Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

A whirlwind story of news-chasing and publishing seen through the eyes of a young heroine, Gail Godwin’s Queen of the Underworld (Ballantine 2007) recalls the dynamic newspaper offices sparkling with collegial competition and smart repartee in American movies from the 1940s.

During her first week as a staff reporter at the Miami Star, Emma Gant is plunged into a bath of initiation in a Miami seething with everyday happenings and historical events. It is the summer of 1959, and numerous Cuban exiles turn up at the hotel where Emma is staying, among them an eminent writer, whose wife’s full-length dress contains her husband’s memoir smuggled out from Cuba.

In an incessant whirl of news and discussions about what is newsworthy, Emma is processing and organizing everything that happens around her. Her trajectory is reflected in a mix of newspaper clippings, headlines, and columns, where major and minor storylines are thrown in together, along with fragments of stories. Small newspaper items may be about raincoat fashion, or about an old man and his dog.

In an Afterword, Godwin comments on the dearth of novels about women’s creative careers in the 1960s: “where, in 1967, was a novel whose central focus was on a young woman feeling her way toward her writing vocation, while struggling with the usual woes and follies that accompany human development?”

Queen of the Underworld is such a novel, focused on the superb style and self-determination of a number of strong women characters. Even though the male characters in Queen of the Underworld are well-drawn, they are mostly background figures. Emma’s married lover, Paul Nightingale, is more than twice her age. Suave, gentlemanly, and mundane, Paul is a successful entrepreneur married to an elegant and successful woman. In Emma’s view, Paul is a “gent extraordinaire” about whom she thinks, arranging the roses he has sent for her twenty-second birthday: “You gave me the courage to come to this city, you restored my faith in men.” In most of the novel we see little of Paul, who is busy with his restaurant and club business, and both his character and the nature of his relationships to wife and mistress remain ungraspable.

For Emma, men can be categorized according to their utility: “mentor, obstacle, adversary, sexual attractant, useful stepping-stone, buddy-cohort,” and she knows how to use her feminine wiles. In her calculating and self-promoting efforts, comparing herself to other women to see what she can learn about competing in a man’s world, Emma Gant is an almost Faustian go-getter aiming for greatness.

Emma’s mother and grandmother are her primary role models. They teach Emma a lot about self-respect and discipline, as do the nuns at Emma’s school, St Clothilde’s. Tess, a friend of Emma’s mother, regarded as an aunt by Emma, is an independent woman who is learning how to pilot a plane. Tess is working for a dentist, perhaps her lover, with whom she helps smuggle in weapons for Cuban revolutionaries.

Gail Godwin

Marge Armstrong, a colleague at the Star, and Major Marjac, an army woman Emma meets on her way to Miami, are other role models. Emma thinks that they are “handsome, affable women with careers. They had an aura about them that deterred you from categorizing them as old maids. What if I ended up without a husband at their age? What would I need to have accomplished by then to deter people from pitying me for being single?”

Whipping about in impeccable garb giving orders to family and servants, Doña Lídia, an elegant Cuban lady, the formidable mother of Emma’s new friend, Alex, is another role model for Emma, as is Paul’s aunt, Stella. What all of these styled and self-assured women have in common is a determination to succeed in getting what they want, be it admiration, recognition, or wealth.

With its associations to the myth of Persephone and her descent into the underworld of the dead, Queen of the Underworld points in the direction of the existential and metaphysical questions treated in ancient myth. There are two queens of the underworld.

Ginevra Snow (Ginevra Brown as married), firstly, is a modern-day Persephone. Like her mythological foremother who was abducted by Hades, Ginevra too has been abducted, in her case by a mobster uncle. Ginevra becomes the object of Emma’s fascination, even more so when they meet after Ginevra’s third suicide attempt, when Emma happens to be in the emergency room to report on a tornado that has struck Miami.

Seeing Ginevra as a sister adventurer, Emma is a queen of the underworld herself. Her first task as a reporter, significantly, is a metaphorical descent into the underworld of the dead since her task is to write obituaries. She also spends a lot of time in the newspaper’s “morgue.” Emma’s King Hades is Paul Nightingale, whose green lamp envelops the lovers in an “underwatery glow.”

Emma’s and Ginevra’s lives could not be more different. Having been a madam in an “elite island whorehouse” and caused a scandal, Ginevra has been on the way down socially, while Emma is a rising star reporter.

And yet, there are subtle parallels. Emma is as tuned into men’s responses to women—to her own “attractive surface and interesting mind”—as the madam Ginevra must have been. Ginevra’s face has a both “hopeful and calculating” touch and her expression ranges from “affronted innocence to cunning hauteur,” something that might apply to Emma, too. Indeed, Emma sees Ginevra as an alternative version of herself, although perhaps a lower-class version, as Ginevra has had neither Emma’s social advantages nor her brilliant intellect and fierce self-determination. Still, even if things have gone very wrong for Ginevra, inspired by Emma’s professional determination, she will attempt to get a job and make something of herself in the end.

Ranging from the highly literary to the contemporary and colloquial, Queen of the Underworld is alive with a sense of immediacy that brilliantly conveys the shifting moods of the protagonist. For Emma, Alex’s smile is “like a scented bath of approval just waiting for [her] to step into.” She observes the body language of everyone, her own “wary sashay,” her lover’s “discreet, fastidious stroll,” a colleague’s “nervous dance” and another colleague’s “stealthy glide, as if he moved on invisible wheels.”

A poetic, palpable picture is painted of Emma waking up “sweaty in a cradle of buttery morning light” in her hotel room and snapping open the window blinds “to confront an almost aggressive tropical blue sky.”  At the same time as this allows the reader to feel the buttery morning light and see the aggressive tropical sky, it concentrates Emma’s situation as if in a nutshell, with the safety and smoothness of the “buttery” meeting the “aggressive” blue. Emma herself is a blend of buttery soft and steely blue.

Queen of the Underworld is a coming-of-age story and an artist’s novel that has autobiographical features. With her “inordinate ambition,” Emma has some traits of the author herself, who worked at The Miami Herald after she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1959. As she explains in an Afterword, Godwin named her heroine after two well-known literary characters: the “voraciously ambitious” Eugene Gant in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and Jane Austen’s Emma, a character known for her “spunky self-regard.”

With its associations to royal riches and criminal rule, Queen of the Underworld is a novel about power, that is, “power to” rather than “power over.” Holding up the empowering aspects of ambition and accomplishment, it also touches upon the destructive aspects of career ambition, such as professional envies, jealousies, and hostilities, something that raises the question as to whether monumental career efforts are really worth it in the end. This is a question present already in Godwin’s Journals 1961-63: “One day, if I push hard enough, I’ll get there and it will be worth all the hell. Or will it?”

Part Three is prefaced by lines from Antonio Machado that say something about the form and content of Godwin’s novel: “As you go you make the road/ And if you turn to look behind/ you’ll see the path your feet/ will never tread again.” There is no road, you make up the road as you move forward.

Such is Emma’s situation throughout the novel, echoed in a narrative that refrains from leading up to a clear end. Godwin mentions in the Afterword that she has avoided a neat conclusion: “I decided not to practice 20/20 hindsight by having a later, wiser Emma looking back on her apprenticeship.” At the end of the novel, we do not know how things will develop for Emma or for any other of the other characters. It is the journey itself that matters.





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