Violet Clay, in which the heroine is an artist who paints Gothic novel book covers and thinks in terms of Gothic fiction. Violet’s nemeses are family legacies, which haunt her; and a career that holds her back. The Finishing School, Godwin’s 1984 novel, creates a Gothic atmosphere through the story of a young woman and her troubled, mesmerizing mentor. Desire, dread, and hidden truth color every scene as they would in a Gothic romance. The mentor figure assumes a big role in Godwin’s adventures, taking the place of the deceptive lover.

Visionary response to existentialism

Sometimes, the nemesis in Godwin’s world is something as pervasive and undefined as everydayness, a word that Godwin had picked up reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.[22] Though her characters live in societies that strive for normalcy, her heroes are unhappy with the ordinariness that comes with it, and they relish turmoil. This contrasts with the fiction of Anne Tyler, with whom Godwin is sometimes compared; for, in Tyler’s novels, ordinary life is put forward as the balm.

From early in Godwin’s career, she has identified the desired state of being as one of mystical achievement—something she has variously called the perfect moment, the timeless moment, and the illumined moment. In Dream Children, her fourth book, a collection of stories, she cast her visionary ideas in speculative fiction. A vicar, in the story, “An Intermediate Stop” (originally titled, “The Illumined Moment”), stumbles upon a vision. “Days went by before he could bring himself to record it,” she recounts. “Even as he wrote, he felt the memory of it, the way the pure thing had been, slipping away. Nevertheless, he felt he must preserve what he could.”[23] A sense of the tragic or morbid nature of humankind resides in the idealism. Why is it so hard to achieve a state of being in which self survives while being one with otherness; and in which present needs remain wide open to knowledge of the past?

Religious practice

To achieve the enlightened state—the heartfulness and mindfulness explored in Godwin’s non-fiction work, Heart—Godwin often has her characters engage in ritual, which can range from cleaning a kitchen to traveling outside one’s body. Mother Malloy, the young nun at the private girls’ school in Unfinished Desires, kneels at her bed before sleep, asks for God’s light, and imagines a hawk circling a chosen location.

“This precept of taking a God’s-eye view came naturally to her. As a child, Kate Malloy had gone on frequent night journeys after lights-out in the foster home,” Godwin relates. Malloy, as a young postulant, had told her spiritual director that her excursions “don’t feel at all mystical, Father. It’s more of a visual shift in perspective.”[24]

In her story, “Dream Children,” a woman who has suffered the still-birth of a child awakens in the middle of the night and enters a state of reverie, a “weightless though conscious state,” in which she is “able to send her thoughts anywhere, as if her mind contained the entire world.” She hears a noise, and sends herself to a room, where she encounters a boy, cold and scared, shaking a jar of seashells. “Dream and reality are…reciprocal sources of consciousness,” she tells her husband, having been inspired by Teilhard de Chardin.[25]

In Evensong, Godwin’s 1999 novel, Margaret Bonner, a pastor, recalls her time providing counsel to young girls at a foster home, and her visits to their bedsides for night prayers. “I’ve never prayed in my life,” a girl named Josie challenges her; and Margaret provides a natural, un-doctrinal introduction to the value of such a ritual, as well as to a reading of Psalms, which Josie calls whiny. “People go through some pretty awful stages as they fumble toward what they’re meant to be,” Margaret responds. “As you put it, cruel and whiny. It takes a long while to complete the transformation from ‘eye-for-an-eye’ sandbox whiner into a loving person—a lot of us never make it.”[26] Godwin read the night prayer episode to President and Laura Bush; Mr. and Mrs. James Billington, Librarian of Congress and his wife; and other guests and honored authors at the first National Book Festival in 2001. The response to her humanized religiosity was powerful, an indication of the bridge she builds between religious and secular people.

Renewed religiousness

Father Melancholy’s Daughter was the key work in the development of Godwin as a religious voice in literature. Subsequently, three of her seven books had strong religious themes (Evensong; Heart; Unfinished Desires). Also, she and her life partner for nearly 30 years, the late composer Robert Starer, collaborated on an impressive body of sacred music, for which she was the librettist.

Father Melancholy’s Daughter features a major character, Adrian Bonner, a young priest, who befriends both Rev. Walter Gower (“Father Melancholy”) and his daughter, Margaret. On his first visit to the Gower household, he brings two books: a volume of Gnostic writings; and James Hillman’s Insearch: Psychology and Religion.[27] Typically, Godwin’s characters read a lot; and their reading adds a layer to her fiction, a sub-text. Adrian’s reading opens a modern, psychological, and animist understanding of Christianity and related faiths. Very few writers are exploring this territory in contemporary literary fiction; and Godwin is bold.

Godwin comes to her singular treatment of religiosity through childhood inheritance. Her mother, Kathleen Cole, often consulted St. Teresa of Avila’s testimony of faith, The Interior Castle. This source book emerges at times in Godwin’s fiction; and it has captured the attention of Godwin scholars.

In Godwin’s short story, “Some Side Effects of Time Travel,” Gretchen, a doctoral student, recalls meeting Jorge Luis Borges, who said “the reason his stories were so short” was because he was blind and he “liked to carry all of them around in his head.” He endeavored to live in “a world outside of time.” Gretchen’s mother tells her that to achieve wisdom, one need only “get outside of time.” When Gretchen’s stepfather is asleep, her mother “reads St. Theresa’s Interior Castle in the original. ‘God lives outside of time,’ she wrote to Gretchen at graduate school.”[28] Night time is a sacred time, as with Jane Clifford in The Odd Woman, who after a messy exchange with her lover, recalls the choice her mother, Kitty, made to “stay home at nights where you belonged, building your own interior castle.”[29]

Queens of the underworld

“In her characterization of Kitty,” Lihong Xie writes in her study, The Evolving Self in the Novels of Gail Godwin, Godwin emphasizes the chasm culture insists upon and perpetuates between a woman’s femaleness and her autonomy. Kitty struggled to claim both, only to write herself into one of the ‘premature endings’ of the female plots that culture and literature prescribe for fictional heroines.”[30]

Godwin’s feminist novels, in which women find expansive realms in their minds, lead to mythologies about women who explore the underworld. Though men explore subconscious and mystical depths as well—most notably Carl Jung in one of the key works in Godwin’s library, Memories, Dreams, Reflections—the feminist connection carries with it a separate body of literature.

In Heart, Godwin writes about her discovery of the Sumerian myth of Inanna. “Not only did Inanna descend to the Great Below of her own volition,” she relates, “but she came back with more of herself than ever…She came back fully conscious of her powers and how she wanted to use them, and also with the compassion and larger-heartedness that suffering brings.”[31]

Author’s education

Heart makes it clear that Godwin, in her writing, invests in a humanist religion with strong connections to the education that she had received as a child and to the reading she has done as an adult. From the second through ninth grades, Godwin attended St. Genevieve of the Pines, a private school for girls run and taught by a French order of nuns whose mission it was to have young women achieve their highest potential.[32] On the bus home, the rule was silence, as it was at other times, to encourage meditation. Handwriting lessons involved lines from the Catholic Catechism: “Who is God? Why did he create us?” Studying literature required looks into oneself more than into scholarly criticism.

This kind of practice, Godwin said in a 2010 interview, “builds habits of discipline. It’s religious, but it applies to anything in life you want to do. You need time to think, time to be quiet, time to let your inspiration have a chance to speak; and then you need the discipline to learn how to organize things, and train your mind.”[33]

Faith in aesthetics

Father Gale Webbe, the priest at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Asheville, which Godwin attended with her mother, had a great and long-term influence on her. “Not only did I find church something to look forward to,” Godwin reflected on her first experience at age ten, “but had met a man I admired who would actually talk to me seriously.”[34] In 1964, in London, she found his book, Night and Nothing, in a bookstore, and began a correspondence with him. “More and more I understand what Father Webbe means when he says we are living in eternity.”[35] Three weeks later, she included a quote from his book in her journal: “The spiritual man is increasingly becoming aware that his essential satisfaction proceed…[from] whether or not his life is constructed on the lines of a sound story. It must have a pattern…a too rare overtone only produced when, as it were, the fingers of free will move across the strings of destiny.” At age 89, shortly before he died, Webbe delivered a talk about his friendship with Godwin when she presented a keynote address at the Kanuga Conference in Henderson County, N.C. “The creative process,” he noted, “is an obscure prayer process, in which God within us moves us to make an offering to God above us.”[36]

In A Southern Family, Clare, the novelist, writes a letter to her younger brother Theo a half year after his suicide, in which she relates their mother’s mystical faith in creativity. “The Lily of my childhood,” she explains, “believed in Art the way the Lily you grew up knowing counted on God…I was taught by her to believe that special patterns of words, or the resolutions of chords, or inspired slashes of colored pigment on a flat surface could make all the difference between feeling you were an ordinary person, lonely, disappointed, and trapped, and knowing you possessed a passkey to a kingdom with powers and privileges unlike any other.”[37]

The equation of religious and aesthetic thinking is a distinctive achievement of Godwin’s life work. She presents the idea in stories about people navigating existential quests. Suicide becomes a major theme for her, additionally so because of two suicides in her family, that of her father and her brother, Tommy, on whose despair A Southern Family is based.

“I was thinking how nice it would be to be a character in one of your novels,” Theo once told Clare. Clare stopped herself from responding, “What have you done to make you a main character in anybody’s book?” He accused her of confecting happy endings for her protagonists and asked, “Why don’t you write a book about something that can never be wrapped up? What if you came across something like that in life?”[38]

Social novels

To understand her brother’s fate, Godwin creates a 500-page fictional setting in which she identifies with a notion that challenges her main article of faith. A Southern Family does a lot more as well. It creates a Southern landscape in which many characters present their embroilment in a high-stakes game of avoid-the-traps. “You’d have to be from around here to understand all our little stratification systems,” Tommy’s and Clare’s brother Rafe tells a psychoanalyst.[39]

Psychoanalysts do not appear that much in Godwin’s fiction, but dreams do. A Southern Family and her other Asheville-based swirling epic, A Mother and Two Daughters, are full of dreams, as are her journals. Godwin’s particular art is derived, necessarily, from her exceptional propensity to dream, remember dreams, and create authentic dreams.

Chief dreamer

Yvonne Zipp, reviewing The Making of a Writer, Vol. 2 in The Christian Science Monitor, called the book “unbelievably generous” and of “immense value,” and yet took issue with the inclusion of dreams, comparing it to people’s tedious habit of dream-telling.[40] Godwin’s dreams, however are part of her genius; they’re integrated into her life and work. In recognizing her distinct contributions, one must see her as a chief dreamer.

In an interview with Paul Mandelbaum, Godwin told how the fiction editor at Esquire had persuaded her to remove a dream sequence from her story, “A Sorrowful Woman,” published in the magazine in 1971.[41] “Now, thirty years later,” Godwin revealed, “my website receives a steady traffic in e-mails from baffled students—and teachers—who want to know why this woman killed herself. If the dreams had been left in, you would know why.”[42]

Theater of the subconscious

“Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane,” Godwin’s fifth novel, The Finishing School, begins. Justin Stokes, the 14-year-old narrator, says of her 40-year-old mentor, “She, along with a few others, has claimed a permanent place in the theater of my unconscious, where each figure—based wholly or in part of some real person—has its function.”[43]

Godwin’s way of representing the subconscious on the same field with practical reality is to create scenes in which characters test out and witness interactions in experience, memory, and imagination. Different combinations of characters inform a complex but not defining picture of a chosen universe, which is distinguished by dominant themes. Characters have intimations, and are intellectual, even the less educated ones. The approach differs from those of other notable works of fiction—for example, the ghost-manifestation in Toni Morrison’s Beloved; the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez; and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s use of allegory—and has more in common with two writers influential in Godwin’s education, Henry James and D.H. Lawrence. Godwin differs from these last two in that she tips the globe more toward the mental theater stage, of which the life of action is a projection.

“There is a finite stage in the theater of the unconscious,” she said in an interview about The Finishing School. “There is a finite number of actors—not fifty, but only five or ten. The story crystallizes into figures of necessity…Then, there are certain sets that you return to again and again in your imaginative theater, like recurrent dreams. I have Asheville sets. One is St. Mary’s (Episcopal Church). One is St. Genevieve’s. They don’t represent themselves. They represent points of growth. They stand for attitudes and challenges. You can learn so much from dreams.”[44]


Sometimes, in Godwin’s fiction, subconscious and symbolic worlds overwhelm characters in functioning moments. Cate, a protagonist in A Mother and Two Daughters, at one point looks to God to dispel the void she feels. “As she slowly climbed the stairs, the ghosts of her arrogant young dreams clustered around her like frightened children seeking protection from the lengthening shadows.” The melancholy environment she senses is “made up of all the ingredients of her own history—those she could control and those she could not. She had been fleeing from such a moment as this, when that history would have had enough time to assume a shape.”[45] Ultimately, instead of dreading truth, Cate achieves peace, lying in bed, not sleeping, contemplating life’s design.

At times, the power of the subconscious world is so strong, characters faint—as Helen does in Flora, and as Mother Malloy does approaching the dark mystery in Unfinished Desires.

The emotional well-being of Godwin’s characters often depend on the climates of their places and times. As they are trapped by roles they’re expected to play, they are haunted by history and caught up in societal ruin. Though Godwin is not considered a political writer, she is very much a social writer.

Chronicling societal decline

A Southern Family is a story about people caught up in ruin. In Godwin’s story, “Mr. Bedford,” Carrie Ames, a 27-year-old aspiring writer in London, gets caught up in the web of her landlords, the Eastons, whose aristocratic world, Mrs. Easton said, was “going, going, gone.”[46] In the end, Carrie flees their ship. Before returning to America, she visits their present lodgings, and as she approaches, looks in through the windows. She spots Mr. Easton, “doing knee-bends in his striped flannel pajamas…He was facing the front door, no doubt seeing his reflection in its glass panes, when, suddenly (I must have stepped forward, or his vision shifted) , he looked perfectly horrified, as if he’d seen a ghost, and turned and bolted down the hall and away into the shadows.”[47]

The dramatic moment echoes the D.H. Lawrence quote that Godwin uses as an epigraph to Part I of A Mother and Two Daughters: “Our epoch is over, a cycle of evolution is finished, our activity has lost its meaning, we are ghosts.” The idea, Cate explains deep into the novel, is that we must “‘give up the ghost’ and let the old world die with us,” and re-begin with what’s true and indestructible in us.[48] Godwin has absorbed the lost generation and existentialist thinking that had preceded her to offer a view that aligns with Søren Kierkegaard, as she’d noted in her journal on Sept. 24, 1963: “Our lives become meaningful to the degree that we bind together tomorrow, today and yesterday in an active whole.”[49] That message of hope and faith has set her apart from many acclaimed contemporary writers.

She is also seen as a traditional writer among post-modern authors in that she reveals the disjunction between private and public selves through social novels that resemble the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot. In that vein, she revealed herself in A Mother and Two Daughters and A Southern Family as a master of satire.

Best-sellerdom and the market

With A Mother and Two Daughters, Godwin became a perennial best-selling author and Book-of-the-Month-Club choice. “This happy event,” Paul Gray wrote in Time, “entitled her long-time admirers to mixed emotions. While it is pleasurable to see a favored writer receive the success she deserves, it is irksome to realize that membership in a small club of discriminating readers has suddenly been thrown open to the multitudes. If so many people, the reasoning follows, liked Godwin’s loose, loving chronicle of three plucky females, then maybe we should find it disappointing. And whom will she write for next time, all of them or us?”[50]

Godwin defied expectations with her subsequent novel, The Finishing School. Then, after A Southern Family[51] and Father Melancholy’s Daughter, both bestsellers, she produced The Good Husband, a novel with an unconventional structure and four protagonists, two male, two female, each of whom faces ugliness.

Rendezvous with the Beast

In The Good Husband, Godwin boldly asserted her vision, and was paid for it in mixed reviews and lowered sales. Sara Maitland, a magical realist and feminist fiction writer, reviewed the book for the New York Times Book Review, and declared, “Like Magda (the dying visionary professor in the book) and Ms. Godwin, I believe in the symbolic and want fiction to explore it. But it is extremely difficult to do this sort of writing within the structures of the conventional social realist novel.”[52]

Readers must be wary of changings of the guard in critical circles; and of critical receptions of authors who keep trying new things. The history of Herman Melville’s greatly varying works, and of their critical receptions, is one of the clearest lessons in this sport. The Good Husband is a philosophical novel, as is The Odd Woman. As with Godwin’s non-fiction work, Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life, it is rich in cultural references and stories. Maitland bemoaned the lack of irony in the novel, though Magda’s world view—involving the marriage of heaven and hell—is inherently ironic; and Hugo Henry, the lower class boy who becomes the upper class’s favorite story weaver, bursts with irascible humor.

As with A Southern Family, in which Godwin gave voice to a nihilism that challenged her foundation, in The Good Husband she embraces a hell of horrors: cancer, with its loss of coherence and body control; deaths of a child and a sibling, and a dying marriage; mental breakdown, and writer’s block. She takes on the world, and finds meaning for her characters, who, in this regard, are earnest.

Hugo puts critics and falsely fashionable writers in their place. Francis Lake, Magda’s devoted husband, fills the role of an unaggressive character. Once, on a trip to Europe with Magda, he’d fitted his study of misericords—carved ledges on the bottom of folded-up church seats—into her schedule, and found himself rushed to leave his favorite one—of a dragon—before it was light enough to take a photo. Miraculously, a sunbeam shined through a window on his subject. “Well, good for the light,” Magda later said, “if it stroked your little beastie out of its shadows, eh?”[53] Francis is a good husband—an ironic title.

Different kind of ghost story

In The Good Husband, Alice, Hugo’s editor and wife, is the protagonist most haunted by her past, a theme that Godwin makes a central one in her work.

“What in you has been put there by somebody else—some ghost, some unfinished desires of others who are no longer with us?” Godwin addressed readers of her novel, Unfinished Desires. “There are so many ways to be haunted. A parent can want something really badly, and not get it, and then the child thinks, ‘I have to do that,’ without even making the connection…For instance [in Unfinished Desires], Mother Ravenel is haunted by her mother and by the unfinished business with Antonia. And Cornelia is haunted by the loss of her twin sister and her own hatred and resentment of Ravenel And poor Madelyn is haunted because her mother keeps saying, ‘you’re so much like your aunt, Antonia.’ And Henry Vick, he has one drink a day as a kind of inoculation against the alcoholism of his mother, his grandfather, the whole bunch. Mother Malloy is haunted by her state of orphanhood. And Chloe really is haunted. She really is. She’s sleeping in a room with a ghost and wants to stay in that room.”[54]

Evenings at Five, Godwin’s 2003 novella, begins with Christina, the protagonist, living in the presence of her recently deceased, long-time partner, Rudy. “Now that Rudy was dead, Christina listened to him more closely than ever…At the ghostly cocktail hours, she hung on his every echo.”[55] In an interview about the book, she added that a “leftover life that refuses to die can inhabit the person and use the living person as an instrument.”[56] In her introduction, she noted that she’d started the book as a tale invented from her life; then, in the writing of it, surprises of memory and feeling had jumped out at her, “but what I didn’t know until I got deeper into Evenings at Five…was that I was writing a ghost story.” She added five Christina stories to the novella in the paperback edition (including “Mother and Daughter Ghosts, A Memoir”) and realized, “all the Christina stories collected here could qualify as ghost stories.”[57]

In her fourth and fifth decades as a published author—with Evenings at Five, Unfinished Desires, and Flora—Godwin owns the ghost story, making her variety of it her unique invention.

Distinctive voice

Speaking to Rudy’s empty chair, Christina recalls their last conversation at his hospital bed, and then reflects on her own voice. “In this voice I sometimes hear things. It’s a wiser version of my own voice, and it was saying like a mantra: ‘Absent in his presence, present in his absence.’ And then I had this further idea. That somewhere in the gulf between those opposites, ‘absence and presence’ or ‘presence in absence,’ might lie the secret of eternal life.”[58]

Godwin’s distinctive voice is, finally, another of her contributions to literature. In her fiction-writing mode, she lives in more than one world at once—past and present; dreams and waking reality; self and other—and her voice takes on the sound of someone in an intermediate realm, with all the caring, modulated regret, irony, economy of language, intimacy, and atemporality that such a status implies.

--Rob Neufeld, Jan. 2013


Gail Godwin was born June 18, 1937. She grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, later attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She lives in Woodstock, New York.

Godwin’s first few novels, published in the early 1970s, explored the worlds of women negotiating restrictive roles. The Odd Woman (1974) was a National Book Award finalist, as was her fourth novel, Violet Clay (1978), in which she modernized the Gothic novel and explored such themes as villainy and suicide.

A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) encompassed a community, Mountain City, based on her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. Voted a National Book Award finalist, it also became Godwin’s first best-seller. Between it and her next four best-sellers, Godwin interposed Mr. Bedford and the Muses (1983), her second short story collection after Dream Children (1976).

Dream Children had been created at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she studied with Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Coover. It exhibits her early interest in allegory made real on a psychological level. The Iowa years are also described in her edited journals, The Making of a Writer, Journals, 1963-1969 (2010). A previous volume, The Making of a Writer, Journals, 1961-1963 (2006), presents her years in Europe after a decision to become a writer. The novella, “Mr. Bedford,” derives from her time in London.

“Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane", begins Godwin’s sixth novel, The Finishing School (1984), which employs a first person reverie, and concerns the effect of a powerful personality on a developing one. Her next novel, A Southern Family, returns to Mountain City, but is darker than A Mother and Two Daughters, as it involves a murder-suicide that sends shock waves and melancholy through a family.

In Father Melancholy’s Daughter (1991), the daughter of the title navigates her relationships with her father, an Episcopal minister, and with a theatrical auteur. Theology is embraced in Evensong, her 1999 sequel to Father Melancholy’s Daughter, and in her 2010 novel, Unfinished Desires. It also informs her non-fiction book, Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life (2001), illustrated by stories from her life and her reading.

Godwin's ninth novel, The Good Husband (1994), emulates Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier by telling a story through four related characters. This book did not reach the best-seller list. Evensong, her tenth novel, did. Then she engaged in another literary experiment, Evenings at Five (2003), a novella that explored, through stream-of-consciousness, the presence that follows the death of a long-term companion. It is based on her relationship with composer Robert Starer, with whom she collaborated on nine libretti. Regarding Evenings at Five, Godwin said she wanted “to write a different kind of ghost story".

For her 12th novel, Queen of the Underworld, Godwin fashioned a Bildungsroman, derived from her years as a Miami Herald reporter, from 1959 to 1960, where she had experience with the Cuban émigré community. Unfinished Desires (2010) was set at a girls' school run by nuns. Concerned with girls in adolescence and their elders, who bequeath their deep-set issues, the novel attempts to make the connection between religious devotion and artistic seriousness.



  1. ^ Reference Guide to American Literature, Third Edition, ed. by D. K. Kirkpatrick, 1994
  2. ^ National Book Foundation website, accessed February 5, 2007 [1] and Gail Godwin Papers [2]
  3. ^ Gail Godwin Papers
  4. ^ Chicago Sun-Times, 1974, quoted on Random House Inc. website, accessed Jan. 18, 2013 [3].
  5. ^ Rachel M. Brownstein, “The Odd Woman and Literary Feminism,” in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, ed. by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
  6. ^ Ibid
  7. ^ Joanne S. Frye, “Narrating the Self: The Autonomous Heroine in Gail Godwin’s Violet Clay,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. by Jeffrey W. Hunter, Vol. 125, Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.
  8. ^ Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman, Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, p. 21.
  9. ^ Ibid, p. 349.
  10. ^ Gail Godwin: The Making of a Writer, Journals, 1961-1963, Random House, 2006; The Making of a Writer, Vol. 2, Journals, 1963-1969, Random House, 2011; and Working on the Ending, Vol. 1, Journals, 2001-2004, in progress; all ed. by Rob Neufeld.
  11. ^ “The Place of Autobiography in Fiction,” John Hawkes and Gail Godwin, in The Lost Saranac Interviews: Forgotten Conversations with Famous Writers, edited by Joe David Bellamy and Connie Bellamy, Writers Digest Books, 2007.
  12. ^ Self-Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature by Max Saunders, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  13. ^ Evenings at Five by Gail Godwin, Ballantine Books, 2003.
  14. ^ Margaret McDonnell, "Protocols, political correctness and discomfort zones: Indigenous life writing and non-Indigenous editing." Hecate 30.1 (2004): 83+, Literature Resource Center. accessed Dec. 19, 2012.
  15. ^ Michael Sheringham, “We write, she writes,” Times Literary Supplement, Oct. 5, 2012.
  16. ^ Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, tr. into English by anonymous translator, W.W. Norton, 1932.
  17. ^ Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin, Random House, 2006, p. 61.
  18. ^ Violet Clay by Gail Godwin, Knopf, 1978.
  19. ^ Gail Godwin, Flora, Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 79-81.
  20. ^ Henry James, “Preface,” The Wings of the Dove, New York edition, 1909.
  21. ^ Gail Godwin, The Good Husband, Ballantine, 1994, p. 144.
  22. ^ “I am sinking into everydayness. Then I see the vision, only for a minute,” 26-year-old Gail wrote in her journal on Sept. 4, 1963, while employed in a travel service office in London. She’d read The Moviegoer five months before. “The synthetic ‘second life’ we have created does not really matter,” she continued. “I see this pattern more clearly, I will be able to write about it.” See The Making of a Writer, Vol. 2: Journals, 1963-1969, Random House, 2011.
  23. ^ Gail Godwin, Dream Children, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, p. 152.
  24. ^ Gail Godwin, Unfinished Desires, Random House, 2009, pp. 71-2
  25. ^ Gail Godwin, Dream Children, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, pp. 10-12, 17.
  26. ^ Gail Godwin, Evensong, Ballantine Books, 1999, pp. 74-6
  27. ^ Gail Godwin, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, William Morrow & Co., 1991, p. 197.
  28. ^ Gail Godwin, Dream Children, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, pp. 36-7.
  29. ^ Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman, Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, p. 11.
  30. ^ Lihong Xie, The Evolving Self of Gail Godwin, LSU Press, 1995, p. 80.
  31. ^ Gail Godwin, Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life, Perennial trade paper ed., 2001, pp. 206-7.
  32. ^ Godwin left the school when her stepfather moved out of state for a job, and the family went with him.
  33. ^ Gail Godwin, quoted in “Visiting Our Past” by Rob Neufeld, Asheville Citizen-Times, Jan, 11, 2010.
  34. ^ Gail Godwin, “Farewell to a Mentor,” The Living Church, May 14, 2000, digital archives,, Jan. 8, 2013.
  35. ^ Gail Godwin, The Making of a Writer, Vol. 2: Journals, 1963-1969, Random House, 2011, p. 66.
  36. ^ Gail Godwin, “Farewell to a Mentor,” op. cit.
  37. ^ Gail Godwin, A Southern Family, William Morrow, 1987, p. 392.
  38. ^ Ibid, pp. 49-50.
  39. ^ Ibid, p. 274.
  40. ^ “The Making of a Writer, Vol. 2,” review by Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 5, 2011.
  41. ^ A Sorrowful Woman” was first published in Esquire in Aug. 1971. Godwin included it in her volume of stories, Dream Children (Knopf, 1976). It has been anthologized many times, including in Great Esquire Fiction: The Finest Stories from the First Fifty Years (Penguin, 1983).
  42. ^ Gail Godwin, interview with Paul Mandelbaum, 12 Short Stories and Their Making: An Anthology with Interviews, Paul Mandelbaum, Persea Books, 2005.
  43. ^ Gail Godwin, The Finishing School, Viking, 1984, p. 1, 4.
  44. ^ “A Conversation with Gail Godwin,” Gail Godwin, The Finishing School, Ballantine Books Reader’s Circle Edition, 2004, p. 327.
  45. ^ Gail Godwin, A Mother and Two Daughters, Viking, 1982, pp. 479-480.
  46. ^ Gail Godwin, “Mr. Bedford,” in Mr. Bedford and the Muses, William Heinemann, 1984, p. 93.
  47. ^ Ibid, p. 103.
  48. ^ Gail Godwin, A Mother and Two Daughters, Viking, 1982, p. 413.
  49. ^ Gail Godwin, The Making of a Writer, Vol. 2: Journals, 1963-1969, Random House, 2011, p. 33 (Sept. 24, 1963 journal entry).
  50. ^ “Deliberate Speed, Stunning Effect,” a review of The Finishing School, by Paul Gray, Time, Feb. 11, 1985.
  51. ^ A Southern Family was on the N.Y. Times bestseller list for eight straight weeks, beginning on Oct. 18, 1987. Like A Mother and Two Daughters, it was then published as a mass market paperback with a painterly woman’s novel book cover.
  52. ^ Sara Maitland, “The Wife Every Woman Wants,” review of The Good Husband, The New York Times Book Review, Sept. 4, 1994.
  53. ^ Gail Godwin, The Good Husband, Ballantine, 1994, p. 403.
  54. ^ Gail Godwin, interview with Rob Neufeld, Jan. 11, 2010, The Read on WNC,
  55. ^ Evenings at Five by Gail Godwin, Ballantine Books, Reader’s Circle edition, 2004, pp. 16-17.
  56. ^ “A Conversation with Gail Godwin” in Evenings at Five by Gail Godwin, Ballantine Books, Reader’s Circle edition, 2004, p. 277.
  57. ^ “Introduction,” Evenings at Five by Gail Godwin, Ballantine Books, Reader’s Circle edition, 2004, p. xvii.
  58. ^ Evenings at Five by Gail Godwin, Ballantine Books, Reader’s Circle edition, 2004, pp. 20-21.

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