As she says in the first sentence, Violet Clay is a painter. On the morning that the book begins she is doing the fine touches on her 200th cover for a Gothic novel, the 200th girl fleeing a hideous old manse. To execute that theme so often requires ingenuity; Violet has borrowed from everyone “from Giotto to Whistler.” She muses on the last lines of Windrift Woman: “I saw his dark eyes soften, his grim mouth relax into a smile. It was then I knew there would be no more black moods of indecipherable melancholy…. I felt the love in every line of his frame flow into mine, and I knew we would belong to each other now and always.”
Violet begins to speculate on that “always,” on Miss Windrift’s domestic life with Derek, when he is no longer “Derek the Stranger.” She will redecorate the drafty mansion, and appropriate the tower room for her own, “to discover herself.” Among other things she will start to paint, using Derek, who is mortified, as a model. They will have a child, but discover that children are very hard to paint. Then sex starts going flat. Finally she flees captivity to seek “new salvations, new starts.”
This is the kind of funny, amiable ramble that Gail Godwin does very well. There are other moments like it: an imagined press interview when Violet is a celebrated artist, a vicious little vignette that occurs when Harrow House Gothics dismisses Violet because they have decided to decorate the covers of their romances with Diane Arbus-type photographs.
After she is sacked, Violet goes home and heads for the vodka.
I switched on the radio,…and there was Duncan Pirnie, chiding me in his mellifluous older-brother voice that it was already forty-five minutes past cocktail time. A lot of happy alcoholics must listen to WQXR in the late afternoon…I took a deep swig of the icy vodka, thinking of Jake because it was he who taught me to keep it in the freezer. By such trivia do our old lovers return to haunt us.
Violet can be a droll, wry woman. Such characters are not easy to write, but one would follow them almost anywhere. Violet could be a distant cousin to Jane Clifford, the passionate, ironic heroine of Godwin’s The Odd Woman. Perhaps because of its greater length that book had a confidence and a looseness that recalls Doris Lessing’s wonderful garrulous coffee- or wine-drinking sessions in The Golden Notebook or The Four-Gated City.
But Godwin has rigid plans in mind for Violet Clay that have much to do with new salvations and new starts. They turn out disappointingly schematic and nearly as predictable as the plot of a Gothic novel. Violet has come to New York City from Charleston with a background impeccable for literary purposes. Her father went down with the Lexington during the Second World War. Her mother, still in her teens, promptly went sailing during a storm. They brought back the boat. Violet’s grandmother brought her up somehow between swigs of gin, selling off the matched Adam candlesticks as the need arose.
All these people had a love in common: Ambrose Clay, Violet’s father’s younger brother. Handsome, charming, witty, of shimmering promise, he is a talisman for the Clays. At twenty-one he wrote a successful novel, Looking for the Lora Lee, based, of course, on the tragedy of Violet’s parents. In the decades since, he has worked on a vast and largely invisible second novel, done the odd travel piece for any glossy magazine that would send him somewhere, and lived off various women.
There may be a writer somewhere who can freshen up the Southern cad as a character, but it is a grim task and depressing to watch Godwin try and fail. Ambrose takes up a great deal of Violet Clay and manages to throw it badly off balance. In addition to the dowagers, the silly, confident lovers, and the pliant Violet, Godwin herself is too much in love with Ambrose. On the day that Violet loses her job at Harrow House, Ambrose kills himself in a cabin in the Adirondacks. Godwin’s scheme is apparently to make that shock a turning point for Violet, who has become a mere illustrator, had the obligatory dreary love affairs, and begun to drink heavily.
Violet’s redemption is clearly forecast. On her first evening in the city, Ambrose takes her to the Top of the Sixes and points out the Ambrose Channel, the shipping lane of New York harbor. “You got to go through me, kid,” he says. Alas, flashback by flashback, it is the case.
Ambrose may have led a messy life, but his death is not. A tidy bullet wound, the proper notes, just enough money to finish things off. Violet decides to stay on in the cabin he had rented and begin painting again. Her companions are a cheerful, eccentric old landlady and a fierce creature named Sam (Samantha) who is the local carpenter. Sam got her start in local trade by constructing, as the landlady puts it, “the cleverest little house for outdoor cats, with insulated walls and separate little sleeping berths and a swinging door so that they could go in and out. After that she’s had all the work she can handle.” Indeed. Would that there were more insulated cathouses in this gridlike book.
Samantha’s thick gloom can be traced to the fact that she was gang-raped as a young woman. Hers should be a horrifying story, but, as it is told, it has no more impact than a sequence in any current, randomly brutal movie. To Violet, Sam’s nearly mute fortitude is a deep inspiration. Sam poses for her in the nude, as natural as poor Derek was ashamed. The very first completed canvas is accepted in New York, not just for an exhibit, but as the poster to represent the whole show. “Sam put me into proportion,” Violet concludes, “as Ambrose had put me into perspective.”
There is too great a gulf between Ambrose and Sam, between the fatal haze of nostalgia that surrounds Violet’s lengthy recollections of her uncle and the diaphanous future that she sees through her new friend. As she showed in The Odd Woman, Godwin is naturally a complicated, meandering writer whose imagination needs a good deal of room and whose intelligence can provide it. Violet Clay is a buttoned-up, polite book. It may be that the author is too determined to extend a warm welcome to almost all her women characters. Ambrose’s victims cannot be merely eager or foolish: one must be incapacitated by occasional lapses into madness, another protected by both wealth and native pluck. There is even a generous nod to the art dealer, not often a sympathetic figure: “Her face was a smooth, cordial mask. But her eyes were intelligent with good humor.”
The Violet who conjured up Derek modeling in his drafty manse with a small electric heater for comfort no longer causes anyone to crack a smile. She lives in a pure, transcendent world, which may or may not have swinging doors. The novel ends with the kind of sentence that Waugh spoofed in Scoop: “Meanwhile that limitless radiance which eludes us all spins on, taking our day with it, teasing and turning us for a time in its vibrant dimensions, continuing to spread its blind effulgence when we have gone.” It may be that Godwin is caught for a while between more mundane inspirations.
I Sent a Letter to My Love is a short, winning novel, almost an entertainment. The setting is a remote, “one-eyed” seaside town in Wales. Porthcawl is the home of Amy and Stan Evans. Stan is a handsome, dreamy cripple. Amy, his sister, is ugly enough to be an outcast. Their years are as unmoving and shapeless as the rocks on the Porthcawl strand.
But Stan and Amy have buoyant imaginations. There is Stan’s secret collection of pornography, brought into the house as stamp collecting literature. The rest of the time he lives in a past made irridescent by his Mam’s devotion to him. In those days Amy hated Stan and let him know it with pinches and thefts. But since Mam “passed over,” he has endeared himself to his sister, and given her life a purpose.
One day, in her fifties, Amy boldly decides to change her sad little lot. She places an ad in the classified section of the Welsh Echo (“Homemaker wishing to meet gentleman…”) under a madeup name and using poste restante. She envisions packets of replies, but there is only one, from Stan. Amy does not hesitate: “As Amy Evans she was a stifling and strangled companion. In some other form she could loosen, she could perhaps even love.” The two enter into a correspondence filled with affection, hope, and erotic enthusiasm, and, on Amy’s part, increasingly frantic efforts to explain why they cannot meet. But as Stan writes her, this cannot go on, and the ending brings disaster to poor Amy.
Rubens, who has written several other novels, seems a natural fiction writer, an expert at ringing changes on the commonplace. Amy writes mostly in trite, high-flown gusts of endearment learned from pulp magazines, until in a desperate P.S. she adds, “I send my caresses to your third scar.” Rubens’s characters are, from the start, stunningly believable, and she is not afraid to let them change, be inconsistent, reverse themselves. Amy’s moods are as shifting as Welsh weather. Her slides from brazen action to stiffened shyness are unforeseeable, and usually funny. Rubens has a formidable wit but she uses it lightly, almost offhandedly. The ending is both cruel and melodramatic. If the author had pumped it up at all, the book would have been spoiled. But she deals out the Evanses’ fates quickly, modestly, and evenly, like Beryl Bainbridge (to whom the book is dedicated) or Muriel Spark before them.
July 20, 1978