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Ellen Glasgow: 1941

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

In This Our Life, By Ellen Glasgow. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.S0.

“A great tradition is an expensive luxury.” It is Asa Timberlake, the one of her people in Ellen Glasgow’s “In This Our Life” that the author treats most sympathetically, who says this. And Asa “had fallen, he told himself, between an age that was slipping out and an age that was hastening in.” The luxury is one for which Miss Glasgow must pay: she has built for herself a great tradition. At the beginning of her career she wrote “The Descendant” and then “Phases of an Inferior Planet.” Now with no lessening of a creative power that has increased with the years she writes a book that might have been named either “The Descendants” or “Later Phases of an Inferior Planet.” She may think, as Asa Timberlake says, that “Dignity is an anachronism,” but she keeps within her own tradition even in this the most modern in method of all her novels. “In This Our Life” tells the story of a group of people in modern Queenborough (or Richmond, if you please), Virginia, “a community where families were still reckoned with, though the nature of the reckoning had altered from intangible to tangible values.” It is not a novel that Asa’s wife, Lavinia, would like; for it is not a cheerful book and it does deal with the poor—as well as with the very rich. It is a story of bitter, honest realism, dealing with people whose creeds are dead, whose rites are dead—and their social order, too—and who have failed to build new creeds and a new decent social order. Even the “trail of smoke from the old altars” only blows into their eyes to blind them.

In no one of her other novels has Miss Glasgow been more successful in giving to her people the animation of reality, Especially is this true of the three whose thoughts and sensations are most often the moving surface of the narrative. Asa Timberlake, the central figure of the group, who struggles “against a conspiracy of tradition and of custom, of reason and of economics,” “can’t help harboring the absurd notion that there is a dignity attached to the state of man.” His elder daughter, Roy, who loved him enough to pity him (though pity was what she most detested), but not enough to suffer for him, “was capable of greatness, and craved only the second best.” Then there was the Negro, Minerva, who had kept a noble bearing in a city where white women had given it up. Even Uncle William Fitzroyal, the wealthiest man in the city, “a pillar of a respectable world,” who had never read a book through, is credible when we think his thoughts aloud after him.

The characters into whose minds we do not enter, we know as others know them: Lavinia, the escapist through the sickroom; Peter, “a sensual man astray in the field of science”; Craig, the sensitive theorist; Stanley, the beauty, who possessed “the most destructive force in life—the power of insatiable youth.” Parry, the so-nearly-white son of Minerva, though he is almost a symbol in the book, is alive, too, and his dog, as well, that had “an animated manner, a friendly tail, and an inquisitive but peculiar sense of humor.”

The lives of these people are strangely intertangled, two generations of them. And the younger generation is like the new house in which the Timberlake family is living: it has “no roots, no history, no background, no safe escape except through the back gate into an untidy alley.” The cry of that generation is, “I have a right to be happy.” And rushing off in their happiness, as material as a motor car, they destroy other people and at the last smash up themselves. The elderly have a part in the age too; an age of which it is said that it “isn’t a distemper—. It is a revolution.” It is an elderly woman in the book who learns that “instinct, not reason, decides a man’s life in the end.”

The story, which is so much a story of losing happiness through the pursuit of it, is so absorbing that the reader forgets how sharply the book is a criticism of this our life today in America; but the satire is there. And there too is the charm of Ellen Glasgow’s witty prose, sparkling with epigram, circling at times about an emanation of a place or a mood like a flock of pigeons iridescent in the sun, or glowing occasionally with quiet restrained emotion. No philosophy runs, like a vein of iron, patently throughout the story. Even the satire is implicit, and, like one of her characters, the novelist is careful “to keep a discredited sense of values hidden,” more or less, from her readers.

Tightly woven together, the threads of the narrative form a pattern that is the triumph of a practical artist’s skill. Yet the skill is that of an intriguing storyteller, too; for the in-terest never flags as the tense situations rapidly dissolve and flow into resulting situations tenser and more moving. “In This Our Life” ought to prove for its season the most popular of all Ellen Glasgow’s novels. It is easy to read; it has rapid movement; it has spice, and daring, and beauty of style; it has vivid characterization; it is a challenge to this generation and it raises questions to be pondered over for tomorrow. It may not be Ellen Glasgow’s greatest novel, nor her wittiest, nor her wisest. To readers in general it may prove her most successful.

Robert Bridges said of the heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies that they were greater than their actions. Perhaps likewise all noble authors are greater than any of their boob, Ellen Glasgow, even as a writer, is greater than any one of her novels. But her novels collectively are the measure of her genius. “In This Our Life” is worthy of “the great tradition” she has built.


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