Special appreciation to Gail Godwin, for her wonderful fiction and her graciousness in granting me an interview; to Claire Sorin and Laurence Lux-Sterritt for their inspiration and hard work in imagining and bringing to pass the Women and Spirituality conference in 2009 and this venue for the resultant ideas to be publicized; to my beloved daughter and my dear friends, Sarah Lux, Judith Krom, and Noreen Nanz, for encouraging me and offering editing suggestions.
1Gail Godwin was born in the United States in 1937, in the South, where she grew up attending church and parochial school. In her adulthood, for many years, she dismissed Christian faith and practice from her life; however, she has returned to her spiritual roots, and this awakened spirituality is manifested in her writing life, too. Because she has become increasingly interested in “the spiritual side of her characters” (Baker 81), her life and her art, seen in the context of one another, provide a wonderful opportunity to observe and reflect on female spirituality.
2Godwin’s thirteen published novels and two short story collections draw upon her life experiences in sometimes easily recognizable ways. Even early in her writing life, she saw her life story as raw material for her art: “I am learning what it is to create meaningful art out of my own experiences” (Making 106: 18 Mar. 1965). Godwin herself has affirmed, in numerous venues, the autobiographical connection in her work. At the same time, Godwin has long been aware that “putting down personal experiences, meaningful as they are to us, doesn’t mean a damn to anyone else until they are transformed into something that produces a universal emotion” (Making 130: 29 Apr. 1965). A writer must “concede reality to art”; otherwise, those “faithful mimickings of reality [seem] more unreal than ever when [. . .] put [. . .] down on paper” (Making 116: 22 Mar. 1965). With the possible exception of Evenings at Five, a third-person novel which Godwin referred to as closely autobiographical in its account of her mourning over the death of her life partner (personal interview by author), her fictional works are not about her, but about the making of art. Godwin is a consummate artist. Notwithstanding this clear distinction between Godwin’s life and her art, however, the many and marked parallels between her fictional and factual worlds, her use of fiction to explore the real-life themes of her mind and heart, and the very nature of our subject matter here make it appropriate and fruitful to examine Godwin’s life and art together. Drawing principally upon Godwin’s fiction and words about her writing and spiritual life, this article focuses on the thoughtful, holistic way Godwin deals with feminine and universal aspects of the female spiritual journey; it interweaves discussion of Godwin’s own spirituality with that of the two protagonists in her seminal novels of spiritual-emphasis: Margaret Gower (Bonner), from Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong, and Magda Danvers, from The Good Husband. Some of what is included here is new, based on a 2009 interview which Godwin granted me in preparation for this article and upon two unpublished papers she shared with me.
3Although it is grounded in Christianity, Godwin’s spirituality has a holistic quality usually more associated with the Asian spiritual practices, in that, for her, spirituality is best approached from a whole-life perspective and through a variety of religious teachings and knowledge disciplines. For her, God is more a “mystery” than an articulable reality (personal interview). Thus, Godwin thinks of herself as having “a strong spiritual side” but not as being a “Religious Writer,” in much the same way that she sees herself as a feminist (“what else could I be”) but does not consider herself “a Feminist Writer” (“Situation” 259). Godwin is best known for her depictions of emancipated consciousness and self-actualization in female characters (Wimsatt 88-9) who, as she puts it, “resent being stuffed into categories too small for their interesting edges” (“Situation” 261). Like her characters, Godwin resists categorization and is more interested in consciousness than in movements. Regarding explicit expression of feminism in her fiction, Godwin might as easily be compared to George Eliot as to a contemporary novelist like Anne Tyler (Wimsatt 87). Regarding her spirituality, too, she is not easily classified beyond this: she focuses on her characters” inner sense of the numinous and the outworking of their “try[ing] to hear what the answering silence tells them to do next” (“Situation” 261).
4In the 1999 novel Evensong, we find a telling passage regarding the spiritual impetus of Godwin’s recent art and her life. In the passage, the protagonist and two other people are looking at a work of art, entitled “Cast your nets,” which depicts Christ on the beach preparing fish for his disciples who are returning from the sea with their nets full of fish. She is told that the artist has used shades of purple to evoke the idea of kalchaino, literally meaning “to search for the purple fish.” In Greece, a precious purple dye was made from “a shellfish highly prized by the Greeks for its rich purple dye.” The deeper-down the fish, the more purple the dye, so the word kalchaino figuratively came to refer to the search for what is most valuable, or “plumbing the depths of one’s mind.” In Evensong, the fictional artist has taken “the whole fish theme of John Twenty-one to be an invitation to ingest Christ,” seeing the fullness of the fish as symbolic “assurances that we’re ready to take in the full meaning of Christ himself.” Adrian, the man Margaret wants to marry, is a trained Jungian analyst as well as a priest, and he relates the artist’s interpretation to the “language of the unconscious [in which] when the dreamer is about to eat something, it’s often a signal that there’s submerged content ready to be assimilated.” Margaret relates to the painting on a practical level, as a reminder about the essence of care: “Someone returning from the dead to give advice and sustenance to loved ones when they are most in need of it [. . .] that’s the aspect that moves me.” Her comment is commended for adding “the crucial third element,” love, to the scholarly and psychological perspectives of the others: love – a reminder of “what it’s all about in the first place” (27-8). This ekphrasis presents, in miniature, Godwin’s own novelistic impulse to portray the numinous in such a way as to invite readers to ingest the essence of Christ through the intellect, the psyche, and the heart. Through Evensong, as well as Father Melancholy’s Daughter and The Good Husband, Godwin suggests that a heart of love is the central impulse in women’s spiritual journeys, but that the journey requires the engagement of the whole person, not just the heart.
5In rooting the spiritual journeys directly in a church context in Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong, Godwin risks offending those of her readers who prefer a more secular or feminist context. As expressed by Colleen Carpenter Cullinan in Redeeming the Story: Women, Suffering, and Christ, there is strong reason for contemporary women to be suspicious of a church-linked perspective:
- 1 The early church father cited by Cullinan is Tertullian, as quoted in Mary Daly, Beyond God the Fa (...)
Over the past two thousand years, the great promise of redemption has too often been framed in ways that have persistently and systematically hurt women. The story of redemption was often told in such a way that women were identified as the source of sin and death in God’s once-perfect world: “You are the devil’s gateway,” one of the earliest Church Fathers told women. “How easily you destroyed man, the image of God. Because of the death which you brought upon, even the Son of God had to die.” More than that, some aspects of Christian tradition insisted that women’s nature was so corrupt that not even the redemption offered by Jesus was enough to transform it. Even St. Paul seemed to believe this: he argues in the first letter to Timothy that redemption comes through Christ, but women will be saved through childbearing (I Timothy 2:15).1 (2)
6However, Cullinan, herself a Christian despite her understanding of this history, argues that the problem stems from the conventional framing of Christianity, not from Christ or his teachings. She proposes this solution: to “break the hold” of this antifeminist framing of the story on “the Christian imagination” with new stories to “fully engage the imagination,” for “only a story can replace a story” (3).
7Godwin is highly aware that the traditional church has been suspicious, restrictive, even denigrating and sometimes threatening toward females. In Father Melancholy’s Daughter, this awareness is reflected in the traditionalist ideas of Margaret’s sincerely spiritual father, an Episcopal priest who was opposed to allowing women priests in the Episcopal church; Margaret chose to become a priest knowing that her now-deceased father, whom she loved and respected, would have disapproved, at least initially, of her decision. In The Good Husband, this awareness is reflected in both the distrustful and distancing attitudes of the priests in the seminary at which the vibrant Magda comes to speak on Blake and the life of the imagination and in the fathers” having invited her only because her use of her first initials on the cover of her book kept them from recognizing their invited lecturer was a female. In Godwin’s personal writings, this awareness is expressed, for example, in her unpublished paper about “Holy Women.” Here Godwin highlights Teresa of Avila’s disarming cleverness, but she also highlights the terrible danger for a woman whose ideas did not obtain the imprimatur of the church patriarchy:
- 2 This unpublished paper was given to the author by Godwin, March 18, 2009, during a personal interv (...)
These men wanted the popular nun to explain exactly what her spiritual practices and experiences were, to make sure they came from God. If they thought they came from the Devil, she could have been burned at the stake [. . . ] Oh, she was a subtle woman! She could have been a Southern woman. I’ll give you an example: here she is, about to expound on the four ways one’s prayer life is watered: one of the most helpful metaphors in spiritual literature. [. . . ] But before she offers this original idea, she covers herself with this modest disclaimer to her confessor: “I shall have to make use of some comparison, although I should like to excuse myself from this since I am a woman [. . .] [but] Seeing so much stupidity will provide some recreation for your Reverence. It seems now to me that I read or heard this comparison – for since I have a bad memory, I don’t know where or for what reason it was used.’2
8However, despite her clear awareness of antifeminism in the practice of codified Christianity, Godwin does not write a fiction of spiritual protest. Rather, she writes an imaginative restorying of the Christian spiritual journey featuring females who have spiritual wisdom, integrity, courage, and capacity to grow and to care. The revolutionary elements of her fiction enter in because she sees Jesus as a revolutionary who “keeps telling” the “literal-minded and the orthodox sticklers for form” that “the only rules you need worry about are loving God with your whole heart and loving one another as I have loved you” (Heart 81). In Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life, Godwin makes her devaluation of legalism clear. She talks about Jesus’s extending his healing words and touch to “anyone who came to him for help, including lepers” and his eating and drinking “with sinners, outcasts, tax collectors, women, and gentiles in a world where meal-taking functioned as a rigorous marker of social boundaries.” Especially relevant to Godwin’s fictional vision is her emphasis, in Heart,on Jesus’s appeal to imagination: he “invited listeners to imagine everyday scenes they were familiar with and see through those scenes into spiritual realities that their own hearts could attest to.” In this way, although she doesn’t point it out, Jesus parallels the artist. “Like Buddha,” she observes, “Jesus directed people to the sacred kingdom within. Both taught that enlightenment came through the development of an imaginative vision that can transform each of us as individuals and help bring about the enlightenment of others” (83-4).
9Thus, in keeping with her sense of the essence of Jesus’s invitation, Godwin imaginatively creates, in the three novels under discussion, female protagonists who live out their spiritual journeys in the freedom Christ offers them, and not in roles pre-determined by gender. This fictional restorying provides images of spirituality that are both nurturing of and inspiring about women’s spirituality. Magda Danvers and Margaret Gower (Bonner)move and grow in essential ways, and their stories are quintessential spiritual journeys. In truth, according to a definition put forth by Godwin’s fictional character Magda, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, The Good Husband, and Evensong can be considered visionary works: “It is as imitations of the spirit’s variegated life that art transcends literal fact. Mundane art imitates the literal surfaces and movements of life. Visionary art imitates the underlying movement of spirit, moto spiritale” (Good Husband 466). We will now explore the interweaving of Godwin’s own spiritual journey and her holistic ideas about spirituality as reflected in the spiritual journeys of two of her female protagonists, Margaret Gower (Bonner), in Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong, and Magda Danvers, in The Good Husband.
10These three novels indicate an underlying shift in Godwin’s art that has arisen out of a heightened spiritual emphasis in the author herself. Whereas her early works focused on the self-actualization of her female protagonists, these more recent works tend to explore those questions which are now central to her: “Why am I here?” and “What am I related to that’s larger than I am?” A deep spirituality increasingly permeates her life, and even can be said to be at the “centre” of it. She says, “I am closer to it than ever, and yet I’m probably unable to put it into words. But it lives in me and I live in it.” For Godwin, “Writing is a form of prayer.” And, indeed, her writing both reflects her spiritual journey and propels her forward in it. Thus, Godwin’s life changes impact her writing, but her writing changes her life, too. For example, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, published in 1991, played an important role in Godwin’s life, in that, in part, the writing of it led to Godwin’s return to church (personal interview).
11Although Godwin was raised by her mother and grandmother in the church, for approximately thirty years before beginning this novel, Godwin had felt “no need” for church. Her spiritual reawakening was rekindled mostly by writings of C.G. Jung and Teilhard de Chardin, who gave her what she calls “peepholes into the infinite.” She says, “These were people whose searches were similar to mine. They did not want a self-created catch-all God. They wanted to look as much to the huge picture as they could. I love what Jung says about not knowing – and that was more exciting – that created a close form of belief.” Godwin originally intended to place her father-daughter novel in a university setting, but somehow that was wrong artistically for her. When Godwin instead set the novel in a church context, the book became alive. With the artistic demands of Father Melancholy’s Daughter calling for greater church-related knowledge, Godwin went to services at her local Episcopal church, in Woodstock, New York, where she still attends and is part of the Christian community. Her gradual return to Christian worship was also affected, she told me, by her providential discovery, while living in London, of a book by her former rector at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Asheville, North Carolina, The Night and Nothing (personal interview). The book’s author was the very Father Gale Webbe who prepared Godwin for confirmation when she was eleven years old (Making 25: footnote 47).His book impacted her thought, and I was surprised to see how often Father Webbe is mentioned or quoted in journal entries Godwin wrote over twenty years before Father Melancholy’s Daughter. Among her references to him, this one from 1964 stands out for its foreshadowing of her thematic exploration now, in life and fiction: “More and more I understand what Father Webbe means when he says we are living in eternity” (Making 66: 4 Feb. 1964). Some Christians fear Jungian thought, saying, for example, that it devalues dogma and elevates the “promptings of the unconscious” over the “promptings of the Holy Spirit” (Ulanov 31). Godwin eschews this fear-based distortion of Jung’s teachings. Jung’s ideas remain very important in Godwin’s life and her writing (personal interview), and lend her spirituality a holistic perspective.
- 3 Xie quotes Peter S. Hawkins, Review of Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Christian Century, 118 (199 (...)
12Godwin scholar Lihong Xie identifies Father Melancholy’s Daughter as a locus of change in Godwin’s art: “Family and region – the essential social bases for the growth of gender identity in Godwin’s earlier work – remain unequivocally important in this novel, but the ‘explicitly Christian character of both the inherited script’ the heroine attempts to outgrow and the ‘revision’ she undertakes in writing her own life adds a theological dimension to the heroine’s becoming” (199).3 Godwin herself, however, traces the paradigm shift in her work to The Good Husband, explaining:
I was really interested in this woman Magda, who was dying, and what she cared about. She had first been interested in her career as an academic, and then she’d been interested in being a good teacher in the classroom. After that she’d become interested in knowledge of these things for themselves. As she weakened, she became very interested in her own death, the journey, and, as she put it, “her final examination.” I think in writing that book I switched over from the heroine escaping in order to come into her own to the heroine having escaped somewhat, then becoming really more interested in how she fits into the picture, the whole cosmos. Not who she is anymore but what she is. (Evensong Reader’s Guide, sixth unnumbered page)
13Love and marriage are traditionally important subject matter in fiction about women. So, too, for Margaret and Magda, discovering and interacting in love with one’s true husband play a large part in the spiritual journey. In these novels, love co-functions on both mundane and spiritual levels, as does fulfilling one’s place or calling in society. For Magda, her husband Francis is the “gift she would never have thought to imagine for herself.” She recognizes that, without him, “she would have been a lonely slob” (Good Husband 67). For Margaret, her husband Adrian is the one with whom her soul experiences affinity. In both marriages, the individuals become more than they would have been apart; but it is primarily in Evensong that the vision of an earthly marriage with God at the centre is communicated in a church context.
14Some brief background on the three novels will be helpful to the discussion to follow about the “variegations” of Margaret’s and Magda’s spiritual journeys. Father Melancholy’s Daughter, first published in 1991,focuses on the relationship between the first-person narrator, Margaret Gower, and her father, who is an Episcopal priest subject to severe depression – hence the nickname Father Melancholy. Margaret, now a college graduate, was abandoned by her mother at age six, when her mother left home with a female artist friend. Margaret has spent her growing up years trying to keep her father from succumbing to depression. Evensong, published in 1999, continues the first-person story of Margaret, first as a graduate student and, then, for most of the novel, in her role as priest in an Episcopal church and as wife to Adrian, himself a priest as well as a Jungian analyst. The Good Husband, published in 1994, between her two church novels, is set in a university. Narrated in the third person, it concerns the dying of Magda Danvers, whose life, ideas, and commanding persona magnetize and influence her adoring husband, friends, and students. The theme of marriage underlies the structure of the novel, which features two central couples. All four people explore the meaning of their lives in the context of Magda’s life and death. Magda herself, up until her last day, is revising the meaning of her life, as is symbolized by her never getting to complete the final draft of her essay on “The Drama of the Soul’s Choice.”
15In these novels, Godwin transmutes the traditional motif of women’s fiction: “girl meets boy/ girl marries boy” into a spiritual quest motif, manifested in the here-and-now but pointing to a reality beyond. Thus, even while it is a daily living out on the mundane human plane, marriage is a spiritual metaphor for the marriage of the soul with Christ and a Jungian symbol of the divided self that needs to synthesize its contraries. Of essential importance: in neither fictional marriage is the woman stifled or subservient. For Godwin, the marriage between Christ and the human soul is an interactive, creative, and loving relationship. Significant to our purpose, the human soul of both males and females is often expressed in female imagery, as is the very church itself a female image in the Bible – the bride of Christ. Magda’s husband Francis, much younger than she, was studying to be a priest when she spoke at the seminary where he was in training. He was drawn to Magda’s spirit and intellect, as well as to her body, and he left the seminary to marry Magda, whose unconventional spirituality spoke life to him. In their marriage are deep companionship and kindness, but not mutual intellectual stimulation. In contrast, Margaret was immediately attracted to her future husband Adrian and chose him for his spiritual, mental, and emotional qualities, as well as for his spiritual character. Previously, she had been involved with a younger, more handsome, and more overtly charismatic man, but she gave him up because she was not drawn to him from the core of her being. Adrian was her whole being’s choice, and, to her delight, he chose her, too. They share physical and intellectual intimacy, along with spiritual sensitivities and vision. Both of them are priests, interwoven deeply in Christian community; however, he serves at a school, and she serves as leader of the church they both attend. He is in support of her ministry and not daunted to have her in a position of leadership. In both good marriages, power struggles are neither necessary nor present.
16As with her characters, part of Godwin’s spiritual journey, too, has been her love relationship with her life partner of 30 years, Robert Starer. Until 2001, when he died, Godwin and Starer had a truly productive partnership artistically – she as a writer, he as a musician – at times even collaborating successfully, with Godwin writing libretti for him, and they shared a deep friendship and love. Both strongly individualized people and realized artists, they also shared in the spiritual quest that has become increasingly important to Godwin. When they first got together, neither of them went to church (or synagogue: Robert was Jewish). “When I started going to church at about age 50,” she told me, “he loved going. It was theatre and drama enacting something bigger than you are, and he just loved it. His favorite day was Maundy Thursday [. . .] when they wash the feet. The priest – the altar – done in total silence [. . .] It’s preparing for the crucifixion.” When I asked about the impact of his death on her work, Godwin shared with me that she still experiences an ongoing sense of Robert’s presence with her: “We were always searching and always fascinated about God and concepts of God. Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel such a huge loss now, because our shared interests are still so present. How can I feel that much loss when it’s all still going on? I’m still searching and maybe he’s still searching, too. Maybe my awareness that he’s perhaps still searching too is a connection” (personal interview).
17Despite her serious aspirations to be a published writer, as a single woman in her late twenties, Godwin longed for significance in the usual ways of marriage and children. In 1965, for example, she wrote: “Mozart fills my coffee-cup-and-Sunday-paper-littered rooms. I do not want to be a hard woman living alone in my ivory tower. I want to touch my own little girls instead of borrowing other people’s for the afternoon” (Making 121: 28 Mar. 1965). However, neither Godwin’s life nor fiction suggests that the natural good of having children or a husband satisfies a woman’s deep hunger for individualization or ultimate purpose. Godwin’s love stories (her own, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Evensong, and The Good Husband) figuratively create a new story layer on a palimpsest on which was once prominent the old antifeminist story that women are so reprobate they need to add childbearing to the atonement of Christ for them to be saved. In Margaret’s and Magda’s journeys, as in Godwin’s own spiritual journey, love must be greater than this mortal experience. In The Good Husband, Magda dies, and her husband Francis is left to go on, continuing his journey of finding his connection to what is larger than himself. In Godwin’s life, her beloved partner Robert has died. In Evensong, which continues Margaret’s story from where it left off in Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Margaret’s husband Adrian dies. Margaret is fully able to go on, grateful for the time she had with him, glad to celebrate her grown daughter’s artistic gifts, and ready to begin her own forays into becoming a writer. The good husband of our soul, as Magda, Margaret, and Gail Godwin know, is not our earthly mate, no matter how rich and enriching the union may be.
- 4 This unpublished paper given to the author by Godwin, March 18, 2009, during a personal interview. (...)
18Another and even more archetypal part of women’s spiritual journeys is an encounter with, and, at some stages an acceptance of, what one fears. In a yet-unpublished autobiographical essay entitled “Losing Ground,” written for a women’s anthology, Godwin quotes from Jungian analyst Helen Luke’s book Old Age: “At every age, in every person, there comes a partial imprisonment, a disabling psychic wound, an unavoidable combination of circumstances, a weakness that we cannot banish but must simply accept.’4 Whether the characters face their fears and overcome them, or look at them and accept them, encountering what they fear is a paramount part of the spiritual journey.
19When describing her spiritual journey to me, Godwin, not surprisingly, began with a vivid story from her early childhood, when she was “probably three or four”:
I was walking down the sidewalk and I saw these huge clouds bearing down on me, and that’s when I had my first question: What am I in relation to all this? It was definitely larger than life. Cloud: I didn’t know then that a cloud was vapor. I thought it was a form or a shape making an appearance. It could be a threat. It could ask me to do something I didn’t want to do. It could destroy me. It could envelop me. It could make me part of it, and I started running from it. Which I think was a sane thing to do. And I ran. And that was the very first. (personal interview)
20In this childhood story, Godwin perhaps unwittingly has identified a motif threaded through her life and the fictional lives of Magda and Margaret: that the spiritual journey is very much a heroic journey.
21The archetypal patterning of the heroic quest is a critical part of “the spirit’s variegated life” for women, as well as for men. In Frobenius’s night-sea journey, for example, the hero is swallowed up by a great sea monster and carried across the sea, from the western to the eastern shore. In the belly, the hero lights a fire in the dark and also cuts and eats part of the heart of the beast. On the journey, the hero loses all his hair. When the beast lands on the eastern shore, the hero emerges from the belly, hairless and naked. Clearly, this archetypal myth is psychologically, as well as spiritually, resonant. The imagery of the myth suggests an individual’s life journey in which exploration of deeper realms of conscious and unconscious understanding and experience lead to a more authentic emergence as a vulnerable, (re)born individual. This descent into darkness and helplessness is often associated, psychologically, with depression, and, spiritually, with the dark night of the soul (Moore, “Night Sea Journey”).
22The night-sea journey is an appropriate myth in regard to Godwin’s life encounters with forces larger than herself, forces she cannot fully control. In her adult life, Godwin has battled, and continues to battle, depression, which, she says, “runs in my family.” Her father shot himself when she was in college. Her half-brother killed himself. An uncle of hers, a judge, suffered from severe manic depression, though he learned to live with it. In Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong, and in talking about her own experience, Godwin used this same image: “It’s like a black curtain comes down.” Yet Godwin has learned to find spiritual hope even in depression: “I’ve learned it’s okay to lie down for two days, just do it, and your thoughts will change. And God is in that too. I think sometimes God is very very present in depression “cause you’ve given up. That’s when He’s best. He gets through. You’ve given up.” And while her struggles with depression are real, they do not define her life. She noted: “I really am quite joyful when I’m not depressed” (personal interview).
23Margaret, of Father Melancholy’s Daughter, is an appropriate night-sea journey hero. For Jung, the hero’s first psychological task is to separate from dependence on the mother, “who symbolizes the unconscious,” so as “to replace dependency upon the unconscious with self-direction” (Beebe 9). Margaret, abandoned by her mother at age six, struggles to emerge from the metaphorical belly of her despair over her mother’s abandonment. She succeeds, at last, in individuating, in finding her calling.
24Margaret’s taking on this heroic task of self-direction is foreshadowed through a garment. On a mother-daughter shopping trip, her mother bought Margaret a special dress, at Margaret’s insistence, with “wonderful buttons all the way down the front. They were of a magical clear amber color that changed according to the light and they were shaped like little cats” heads.” Her mother had tried to discourage her with the difficulty of wearing such a garment: “Every time you put it on, you’ll have to button them all the way down, and every time you take it off you’ll have to unbutton them.” Margaret insisted (“I don’t mind buttoning the buttons”) and was not daunted by her mother’s warning that Margaret had to be autonomous here: “Well, just remember, I’m not doing it for you. I’ve got enough buttons of my own to worry about” (Father Melancholy 8).
25The cat buttons add to the archetypal richness of the symbolism. The cat, according to Jungian analyst Luke, “is the bridge [for the human psyche] between the wildness of the jungle and our consciousness. [. . .] The cat’s independence can typify for the woman her emotional freedom, if she will refuse to cling to people or illusion [. . .]. The cat’s capacity to see in the dark connects our conscious values to the life of the unconscious.” Interestingly, on the shadow side, in the Middle Ages, the cat also became a “symbol of destruction instead of healing” – connected to witches (Kaleidoscope 105-6).
- 5 Lewis Owens tells us, in Creative Destruction, that, when the hero emerges, he “is often accompani (...)
26Madelyn, Margaret’s mother’s iconoclastic friend, is at the breakfast table the very morning Margaret wears her new dress with the cat buttons for the first time. Throughout the novel, Margaret psychically battles a Madelyn she has demonized. Madelyn’s hot wand, though her image of artistic power can be seen as a witch’s wand, as well, linking her symbolically to another foe Margaret psychically battles: a witch in her closet that she has feared from early on, even before her mother left. Near the end of the novel, Margaret gains the courage to face the long-dreaded witch in her closet. Drunk and grief-stricken after her father’s sudden death, Margaret faces her fear, saying: “Come on out, witch [. . .] You’ve been in there too long [. . .]. Come on out, and you can lie here beside me on my bed and tell me what’s been the matter all these years. Tell me the story of your life. Tell me what it’s like to be you” (Father Melancholy 344). Very shortly after issuing this challenge, Margaret watches a late-night television show on which, to her surprise, Madelyn is being interviewed about her controversial theatre pieces that seem to mock religion. On an impulse parallel to her action with the witch, Margaret calls Madelyn and leaves a hurt, bitter, and angry message on the answering machine. Madelyn, as if in answer to Margaret’s invitation to the witch in the closet, shows up at her house, and Margaret accepts her invitation to travel and work with her, deciding to get to know her as a person. Thus Margaret, in mythopoeic fashion, not only encounters her monster, or witch within, or, in Jungian terms, her shadow, but integrates her into her personality. Margaret emerges from her heroic encounter with her inner darkness as a person able to pray about and find her own faith, her own calling, and able to love. Interestingly, the button motif is picked up in Evensong, Godwin’s sequel to Father Melancholy’s Daughter, when Margaret, now a priest, is about to dress for a Sunday service that she will conduct: in the closet, waiting for her to put it on, is her “new Roman-style cassock with the buttons all the way down” (Evensong 393), the fulfillment of her foreshadowed heroic status as spiritual leader who has emerged from the belly of the sea monster to help lead forth those who have been held captive in the belly of the monster, as is often part of the myth, too.5
27Margaret’s released courage, as well as her love for God, is revealed in Evensong, in a scene in which Margaret comes upon two young boys seemingly trying to help an old man, who is bent over double as if from pain. Margaret comes over to help the helpers, but discovers that, in fact, she has interrupted a mugging. She herself is endangered; however, her thoughts are not for her own safety: “I remember worrying as I wrestled with my young assailant for the knife that I might be hurting him.” Later, she is not haunted by fear; rather, she is haunted by visions of all the lost young people of the world who have no one to help them to grow up right. Symbolically, Margaret shows her growth in facing the cloud of unknowing by her willingness to step out into the “thick palpable darkness,” with its “massed” clouds to pray: “What are you, anyway?” I said. And yet how close you are.” Her husband Adrian, it turns out, is out there praying, too. She tells him, “It’s a good dark for praying in” (24, 356, 358).
28Whereas Margaret, of Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong, is a grounded and humble figure, one who gains her insights and visions slowly and without fanfare, Magda, of The Good Husband, is a dramatic figure whose flights of fancy are daring and bold. Margaret’s faith is well-thought-out and her own – for example, she has departed from her father’s conservative views by becoming a woman priest – but her thoughts are relatively uncontroversial. In contrast, Magda’s faith seems less orthodox, in that her heroes are myth-making poets like Dante Alighieri, William Butler Yeats, and, especially, William Blake, who wrote what Magda referred to as “his highly subversive gospel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Like Blake, she knows “The Mental Traveller must travel alone to these [visionary] realms” in which “making art or giving your life to God – and [she] personally [doesn’t] think there is any difference between the two – evolves out of the inner fabric of our lives, however disguised the patterns may be to us.” She asserts boldly that “Sometimes, suddenly loving someone can be like a flash of God” (23, 24, 26). Above all, Magda urges and encourages others to attend to the symbolic nature of their lives.
- 6 When a widow, George Herbert’s mother married a Sir John Danvers, who was twenty years younger tha (...)
29Interestingly, Magda placed meaningful, inadvertently prophetic, symbolism in her life as early as her high school years. Marsha Danziger renamed herself after the mother of George Herbert. Magda, like her namesake, is a very spiritual person, and, like her namesake, she marries a much younger man.6 Significantly, the name Magda derives from Mary of Magdala, as does the name Madelyn that Godwin gave to the ostensibly antireligious artist friend of Margaret’s mother. When I mentioned the parallel, Godwin said she realized it only after writing the books, but she feels there is “clearly” something she was “working out” (personal interview). Mary Magdalene is noted for her deliverance from seven demons and for her ministry to Jesus. In Greek and Coptic fragments of the Gospel of Mary, Mary of Magdalene is described, according to Godwin, as “a woman who had understood completely” (“Holy Women”). Seen together, Mary of Magdalene, Magda Danvers, who sometimes is described as “witchy”, and Margaret Gower Bonner, who integrates her shadow self, via Madelyn, may suggest that a strength of women’s spirituality is their integration of the more occult aspects of inner power into a whole self, which is then transformed by God’s love.
In her engulfment in flu’s belly, a feverish Magda felt that her work on Evil in the Literary Imagination, her intended next book, “was making her crazy”:
She had been poaching on [the demons’] territory for months, gathering their secrets to use for her own professional aggrandizement, and they were going to show her a thing or two. [. . .] The flu. That’s what you’d call what she’d come down with in Chicago if, like the medical profession, like Francis, you were symbolically illiterate. But she knew better. Her demons had broken her arrogant will into shards. Because, unlike the true visionaries, she had gone looking for dangerous secrets out of curiosity and ambition. And without protection. [. . .] (Good Husband 68, 73, 75-6)
30Her first experience in the belly, with demons, humbles her and helps purify her motivation and self-seeking ambitions. Magda’s second experience, with cancer, is more peaceful, for she accepts her death. With characteristic flair, she nicknames her pain “the Gargoyle” and turns her attention to the journey of her soul, saying, “I’d prefer to spend the time I have left studying for my Final Exam, rather than studying my disease.” She clearly is focused on “ordering [her] loves”: “Not like you order somebody around. The other kind [. . .] putting in order.” As per her old bluebook examination from college, regarding her interpretation of John Donne’s “The Second Anniversary,” she recognizes the good husband she awaits to be not her earthly husband, as sweet as he is, but her heavenly groom [. . .]: “ ‘My good husband,’ crooned Magda [. . .], The only one I want.” Her words about Donne’s poem, written in her college years, now have reality for her: “Death, usually equated with darkness, is turned into a bearer of light [. . .]” (The Good Husband 9, 110, 227).
31Surrender, or acceptance, when in the belly of a metaphorical sea monster, does not disqualify one as a spiritual hero. Hair loss, which both the mythical night sea hero and Magda experience, can be a sign of “profound transformation, akin to the monk who shaves his head to mark the change from ordinary life to a life of holiness” (Moore 12). Jung knew that individuating was not enough, that “the full psychological potential of being a man is possible only when the hero finally bows his own head and submits to initiation, not at the hands of an outer man or woman, but according to the dictates of his own anima” (Beebe viii-ix).
32In Magda’s last note, addressed to her husband, she writes: “We live in and by our symbols, they bind up mundane reality for us [. . .] A symbol is not mere poetic fancy, it is the clothing of a spiritual reality in a conceptual garment so that its nature may be more readily perceived by our literal minds and thus we can see our way to choosing” (Good Husband 467). The note also reveals something important about Magda’s spiritual journey: she has stripped down to basic spiritual truth, as shown by the George Herbert poem she includes (468):
Summe up at night what thou hast done by day;
And in the morning, what thou hast to do.
Dress and undresse thy soul; mark the decay
And growth of it: if with thy watch, that too
Bee down, then winde up both, since we shall be
Most surely judg’d, make thy accounts agree.
33Another interesting variegation of the spirit is reflected in these works: biblical analogue. Robert Alter, in The Art of Biblical Narrative, identifies what he calls biblical type scenes. Among the biblical type scenes identified by Alter are “the encounter with the future betrothed at a well,” “the discovery of a well or other source of sustenance,” and “the testament of the dying hero.” Alter notes that variations of the type scenes occur “at the crucial junctures in the lives of the heroes, from conception and birth to betrothal to deathbed.” One pertinent example is the entire Book of Ruth, which Alter sees as a variant of the betrothal type scene, with Ruth being the one who plays the equivalent of the bridegroom’s role: “The protagonist is a heroine, not a hero.[. . .] [and] the ‘foreign soil’ on which she meets her future mate near a well is Judea. [. . .] Here, since it is a female protagonist who has come to the foreign land to find a spouse, the male counterparts of the maidens [. . .] take over the customary function of water-drawing” (13, 58-9).
34In a parallel way, we can see Evensong as an extended type of the betrothal type scene. In this fictional variation, Margaret becomes a type of Ruth – replacing her mother, the original but ironically-named Ruth in Father Melancholy’s Daughter. Margaret’s mother Ruth, drawn to her future husband’s spiritual qualities, had pursued and courted him through letters she wrote, parallel to the way the biblical Ruth travels to Boaz’s land and, as the suitor, eventually lays herself at Boaz’s feet. In the novel and the Bible, the husband is an older man, kind, admirable, and godly. However, in the case of Margaret’s mother Ruth, church life and the congregation’s scrutiny and expectations for the priest’s wife, coupled with her husband’s spells of depression, are too much to bear, and she flees her home with an old friend. Margaret takes over as faithful guardian for her father, but later she, like her mother Ruth and the Ruth of the Bible, finds a bridegroom she wants to marry. Adrian, too, is older, kind, admirable, and godly. She chooses her Boaz over a younger, more attractive suitor. She too is initiator and encourager in their relationship. However, because she is able to learn how to be faithful in her service to God, husband, child, and community without being squashed by custom and expectations of others, she is not only faithful and loyal to her husband, but fulfilled in her calling as priest. She learns how to be in community with those she leads, not separate from them. Love fulfills her. Interestingly, Ruth and Boaz’s offspring forms part of the lineage of the messiah. In Margaret’s case, the offspring is a female. Godwin subtly shows that the seed of God can be passed down by a lineage including women.
35 Along the same line of thought, we can see The Good Husband as a type scene of the “testament of a dying hero,” with Magda as a type of female counterpart to a patriarch. In her dying days, with her face thin and her formerly full mahogany head of hair undyed and cut short, leaving only a short grey fringe, Magda cannot decide whether she looks more “like Julius Caesar or an old Talmudic scholar.” Despite her illness, she is yet an imposing figure: “‘Talmudic scholar, I think,’ Magda says, ‘After all, I am Jewish.’” Her last letter to Francis is a kind of testament in which her advice moves from the symbolic to the plainly spiritual advice of George Herbert about tending to the soul. Magda’s death itself takes up the first two-thirds of the novel, Part One. In it, she prepares her soul for death, taking what she calls her “final exam” by examining her soul and ordering her loves. Her true bridegroom, the Good Husband of the title, at last comes for her. Part Two and the Epilogue have to do with the testament of Magda, the effect she has had on those she’s left behind. That effect is considerable. She has secured the lineage of faith through both the written words she leaves behind and the intentional bequeathing of her husband Francis to Alice, a friend of theirs who, though mis-married to Hugo, loves Francis. Magda’s bluebook exams, bequeathed to Hugo at Magda’s deathbed, have helped Hugo, an author of fiction, to sort through his life and motives. Her husband Francis at last begins to note the living symbolism in his days. Magda has aroused and infected “receptive young minds with a desire for wholeness” and pointed them to art, the purpose of which is to “provid[e] wholeness” (105, 168).
36Both Evensong and The Good Husband can be seen as type scenes of the discovery of a well or other source of sustenance,” since both Margaret and Magda find the metaphorical well of living water which sustains them in all their trials. Also, Margaret’s and Magda’s spiritual journeys can be seen as variants of the Jonah story, since Jonah’s story is a type of the night-sea journey of the hero. But perhaps the deepest purple shading in Father Melancholy’s Daughter, The Good Husband, and Evensong colors Margaret and Magda as types of Christ. Margaret’s self-sacrificing actions, role as priest, and heart-generated servanthood are apparent. She, as a believer, is, indeed, supposed to be a type of Christ. Magda’s showiness may at first keep a reader from seeing her as a type of Christ; however, Hugo’s letter to his former wife Alice about a character named Isabel Trueblood, in his new novel, clarifies the way Magda can be seen as a Christ figure:
If she hadn’t been dying and confined to her room, that unlikely configuration of others would never have gathered there. [. . .] Her hour is over, but because she existed, a whole passel of unlikely things can now be given their hour. I loved what you said about “the strong one having to be taken away so that the others, missing her, will have to teach themselves to be what they miss in her.” Exactly! God bless you. (Good Husband 457)
37Godwin herself is not sure that women’s spirituality is different from that of men; after all, she sees her characters, male and female, as “unfinished parts” and “maybe largely unconscious parts” of her; also, she and Robert “were both artists and both interested in the same aspects of [spirituality]” (personal interview). But she is clear that women can be strong spiritual leaders and influences on others. And she is clear that God-centered women are “rich sources for understanding our interior workings” (“Holy Women”).
38As James Price and Charles Simpkinson point out, “Sacred stories are not simply the outer expression of the inner dynamic of our spirit. Rather, the movement of ultimate concern is itself conditioned by the images, characters, and events of our sacred stories” (13). Gail Godwin has imagined new “images, characters, and events” that invite contemporary women to see themselves as participants in individual and collective sacred stories. In the throes of cancer with her concomitant loss of mental power, the dying Magda writes: “Visionary art imitates the underlying movement of spirit, moto spiritale. Therefore…” (Good Husband 466). She leaves the “Therefore” unfinished in her bluebook, too devastated mentally to follow the thread further. In her visionary art, Godwin, too, leaves the therefore to the reader’s imagination, suggesting, however, that love, courage, and imagination figure into the “underlying movement of spirit” and that women are well-suited for the journey.