I very much enjoyed this novel: it has a direct and precise style, striking characters and situations, an unusual and thoroughly imagined setting in the Romney Marshes in the late 19th century and a narrative which makes you want to read on. The narrator clearly knows many things which Joanna Godden does not, both about Joanna herself and about a wider world beyond the Romney Marshes. However, despite the constant ironies which place her, Joanna remains a compelling character, who, within her small world, becomes a kind of queen, acting outside the narrow schemata which confine the imaginations of other people in the marshes, and often dressing the part with scandalously bright colours, feathers and jewellery (‘Queens always invited their consorts to share their thrones, and she was a queen, opening her gates to the man she loved’ p. 280).
From the opening of the novel, when her father’s death leaves her the owner of a substantial farm, Joanna is entirely confident of her own abilities to face on her own whatever comes. She knows that she lives in what is, on the face of it, a man’s world where respectable women have essentially only one narrative open to them: marriage, even if to someone they neither love nor think their equal. But Joanna has no material need to marry and more importantly is able to disregard the social pressure and expectation to do so. She knows she can run the farm better than any bailiff she can put in, and the cost of a husband with farming skills no better than her own seems far too high when she does not particularly want one. She has a suitor, Arthur Alce, a dull and worthy neighbour in her view, but despite his frequent proposals she is not interested. She feels she may marry later at a time and place of her own choosing, and preferably to someone which is both a proper man by her own criteria and the social equal of the owner of what will be by then the greatest farm in the Romney Marshes.
The novel does well in portraying simultaneously both the limitations of Joanna’s ambitions from the implied reader’s point of view, and their magnificence in the world in which she lives: no woman is ever remembered to have set themselves up so high in the Marshes. Her experiments in new farming methods are a mixed success: cross-breeding her marsh sheep with bigger ‘foreign’ breeds leads to the deaths of ewes and lambs and is an expensive failure, but her experiments in turning pasture to the plough are profitable successes, and her farm becomes what it always was in her imagination: the biggest and best. However, she does make mistakes, and sometimes mistakes which stem from her own lack of insight. Thus the sheep-breeding error partly comes from appointing an incapable shepherd with slightly dubious references on two grounds: firstly that he will always obey her will (he does even when she is wrong) and secondly that she likes his handsome looks. Over time, her understanding of farming leads to success throughout her life, but her insights into her dealings with men and her own emotional and sexual needs are much less certain (after all, she has few role models). After several problematic relationships (the 1947 film version was called The Loves of Joanna Godden), Joanna is left pregnant at the end of the novel by a London clerk whom she was engaged to but who turns out not to be the man she had imagined: he is self-centred, shallow and mistreats his mother and Joanna. Joanna’s sense of morality and sexual behaviour is portrayed as rigidly Victorian and she regards herself as a sinner who must expiate her loss of self-control – but she is also delighted to be going to have a child. So, this singular woman remains unmarried, having never found a man who could live up to her expectations and who will allow her to live her own life. Disappointingly, however, at the last she fails to outface social convention and leaves the Marshes to have her child since the ungrateful Ellen tells her that her elder sister’s disgrace would make it impossible for her to marry her suitable suitor, Tip Ernle, a county-cricketer. Thus Joanna Godden is sent into permanent exile from the farm which has been her life’s work. It was only in this last portion of the novel that I felt unable to inhabit the reading position set up for me by the novel: I would have much preferred it if either Albert had not turned out to be what everyone in the Marshes predicted of a London clerk – a predator on the make, or if Joanna Godden had remained triumphant and defiant till the end, with a successor to inherit her lands.