Gail Godwin: civilized echoes of the 19th century

IF you ask her, Gail Godwin will say she prefers 19th-century English writers simply because she cannot recall the names of any 20th-century authors. But a quick skim through her fiction reveals something else afoot. Ms. Godwin's eight books, seven novels, and one collection of short stories are havens for sensible, intelligent heroines decorously devoted to art and beauty and other civilized ideals. Her latest work, the well-received ``The Finishing School,'' has been described as ``Dickensian.'' And the author herself confesses to purloining the narrative voice -- a grown woman looking back on her childhood -- from Charlotte Bront"e's ``Jane Eyre.'' At the same time, one senses a literary world not wholly divorced from reality.

``Oh, at different times I've been most of my heroines,'' says Ms. Godwin airily in her smoky, Southern-accented voice. ``Also some of the men and occasionally some of the animals.'' About her two protagonists in ``The Finishing School,'' she adds, ``I think that both are me.''

In this instance, ``both'' refers to Ursula DeVane, a middle-aged failed actress, and 14-year-old Justin Stokes, a character one reviewer called ``one of the more trustworthy portraits of an adolescent in current literature.''

The novel as a whole is a delicate but powerfully told tale of the relationship between a dark, mysterious woman and an impressionable young girl. Critics have lauded it as a story of youth and age, mothers and daughters, mentors and proteg'es, trust and betrayal. And while it falls just short of true tragic drama, the novel's surefooted portrait of adolescent obsession is generating much the same praise occasioned by Gail Godwin's earlier best seller, ``A Mother and Two Daughters,'' which earned a 1982 American Book Award nomination. Both novels are thought to have launched Ms. Godwin, an acclaimed but little-known writer, into the realm of popular success.

It is a journey not without pitfalls.

``When you begin to get a name, you get away with things [in your writing] and I dread that, that coasting,'' says the author, evoking her own protagonists' fears.

``I had a horror of getting muddied, because I was afraid I would lose sight of myself,'' says Justin early in ``The Finishing School.'' Ursula, Justin's mentor, had already cautioned against ``congealing'' or ``falling into complacency.''

While critics have called this novel Ms. Godwin's most accomplished one to date, the author finds the work more seminal. The entire opening scene came to her in a dream, she says. ``This book I wanted to write for myself,'' the author explained during a breakfast interview recently. ``I needed to know the information in it, but I didn't think it would be popular.'' Ms. Godwin herself had a mentor, an unidentified former teacher, who helped her widen her early, provincial horizons.

Born in Alabama but raised in Asheville, N.C., by her mother and grandmother, she spent several years in the South before leaving for London, New York, and eventually the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. She resides now in upstate New York. ``If I had stayed in my hometown I would have had to fight all those people's preconceptions of me,'' she says. ``Like Ursula says, people would have already written your script for you.''

Nonetheless Ms. Godwin retains much of her Southern roots. In person, there is little of the Southern belle about her; her accent is lightly flavored and her blue eyes are those of a writer, wide open and missing nothing. Many of her literary characters, including the teen-age Justin, are transplanted Southerners, and in conversation she refers enthusiastically to the South's strong storytelling tradition.

``This is why Southern writers still have so much material,'' she says, ``because they are connected to that [land].''

For herself, Ms. Godwin adds, ``I want to write more about the South, but I can see it better from here.''

She stops short of referring to the North as an alien country, but clearly a sense of personal history interlaced with geography is a major theme in her work. She has set ``The Finishing School'' in rural New York, an area peppered with 200-year old homes that housed early immigrant Dutch and Huguenot families.

``I had never lived in deep countryside before,'' she says. ``It makes you feel younger and also ageless; it's not contemporary, it's not any time.''

In addition to preserving a special relationship with her native South, Gail Godwin also cultivates a unique vision of women. As so many of her richest and best-drawn characters -- Nell Strickland in ``A Mother and Two Daughters,'' Jane Clifford in ``The Odd Woman,'' Violet Clay in ``Violet Clay'' -- are female, she has frequently been labeled a ``woman's writer.'' It is not a description of which Ms. Godwin approves.

``Nobody asked Mr. Conrad, `Why do you write so much about men, particularly men at sea?' '' she says querulously. ``Yes, some of my protagonists happen to be women, but we've been trained to look at the world a certain way. Women watch people and that's what novels are about.''

Ms. Godwin admits that her most natural novelistic ``voice'' is that of an educated older woman. The challenge of ``The Finishing School'' was writing from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl. She says it was an exercise in memory.

``If it wasn't an actual memory, it was still the truth of the way it felt at the time. I think you can trust your imagination because it is connected to parts of memory you've forgotten.''

Buoyed by her recent success, Ms. Godwin says her next novel, the largest and most complex story to date, will feature several male protagonists. And while the challenge to write truthfully from that altered perspective is great, she says, ``all the time I've been sneaking up on myself and writing about men.''

Despite her currently comfortable status on the best-seller list, she is just as happy to talk about her past failures as her successes. She warms particularly to the story of her getting fired from her first professional writing job at the Miami Herald some 20 years ago.

As Ms. Godwin tells it, then assistant managing editor, Allen Neuharth, now chairman of Gannett Company, the newspaper chain, got tired of running retractions about her errant stories. ``I wasn't consciously embellishing, just trying to make them more interesting,'' she says with only a hint of apology to her voice.

In a roomful of ``bigwigs with their suits,'' Mr. Neuharth handed her a check along with her dismissal. Hardly a golden parachute, but when Ms. Godwin refused the money, Mr. Neuharth insisted: he stuck it under the legs of his ex-reporter sitting stricken in her chair.

``And then they all just walked out of the room,'' says Ms. Godwin, bursting into laughter at this tale of the failed writer.

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