You are here
Gail Godwin's Top Ten List
1. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881). James’s Portrait is of that superior creature Isabel Archer, an assured American girl who is determined to forge her destiny in the drawing rooms of Europe. To this end, she weds the older and more cultivated Gilbert Osmond, and eventually finds that she is less the author of her fate than she thought. Throughout, James gives us a combination of careful psychological refraction and truly diabolical plotting. The result is a book at once chilling and glorious.
2. Emma by Jane Austen (1816). The story of Miss Woodhouse —busybody, know-it-all, and general relationship enthusiast —is a comedy of manners deftly laced with social criticism. The charm largely inheres in Emma’s imperfections: her slightly spoiled maneuverings, her highly fallible matchmaking, her inability to know her own heart. Emma teeters from lovable one moment to tiresome and self-centered the next. In writing her story, Austen found an ideal venue for her note-perfect, never-equaled archness.
3. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907). A darkly comic work (and thus rare for Conrad), this novel follows a group of anarchists and spies —including an American who walks around with a bomb strapped to his chest —plotting to blow up London’s Greenwich Observatory. Often now misread as a condemnation of terrorism, The Secret Agent is really an ironic critique of abstract ideology and careerist bureaucracy —both forces that use and crush the individual.
4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.
5. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). Dorothea Brooke is a pretty young idealist whose desire to improve the world leads her to marry the crusty pedant Casaubon. This mistake takes her down a circuitous and painful path in search of happiness. The novel, which explores society’s brakes on women and deteriorating rural life, is as much a chronicle of the English town of Middlemarch as it is the portrait of a lady. Eliot excels at parsing moments of moral crisis so that we feel a character’s anguish and resolve. Her intelligent sympathy for even the most unlikable people redirects our own moral compass toward charity rather than enmity.
6. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (1940). In all of Greene’s prolific career, he never surpassed the stark beauty of this tale of a priest who is virtuous despite himself. Set in Mexico during the revolution, when Catholicism was illegal, the novel follows the movements of a character known only as “the whisky priest”—he drinks, he bilks the faithful, he has fathered a child. But as his world narrows and he must make life or death choices, his life becomes a complicated display of salvation.
7. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (1938). When orphaned teenager Portia Quayne comes to London to live with her effete, older half-brother Thomas and his cynical, sophisticated wife Anna, she finds warmth only in a crusty family servant —and in the inappropriate attentions of family friend Eddie, who toys heartlessly with the girl’s emotional adoration. Bowen brings Jamesian subtlety to bear on Portia’s revivifying loss of illusions and steady growth toward maturity. The result is a triumph of analytical precision in this tragedy of innocence endangered by unfeeling adults.
8. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916). In this semiautobiographical novel, hero Stephen Dedalus rejects the world of his youth —Ireland in its provincialism, nationalism, Catholicism, and sexual guilt —for art. From its stream of consciousness technique to its descriptions of expatriate life in Paris, Portrait inspired nearly all the touchstones of twentieth-century modernism, the most important of which is the artist as a misunderstood god.
9. Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen (1934). The pseudonymous Danish noblewoman (Baroness Karen Blixen) revived the texture and resonance of myths and folklores in this landmark debut collection. Its richly detailed stories, set in aristocratic surroundings and steeped in romantic hyperbole, explore conflicts between civilization and primitivism, notably in the magical transformation of a cloistered woman into an animal (The Monkey); the power a celebrated singer exerts over her admirers’ imaginations (The Dreamers); and four interlocking tales about concealed or mistaken identities, told by flood survivors (The Deluge at Nordeney).
10. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001). When Briony Tallis, a precocious adolescent on an English estate, writes a play to mark her brother’s homecoming in 1935, she sets in motion a real-life tragedy that marks the end of her innocence. Through the awful ramifications of her one lie, McEwan explores the mysteries of writing itself, the moral ambiguities of art, and the arc of twentieth-century English history, especially during World War II.