“Friends in Writing: Bloomian Jealousies in Gail Godwin’s Old Lovegood Girls,” Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

Gail Godwin

Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

A new novel by Gail Godwin is a treat. To enter the literary world created by Godwin is like stepping into a pleasant townhouse where spacious, sun-dappled rooms open up on the first floor. Then you notice that there are stairs, too, that may lead to other, more complex, secret, and somber spaces.

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Godwin’s novels are often set in the American South. In her most recent novel, Old Lovegood Girls, small towns in the South are linked to family, roots, and tradition as points of reference to which one always returns, real homes in contrast to the rootless life of change and strife in the big city. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, as indicated in this glimpse of social life: “This year’s fashionable parties in New York would be showcasing the latest in furnishings and catered foods, while in Pullen tables and chairs stalwartly stood in their original locations, and the hosts faithfully offered the same dishes that had graced their tables fifty years before.”

Time and memory as linked to place are central themes in the œuvre of Godwin, which is marked by what T.S. Eliot called the historical sense, “a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together.” In some of Godwin’s recent novels, protagonists were looking back in time and thinking about their life choices. Issues of regret and responsibility were central concerns in Flora, while Unfinished Desires probed the narratives we create about our lives.

Old Lovegood Girls brings together an abundance of interrelated themes, stories, times, and characters, all with a focus on literature, writing, and publishing. Writing is at the center of the friendship of the two protagonists, with literary echoes subtly suffusing their stories and shining a light on life’s developments, in retrospect often predictable, but in the present moment seldom envisioned.

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The story begins at Lovegood College in North Carolina in 1958. Named for an actress, Feron Hood, an intelligent and talented girl whose alcoholic mother has died, escapes an abusive stepfather and turns instead to a wonderful paternal uncle who places her in Lovegood College, where she develops a close and fiercely competitive friendship with her roommate, Meredith Grace Jellicoe (Merry), who comes from an apparently stable and traditional family. There are also numerous collegial and professional friendships and relationships between teachers, mentors, and sponsors at Lovegood. Too soon, sadly, Merry has to leave Lovegood to shoulder responsibilities at home after the death of her parents.

More than in her earlier novels, in Old Lovegood Girls, Godwin departs from a traditional form of narrative. Even though there is a long chronological timeline (from 1958 to 2001) and a movement forward touching on decisive moments in the lives of the protagonists, the timeline is incomplete, with big gaps giving only impressionistic views of what has happened in between.

Bloomian Jealousies

With great subtleness, Old Lovegood Girls creates and contrasts a multitude of stories that evoke questions about how much we really know about ourselves and others. Are we predestined by fate and family background?  How do our self-insights (or the lack of them) mark our most important relationships? How far can relationships develop, how deep can comprehension and compassion go if blind spots persist and are even cultivated? These questions could be posed not only about individuals but about collective selves such as communities, societies, and regions, including the American South with its charming “art of evasive overlay.”

Godwin underlines the importance of the theme of friendship with references to Aelred of Rievaulx’s book on spiritual friendship, De spirituali amicitia. This Cistercian monk and abbot was of special interest for Feron’s husband, in whose view the twelfth century was a fantastic time in history with human beings striving for the highest feelings possible, including ideal forms of friendship.

Abbot Aelred wrote about “lower” feelings, too, mentioning envy as an example of a feeling that can “[corrupt] the splendor of friendship.” For him, all forms of vice had to be excluded from friendship. Aelred links the problem of envy to “the fall of the first human” and thus to Original Sin.

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For Feron Hood, envy and jealousy are major factors both in her relationship to successful writers and in her friendship with Merry. It is when Feron reads Merry’s short story at Lovegood College that she first feels the sting of competitiveness: “jealousy woke up in me like a sleeping animal and I thought, ‘I can do this. I can do it better.’ ” As a friendship set within a hierarchy of accomplishments and marked by things withheld, it provokes a profound and complicated jealousy in Feron.

In his review of Old Lovegood Girls, Ron Charles writes that this is “an extraordinary novel about the nature of those rare friendships that fade for long periods of time only to rekindle in an instant when the conditions are right again.” I take a different view: Feron’s envy puts her friendship with Merry on ice for decades at a time, sadly making them miss time together and depth in their communication. The long gaps in time seem such a waste, even though their friendship is a sturdy plant with underground roots shooting up and flourishing, even with many years in between.

The importance of jealousy and envy in Old Lovegood Girls is further underlined by the references to Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Milton’s epic poem, Satan had a good position in heaven as one of the archangels, but he was envious of God’s power and reckoned he should have the same powers himself. His machinations got him thrown out of heaven, and he fell into the unspeakable agonies of hell painted so powerfully by Milton. Satan overestimated himself. His ambitions were all about egotistic forms of power, and he had not understood God’s all-encompassing power stood above everything because it was transfused with love and goodness. In Paradise Lost, then, Original Sin is linked to envy. Clearly, envy may stem from an erroneous feeling of entitlement and narcissistic self-aggrandizement that puts one at odds with other people or (as in the poem) with God.

But envy, one of the capital sins, may also arise from low self-esteem. Merry’s first impression of Feron is that she seems to be at odds with something or someone. As the story makes clear, Feron has not had the affectionate bond to her mother that she needed (her father died), and she has developed an anxious-avoidant pattern of attachment leading to an adult stance of wariness and avoidance of intimate relationships. Feron has very little emotional closeness in her life, and she sees herself as unworthy, investing everything in her achievements instead. Envy may stem from a profound pessimism and a lack of trust. Driven by “envy and competitiveness and the belief that no matter what [she] did, [she] would never be good enough,” Feron sees her strong points as her industriousness and discipline.

The resentment she carries may have a specific origin in her mother’s attempt to produce an abortion, or, more precisely, in her mother’s flippant manner of telling her daughter about the failed abortion, without any assurance that in the end she was grateful that the fetus—Feron—survived.

In terms of literature and writing, Feron’s envy of other writers recalls the theories of Harold Bloom on writers’ relationships with their predecessors. In Bloom’s psychoanalytically oriented theory there is a great deal of aggressive competition in creative writing, as it takes not only talent but power and belligerence to beat the precursors. Writers most of all want to create something absolutely original that will be part of a canon, a stance that makes for troubled and anxious relationships with the precursors.

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Interestingly, Bloom departs from Milton’s Satan, seeing his rebellion as a form of anxiety: “For Bloom, the anxiety (other critics call it his degeneration, idiocy, madness or badness) generated in Satan by his talent, imagination and resolve is central to his demonic creativity,” as John Hollander puts it, with “Satan and God as a paradigm of poetic ancestor and scion.”

Feron has more than a tad of Bloomian ambivalence and anxiety. She admits to herself: “I study other writers to compare my progress against theirs. It’s mostly just a matter of jealousy and ambition.”

In T.S. Eliot’s different but no less exigent take on the tradition, a writer should build on the greatest possible perspective on past literature. Modern accomplishments should rest solidly on the achievements of the best dead writers. The tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour,” Eliot asserts. As John Hollander puts it, “Eliot declared that a poet must ‘develop or procure’ a consciousness of the past, maintaining that if we moderns do indeed know more than dead writers, it is precisely they—the dead writers—who constitute what we know.”

This is a view that associates to that of the twelfth-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres, who coined the phrase “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants,” as mentioned by Professor Avery, Feron’s teacher and future husband, in a lecture on the Great Conversation. At the beginning, Feron and Merry stand on the shoulders of their beloved literature teacher at Lovegood; later, they stand on the shoulders of all the writers whose works they admire.

As an author Gail Godwin, too, stands on shoulders—those of saints, scholars, and other writers, mostly canonical. Her characters build on stories they hear and on fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard. (Since fairy tales are important in Godwin’s novel, the name Lovegood might even be a clin d’œil to the Lovegood characters in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books:  Luna Lovegood, her wizard father, and her mother, Pandora). In Ron Charles’ view, Feron “remains something of an artistic vampire.” Her inversions of fairy tales could also be seen as Bloomian swerves or creative mis-readings in being completions and antitheses of the original texts.

Chekhovian Uncertainties

In terms of her own precursors, Godwin seems to take her cue from Chekhov, to whom references are legion in Old Lovegood Girls. Feron and Merry learn about Chekhovian endings from their beloved literature teacher at Lovegood College, who “was leading them toward an acceptance of being left in uncertainty,” and throughout the story, they aim to “to get used to uncertainty in [their] reading and writing.” Along Chekhovian lines, Godwin, too, is leading her readers “toward an acceptance of being left in uncertainty.”

Commenting on what he sees as chiastic endings in Chekhov, David Jauss suggests that “[s]ometimes an echo ending repeats the words and/or actions of the opening in reverse order, creating a kind of inverted symmetry.” Old Lovegood Girls begins and ends with passages about Dean Susan Fox, with the word dean being among the first and the last words of the novel. Opening and closing the novel, Dean Fox’s perspective on her own career and educational universe creates a “kind of inverted symmetry” which allows the novel to fade out on the same path from which it began several decades earlier.

According to Jauss, “Chekhov often uses the ‘dead end’ conclusion in stories whose expected climax is an epiphany.” There are also false climaxes which “conclude with what appears to be a climax but in fact is not one, for the conflict remains unresolved, the character ultimately unchanged,” and some stories “achieve a sense of closure while still acknowledging the inconclusiveness of life.” Furthermore, Chekhov’s endings are often anti-epilogues:  “Instead of giving us a pat account of how everything will turn out, he typically returns the character, and us, to the uncertainty of life, leaving us wondering what will happen next.”  

Things Withheld and Letters Never Posted

For Merry and Feron, one of Chekov’s stories is particularly important, “The Lady with the Dog.” In Chekov’s story about a secret relationship, the male protagonist, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, arrives at the insight that “that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.”

Chekhov often uses “an unreliable narrator, one who fails to see what his story reveals about him,” according to Jauss. Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, in my view, is one of those. In Godwin’s novel, Feron Hood is such an unreliable character who remains mysterious to everyone, including herself. She feels “[she doesn’t] really know why [she is] this way.”

In Old Lovegood Girls, mysteries, uncertainties, lies, and fabulations mark most of the characters’ communications. At one point Feron plans to write a novel entitled The Woman Who Lied.  There may also be rewritings of history. In this Southern milieu, guys in bars are playing confederate “games” that make it possible to “rewrite” the Civil War (or the War Between the States) in order to give it a different outcome.

Merry may be right that “everyone has secrets no one else should know,” and Feron tells Merry: “You can’t get all my secrets out of me, Merry.” However, too much secrecy stands in the way of real friendship and intimacy. Feron asks herself: “If she and Merry had maintained a more ‘faithful’ friendship over the decade, would they have felt easier about exchanging secrets?” It could also be the reverse; if they had exchanged more secrets, they might have had a more faithful friendship.

Old Lovegood Girls is suffused with secrets of all kinds, then: things withheld, never said, letters written but never posted, words failing to find expression (or publication, as the case may be)—or the reverse, long-held secrets slipping out in old age, inadvertently and shockingly!

As Ron Charles points out, “the story travels nimbly through an enormous swath of American history.” The depiction of the South shows the rapid and far-reaching transformation it has undergone from the 1950s, a transformation that concerns education, economy, and cultural values. Old Lovegood Girls touches on great societal changes in terms of women’s opportunities, race relations, production and economy (after being “king,” tobacco becomes a “murderer on trial”), and society’s views of homosexuality.

In the early part of the novel, there are lesbian women who feel compelled to live their true lives under the radar. A couple of lesbian teachers at Lovegood College play important roles for Feron and Merry. Another character, Marguerite, tries to run away with her music teacher but is stopped by her family. She becomes “a middle-aged doll collector still living with her parents,” someone who has created an official collection of dolls for everyone to admire along with another, personal one, featuring dolls that are “uncanny, a few downright ugly,” and “an evil-looking clown, a primitive woman made of straw, and a large sad doll in a hat and ragged coat, carrying a worn suitcase.” These strange and disturbing dolls seem to be the only way for Marguerite to express her resentment at the suppression of her own identity. Only when the parents are dead can she begin to live her own life.

There are many ways of knowing in Old Lovegood Girls. Feron’s creative writing teacher advises her to cultivate moments of “pause,” laying aside the usual cognitive, categorizing, and categorical ways of looking and remaining wordlessly open to experience instead. Other levels of consciousness are hinted at. Towards the end of the story, Feron seems to have developed a new level of awareness that makes her see beyond appearances, as when she sees and hears the ghost of Ritchie, Merry’s dead brother, when she is staying overnight in his old room.

Beyond all these partial and incomplete knowledges, there is an ultimate “Knower.” Old Lovegood Girls is imbued with a spiritual dimension obvious in the references to the Bible, Abbot Aelred, and medieval spirituality. Pondering the depiction of God’s unfathomable omniscience—“You have searched me and known me … you are acquainted with all my ways”—Merry often returns to the profound and immensely moving perspective found in Psalm 139: “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” The author of existence and the author of books turn out to have similarities.

A ‘Southern Treasure’

Whereas contemporary sociopolitical discussion tends to be pushed by pet peeves and polarizing views of problems, a well-wrought novel affords a far more complex and satisfying perspective on life. Bringing together a wealth of interrelated stories and characters, Old Lovegood Girls is an impressive edifice holding themes such as friendship, jealousy, writing, communication, and ways of knowing. In the œuvre of Gail Godwin, the greatest pleasure is often found in the quality of writing itself. As Bethanne Patrick remarks, Godwin has “written some of the late-20th-century’s most affecting prose.” Critics have come to regard Godwin as aliterary treasure” (Leavitt), a “Southern treasure” (Matturro), and even an “American literary legend” (Patrick). Through the vibrant dialogue in Old Lovegood Girls and the perspicacious psychology, a myriad of complex stories emerge— regional and cosmopolitan, personal and collective, opening up spiritual and existential perspectives that remain with us after the last page of Old Lovegood Girls.


Works Cited

Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship. (De spirituali amicitia). Translated by Lawrence C. Braceland, sj. Edited and Introduction by Marsha L. Dutton. Cistercian Fathers Series: Number Five. LITURGICAL PRESS Collegeville, Minnesota : Liturtical Press, 2010. Accessed 25 August 2020.

Chekhov, Anton. “The Lady with the Dog.” In The Tales of Chekhov. Volume 3. Translated by Constance Garnett. Project Gutenberg.  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/13415/13415-h/13415-h.htm. Accessed 19 August 2020.

Charles, Ron. “Gail Godwin has been writing novels for 50 years. Her latest proves she has no intention of coasting.” The Washington Post. May 5, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/gail-godwin-has-been-writing-novels-for-50-years-her-latest-proves-she-has-no-intention-of-coasting/2020/05/05/54b03064-8e69-11ea-a0bc-4e9ad4866d21_story.html. Accessed 18 Aug 2020.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69400/tradition-and-the-individual-talent. Accessed 19 August 2020.

Godwin, Gail.  Flora. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print

––––––. Unfinished Desires. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

––––––. Old Lovegood Girls. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020. Print

Herceg, Karen Corinne. “Interviews Gail Godwin.” Southern Literary Review: A Magazine for Literature of the American South. August 13, 2020.

Hollander, John. Rev of The Anxiety of Influence. The New York Times. March 4, 1973. https://www.nytimes.com/1973/03/04/archives/the-anxiety-of-influence-a-theory-of-poetry.html. Accessed 21 August 2020.

Jauss, David. “Returning Characters to Life: Chekhov’s Subversive Endings,” The Writer’s Chronicle (March/April 2010), 24-35. https://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/jauss-essay. Accessed 19 August 2020.

Leavitt, Caroline. Interview with Gail Godwin. http://carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/2020/05/literary-legend-gail-godwin-talks-about.html. Accessed 21 August 2020.

Matturro, Claire Hamner. “August Read of the Month: ‘Old Lovegood Girls,’ by Gail Godwin.” Southern Literary Review: A Magazine for Literature of the American South. August 12, 2020. Accessed 24 August 2020.

Patrick, Bethanne. “Gail Godwin on a Life of Writing: The Author of Grief Cottage in Conversation with Bethanne Patrick.” Literary Hub. October 17, 2017. https://lithub.com/gail-godwin-on-a-life-of-writing/. Accessed 24 August 2020.

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