“Margaret: The Rose of Goodwood” by Donna Meredith

Without a doubt, writer Donna Meredith picked a winner when she chose to write a historical novel about Margaret Wilson Hodges Wood and her estate, Goodwood, in Tallahassee, Florida. In reality, the subject probably picked her. As she explains in an author’s note, a family member believed he had connections to Margaret’s second husband. Meredith later discovered, thanks to one of her astute readers, that she went to the same high school (decades apart) he did in Clarksburg, WV. This reader urged her to pursue the story, and then a chance encounter led her to the archival librarians at Goodwood Museum. It became clear: this book demanded to be written, and Donna Meredith was the one for the job.

Margaret: The Rose of Goodwood (Wild Women Writers 2024) follows the story of a remarkable woman from her days as a bubbly shopgirl courted by a wealthy attorney to her later years as a broken-hearted and betrayed wife and then to another life chapter as she evolves into a gracious woman beloved by her community.

This inspiring, well researched, and beautifully written novel shines a light on how Margaret maintained her dignity through betrayal, heartbreak and tragedy and emerged victorious. It is also the story of her home, Goodwood, which lived up to its name by providing a place for the many people, both rich and poor, whom Margaret embraced, to find shelter.

The story begins in 1917 when Margaret is a pretty shopgirl with a sparkling personality but little else in the way of social capital. Born into a poor farming family, she has only a grammar school education, and her main prospect for marriage is Eddie, a man who “would become a tenant farmer like his father.”

When Margaret catches the eyes of Will Hodges, a powerful and wealthy attorney, the advantages of such a match are undeniable, as her mother makes clear, but initially Margaret resists his attentions. After all, he’s twice her age. Eventually his persistence wears her down. Meredith writes, “The gentle pressure of his fingers against the thin fabric of my dress sent a song along my spine, imprinted a sonnet in my heart, melted away the last of my resistance.”

Hodges has a Pygmalian complex and decides he can turn her into a sophisticated hostess, worthy of being the wife of a state politico. After their marriage, Margaret succeeds in society beyond everyone’s expectations, charming even the snootiest of Tallahassee’s Southern aristocracy. Her social skills help her husband rise financially and politically in the state. His legal practice thrives, wealthy landowners seek him out for advice, he builds the first skyscraper in the city, and he eventually becomes a progressive state senator. But Hodges also grows bored with marriage, and the fairytale romance sours.

To make up for one of his many transgressions, Hodges purchases the Goodwood Estate for Margaret: “the ultimate penance.” Since the marriage produces no children, Margaret pours her heart into caring for her extended family and devotes her energies into making Goodwood the home of her dreams, eventually becoming known as “the Princess of Antiques.”

Margaret survives numerous marital indignities with aplomb, and when she’s left a widow with few financial resources, she must once again figure out how to turn her fortunes around. When war comes, she volunteers as a “Gray Lady” — offering hospitality and companionship to wounded soldiers. She also rents cottages on her estate to “officers eager for off-base housing,” and that’s how Captain Tom Wood enters her life and opens another chapter.

There’s so much to love about this story, but Meredith’s greatest accomplishment is to create a character so admirable and likeable that readers will not soon forget her. She perfectly captures the voice of a courageous woman who overcomes the disadvantages of her early life with a kind and generous spirit, deep emotional intelligence, and the drive to live an authentic life.

This is also a well-crafted book. While Margaret narrates much of the story, Meredith gives us chapters from various other points of view, each one distinct in class and gender. I found this particularly effective as it provides differing perspectives on Margaret’s life and her effect on others, but never takes the focus off our heroine.

History lovers will find much that is intriguing in this story. My jaw dropped reading about the worthless piece of land called “St. George’s Island,” which her brother acquired and which is not so worthless anymore. And I doubt many people know that Margaret was the first woman to run for office in Florida — even though she lost to Leroy Collins.

This is the particular history of a woman and her estate but also a more general history of how women created and demanded change over the course of a century. Margaret: The Rose of Goodwood is a fascinating and delightful read.

Donna Meredith

Donna Meredith is the award-winning author of Buried Seeds, The Color of Lies, Wet Work, Fraccidental Death, The Glass Madonna and Magic in the Mountain. A retired English and journalism teacher, she is the editor of Southern Literary Review.

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