Born 18 June 1937, Birmingham, Alabama
Daughter of Mose W. and Kathleen Krahenbuhl Godwin; married Ian Marshall, 1965 (divorced)
Gail Godwin received her B.A. (1959) in journalism from the University of North Carolina and her M.A. (1968) and Ph.D. (1971) in English from the University of Iowa. From 1967 to 1971 she taught English at the University of Iowa, and she has lectured at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Godwin worked as a reporter for the Miami Herald (1959-60) and as a writer for the U.S. Travel Service at the U.S. Embassy in London (1962-65). She has contributed short stories to Cosmopolitan, North American Review, Paris Review, and Esquire.
Godwin's first novel, The Perfectionists (1970), depicts the disintegration of a marriage constructed on philosophical and psychological theories. The perfectionists in the novel are John Empson, a British psychotherapist, and his new American wife, Dane; they are an obsessively analytical couple who use Hermann Keyserling's Book of Marriage as a yardstick against which to measure their own relationship. What the novel reveals as it explores the dynamics of their relationship is that union and invasion are two sides of the same coin. John sees marriage as a union in which both of the partners reveal the internal moments of their lives; Dane wants something akin to a Victorian marriage of form and individual privacy, and regards her husband's rage for union as a personal invasion.
The tensions resulting from their attempts to realize not only the ideal of a perfect marriage but also some rather vague conceptions of personal transcendence are compounded by the presence of John's three-year-old illegitimate son. Dane comes to hate the implacable child for his refusal to contribute to the picture of the ideal family; and when, finally, she almost beats the child to death, one part of her analytical mind is already translating the cruelty into evidence of a cosmic experience which she can later share with her husband.
In her second novel, Glass People (1972), Godwin again explores the relationship of marriage, moving away from the representation of the wife as both victimizer and victim to a portrayal of the wife as the passive possession of a remote and self-assured husband. Here Godwin evokes the boredom and malaise afflicting Francesca Bolt, of whom her husband, Cameron, requires nothing except she be his flawlessly beautiful wife. Francesca seeks emancipation from the stifling atmosphere of her marriage in brief affairs with chance acquaintances and a temporary job as an amanuensis to an eccentric writer until Cameron rescues her from the dismal consequences of her attempts at independence and restores her to her place as his adored objet d'art.
Godwin returns to this depiction of the woman as frustrated and powerless to act affirmatively in the collection of stories that comprises Dream Children (1976). Most of the women in these stories are victims—either of men or of their own unrealized expectations—who escape into the marginal world of dreams.
Godwin appropriates from George Gissing the title of her third and best-known novel, The Odd Woman (1974), and relies upon the meaning of "odd" in the sense of "unpaired" to suggest the plight of her protagonist. Armed with a Ph.D. in English literature and a collection of melodramatic family stories, Jane Clifford visualizes the events of her life either in terms of fictional plots or as a kind of mythologized family history. She finds in the example of George Eliot and G. H. Lewes substantiation for her belief in a lasting and creative love, and she sees in the tale of her great-aunt's elopement with the villain from a traveling melodrama an appealing prototype of daring passion. Yet as she attempts to construct her life out of "real" materials and to give it a comprehensive shape, she realizes that novels can have happy endings and myths can remain beautiful only because, unlike life, they omit all the loose ends and most of the mundane details.
Traces of The Odd Woman shadow into Godwin's next novel, Violet Clay (1978), where the protagonist who gives the book its title resembles Jane Clifford in gauging her own life by those of her relatives who figure significantly in a family myth. Unlike The Odd Woman, however, which offers no resolution to the protagonist's quest for order and beauty in a lasting relationship, Violet Clay demonstrates the possibility of laying to rest the ghosts from the past and achieving a personal vision of balance and proportion. In this significant novel, Godwin, often viewed as a "woman's novelist," has achieved a satisfying picture of a "new woman"—one who realizes successfully her own possibilities.
Godwin has continued to examine the inner workings of the family, especially those families with some connection to the American South. Many of her recent works open with the death or removal of a family member. This loss drives Godwin's characters to create new and more meaningful families around the resulting void. In A Mother and Two Daughters (1982), the sisters Lydia and Cate Strickland help their mother, Nell, through the aftermath of the death of their universally loved father. Cate, an English professor teaching in the Midwest, returns to the North Carolina town of Mountain City where Lydia has remained.
Mountain City is also the setting of A Southern Family (1987); Clare Quick, a successful author in New York City, visits her childhood home and becomes embroiled in the travails of her family after the violent death of her brother Theo. In the novella Mr. Bedford and the Muses (1983), another expatriate Southerner, Carrie Ames, attempts to build a new family in an old house in London. This story and the five published with it address issues surrounding familial bonding and the creation of art. Each work in this volume concerns the inspiration of the artist, and Godwin includes an author's note identifying her own inspiration for each story.
The themes of family, art, and inspiration reappear in The Finishing School (1985), in which Justine Stokes, a successful actress, looks back on the summer when her father's death caused her and her mother to move from Virginia to the suburban North. There Justine meets and is fascinated by Ursula De Vane, a middle-aged woman who introduces her to the beauty and treachery of art.
Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991) also takes the perspective of a grown woman looking back on her girlhood. In this richly textured work, Margaret Gower reflects on life changes precipitated by her young mother's unexpected decision to leave her and her father, an Episcopalian priest, to explore the art world. Margaret's recollections blend religion and ritual with Godwin's ideas about art, inspiration, and family.
In addition to her published fiction, Godwin has provided the texts for musical compositions by composer Robert Starer and the libretto for his "musical morality play," The Last Lover (1977). Since the 1980s, her work has received increasing critical attention. Violet Clay and A Mother and Two Daughters both had National Book award nominations. In 1981 Godwin received an Award in Literature from the American Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters.
An accomplished novelist, Gail Godwin is most interested in creating characters who operate at a high level of intelligence and feeling as they go about trying to make sense of their world. In her fiction she most often concentrates on depicting the choices that modern women make. These choices necessitate compromise, and rarely bring complete happiness. Godwin's characters often explore their options through art as they create or analyze images that may reveal or even change reality.
Over the course of 11 novels, collections of short stories, and three plays, Godwin draws from her own experience to broaden the scope of contemporary fiction. The struggles of women who seek both an independent life and a productive connection to others are central to her work. Godwin strives in her novels and short fiction to place those efforts within a larger context, especially within the framework of modern theories of art and psychology.
As was often true of the central characters in several of Godwin's earlier novels, Magda Danvers is facing a transformative event. At the center of Godwin's complex story of loss and mortality, Magda faces what she calls her "final examination" in The Good Husband (1994). Under the tutelage of ovarian cancer, Magda, a star professor at a college in upstate New York, faces her death with wit and her usual flamboyant and penetrating intelligence. She is tended by a thoughtful but unreflective husband, Francis Lake, who left the seminary at age twenty-one to dedicate himself for nearly a quarter-century to Madga rather than God. As Magda's condition worsens, another grieving couple is drawn into her orbit: Hugo Henry, the college's writer-in-residence, and his second wife, Alice, formerly his editor, who have just lost their only child in a tragic home birth. Godwin creates a meditation on the nature of intimacy and influence, and the differences between good matches and good mates.
Sequels, whether in books or movies, can often be a disappointment. Godwin risks the challenge in Evensong (1999). Margaret Gower, who first appeared as the motherless daughter of a smalltown Episcopal priest in Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991), returns. Margaret herself has also become a priest and is serving All Saints High Balsam, a parish with a reputation for being rich and old-fashioned, nicknamed "All Saints High Horse" by the surrounding community. Margaret's life is stable though a bit stale. Godwin weaves an eclectic collection of supporting characters as the yeast leavening this tale of work, family, and growing spiritual responsibility. Godwin draws upon her rich expertise to examine the daily lives of people alive with conflicts, complexities and frailties.
Gail Godwin's papers are in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Hill, J., Gail Godwin (1992). Pearlman, M., ed., American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space (1989). Pearlman, M., ed., Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature (1989).
Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature (1992). CA (1972). CANR (1985). CLC (1978, 1982, 1985). CN (1986). DLB (1980). Great Women Writers (1994). Larousse Dictionary of Women (1996). Larousse Dictionary of Writers (1994).
Contemporary Literature (Spring 1983). Hollins Critic (Apr. 1988). Iowa English Bulletin (1987). Iowa Journal of Literary Studies (1981). Mississippi Quarterly (Winter 1988-89). NYTBR (7 June 1970, 9 Sept. 1990, 3 Mar. 1991). Southern Literary Journal (Spring 1989, Spring 1995). Southern Quarterly (Summer 1983).
—GUIN A. NANCE,
UPDATED BY E. M. NIX
AND CELESTE DEROCHE