Unfinished Women

One of Ellen Glasgow’s early novels, The Deliverance (published in 1904, when she was thirty-one, and set in the 1880s), has a remarkable minor character called Mrs. Blake. She is the widow of a man who went mad and died after the Civil War, when his land and house, handed down through two hundred years, were bought by the coarse and corrupt Bill Fletcher, who used to oversee his slaves. The Blake family have had to move into the overseer’s house and make their living farming his tobacco fields. There is a bitter feud between Mrs. Blake’s degraded, illiterate son Christopher—a Heathcliffian noble savage—and the overseer’s family. Deliverance from the feud comes at last through Christopher’s love for Fletcher’s daughter.

But Mrs. Blake knows nothing of all this. She is blind and paralyzed from a stroke, and for fifteen years has been kept in blissful ignorance by her son and daughters of what has happened to the family—or the country. She thinks that the South won the war, and that they are still living in “Blake Hall.” The faithful house servants who stayed on with the Blakes, but who gained their freedom after the war, she still thinks of and refers to as her “darkeys.” And her children expend a great deal of ingenuity in maintaining her illusions for the sake of “her terrible pride.”

She lived upon lies…and thrived upon the sweetness she extracted from them…. It was as if she had fallen asleep with the great blow that had wrecked her body, and had dreamed on steadily throughout the years.

After her death, which results from her being brutally undeceived by the wicked Bill Fletcher, one of her daughters complains that she misses the pretense she has had to sustain for her mother.

I don’t know how it is, but the thing I miss most…is the lying Ihad to do. It gave me something to think about, somehow. I used to stay awake at night and plan all sorts of pleasant lies that I could tell about the house and the garden, and the way the war ended, and the Presidents of the Confederacy—Imade up all their names—and the fuss with which each one was inaugurated, and the dresses their wives and daughters wore. It’s all so dull when you have to stop pretending and begin to face things just as they are.

This peculiar fabrication holds the quintessence of Glasgow. The paralyzed, blind old Southern belle, locked into her romance of the past, dreaming it still in the middle of grim realities of which she is quite unaware, is the embodiment of everything Glasgow resented—but also yearned toward—in her South. The protective shelter of chivalric lying, the eagerness not to face up to the truth, which seemed to her to color all of Southern history (and literature), is summed up in the atrophied figure of Mrs. Blake. False romance gilding a story of violence, corruption, and decline, fossilized gentility resisting shifts in class…

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