Review of Old Lovegood Girls, by Gail Godwin

Books by Gail Godwin are special for me because one of the peak experiences in my career as a university teacher was a semester course with a lively and enthusiastic class, focused on four of her novels, as well as four by Susan Howatch. (One of the assignments was to write a letter from one of her characters to one in the other’s or vice versa.) I thought Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong were two of the best treatments of Anglican spirituality I had ever read. Not all of Godwin’s books worked for me: Unfinished Desires was a disappointment, Fleur enjoyable but not quite great, and Grief Cottage a DNF. Fortunately, I found Old Lovegood Girls stunning, a superb celebration of one of my favorite themes, a school friendship that turns out indeed to be Forever. The title is a wordplay. “Old girls” in the British sense of alumnae, but also chronologically. We follow Feron Hood and Merry Jellicoe from their first semester at Lovegood, a women’s junior college in eastern North Carolina, in 1958, till the end of the century. Both are talented writers but only Feron fully develops her gift, and even she supported herself mostly in a day job for a management consultant firm in New York. Merry remains in Carolina running a tobacco farm. But though sometimes nearly a decade passes without their being in touch, they remain close. If you have had the honor to enjoy such a friendship you know what it’s like: a reunion after twenty years feels like picking up a conversation interrupted five minutes ago.

Because Gail Godwin and I are near contemporaries, la longue durée brought back to me the experience of starting an undergraduate English major at the end of the fifties. Then the reigning deities for aspiring creative writers were Chekhov and Joyce (particularly Dubliners). Taking a creative writing course from a professor who expounded the same doctrines as Miss Petrie in this novel left me persuaded that I had no gift as a creative writer and I ended up with a career devoted to scholarship instead. (Finally after retirement I rediscovered my gift, but with different models like Donna Tartt’s Secret History.) But Chekhov certainly worked as a model for Godwin in this book. The teenaged Feron, escaping a sexually abusing stepfather, encountered a stranger on a bus trip, which led her to Lovegood College and a new life.

As in Godwin’s previous novels, we find rackety families and unreliable parent figures and eccentrics, as well as an attraction to relationships with older men. Feron marries her professor of medieval studies at UNC, an expert of Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship. Godwin’s minor characters are terribly accident-prone—Feron is a widow at twenty-three. But then Merry inherited the tobacco plantation her freshman year.

Over a lifetime it was enjoyable to chart the changes that I recall from my own experience. In 1969 Merry travels from Carolina to New York by train; in 1979 she flies. Feron types her novels on a Remington portable typewriter and does not get round to using a laptop till the later ‘90s. Occasionally there’s an allusion to a current event, like the school headmistress Jean Peters who blew away her lover the Scarsdale diet doctor. Apparently, the dean at Longwood had been tempted to something similar. And I have to admit thoroughly disliking Feron’s creative writing teacher at Columbia who is called Alexy Cuervo (I kept wanting to call him José), who is supposed to be a one-trick pony famous for one novel, whose literary pronouncements seemed pretentious and boring.

But the pleasure of Old Lovegood Girls lay not in following Feron’s literary career, but in the beautiful course of watching a friendship grow and change and yet endure and remain. Neither Merry nor Feron has a life that many people would choose, although they are successful and accomplished by most standards. But their relationship is one to model and if you ever have one like theirs, hold onto it tight. 

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