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Battalions of Women

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

Obscure Destinies. By Willa Cather. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. The Sheltered Life. By Ellen Glasgow. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.

On the principle of setting a thief to catch a thief, literary destiny has set our women novelists the task of delineating the monstrous regiment of women. In “The Sheltered Life” a female battalion clings about General Archbald, and his granddaughter, Jenny Blair, brought up by indirections to find directions out, is the occasion of the ultimate tragedy. Two of Miss Cather’s three stories in “Obscure Destinies” turn upon analogous situations. In one (“Neighbour Rosicky”) the good Rosicky, despite medical warning, dies as a result of working his son’s fields in an effort to create happiness for a city-bred daughter-in-law, and in the other (“Old Mrs. Harris”) Grandmother Harris sacrifices her existence to a daughter brought up a southern belle. There are other female figures in these books, but it is curious to observe the cruel precision with which two distinguished American women novelists delineate the damage women do.

Miss Cather’s volume will not greatly increase her reputation. “Neighbour Rosicky,” it is true, a return to the earlier manner of “My Antonia,” is a charming genre picture of immigrant Bohemian farm life, gentle and penetrating and beautiful. But “Old Mrs. Harris,” the longest of the three tales, seems to betray labor, and though Mrs. Harris herself is a remarkable creation, the other personages are not wellrounded. Miss Cather seems to have had difficulty with Mrs. Rosen, the Jewess who serves to interpret the story, and whose conversation does not ring true; and, what is more awkward, the story wavers between being a tale and being a short novel without quite satisfying the conditions of either genre. The third sketch, “Two Friends,” is merely a slight essay.

Miss Glasgow’s book, on the other hand, is rich and full, with those inimitable touches of wit and wisdom which only Miss Glasgow can give. Certain of its elements, to be sure, are familiar. In how many of her fictions have we met the Virginia old maid, blighted in youth by plainness or an unhappy love affair, and spending the rest of her futile existence in complainings which an indulgent family elaborately explain away! The southern mother, full of outward helplessness and inward competence, pretending that this is the best of all possible worlds, and laboriously bringing up her daughter in the same pink pretences—her we have met before. And the ageing Virginia gentleman, secretly regretful that southern chivalry has cost him the best years of his life, but gallantly carrying on—this, too, is a figure with which Miss Glasgow has made us familiar.

One notes also in the present volume the vestigial remnants of the sociological urge which produced Miss Glasgow’s earlier fictions. The Archbald family lives in that part of Queenborough (let us pretend it is Queenborough) which is socially out at the elbows by reason of the industrialization of the city, symbolized in “The Sheltered Life” by an inelegant smell which the Archbalds attempt to ignore. Moreover, the flow of time in the book is across three wars which, like parallels of latitude, allow us to measure our progress through the social history of the South. (Once or twice, Miss Glasgow gleefully dares to call the first of these conflicts the Civil War.) But sociology in “The Sheltered Life” mainly hovers, an awkward ghost, in the background. Miss Glasgow’s theme has latterly (and wisely) been human beings, not Humanity.

There remain four characters who really make the novel —Mr. and Mrs. Birdsong, Jenny Blair Archbald, and the dog, William. There have been various canines in modern fiction—who can forget Mr. Galsworthy?—but William, a polite and desponding setter, is a notable addition to the race. Mrs. Archbald, lacking penetration, commonly addressed him, we are told, as if he were a distinguished member of the Mongolian race, a happy touch which defines Mrs. Anchbald’s lack of penetration, and William. One regrets that William does not more frequently appear.

As for Jenny Blair, she is at once curiously and painfully true, and curiously elusive. Much of the story is seen through her eyes, and particularly when she is a little girl, this part of the narrative is superbly accurate. But the exigencies of the tale compel Miss Glasgow to abandon her point of view from time to time. In these sections Jenny Blair becomes merely a vague, youthful figure. Yet the exasperation which she arouses is proof of her reality, so that, if Miss Glasgow has not quite solved the technical problem of presentation in her case, we are compelled to admit the validity of the events which depend upon her character.

But the real triumph of “The Sheltered Life” is Mr. and Mrs. Birdsong, although, short of quoting huge sections of the book, one despairs of conveying the extraordinary vitality of a married pair hot for certainties in this our life. Beautiful and fragile, passionately in love with her weak-willed husband, insanely jealous, Eva Birdsong carries beauty like a curse. From the time we first hear of her to the time when, having seen Jenny Blair in her husband’s arms, she kills him (and every one elaborately pretends it was an accident) she moves, a haunting figure, through a world which really has no place for her. Equally vital is George Birdsong, possibly an even greater artistic triumph. For George is more than an errant husband. As his wife is burdened with devotion, so he is burdened with vitality, and Miss Glasgow has succeeded in making his sexual aberrations inevitable, his weakness transparent, and his wife’s adoration believable. Moreover, she has finely handled the episodes (beginning in childhood) through which Jenny Blair and George drift towards each other and to catastrophe. The theme of the book is sex, but sex in terms which make the usual run of novels portraying marital infidelity look like the scrawlings of crude little boys.


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