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Gail (Kathleen) Godwin Biography

Gail Godwin comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Birmingham, Alabama, 1937. Education: Peace Junior College, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1955-57; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1957-59, B.A. in journalism 1959; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1967-71, M.A. 1968, Ph.D. in English 1971. Career: Reporter, Miami Herald, 1959-60; consultant, U.S. Travel Service, United States Embassy, London, 1962-65; researcher, Saturday Evening Post, New York, 1966; Instructor in English, 1967-70, and lecturer at the Writers Workshop, 1972-73, University of Iowa; instructor and fellow, Center for Advanced Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1971-72; American specialist, United States Information Service, Brazil, 1976; lecturer, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1977, and Columbia University, New York, 1978, 1981. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974, and fellowship, for libretto, 1978; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; St. Lawrence award, 1976; American Academy award, 1981; Thomas Wolfe Memorial award, 1988; Janet Kafka award, 1988. Agent: John Hawkins and Associates, 71 West 23rd Street, Suite 1600, New York, New York 10010.



The Perfectionists. New York, Harper, 1970; London, Cape, 1971.

Glass People. New York, Knopf, 1972.

The Odd Woman. New York, Knopf, 1974; London, Cape, 1975.

Violet Clay. New York, Knopf, and London, Gollancz, 1978.

A Mother and Two Daughters. New York, Viking Press, and London, Heinemann, 1982.

The Finishing School. New York, Viking, and London, Heinemann, 1985.

A Southern Family. New York, Morrow, and London, Heinemann, 1987.

Father Melancholy's Daughter. New York, Morrow, and London, Deutsch, 1991.

The Good Husband. New York, Ballantine, and London, Deutsch, 1994.

Evensong. New York, Ballantine Books, 1999.

Short Stories

Dream Children. New York, Knopf, 1976; London, Gollancz, 1977.

Mr. Bedford and the Muses. New York, Viking Press, 1983; London, Heinemann, 1984.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Fate of Fleeing Maidens," in Mademoiselle (New York), May1978.

"The Unlikely Family," in Redbook (New York), August 1979.

"Over the Mountain," in Antaeus (New York), 1983.


The Last Lover, music by Robert Starer (produced Katonah, NewYork, 1975).

Journals of a Songmaker, music by Robert Starer (produced Philadelphia, 1976).

Apollonia, music by Robert Starer (produced Minneapolis, 1979).

Recordings: Anna Margarita's Will (song cycle), music by RobertStarer, C.R.I., 1980; Remembering Felix, music by Robert Starer, Spectrum, 1987.


Woodstock Landscapes: Photographs by John Kleinhans (text).Woodstock, New York, Golden Notebook Press, 2000.

Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1985. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.


Manuscript Collection:

Southern Collection, University of Northern Carolina Library, Chapel Hill.

Critical Studies:

" The Odd Woman: Literature and the Retreat from Life" by Susan E. Lorsch, in Critique (Atlanta), vol. 20, no. 2, 1978; "Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order," in Recent American Fiction by Women by Anne Z. Mickelson, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1979; interview and "Gail Godwin and Southern Womanhood" by Carolyn Rhodes, both in Women Writers of the Contemporary South edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1984; Gail Godwin by Jane Hill, New York, Twayne, 1992; The Evolving Self in the Novels of Gail Godwin by Lihong Xie. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1995; Moving On: The Heroines of Shirley Ann Grau, Anne Tyler, and Gail Godwin by Susan S. Kissel. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996.

Since I began writing fiction I have been most interested in creating characters who operate at a high level of intelligence and feeling as they go about trying to make sense of the world in which they find themselves, and as they make decisions about how to live their lives.

* * *

In her fiction Gail Godwin depicts the choices that modern women make. Whether within marriage or the single life, motherhood or career, these choices necessitate compromise, and none brings complete happiness. Godwin's characters often explore their options through art as they create or analyze images that may reveal or even change reality. A common crisis that precipitates this artistic endeavor or self-exploration is a death in the family, and within renewed family relationships, either nuclear or extended, Godwin's characters defend, dismiss, or display their choices.

Godwin demonstrates the effects of lack of choice in her first two novels, both violent and oppressive tales. In The Perfectionists Dane Empson's rage against her stifling marriage erupts when she beats her husband's illegitimate son. Obsessed with sexual acts in which she is either completely powerless or powerful, Dane views any relationship as invasive. Francesca Bolt, a passive princess in Glass People, makes not even basic decisions about food and clothes. She may "open out" like a beautiful flower but only if husband Cameron provides the container. Like Dane Empson, Francesca longs for a dark angel to transport her to her "true but unknown destiny." Neither Dane nor Francesca finds the strength to leave her marriage.

In her most insightful novel to date, The Odd Woman, Godwin creates Jane Clifford, an academic who researches life in order to control it. Unlike Dane Empson and Francesca Bolt, Jane believes in relationships, in perfect unions, like that of Marian Evans (George Eliot) and George Henry Lewes, in which men and women can communicate but retain separate identities. If she can analyze her married lover's words, Jane believes she can discover his feelings. And to some extent she succeeds, for in a rare moment Jane experiences Gabriel completely. However, she cannot sustain her moment, and her analyses usually lead her away from reality toward melodramas with faceless villains.

The fictive present in The Odd Woman begins with Jane's grandmother's death, an event that forces Jane's rediscovery of family relationships. Within her family and in George Gissing's The Odd Women, a novel for her next teaching assignment, Jane explores women's choices. Although she hates her aggressive stepfather, the man with whom her mother makes an apparent compromise, Jane still cheers for women who strive for marriage. She destroys the family myth about great-aunt Cleva who ran away with a villain actor in the melodrama The Fatal Wedding. Caught between the world of literature in which every plot seems probable and reality in which married lovers seldom leave their wives, Jane struggles with her own possibilities. She rejects total withdrawal into literature after living in isolation the winter she writes her dissertation. Gerda, her radical feminist doppelgänger, cannot convince her to give up on men, but neither will Jane continue to play the role of Understanding Mistress. Jane's insomnia functions as her muse, and keeping herself open to relationships may free the ending of the Jane Clifford Story, with all its Aristotelian requirements. At the end of the novel, back in her apartment, Jane may not have found an Eliot-Lewes union, but she clings to her belief that one can "organize the loneliness and the weather and the long night into something of abiding shape and beauty."

Moving the reader closer to the main character through first-person point of view and less reliance on interior monologue than in The Old Woman, Godwin nevertheless continues her reflections on the thin line between reality and imagination, between art and life in Violet Clay. The title character in Violet Clay searches idly for her options in "the book of Old Plots" while she projects herself into the romance novels she illustrates for a living. The death of Violet's Uncle Ambrose serves as catalyst for change when he commits suicide in his Adirondack cabin. Ambrose's note to Violet reads: "I'm sorry, there's nothing left." Violet sketches his face and interprets the punctuation in the note until she realizes that the "nothing" is artistic inspiration. When Violet realizes the meaning of Ambrose's note, she takes up serious art again, and the goal in the fictive present becomes the proper artistic subject. Violet finally remembers Ambrose's advice: write about (or create) something you want to happen. Art is a way of seeing life rather than postponing it, Violet learns. In her portrait of her neighbor Samantha De Vere, a woman who survives incest and rape, Violet captures the human spirit and earns artistic recognition. Exploring relationships and testing possibilities through artistic expression contribute to Violet's growth; as she states, "Sam put me into proportion, as Ambrose put me into perspective." Godwin continues to explore this connection between art and life in her two short story collections, Dream Children and Mr. Bedford and the Muses.

Each female character in A Mother and Two Daughters represents one choice for women. Cate, the academic who chooses abortion, Lydia, the divorcée who returns to school and career, and Nell, the widow who finds contentment in a second husband, all receive narrative attention in Godwin's longest novel to date. Although Godwin reduces her focus on art to a few comments on The Scarlet Letter, the theme of that novel is clearly relevant: "Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live?" The society in A Mother and Two Daughters is that of the family, which Cate and Lydia's sibling rivalry threatens to pull apart after their father's death. Although blinded by misunderstanding, Lydia and Cate experience much the same anxiety and desire, as Lydia writes a research paper on Eros, a "striving for what one lacks," and Cate defines hope as "keeping a space ready for what you did want, even though you didn't know what it would be until it came." Neither daughter wants to close off her possibilities, whatever her destiny might bring.

In the most intense scene in the novel, Cate and Lydia explode at each other in anger. They express their resentment of their childhood roles: Cate as rebel, Lydia as dutiful daughter. After the fight, their neglect causes their father's cabin to burn, the fire taking with it not only childhood possessions but much of the sisters' anger. In the peace that follows, Lydia and Cate incorporate each other into their lives, and the connections between Lydia's real family and Cate's extended one allow each to survive as individual spirits: "Do you remember? … Does it still hurt here? … Oh, it all passes, but that's the beauty of it, too." Music written by Lydia's son Dickie unites the family in the final scene.

"Your soul craves that constant heightening of reality only art can give you," Ursula DeVane tells Justine Stokes in The Finishing School and thus continues Godwin's theme of art affecting life. Fourteen-year-old Justine, grieving for her dead father and grandparents, turns to forty-four-year-old Ursula for friendship. Twenty-six years later Justine still struggles to understand that tragic summer. Curiosity about that tragedy, Godwin's portrayal of eccentric Ursula, and her sensitive depiction of adolescent Justine propel the reader through The Finishing School. Much like Muriel Spark's Jean Brodie, Ursula DeVane serves as muse to the innocent. Always "keep moving forward and making new trysts with life," Ursula advises Justine, and you'll never grow old. However, the time comes when the student becomes independent and sees her teacher as flawed rather than ideal. This inevitability forms the essential part of Ursula's definition of tragedy: the "something terrible" that happens when a person lives out her own "destiny." The intensity of their relationship causes Justine to betray Ursula much as Ursula betrayed her own mother. The adult Justine realizes that now she must use "all the fate" that has happened to her and "make possible what still may happen." Her yearnings and torments strengthen her acting talent: "As long as you can go on creating new roles for yourself, you are not vanquished," Justine concludes, much as Ursula would. In Godwin's fictional world, roles for women are artistically created and recreated until they become real.

One senses, reading Evensong, that Godwin did a great deal of research to create a believable account of protagonist Margaret Bonner's daily routines as an Episcopalian priest. The title is apt in more ways than one, since the book is set in the final weeks of 1999, when many fear that the world is on the brink of some sort of cataclysm. (Godwin published the novel about a year before that time.) These fears can even penetrate a seemingly idyllic community in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, but equally endangering of Margaret's peace are circumstances from her past, as well as figures from the present who intrude on her life with husband Adrian, a struggling teacher. Throughout the story, Godwin displays her characteristic grace and nimble talent.

—Mary M. Lay

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