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 and race relations, these are what Glasgow frequently summed up by the phrase “evasive idealism.” And Mrs. Blake’s disability, which both protects her and utterly isolates her from the real world, is a powerful image for a writer who suffered from severe deafness for most of her life.
Why should we care about Ellen Glasgow? Isn’t she, like her Mrs. Blake, a redundant figure left over from the Southern past, who might once have been a great literary beauty (a sensation with her first novel in 1897, a frequent best seller, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1942) but is now, irredeemably, a back number? Surely her value has been obliterated by what succeeded her in Southern writing, which she welcomed with dismay as “literary ruffianism” or “Faulkner’s school of Raw-Head-and-Bloody-Bones,” noting, with her own brand of genteel fastidiousness, that “the fascination of the repulsive, so noticeable in contemporary writing, can spring only from some rotted substance within our civilization….”
Not much of her work is currently in print. Her posthumously published autobiography, The Woman Within (1954), was reissued by the University Press of Virginia in 1994, an interestingly painful item in the big wave of 1980s and 1990s new and rediscovered women’s memoirs. Her best-known titles are still in print—Virginia (Penguin), Barren Ground (Harcourt Brace), The Romantic Comedians, The Sheltered Life, and Vein of Iron (University of Virginia). But that’s only a quarter of the novels. She is much less read than Wharton, Cather, or Welty.
She features still, presumably, in most courses on Southern literature, where the twenty novels that made up her “social history of Virginia,” from the Civil War to the Second World War, must provide an unmatchable fund of information about the customs, manners, and habits of mind of her world. She is indubitably a figure of central importance in twentieth-century Southern writing, and her interconnections with the Southern Renaissance, her friendships, however strained, with the writers Carl Van Doren, James Branch Cabell, and Allen Tate, her contributions to the Richmond magazine The Reviewer, and her initiation and opening of the first annual Southern Writers’ Conference at Charlottesville in 1931 (where Faulkner’s first and last remarks were supposed to be, “Know where I can get a drink?”) are public marks of this centrality.
In another context, she is no doubt taught alongside the women writers, about most of whom she expressed considerable reservations: Willa Cather’s Virginian novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, was “a bitter disappointment”; “Even without Mrs. Wharton, one Henry James is enough for any country”; “I have an impression…that [Katherine Anne Porter] will never grow larger and stronger…. I suppose [Zora Neale Hurston’s] Mules and Men is good Negro folklore, but what does it promise except more and more of the thing?” For all her commitment to the women’s suffrage cause in the 1910s and her creation of powerful, rebellious, independent heroines, Glasgow is a contradictory figure for feminist studies, and the critical works which have placed her in that context have to find ways of dealing with her ambivalence and defensiveness, her “apparent conformity,” her “intellectual confusion about women’s traditions,” and the “simultaneous need [in her fictions] to center on heterosexual pairings and to reject them.”* In other words, this is a confusingly feminine feminist.
Susan Goodman’s conscientious new biography isn’t likely to inspire much new interest, but it does have a fascinatingly peculiar and painful story to tell. Ellen Glasgow spent almost all of her seventy-two years in Richmond, Virginia (like Eudora Welty in Jackson, Mississippi), in the house on Main Street her father bought when she was fourteen. Her parents were of old Virginian stock, her mother from a distinguished Tidewater family, her father from Scotch Presbyterian pioneers who settled on the James River. Her father inherited the Tredegar Iron Works, run on slave labor up to the war. The marriage was a difficult one. Glasgow portrayed her mother as a woman wretchedly dedicated to service and self-sacrifice, and her father as a domineering, tyrannical Calvinist.
When Glasgow was very young her older brother died, to her mother’s inconsolable sorrow; when she was ten, her mother (who had left much of Glasgow’s upbringing to the black “mammy”) had a catastrophic breakdown, exacerbated, in Glasgow’s version, by her father’s “sleeping with one of the colored maids.” Glasgow came to loathe and resent her father. She defined herself through solitary rebellious reading (crucially, of Darwin) and lost her faith very young. Her sensitive brother Frank was forced into a military academy and later killed himself. Her mother died suddenly when Glasgow was twenty, a death shortly followed by the suicide of her brother-in-law, a clever young socialist lawyer who had been very influential in Glasgow’s early intellectual life. His widow, her sister Cary, sank into perpetual mourning. By the time Glasgow began to write, family life seemed to her “like living in a tomb…immersed…in the old sense of doom, of fatality.”
She wrote her way out of this sense of incarceration, but her personal life was always difficult. Her incurable deafness began in her twenties and went with attacks of “a panic of terror” and “morbid sensitiveness”—labeled neurasthenia at the time. Though she began to make some money from her books in the 1900s, she was largely financially dependent on her wealthy engineer brother Arthur, a debt for which she doesn’t seem to have been especially grateful, and which eventually “corrupted their relationship.” Her sexual relationships, which are portrayed in curiously shadowy and ominous tones in her autobiography, seem to have been either covert or frustrating. There was a secret passion in her twenties for a married man, the mythical sounding “Gerald B,” which came to a climax in an ecstatic moment on the Jungfrau in the Alps in 1903, and faded out after that (she learned of his death in a newspaper). And there was a prolonged and deeply unsatisfactory engagement in her forties to a well-connected Virginia lawyer, Henry Anderson, who had a wartime affair during his work for the Red Cross in Europe with Queen Marie of Romania—a spectacular rival whose challenge partly drove Glasgow to a suicide attempt in 1918. Their relationship trailed on for years as “a companionate marriage, which gave them no real pleasure….” “For seventeen months…of twenty-four years,” Goodman notes drily, “they made one another happy.”
Her relationship with her publishers, Doubleday and Page, who found her difficult, was equally strained. Her behavior with her family, where she let her “terrible temperament” (as she herself described it) hold sway, was often disastrous, and ended with an acrimonious fallout over her will and her house among her siblings. Her tenderest sympathies were reserved for her dogs. Her most furious girlhood quarrel with her father was over a dog he wouldn’t let her keep. She was very active in the SPCA and collected hundreds of ceramic dog figurines. When her Sealyham terrier Jeremy died in 1929 she mourned him for a year, and wrote: “Nothing has mattered since—all I have wanted is to have everything over.” Her most lasting and necessary relationship, after her sister Cary’s death in 1911, was with Cary’s nurse, Anne Virginia Bennett, who became Glasgow’s secretary and companion, and whose long live-in intimacy with Glasgow has tended (as Patricia Matthews observes) to be consistently underestimated, challenging as it does the standard assumption that “the marriage plot provided the only real possibility for fulfillment in Glasgow’s own life.” Glasgow said, revealingly, of Anne Virginia, that she “has had my interests at heart.”
As that remark suggests, Glasgow’s autobiography is somewhat self-promoting and self-pitying. She praises, for instance, her own mysterious allure (“Although I was not beautiful, I created the semblance of beauty for everyone who has ever loved me”) and the importance of her work: “These five novels represent, I feel, not only the best that was in me, but some of the best work that has been done in American fiction.” But The Woman Within is also the record of a defensive, prickly, unhappy woman, excruciatingly self-conscious about her disability, whose dedication to writing, she said herself, was made “to compensate …for the kind of life I have had.”
So it’s appropriate that what Glasgow wanted to do in her writing should be put into the mouth of one of her unhappiest characters, a nervy, ironical working-class boy who has had a breakdown after the First War, and who tells his uncomprehending, genteel Virginian father-in-law, Mr. Littlepage, that he plans to write:
“Well I shouldn’t put too much faith in literature, if I were you…. there isn’t much material in Virginian history that hasn’t already been exhausted.”
…With an air of incredible patience, the young man answered slowly, as if he were speaking to a foreigner in words of one syllable. “But historical novels are all tosh, you know. I am interested in life, not in costume and scenery. I want to get at grips with reality.”
“Well, I shouldn’t build my hopes on that kind of stuff,” Mr. Littlepage remarked mildly but firmly; for the word “reality” startled him….
Mr. Littlepage’s anxieties are a reflection of some early local responses to Glasgow’s novels, when this well-brought-up young Richmond lady began to write about degeneration and extramarital love (The Descendant, 1897), scientific arguments against religion (Phases of an Inferior Planet, 1898), prison reform (The Ancient Law, 1908), and the frustrated lives of women of her own class (The Miller of Old Church, 1911, and Virginia, 1913). Though she quickly attracted big sales, some huffing and puffing went on at first about “blunting the moral sense” and “profanation of holy things.” Of Virginia, one Southern reviewer said: “Such books may be true to life, but we should hesitate before placing them in the hands of our trusting wives.” It’s hard to imagine—but it’s an important part of her story—that a hundred years ago Glasgow was as shocking as Kate Chopin or Theodore Dreiser. There’s a trace of this much later in a comment on her failed philosopher, John Fincastle, in Vein of Iron (1935): “Nobody…could earn a livelihood in America by thinking the wrong thoughts.”
But there was more acclaim than criticism for a writer whose publisher boasted of her work that realism had finally “crossed the Potomac.” Like other American Naturalists of the 1890s, Glasgow set herself, officially, against romance, idealization, make-believe, the glamorization of the old South, and the nostalgic defense of lost causes. (She hated, too, being tagged as a “local colorist” or a “regionalist”: “I had always wished to escape from the particular into the general, from the provincial into the universal.”) What the South needed, she said, was “blood and irony.” When she started writing, she began “a solitary revolt against the formal, the false, the affected, the sentimental, and the pretentious, in Southern writing.” She stood for realism, truth, and plain speaking. And in doing so, she turned her back on her mother’s genteel, pious, repressed conservatism.
There are a number of nice ladies in her novels happily weeping over old romances, like the Major’s wife in her Civil War novel, The Battleground (1902), immersed in that once-popular English historical novel about Polish aristocrats, Jane Porter’s Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), and dismissing “all new-fangled literature” because its heroes are “untitled.” Virginia, Glasgow’s epitome of stifled Southern wifehood (based on her mother), is brought up by her par-ents, with disastrous consequences, on “sweet stories” (these also include Thaddeus of Warsaw and The Heir of Redclyffe): “That any book which told, however mildly, the truth about life should have entered their daughter’s bedroom would have seemed little short of profanation…. The sacred shelves of that bookcase…had never suffered the contaminating presence of realism.”
And Glasgow does sink her teeth not only into shocking new Nineties subjects (like the persistence of savage, primitive traits in civilized peoples) derived from her reading of Darwin, Huxley, and Nordau, but also into very detailed, authentic, thorough-going accounts of corruption in Southern Reconstruction politics (The Voice of the People, 1900), or of the violent shifts in class structure and race relations in turn of the century Virginia (The Deliverance, 1904, They Stooped to Folly, 1929, The Sheltered Life, 1932), or of the effects of industrialization in the South, most forcefully in the Depression scenes in Vein of Iron. She can be brutal about the need for Southern gentry to regenerate themselves by marrying down (as Stella does in A Streetcar Named Desire), or about sexual censorship, cruelty, incompatibility, and predatoriness. The young wife’s disgust at her elderly husband in The Romantic Comedians (1926)—“I didn’t know how immoral marriage can be”—is strong, and so is teenage Jenny Blair Archbald’s infantile, exploitable sexual crush on the rapacious George Birdsong in The Sheltered Life: “She looked up at him with her wide, shallow, devouring gaze. Beneath the stain of tears, her face was as soft as a baby’s, and her small, vivid mouth…was round and open and insatiable.”
Glasgow, who is a funnier writer than she’s given credit for, has a good knockabout time with genteel sexual hypocrisy (“He thought of his father, a Virginia gentleman…who had found it less embarrassing to commit adultery than to pronounce the word in the presence of a lady”) or intransigent piety: “She’s a good woman according to her lights, but…her religion has curdled.”
But Glasgow’s realism is a peculiar thing. Though she sets her face against “evasive idealism,” she isn’t free of it. There is a great deal invested in these novels in the romance of the Southern landscape, in the heroic spirit of the old pioneers, in memory and elegy, in beauty opposed to mechanization, and in the formative virtues of suffering and defeat. Almost all her novels are too long. Where a greater novelist, Willa Cather, taught herself to leave things out, Ellen Glasgow liked to put everything in. So her books are lushly padded with description (some very good tobacco fields), meditations on human nature, and tremendously soppy love scenes.
“What is it” she asked quickly, and her voice seemed part of the general radiance. “You have been looking at the sun. It hurts my eyes.”
“No,” he answered steadily, “I was looking at you.”
She thrilled as he spoke and brought her eyes to the level of his…. All her changeful beauty was startled into life…. “You know it’s impossible,” he said, and kissed her.
Glasgow is at her most contradictory when it comes to the two crucial ingredients in her work, race and women. There are large numbers of black characters in the novels (with far more to do and say than in Twain or Faulkner or Welty). And because she’s very much influenced by Dickens, Hardy, and Emily Brontë, they talk at length, in carefully presented dialect speech, which now reads condescendingly. She goes out of her way to present intimate relationships between black and white characters, to expose the sexual exploitation of black women (especially in the captain ofindustry who denies all responsibility for his mulatto son in Virginia, or in the telling figure of Memoria, George Birdsong’s black mistress, in The Sheltered Life). And she is bitterly scathing about post-Civil War racism in the South.
But—and this makes her a difficult subject for resuscitation—she is quite unable to free herself from the white Southerner’s lasting belief (which also surfaces in Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner) that the legacy of slavery—rootedness in a landscape, fidelity to a family, pastoral life—was preferable to the “freedom” of Northern urban enslavement. Writing to Carl Van Vechten about his Harlem novel Nigger Heaven in 1926, she called it “the best argument in favor of African slavery that I have ever read…. The serene fatalism, the dignity of manner, the spiritual power, all those qualities decayed, with the peculiar institution.” And her stereotyping of “Negro” attributes (“It is the law of African nature to expand in the sunshine”) frequently undermined her political opposition to racism.
Pulling against tradition and giving in to it is the struggle at the heart of Glasgow’s painful stories of women. Though these are what she’s known for, it’s worth noting that she can “do” men’s lives as well. I’m especially struck by that racist, chauvinistic tobacco magnate Cyrus Treadwell in Virginia, the aged philosopher-general looking back over his thwarted past in The Sheltered Life, the self-deceiving Judge Honeywell (based unforgivingly on Henry Anderson) fooling himself into a second youth in The Romantic Comedians, and the anxious Mr. Littlepage in They Stooped to Folly, fretting over the relation between changes in custom and standards of morality: “Were there right and wrong habits of thinking? Were there right and wrong ways of behaving?”
It’s the women, though, who set the standards of, and are trapped by, “right and wrong ways of behaving.” It’s they who have benefited from, or been crushed by, a set of beliefs whereby the Southern belle—ideally beautiful, virginal, fresh and gay, object of chivalric worship—gets turned into the Southern matriarch, dedicated to a life of service and discretion. By these rules, woman’s whole emotional function, according to Mrs. Birdsong in The Sheltered Life, is this: “A great love doesn’t leave room for anything else in a woman’s life. It is everything.” And their purpose in life is summed up by Virginia: “What could make her happier than the knowledge that she must surrender her will to his from the day of her wedding until the day of her death? She embraced her circumscribed lot with a passion which glorified its limitations.” There are some “types” of women in Glasgow who have fitted perfectly into this mold, and become lifelong propagandists for a system of sexual censorship and female subservience. Such is Mrs. Archbald, Jenny Blair’s mother, who structures “the sheltered life” around her daughter: “If she ever spoke the truth, it was by accident, or on one of those rare occasions when truth is more pleasant than fiction.”
But alongside those bland matriarchs (usually in the same family) is a veritable army of disappointed women who have failed to conform or live up to the approved feminine model. Glasgow’s novels are full of embittered old maids, spinster aunts dependent on their married relatives, locked into the memory of a single long-past romance, obsessed with their unattractiveness, or maintaining with gruesome fastidiousness antiquated standards of ladylike behav-ior. “A lady always preferred the wing of a chicken when I was young. Never the leg. It would have been indelicate to prefer the leg, even if she called it dark meat.” Glasgow’s wives, too, are often as bitterly redundant as their unmarried aunts and sisters: killing themselves with overwork, perpetually bullied, betrayed, or ignored.
Those who resist their feminine destiny—the women artists struggling between art and passion in her earliest novels, the independent-minded girls who want freedom as well as love, the strong women who challenge the rules—frequently get collapsed back into motherhood, or are made to channel their considerable powers into keeping the home going. Glasgow’s four really outstanding and impressive novels, which deserve any amount of rereading—Virginia (1913), Barren Ground (1925), The Sheltered Life (1932), and Vein of Iron (1935)—are all unsparing and unsimplifying in their fixing of women’s lives in a place and a tradition.
The story of Virginia’s utter commitment to ideals of marital subservience, resulting in her spoiled playwright husband’s inevitable boredom and infidelity, her daughters’ scorn, and her eventual isolation and redundancy, is extremely painful to read, because it’s so unrelentingly placed inside the narrow, bewildered confines of her point of view. In Barren Ground, Glasgow’s most Hardyesque novel, Dorinda survives her girlhood betrayal by committing herself to reclaiming the “poor land” of her farm. But the loss of love is never appeased, and through all her long years (it’s a long book)of endurance and stoicism, she drags the past with her “like a dead fish in a net.” In Vein of Iron, an urban survival novel, Ada Fincastle loses her young lover and refinds him, but at the cost of “romance.” Her long struggle to keep her family going in the Depression years is a description of a compromise—not an easy theme with which to sustain a novel—based on adaptation and realism, “getting the better of life,” “taking the world as one found it.”
But it’s The Sheltered Life that provides the most subtle and drastic undermining of conventional ideas about women. Setting the naive and sensation- hungry girl Jenny Blair against the wretched beauty Mrs. Birdsong, who, having given all for love, is consumed with jealousy of her unfaithful husband, and surrounding them with a range of models of compromised and disappointed womanhood, works brilliantly. Best of all is Jenny Blair’s inability to take Mrs. Birdsong’s side against her husband or to admit to her own sexual complicity with George Birdsong’s betrayal of his wife. It’s clear that she can never break out of her “shelter.”
But would being unsheltered be better? Like the smell from the chemical factory infesting the street where the Archbalds have always lived, or the bare city blocks where the old trees have been cut down, the “unsheltered” women Jenny Blair sees on the streets have lost all the romance that encircles poor Eva Birdsong; their eyes are “absorbed, empty, pathetic.” In the very act of denouncing “romance” and what it does to women, the novel hankers after it and partly resists the coarsening effect of “reality.”
No wonder that a peculiar sense of unreality creeps after a number of Glasgow’s characters. The quality she officially celebrates in her work is “fortitude” (it’s her favorite word), and the moral of most of the novels is that the “vein of iron” inherited from those Scotch Presbyterians is, in the end, no bad thing; it links the generations, it keeps the land going, it lasts longer than love. But though Glasgow takes every chance, for herself and for her characters, to praise fortitude and endurance, something less conclusive, more queasy and troubling, is what I finally take away from her work. It’s a strange sense that there is always another potential life or self shadowing the lives her characters are forced to lead, something stifled or half-recognized, which leaves them with a weird feeling of numbness or non-being. In the powerful Gothic scene in which Dorinda hears of her lover’s marriage from his ghoulish old father in his rotting house, “even her body felt numbed, as if she were asleep, and her feet, when she rose and took a step forward, seemed to be walking on nothing.” The dying mother in They Stooped to Folly, who has always obeyed the rules, feels at last that
she was sinking into a windy hollow of space, and that about her there was only this soundless tumult. It was as if she moved through the world and played her part in a state of suspended animation. “I am not real. I am hollow within,” she repeated.
Everyone in The Sheltered Life is haunted by a “second self,” a “buried part” of their nature which has never been acted out. The old General, increasingly, feels the pressure of that frustration and division: “That hollow drumming began all over again in his ears, as if the universe buzzed with a question he could not hear clearly.” What is the question that can’t quite be heard? That there might be—there might have been—some other way to live?
December 16, 1999
See Linda Wagner, Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention (University of Texas Press, 1982); Elizabeth Myer, The Social Situation of Women in the Novels of Ellen Glasgow (Exposition Press, 1978); and Pamela Matthews, Ellen Glasgow and a Woman’s Traditions (University Press of Virginia, 1994). ↩