Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye Smith (1921)

Today we have our second review of Joanna Godden (see the first review here). Both our readers were very impressed with the novel – time for a reprint perhaps?

Review by Sylvia D:

In 1897 Joanna Godden inherits her father’s sheep farm, Little Ansdore, in the Kent marshes.  There are no strings attached.  He doesn’t even make it a condition that she marry local farmer, Arthur Alce, who has long been courting her.  Much to the consternation of the local farming community, Joanna determines to run the farm herself.  She struggles to impose her authority with the farm workers, she struggles to be treated on a par by the local farmers, she bargains at the local market, she introduces new farming methods, she marries her sister off to her own longterm suitor.   And yet, in the end, one senses that underneath all this flamboyance and defiance, Joanna is deep down looking for a male companion which she eventually finds in the person of Martin Trevor, the rather sickly son of a local “squire” who tragically dies just as they agree to marry.   There are other men, none of them the answer, and then she does something that is totally out of character that will bring a momentous change in her life.

I enjoyed Joanna Godden and found I was keen to know how the narrative would develop.  The novel ends with the words, “There she stood, nearly forty years old, on the threshold of an entirely new life – her lover, her sister, her farm, her home, her good name, all lost.  But the past and the future still were hers” (p.344).  In writing these words Sheila Kaye-Smith neatly sums up the several threads that run through this novel, one of her earlier books written before she married and converted to Roman Catholicism.

First, there is Joanna Godden herself, a fascinating and complex character, and her struggle to be independent and accepted by the local farmers.  Her device, in the face of male – and female – disapproval is to adopt an unconventional and forthright manner.  She takes delight, for instance, in scandalising the local community by her flamboyant dress style, by painting her farmhouse in untraditional bright colours and by having her waggon decorated with large ornate lettering.  She is high-spirited and seems to revel in being talked about.  And yet, there is a feminine side to her.  She weeps for her dead lambs; she takes pity on her pregnant servant girl and, despite being shocked at her behaviour, pays for her wedding and her lying-in; she feels pity for the wretched minister, Mr Pratt.  Her lover, Martin Trevor, though, after a rocky start, suddenly sees her in yet another light, “ . . . he was smitten with a sense of pathos – her bustle and self-confidence which hitherto had roused his dislike, now showed as something rather pathetic, a mere trapping of feminine weakness which would deceive no one who saw them at close quarters.  Under her loud voice, her almost barbaric appearance, her queerly truculent manner, was a naive mixture of child and woman – soft, simple, eager to please.  He knew of no other woman who would have given herself away quite so directly and naturally as she had . . .” (pp.84-85).   Perhaps Joanna Godden sensed these contradictions in her character when she laments, ““Oh God!” . . . “why didn’t you make me a man?”” (p.63).

The second thread is her quest for marriage and her relationships with the men in her life which are also complex.  That she did want to marry seems pretty clear as she muses when she had been a guest and the only woman at the Famers’ Club Dinner, a club which she was never invited to join,

“when you had a husband and children, you didn’t go round knocking at men’s doors, but shut yourself up snugly inside your own . . . you were warm and cosy, and the firelight played on the ceiling . . . .  But if you were alone inside your room – with no husband or child to keep you company . . . then it was terrible, worse than being outside . . . and no wonder you went round to the men’s doors, and knocked on them and begged them to give you a little company, or something to do to help you to forget your empty room . . .” (p.79).

She rejects her longterm suitor, Arthur Alce, because he is dull and not a particularly good prospect and yet she is willing to marry him off to her younger sister.  She allows her judgement to be clouded by the brown eyes and good looks of Socknersh, the “looker” for her sheep she appoints in the face of much more experienced candidates.   When she does eventually find love and agrees to marry Martin Trevor, one wonders why she falls for someone who is so obviously rather dreamy and weak.  The suspicion is that he will not try to dominate and pose a threat to her running of the farm.   At least she came to recognise before it was too late that marriage to her final suitor, Bertie, the London clerk, would have been a disaster.

The third thread is that of class, not only in the development of her relationships with the Trevor family who, despite their initial doubts, gradually come to accept her until when Martin dies she suddenly “felt lonely and scared in this fine house, with its thick carpets and mahagony and silver . . .” (pp.137-138), but more particularly with her decision to send her younger sister, Ellen, to “a really good school at Folkestone – where Ellen would wear a ribbon round her hat and go for walks in a long procession of two-and-two and be taught wonderful, showy and intricate things by ladies with letters after their names” (p.65).   By making this choice, the dynamic between the two sisters is changed and the seeds are sown for future conflict and unhappiness on both their parts.

Throughout the novel Kaye-Smith weaves a wonderful sense of place.  Her descriptive prose depicts the Romney and Walland Marshes in all their different moods, her towns, villages and landscapes are genuine places one can find on the map and she is a fount of knowledge about agricultural practices and local dialect.

Despite her outward unconventionality, Joanna Godden is fundamentally socially conservative in her religion, her politics and her morality which is where she parts company with the modern reader.  When she discovers she is pregnant, she accepts that she cannot remain in the community where she is known, stay on the farm and jeopardise her sister’s forthcoming marriage.   And yet the dilemmas she faces in trying to enter and succeed in a traditional man’s world still resonate with many women today.

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11 thoughts on “Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye Smith (1921)

  1. I agree with the comment that it is time for a review of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s work and the possible re-publication of some of her novels. Although Joanna Godden was very popular and made into a film in 1947 Kaye-Smith produced a number of novels that would bear re visiting – not least Sussex Gorse and her novel of the First World War, Little England. Other works that were popular in their day include Tamarisk Town, The End of the House of Alard and Green Apple Harvest but lesser known works such as a A Ploughman’s Progress are worth a read.

    • Thanks Pat, I’ll look out for these novels to add to the collection. The only other novel we have is Starbrace, and then two books she wrote about Jane Austen with G. B. Stern: Talking of Jane Austen (1947) and More Talk on Jane Austen (1950)!

      • Hi Erica
        Starbrace is quite interesting but only beacuse it was her second novel to be published. If I can lay my hands on any of the other novels how can I send them to you? Most of her novels are available – at very little cost – secondhand. I have bought copies of some for as little as 1p from a well known online source!!!

  2. I’d like to second Pat’s endorsement of ‘Little England’ (1918). An unglamorous picture of a rural community disrupted by the First World War. A book that makes you see why she was compared to Hardy. It contains one of the first fictional treatments of a soldier shot for desertion.

  3. It’s lovely to find someone else loving Joanna Godden – one of my favourite Virago heroines – and to see positive comments about her other books that I’ve been collecting.

  4. Well, this encourages me. After my scare with Mary Webb, I had written off all rural novels – but so loved Sheila K-S’s All The Books of My Life, that I was hoping that she could be an exception. It looks like I might well enjoy this!

  5. Pingback: Sussex Gorse by Sheila Kaye Smith (1916) | Reading 1900-1950

  6. I hope people managed to find the sequel, the novella Joanna Godden Married (& Other Stories). It is not as good as JG, partly due to the loss of Romney Marsh, but ends well with a convenient not-quite-a-gentleman who seems prepared to take on Joanna’s moods and son. The London clerk makes a brief, tragic, reappearance too. If nothing else it answers the question What Happened Next.

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