I am afraid this post on Kaye-Smith’s Joanna Godden is rather long, nevertheless I do hope readers find it interesting. Copies of the novel are available secondhand or print on demand. It is well worth a read.
Starting with the name of Joanna Godden for this wilful, strong, warm-hearted but reckless woman, Kaye-Smith returned to the theme of ambition that she had explored in Sussex Gorse. Despite her protestations that she had never “made a woman central character” (TWH 146), she had created a number of carefully conceived, pivotal female characters, notably Sally Odiarne in Isle of Thorns, the Beatup women and Thyrza Honey in Little England, and Hannah Iden and Polly Ebony in Green Apple Harvest.
With Joanna Godden, Kaye-Smith turns to the consideration of a woman’s place in society, filtered through a complicatedly-characterised individual with an ambition to succeed, but who is searching for a meaningful loving relationship. Tangentially the novel touches on matters of religion, peripherally comparing Anglo-Catholicism with established Anglicanism. Joanna Godden is a rural, regional, socio-political, modern-woman novel with a female protagonist endeavouring to make her way in the male dominated world of farming. Through the portrait of Joanna the narrative explores the nature of human love, tentatively probes the issue of religion by comparing established Anglicanism with Anglo-Catholicism, and explores the urban/rural dichotomy from the biased view of a country dweller. Although Joanna Godden secured Kaye-Smith’s place as a popular novelist of Sussex/Kent she felt that its acclaim made it “at first my greatest success and later my heaviest burden” (TWH 149). The novel remained in print throughout the author’s life time, and was re-printed as a Virago Modern Classic in 1983. A cinematic adaptation, The Loves of Joanna Godden, was released by Ealing Studios in 1947 with the screenplay written by H. E. Bates. Although essentially presented as a love story, the film version alters the ending so that Joanna eventually marries her girlhood sweetheart, Arthur Alce. A prevailing feminist stance is delivered through the strong and forceful portrayal of Joanna by Googie Withers.
In essence Joanna Godden is a romance set in a distinctive geographical location, with a compelling heroine cast in the role of a modern woman, seeking to assert her independence while searching for a loving relationship. In applying her formulaic and familiar episodic structure, of Parts sub-divided into chapters, with each Part the focus of a particular love interest, Kaye-Smith has effectively labelled this novel as a romance novel with a rural setting. The first of those that Joanna is attracted to is her ‘looker’ (shepherd) Socknersh, the second, her only real love Martin Trevor, the local squire’s son, who dies before the wedding. In the third section the concentration is on the love affairs of Joanna’s sister, Ellen, her marriage to Joanna’s former admirer Arthur Alce and Ellen’s temporary liaison with Sir Henry Trevor. The final section concentrates on the nature of selfless true love for both Joanna and Ellen. It tells of Joanna’s affair with Albert Hill, a suburban clerk from London, her desertion of him just before the wedding, her realization that she is pregnant with his child, and a lasting relationship for Ellen.
The novel gains its rural regionality from the setting of Romney Marsh as the locality in which Joanna pursues her farming ambitions and conducts her love affairs. In this setting Kaye-Smith portrays a whole community of Marsh farmers, the clergy, farm labourers, and the local squirearchy as they work the land. As Cavaliero argues this “world of the farm is the world of honesty, of work as a source of life and not simply as a means towards it” (Cavaliero 76). In this novel, as in Green Apple Harvest and Little England, Kaye-Smith’s characters are working people, farmers and their families, and her locale is the place in which these people work, and one in which they find a contentment that allows them to cope with the vicissitudes of their everyday lives.
In Kaye-Smith’s early novels it is possible to see a variety of literary influences, but in Joanna Godden the greatest discernible influence seems to come from Thomas Hardy, and most specifically, Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). The somewhat superficial and generalised likenesses in the text of a woman running a farm, the lambing and shearing scenes, the relationship between Joanna and Martha that is similar to that between Bathsheba and Liddy, and the Hardyesque chorus of farm workers who speak in dialect, do echo Hardy, but the plotting and characterisation reflect a natural progression from Kaye-Smith’s earlier novels. The realisation of the farm and some of the characters may owe a debt to Mrs Henry Dudeney’s Folly Corner (1899) which is set on a Sussex farm, with a male protagonist who has no understanding of the complicated nature of women, and a central female character who is not only complex but is, like Joanna, full of contradiction.
Secure as a regional novel with a setting that is predominantly a small area of Romney Marsh and its immediate environs, and fulfilling one of Bentley’s ‘tests’ of a regional novel, Joanna Godden shows “a particular strength in the depiction of character” where “characters are shown in their native environment, and surrounded by their families” (Bentley 45). Keith, likewise, identifies Joanna Godden as a regional novel because it presents “a locality distinctive in its character and related to a corresponding countryside identifiable on a map” (Keith 10). Because of its location the novel is essentially rural and as with earlier novels, Kaye-Smith builds a relationship between character and landscape so that a “sense of oneness between man and his physical environment brings about a revival of the plot of physical pilgrimage built upon ‘spirit of place’ ” (Alcorn 23). This ‘spirit of place’ is at its most evident in the vivid descriptions of a land that is a “wilderness of straight dykes”, where storms manifest themselves in a “great wail of wind and slash of rain” (JG 145), where there is “a light mist over the watercourses, veiling the pollards and thorn trees” (JG 53), or where “the buttercups were thick . . . on the grazing”, and “the watercourses were marked with the clumpings of may” (JG 105). The atmospheric and lyrical writing is used to convey the essence of a unique environment and its emotional connection to those who live and work the land. Those who live on Romney Marsh are part of the natural world whatever the season. The descriptions of the land in all seasons and all weathers are tightly packed with an authenticity of ‘foggy skies’, ‘sea mists’ and the ‘winds and waters’ that characterise the Marsh. The sensual evocations of landscape define the spirit of place with a sensitive substantiveness laced with an ethereal quality as “light mists over the watercourses, [are] veiling the pollards and thorn trees” (JG 53), or of the air ” moving slowly up from the sea, heavy with mist and salt and the scent of haws and blackberries, of dew soaked grass and fleeces” (JG 55). Those who are of the land, and who work the land, “the old folk who had been born on the Marsh, who had grown wrinkled with its sun and reddened with its wind and bent with their labours in its damp soil” (JG 86) live by a wisdom that defines them as part of the natural world. This ‘oneness’ with, and understanding of, nature, allows Joanna to predict “‘It’ll rain before night'” as she reads “The way of the wind, and those clouds moving low . . . and the way the sheep are grazing with their heads to leeward” (JG 106). The natural world of the Marsh is associated with all that is good, safe, wholesome and secure and is given ultimate expression in Joanna’s consideration of the landscape as she returns from London to the Marsh.
The day was very sunny and still. The blue sky was slightly misted – a yellow haze which smelt of chaff and corn smudged together the sky and the marsh and the distant sea. The farms with their red and yellow roofs were like ripe apples lying in the grass. Yes, the Marsh was the best place to live on, and the Marsh ways were the best ways (JG 300).
Similar to D.H. Lawrence’s opening to The Rainbow (1915) and like her own Sussex Gorse, the novel begins with a topographical description of the setting for the novel, in this case an area of Romney Marsh. Not only is Kaye-Smith specific about place but that specificity extends to the particular time and date of “a dim afternoon towards the middle of October in the year 1897” (JG 2). To reinforce the regionality of the work, Kaye-Smith presents the reader with a series of authentic and geographically accurate descriptions of the landscape. The opening description is of the wide vista of
Three marshes spread across the triangle made by the Royal Military Canal and the coasts of Sussex and Kent. The Military Canal runs from Hythe to Rye, beside the Military Road; between it and the flat, white beaches of the Channel lie Romney Marsh, Dunge Marsh and Walland Marsh, from east to west (JG 1).
From this expansive perspective the focus narrows to Little Ansdore Farm on Walland Marsh. The positioning of the farm “three miles from Rye, and about midway between the villages of Brodnyx and Pedlinge” (JG 2) makes it identifiable as Lamb Farm with the villages recognizable as East Guldeford and Brookland.
Using this recognisable environment as a framework, Kaye-Smith makes her eponymous protagonist the focus of the narrative. As a representative of the post-war single woman, Joanna is caught between a determination to succeed in the traditionally male dominated world of farming, and wanting a fulfilling, loving relationship. As Rachel Anderson suggests in the Introduction to the Virago Edition (1983) of Joanna Godden, in common with many romantic heroines of the twenties, Joanna is “uncertain whether [she] wished to be liberated from man or dominated by him” (JG xv). In a role that places her as a woman of high spirits with ambition, but who is impulsive in the bestowal of her affections, Joanna is presented as a capable, strong, feminine personality in a man’s world. As the daughter of a farmer, within this specific rural community, Joanna is middle-class and as such she can be categorised as a ruralised representative of those young women of the post-war years that Baldick suggests were seeking “release from the self-sacrificing imprisonment of ‘Victorian’ domestic duty” (Baldick The Modern Movement 179). The exploration of this predicament for the modern woman of the 1920s forms the basis of the narration of Joanna’s life from her inheritance of Little Ansdore farm, as a young woman, until she makes a momentous decision to leave in early middle-age. To achieve her ends of becoming a creditable farmer, Joanna is in competition with her male counterparts and must prove that she is better than them. To this end, she is determined and ambitious to carry out improvements on the farm. Kaye-Smith utilises the rustics that gather at the Woolpack to comment, and to voice the prejudices of tradition in a similar way to Hardy’s use of those that gather at Warren’s Malthouse. In this case these bigoted views are those that exist against women in the work place when that environment is predominantly male. The prevailing traditional stereotypical view of women as expressed by the male community is that Joanna is “‘a mare that’s never been praaperly broken in'” (JG 5), that “‘it ain’t safe or seemly for a woman to come alone and deal with men'” (JG 20) and that she should be “‘making puddings and stuffing mattresses ‘” (JG 21). Challenged by the threat to tradition, when Joanna proposes to change working practices, these men adopt a defensive stance by suggesting that “‘ wud some of the notions she has. . . She’ll have our plaace sold up in a twelve-month surelye'” (JG 10).
To fully explore the dilemma of the modern woman and the difficulty of women in a male dominated environment, Joanna’s early failures to modernise the farm are used to show that women need to exhibit strength and resilience. Her attempt to breed giant sheep brings her to the brink of ruin when the ewes are unable to deliver the oversized lambs but with gritty determination, and a refusal to give in to failure, she eventually succeeds in creating a prosperous farm. Through the narration of Joanna’s successes and failures, Kaye-Smith promotes a feminist agenda by showing that women can offer a new perspective, less bound by convention, on the age-old male ways of working, and can act as role models in traditional male preserves such as farming. Equally she suggests that women should not be ashamed of their success. Joanna’s innovative farming methods, including the ploughing up of pasture land for wheat production, gain her the grudging admiration of her more conservative male competitors when they realise that
on the whole, her big ideas had succeeded where the smaller, more cautious ones of her neighbours had failed. Of course she had been lucky – luckier than she deserved – but she was beginning to make men wonder if after all there wasn’t policy in paying a big price for a good thing, rather than in obeying the rules of haggle which maintained on other farms (JG 175).
This novel is somewhat different to Sussex Gorse in its exploration of ambition, not just because the ambitious human being is a woman, but because Kaye-Smith has considered it necessary to inextricably link ambition with a realisation that human loving relationships are equally important. She has created, therefore, a more believable and realistic character than Reuben Backfield. The complexity of Joanna is illustrated in her dichotomous nature as a character who is both robust and strong in her working of the land, while displaying her femininity in her concerns with her appearance, her home, her public persona and the search for love. A review in The Outlook highlights this composite characterisation when it notes that Joanna “illuminates life both from the feminine and masculine side”. Juxtaposed with her masculine management of the farm and knowledge that “grass here is worth a field of roots”, or that if you “stick to grazing . . . you’ll keep your money in your pocket and never send coarse mutton to the butcher” (JG 104), her showy, flaunting femininity involves extravagant display and self-advertisement. She repaints her house in yellow “tastefully picked out with green” (JG 30); she changes the traditional shape and colour of her farm wagons, paints them yellow, and inscribes them with “a rich, scrolled design, and her name in large ornate lettering” (JG 30). Her ambitious dreams, crystallized in these outward appearances, extend to dressing her farm-labourer, Stuppeney, in a “mulberry coat and brass buttons” (JG 79) in an attempt to bolster her social standing when he drives her to market. This apparent complex and contradictory characterisation is exemplified in Kaye-Smith’s representation of Joanna as young woman who “Under her loud voice, her almost barbaric appearance, her queerly truculent manner” was at times “a naive mixture of child and woman – soft, simple, eager to please” (JG 78).
The vulnerability of women in a man’s world, “the intuitive, involuntary fatal sensitivity of women” (Showalter 250), in contrast with the rational unemotional engagement of men, is illustrated in Joanna’s purely emotional response to the death of one of her lambs. When she saw “a ewe despairingly licking” (JG 42) its dead lamb, she “burst suddenly and stormily into tears. Sinking to her knees on the dirty floor, she covered her face, and rocked herself to and fro” (JG 42). In contrast, Socknersh, her shepherd, “sat on his three-legged stool, staring at her in silence” (JG 42) and total incomprehension. Kaye-Smith shows a consciousness of her middle-class predominantly female readership with the feminism depicted in Joanna Godden. It is a feminism “in the tradition of the ‘Old’ feminism, being concerned less with the stark realities of either male or political oppression than with women’s chances for self-fulfilment in a still unequal society.” (Beauman 70). As with many of the middlebrow novels produced in the 1920s, Kaye-Smith is not ultimately concerned to show her heroine as a success in a male environment, but for her to find fulfilment as a woman. Kaye-Smith comments on contemporary society’s constraints as Joanna muses on the fact that “Women were always different from men, even if they did the same things” (JG 73). Ultimately Joanna Godden is a romance, as the title and focus of the film adaptation suggests, and the major concern of the heroine and the novel becomes Joanna’s search for a lover upon whom she can depend. Fitting the middlebrow criteria of a satisfactory, acceptable solution to the dilemma of the independent single woman the narrative shows “the heroine deferring gratefully to the protection of a male lover” (Beauman 70) when Joanna determines to find a man to love.
Having determined that romance is at the centre of the narrative, Kaye-Smith uses Joanna as a vehicle to explore various concepts and manifestations of love. Much like a series of experiments, Joanna and her sister, Ellen, are depicted in a series of relationships that are variously based on physical attraction, practical considerations, fear of loneliness, the desire to escape, avarice, and true selfless devotion. The first of these is a naive fantasy in which Joanna “knew she ought not to think of her looker so” (JG 53), when she finds herself physically attracted to her shepherd. Described, in purely physical terms, with simile and metaphor that reference the landscape making him an intrinsic part of the natural world, Socknersh has
hands, big and heavy and brown, with the earth worked into the skin . . . his neck when he lifted his head, brown as his hands, and like a trunk of an oak roots of firm, beautiful muscle in the field of his broad chest (JG 53).
While Joanna is shown to realise that purely physical attraction is no basis for a stable relationship, her reaction to her dismissal of Socknersh highlights an emotional vulnerability as “his face swam into the sky on a mist of tears, which welled up in her eyes” (JG 57). Echoing an article that Kaye-Smith wrote stating that to be a spinster was to lead “an unnatural life”, Joanna expresses a similar sentiment when she acknowledges that “if you were alone inside your room – with no husband or child to keep you company . . . then it was terrible” (JG 73).
Reflective of Kaye-Smith’s view that, “If I was not to end up utterly withered as a human being I must marry, and I had better be quick about it, for I was no longer so very young” (ABML 159), the next planned romance is treated in a businesslike way: “She thought of taking a husband as she thought of taking a farm hand – as a matter of bargaining, of offering substantial benefits in exchange for substantial services” (JG 74). In the reasoning that Martin Trevor would be willing to marry Joanna for “her prosperity and her experience” (JG 74), Kaye-Smith has referenced the dilemma that was facing landowners after the war, namely that they were only able to look down on yeoman farmers “from the point of view of birth and breeding but not from any advantage more concrete” (JG 74), for punitive land taxes meant that they were ‘cash poor’.
With a female readership that had taken several writers of romantic fiction into the bestsellers, Kaye-Smith is consistent in the portrayal of Joanna’s feminine, romantic susceptibilities. She had an acute awareness that her readers were to be found among women, who like a friend of hers, saw in Elinor Glyn’s romantic fiction a “‘woman who knows life . . . It’s real life you meet in her books'” (ABML 131). In keeping with the romantic popular novels of the time, Kaye-Smith makes both Joanna and Martin conform to the stereotypes of the romantic fiction genre.
The typical female protagonist in romantic fiction of this time was perceived to want, “Somewhat surprisingly, in view of her supposed emancipation and her career and her independence, . . . to feel small, petite even, and cherished and feminine. She wanted a big strong he-man literally to sweep her off her feet, hold her tightly in his strong arms” (Anderson 202). The depiction of Joanna as robust and self-sufficient, belies the fact that Joanna is in “matters of life and love . . . a child” (JG 97). She becomes the classic female heroine who “loved [Martin’s] kisses, the clasp of his strong arms, the stability of his chest and shoulders” (JG 99). Similarly Martin conforms to the clichéd image of a handsome man with an underlying gentleness and vulnerability when he is described as “dark, tall, well-born, comely and strong of frame, and yet with hidden delicacy” (JG 74).
The narration of the courtship scenes illustrates the adage, attributed to Elinor Glyn, that “Romance is the glamour which turns the dust of everyday life into a golden haze”. The settings for the couple’s courtship, the Marsh and the coast, are described with the heavily-weighted romantic imagery of popular fiction that transforms the mundane countryside into a picturesque backdrop of verdant Spring. The Marsh loses the reality of “green rainy skies”, “flooded pasture”, “bleakness”, and the monotony of “its eternal flatness” (JG 201), to become the idyllic landscape of golden glowing light and purity, with drainage ditches that “lay scummed with white ranunculus, and edged with a gaudy splashing of yellow irises”. There are fields where “The buttercups were thick both on the grazing land and on the innings” (JG 105), while on the shingle of the shore “little white sea-campions . . . filled the furrows of the road ” (JG 107) and “the yellow-horned poppy put little spots of colour into a landscape of pinkish grey” (JG 108).
Because Kaye-Smith wishes to explore other forms of love than that between a man and a woman, she sets love of place against the love between Joanna and Martin. Joanna’s love of Little Ansdore is a material love that provides a certain stability but does not provide companionship or emotional affection. Kaye-Smith uses Martin’s illness to make plain the insignificance of worldly material desire if it is set against true love for another human being. In her distress and desire for him to recover Joanna finds that her priorities have changed and admits “‘I [have] found that Ansdore doesn’t matter to me what it used. It’s only you that matters now'” (JG 119). However, in an exploration of human reaction to the bereavement of a loved one, solace is seen to come from the love of place, characterised as eternal and unchanging, and therefore, a sustaining force. The imagery of fire reflecting from dawn sunlight across the fields in “fiery slats”, illuminating the willows so that they appear “full of fire”, making the roofs of Ansdore “a fiery yellow” and the windows as “squares of amber and flame” (JG 128), symbolises the warmth and welcome of that which is familiar in a time of distress. In keeping with her many-faceted characterisation as an unorthodox, somewhat masculine heroine, Joanna “expressed her grief in terms of fierce activity instead of in the lackadaisical ways of tradition” (JG 130). In her guise of a strong, modern young woman she is unwilling to admit that “not merely her heart but her whole self was broken, and that she was flying and rattling about like a broken thing” (JG 130).
The final love affair is born out of the longing and loneliness of a single woman approaching middle-age and as such is depicted in terms of desperation, escapism and ill-judgement. Predictably, Albert Hill, a London clerk who knows nothing of the countryside, becomes a ‘holiday romance’ for Joanna when she escapes from the farm to Marlingate for “a change of air” (JG 236). The urban environment is represented as alien, lonely, tormenting and overwhelming. The “loneliness and dullness” (JG 241) of spinsterhood that afflicted many in the post-war years is illustrated in Joanna’s desperation. In her remaining time in Marlingate she felt that she “could not bear to lose him (Albert) – she must bind him somehow in the short time she had left” (JG 249). The telling of the progress of the romance adopts the conventions of decency of earlier romantic fiction: a chapter ends as, “With a sudden chill at her heart, she realized that it was a door opening. ‘Who’s there?’ she cried in a hoarse angry whisper. ‘Don’t be frightened, dear – don’t be frightened, my sweet Jo -‘ said Bertie Hill” (JG 269). Readers are given no further hint of the night’s proceedings, but are left to draw their own conclusions. A new chapter begins the following morning when Joanna “could not think . . . she could only feel” (JG 269).
Kaye-Smith gives her conclusion to the novel a surprisingly modern twist that takes the narrative beyond the bounds of a popular rural romance when she invests her heroine with the courage to follow her instincts rather than the conventions of society. In this contemporary view of the modern woman the pregnant Joanna makes the courageous decision to reject marriage to a man who she realises
don’t love me – [and] I don’t love him. He don’t want to marry me – [and] I don’t want to marry him. He’ll never forgive me, and all our lives he’ll be throwing it up at me – and he’ll be hating the child, seeing as it’s only because of it we’re married, and he’ll make it miserable (JG 314).
In Joanna’s pragmatic view her determination to give her child “every chance [she] can” (JG 314), means that she must sacrifice her love of Ansdore and the Marsh and move away to make a fresh start in life: “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” (JG 316). The voicing of this decision speaks to the assertion that Virginia Woolf made in “Women and Fiction” when she suggested that women’s fiction of the 1920s “is courageous; it is sincere; it keeps closely to what women feel”.
In contrast to the narration of Joanna’s relationships, those of Ellen are those of a discontented young woman and they are afforded little space in the narrative as a whole. Ellen’s first two romances are based purely on materialistic grounds and as such are doomed to fail. Only when she experiences the love of a ‘good’ man in Tip Earnley, the son of a country family, is there a firm basis for the relationship to succeed. The loves that are lasting are those based on selflessness; in the case of Joanna this is her love for her unborn child and in the case of Ellen it is her love for Tip.
Cavaliero rightly asserts that the text focuses on human relationships and ambition, and that Kaye-Smith shows that the countryside and farming “represents the positive in the author’s scale of values” (Cavaliero 76). In Joanna Godden, Kaye-Smith has extended and expanded her comparative analysis of the relative merits of rural or urban surroundings and their effect on human beings. As with Green Apple Harvest, the urban environment, and those associated with it, are depicted as superficial, false and threatening, but whereas Mabel suffers alienation in the countryside, Joanna’s experience of an urban locale in both Marlingate (Hastings) and London is alien and discomforting. While the countryside is safe, tranquil and quiet the townscapes are envisaged as ‘dangerous’, and ‘disturbing’, full of ‘strangeness’, ‘dissipation’ and ‘depression’. The artificiality of street lights, and man-made sounds dominate the townscape and make the streets “dangerous and indecorous” (JG 241). This environment with its hustle, bustle, and mechanised noises which ‘rattle’, ‘ hum’ and are like a “broken machine” (JG 279), along with the theatrical entertainment that is incomprehensible, reduces Joanna to “tears [that] ran on and on” (JG 251). Just as Mabel acts as a representative of town dwellers in Green Apple Harvest, so Albert Hill is used to illustrate the cold and selfish artifice of the urbanite. His shallowness of outlook is characterised by his enjoyment of musical comedies which become, to Joanna, “synonymous with fluffy heads and whirling legs and jokes she could not understand” (JG 281) and which she finds “inexpressibly vulgar” (JG 288). His treatment of his sister, mother and Joanna is “cruel and selfish” (JG 289), “selfish and small-minded”, and like that of “a spoilt selfish child” (JG 281). Albert is, like Mabel, concerned with outward appearances; he judges Joanna by her clothes which he considers “too much on the showy side” (JG 287), and he wishes she would “take out a powder-puff and flick it over her face” (JG 287). Above all the countryside is associated with freedom, comfort and selflessness, while the town is where Joanna would be “shutting up herself” in a “prison” (JG 299). It is a loveless place of misery that had none of the reliability of the countryside where Ansdore in the “haze of the August afternoon . . . stewed like an apple in the sunshine” (JG 304) or where the “far distances of the Marsh . . . wore its strange, occasional look of being under the sea” (JG 316).
While critics failed to recognise any religious content in this novel, Kaye -Smith believes that “Joanna Godden is full of clues to the author’s religious position” (TWH 150), and although this may be true, any religious content is peripheral to the narrative as whole. Her depiction of the village priest, Mr Pratt, re-visits the criticism of low church Anglicanism that had been implied in her pre-war novels. Pratt is obsequious, ineffectual, harassed, uninspiring and down-trodden so that “He felt that one day he would be crushed between his parishioners’ hatred of change and his fellow-priests’ insistence on it” (JG 63). In Joanna’s eyes “his poverty, his inefficiency and self-depreciation” outweighed any other attributes he may have had. His lack of impact on Joanna, and the community, is highlighted when Pratt did nothing “so dramatic as to die” but rather “faded out” (JG 220). Kaye-Smith’s own religious viewpoint is thinly disguised in her sympathetic characterisation of Father Lawrence. An Anglo-Catholic priest, Lawrence is first introduced as a humble figure whose religious faith is based on the Christian teaching of love. Unlike some of the priest that feature in the Catholic novels of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh his attitude is presented as tolerant and non-judgemental when he views Joanna’s relationship with Martin as “a thing at once simple and adventurous, homely and splendid – which was how religion appeared to Father Lawrence” (JG 100). His gentle assurance when Martin dies is a comfort to Joanna, and his sympathetic understanding, exhibited in a “gaze as serene as ever” (JG 297), as he listens to Joanna’s confession of her fall from grace, establishes his Christianity as kind and compassionate. His wisdom, and awareness of Joanna’s need, are illustrated in his measured and practical response to her sorrow, when he tells her “there’s only one thing you can do, and that is to go home and take up your life where you left it, with a humble heart” (JG 298). His advice is used to illustrate the efficacy of confession and absolution as Joanna recognises that “she was certainly feeling better. She would never have thought that merely telling her story to Lawrence would have made such a difference” (JG 299). At the end of the novel the concepts of selfless love and personal faith are united as Joanna seeks forgiveness and help from a loving God in her commitment to her unborn child. The text illustrates Kaye-Smith’s belief in the healing power that ensues from the confession of sins, acceptance of fate and trust in the love of God, when at the end of her prayers, Joanna “seemed to wondrously heal” and “her heart was full of thankfulness” (JG 309). The inclusion of these two priestly characters, and the preaching of a particular religious viewpoint through their words and actions, adds little to the text as an effective work of fiction, and to a twenty-first century audience their presence may seem unnecessary.
Reviews of the novel in Britain and America focused on the characterisation of Joanna with only the merest hint of her final dilemma. They note that Kaye-Smith’s feminist agenda, at the centre of this novel, is the universal predicament of women who set out to succeed in a masculine world. The ‘brand’ of feminism that is referenced in the text is that which is concerned with “the practice rather than the theory of women’s rights that is important”. While Joanna’s “struggles, those of a fiercely and dangerously repressed woman, are common to city and country alike”, Joanna is an “intensely modern woman in an era when such creatures were but rare” (Braybrooke 197). Her difficulties are “the difficulties that confront a woman who has to stand alone” (Braybrooke 198). The originality of the realisation of Joanna, combined with the evocation of a rural scene infused with an emotive importance, gives the text a universality that raises this rural regional novel above the parochial and provincial. Kaye-Smith’s story of Joanna is full of “power and intensity; it reveals pity and understanding”.
Few contemporary appraisals of the novel make mention of its rural regionality but Gerald Gould believes that the depiction of the “strong rich life of the countryside “, with its “primitive ardour and unrelenting tragedy of the very earth”, makes it a work that can “scarcely be over-praised” (Gould 142). Although Kaye-Smith claimed that she was only a rural regional novelist because “The country-side of my childhood is, with all its limitations, a part of my literary equipment” (TWH 145), her writing of life in a rural setting was reflective of the zeitgeist for many middlebrow readers and spoke to the growing identification of Englishness with an idyllic rurality. The lyrically rendered timelessness of the Marsh descriptions provided the middle class readership with a safe haven from modernity, mechanisation and urbanisation. The “identification of England with a timeless countryside was a deeply reassuring” (Burchardt 76) concept, in a country that was suffering from mass unemployment, the aftermath of a devastating war, and unresolved social conflict. The same sentiment and concentration on an Englishness that is synonymous with the English landscape and countryside is referenced in “The Land” when Sackville-West urges her readers to “Now be thankful , who in England dwell”(Sackville-West 55). While abroad she yearns for “the smell of English rains” (Sackville-West 56) and “One winter coppice feathery with rime,/ One shred of dawn in spring” for that is “That which [she] love(s)”. (Sackville-West 56). As a result of a growing interest in the countryside, Kaye-Smith and other “minor writers of rural life . . . obtained the wider readership” (Burchardt 76) for their work, and as K. D. M. Snell records, the publication of regional (and mainly rural) fiction rose to unprecedented levels after the First World War.
While Sussex Gorse had been popular enough for Kaye-Smith to feel that she had ‘arrived’ and that attitudes had changed towards her “in literary places” (TWH 103), with the publication of Joanna Godden and sales of “ten thousand copies” (TWH 150) she felt she had her “biggest success” (TWH 149). Her characterisation of a strong woman who asserts her independence and has the courage to ‘go it alone’ resonates with a universal timelessness that is as relevant to the twenty-first century as it was to its original readership. The publication of Joanna Godden marked a high point in Kaye-Smith’s career and engendered praise for her writing. Frank Swinnerton felt that her literary work had brought her to “a high place among her male and female professional contemporaries” and that she was “superior to all the other equally industrious traditional novelists of about her own age” (Swinnerton 215). Reviews declared that she “towers above her sister novelists”, that she was a “sincere and conscientious artist, intent on achieving the highest possibilities in the novel”, and she was dubbed “the foremost woman writer in England” in an article headed “A Feminine Hardy”.
With the publication of Green Apple Harvest and Joanna Godden, Kaye-Smith gained recognition as a popular novelist and cemented her reputation as a rural regional writer. Within her oeuvre, Green Apple Harvest and Joanna Godden are significant as transitional novels. They mark a change in her popularity by making her a household name among the readership of the day. They were instrumental in clarifying a direction for future works, they show a working out of her own thinking on a number of issues, most notably religion, and above all they demonstrate a greater confidence in her own ability. Kaye-Smith believed that Joanna Godden was the last of her novels that came from the “same web of day-dream and fantasy that had made The Tramping Methodist” (TWH 161), and that future novels were to be inspired by “external happening in the world of facts” (TWH 161). However, throughout Green Apple Harvest and Joanna Godden she had established a number of thematic strands that were to become the main focus of her subsequent fiction. Although religion was not to disappear from her work, later novels are more concerned with social issues. Most particularly these are a concern for the role of women, an increasing concern to highlight the legacy of war and its economic and socio-political impact on the countryside, and the rural/urban divide.