I have met many remarkable women between the covers of green Virago Modern Classics. And now that I have met Joanna Godden I have to say that she is one of the most remarkable of them all.
Her story is set in farming country near the Sussex coast. The opening paragraphs set the scene, and the sense of place holds fast as the years pass and the story unfolds.
That story opens in 1897. Thomas Godden has just been buried and the funeral party is returning to his farm, Little Ansdore.
The eldest daughter of the house, Joanna, clearly a formidable woman, is at the head of the party and ensures that everything is done as it should be, and as it has been for generations.
And after tea comes the reading of the will. There are, of course, small legacies and tokens of remembrance to good friends and faithful servants. But then comes a shock …
“… I give, devise and bequeath the residue of my property, comprising the freehold farm of Little Ansdore in the parish of Pedlinge, Sussex, with all lands and live and dead stock pertaining thereto to my daughter Joanna Mary Godden. ..”
Yes, a farm left free and clear to an unmarried young woman!
Joanna’s neighbours expect her to hire a bailiff to run the farm. At least until she married, and then her husband would take charge. But Joanna is set on running the farm herself. No bailiff. And no husband – at least not yet.
It isn’t a matter of feminism or principle; it’s just the natural and right thing to do. You see, Joanna lived in a time when mass communication and travel were in their infancy, when people lived all their lives in the same community, when traditions centuries old ruled the day.
And so it was that Joanna took on two roles: her father’s role running the farm, and her mother’s role running the household. In time she filled their role in the community as well: the community wanted the space filled as much as she wanted to fill it.
It wasn’t easy.
“She forgot her distrust of the night air in all her misery of throbbing head and heart, and flung back the casement, so that the soft marsh wind came in, with rain upon it, and her tears were mingled with the tears of night. ‘Oh God!’ she moaned to herself – ‘why didn’t you make me a man?””
But Joanna wouldn’t really have wanted to be a man. She loved caring for her home and entertaining. And she definitely loved her clothes and jewellery. Maybe a little too much – subtlety was not her strong point.
Most of all she wanted a husband and children. But finding the right man would prove difficult.
Joanna was an unsophisticated woman, who knew little of life outside the Suffolk Marshes and was not much interested to find out. Some of her views and pronouncements are horribly outdated and she rarely acknowledged a view other than her own, but it was easy to accept that she was the product of her upbringing, her circumstances, and the age she lived in.
Joanna was an utterly believable, fallible human being, and I couldn’t help but love her heart and spirit as she struggled with the demands of being a woman, a sister and a farmer.
She forged ahead.
Until the very end when she did something quite extraordinary but completely in character.
I hated to leave her, and I am so curious about what might happen next.
Now I’ve said a lot about Joanna but little about her story and how it is written.
The story you really must read for yourself.
(I had thought that Joanna Godden was out of print, but it isn’t – it’s available still as a print-on-demand title from the Virago Press. That rather upset my plans for a week of posts about out of print VMCs when I found out, but I couldn’t be happier that this book is still around.)
And the writing is wonderful, painting a full and rich picture of country and community, into which Joanna fits perfectly.
This is a picture of one woman’s life and times, no more and no less.
A remarkable woman, and a heroine to cherish.