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Ellen Glasgow: Ironic Idealist

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

The Virginia Edition of the Novels of Ellen Glasgow, Twelve Volumes. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $140.00.

Even after deflating scoffers and critical historians have done their worst there have been Virginians who remain in numbers and in qualities conspicuous for their personalities and their achievements. When they had to express themselves, in speeches, state documents, or military records, they generally did so effectively. If in the first two hundred years of its history Virginia was without polite literature, that was a condition common to pioneer settlements. Exclusive of the works of Poe and certain documents by such men as Jefferson, Madison, and Marshall, no writings of Virginia origin prior to the War between the States achieved wide celebrity beyond the borders of the state.

When changed circumstances after the war produced conditions that stimulated many people of the old families to try to become writers, they were surrounded by an atmosphere of heated prejudices, full of inhibitions and sentimental pledges to the past. That was the world into which Ellen Glasgow was born and in the upper circles of which she grew up surrounded by the strictest of codes for feminine conduct. Young girls did not go to college and when they grew into young ladies they must be Southern ladies: and the Southern Lady, however much she has been denied, really did exist—even in Ellen Glasgow’s time. No matter how un-ladylike they might wish to be they were not expected to interest themselves in politics, and if one was determined to write about a state political convention at first hand then she must bribe a doorkeeper to smuggle her in, as Ellen Glasgow did at the opera house in Roanoke where one time the Democratic State Convention was making a governor.

Federal troops were still occupying Southern states when Ellen Glasgow was born and she was a child of three summers before the last of the conquered states were free from military control in local affairs. When her first novels were written, orators were everywhere vocal, weaving with words artificial wreaths to cover with florid eulogy the by-no-means buried past. Former service as a Confederate officer was a qualification for any office or task and superseded all other qualifications. Life was hard and poverty-bitten and the ante-bellum days were seen beautifully ennobled through a red flare of heroism. It was high tide for romance. Nowhere was the spirit of localism and romantic sentiment more patriotic than in Virginia, and Richmond was its capital city. At about this time, Maurice Thompson, gowned with the fame of “Alice of Old Vincennes,” was lecturing at universities against the admission into the United States of books by Hardy and Tolstoi, warning that they would corrupt the minds of just such young women as the one in the big gray house on Main Street. She herself refers, in one of her prefaces of the Virginia Edition, to “the break with tradition when in 1897 I published ‘The Descendant’ . . . one of two more or less successful failures.” It was written “in an impassioned revolt” from the “school of local color” and “current genteel tradition in letters,” “especially from the sentimental elegiac tone this tradition had assumed in Virginia.” “The Descendant” was a discordant note among the elegiac tones but was recognized immediately in Virginia for its daring. Miss Glasgow says of “The Voice of the People,” her earliest Virginia novel, that it was “the first work of genuine realism to appear in Southern fiction.” Realism had been attempted as early as 1824 by George Tucker in “The Valley of Shenandoah.” It was not successful fiction for all his science and realism, but it succeeded astonishingly in crowding within the covers of a two-volume novel detailed facts and pictures of almost every phase and class of Virginia. Did “The Descendant” seem less realistic to Americans in 1897 than “The Voice of the People” does today? It is as remarkable that she could write what she did when she did as it is that through the changing fashions and tastes since then she has been able both to withstand in her older books, to a decent degree at least, the weathering of time and to satisfy in her newer books the public taste of a world— the words are hers—in which the only permanent law in art is the law of change. Meanwhile she has kept to her own changing law of art with mildly malicious banter for the period of “genteel mediocrity with hair on the face” as well as that of “truculent mediocrity with down on the chest.”

Few writers in the history of English literature have developed such sustained growth as is shown in the published works of Ellen Glasgow from novel to novel. In the handsome Virginia Edition—the second uniform edition of her fiction—twelve of her novels represent the best work of her forty years of authorship. Each volume has its new preface, and the twelve prefaces, sparkling but urbane, form an autobiography of her authorship, giving her story of the writing of her fiction and the philosophy of life and art behind it. They are wise essays and pithy, written with the unerring command of the style and brilliance of thought that have always distinguished her work. When these essays are separately published as a book—and it would be to suppose a blind and tone-deaf publisher to doubt that they will be— they must rank among the most important critical writings of our time.

Ellen Glasgow is the most paradoxical of Virginians. In herself she blends strains that are representative of much that is historical and most that is characteristic of the “genteel tradition.” When others have fled the advance of commerce, she has lived on serenely in a stately ancestral house that simply puts out of countenance unsuitable neighboring houses. When others have cheapened their manners, their speech, and their style to fit ears accustomed to be flattered by such accommodations, she has preserved her dignity and her charm without becoming quaint. At a time when the Southern Lady is reverenced as a tradition or exploded as a myth, Ellen Glasgow, as a novelist no less than as a person, is an authentic example of her at her best—vivid, witty, sharp when necessary and, (lovely trait of womanhood!) on occasion, without necessity, tender. She tried for a time living in New York. It was not her place: she came back to the house on Main Street with the magnolias, the flowers, and the interior beauty that no modern professional decorator could have achieved. She belonged in Virginia, not only to it.

Yet when she began to write, it was in the spirit of protest and reaction against the atmosphere and the life around her. She did not dust off the colonial portraits nor unfurl the Confederate banner. Instead, after she had experimented once or twice with themes that came out of her reading and her thinking rather than from her observation of life, she set herself to write “a social history of Virginia from the beginning of the War between the States.” That is her phrase and it is typical of her to use it; she may be a paradoxical Southerner but she is one. Her spirit and her facts were in the main realistic and the South even in its poverty was not realistic. She spoke the language of irony and irony was not then one of the ways of Southern speech. Perhaps the paradox is explained by the words of James Branch* Cabell, who wrote of her, “I admire both the genius and the grande dame, as being strange rarities nowadays. When I find the two combined in one person, I applaud something rather like a miracle.” Neither genius nor the grande dame speak by rote. Ellen Glasgow, born and bred of the “Genteel Tradition,” dipped her pen into the vocabulary of strange sciences and wrote her “social history” with pitiless contempt for the softnesses and the vices of the tradition behind and about her. She does not know it, but it was her good fortune that she never went to college. She would not have found in the colleges of her youth such instructors as those she names in her prefaces: John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Malthus, Sir Henry Maine, Walter Bagehot. I think Thomas Hardy must have belonged in that list too. And most of all, she says, the profoundest influence in her youth was “The Origin of Species.” Here were hearty antidotes to that trinity of Southern tradition: Sir Walter Scott, W. H. McGuffey, and John Esten Cooke.

She began her social history with a series of novels that depict private and public life from 1850 to 1912. That series containing “The Battle-Ground,” “The Deliverance,” “Virginia,” “The Voice of the People,” “The Romance of a Plain Man,” and “Life and Gabriella” are vivid narratives, every one of them, written in the older tradition of the novel, with a love story importantly in the foreground, the characters painted in with strong colors, and the conversation elaborate and brilliantly “in character.” Sometimes the love is unhappy, sometimes it finds no fulfillment; grand ladies can be cruel and selfish or proud and arrogant, but also loving and heroic. A common pattern in these novels is for a woman of the aristocracy to marry a “man of the people”; sometimes the other way about.

These are novels that won fame for Ellen Glasgow, but she might say of them all as she does of three of them, that they “belong to another life.” The six novels upon which her fame will rest are those which are novels of character and manners rather than of “social history”—and perhaps “Virginia” might as well be included with this group as with the first. Very serious-minded people will always prefer “Barren Ground” of all Miss Glasgow’s books. With “Vein of Iron,” it exemplifies best the truth that another novelist has expressed in the sentence, “Virtue is as realistic as vice.” In these two novels she has, perhaps, realized her two most memorable characters, Dorinda Oakley and John Fincastle. “The Miller of Old Church,” the third of this group, has qualities that associate it with the earlier group.

In contrast to those three novels of the country, Miss Glasgow calls “The Sheltered Life,” “The Romantic Comedians,” and “They Stooped to Folly”: “novels of the city.” The city is, of course, Richmond and it is one of the tests of an artist that though the details of the city are realistically given, the life is “experience illumined by imagination”; the local picture never obscures the human value.

In all her novels Miss Glasgow has written brilliant, witty, and effective English. Her later ones have been distinguished for deft and satisfying technique. But especially the combined qualities of wit and wisdom in matter and lucid perfection of language, which have made her unique among her American contemporaries, have been heightened in the three novels of the city. In these she has written in the comic spirit more successfully than any other American; who shall forbid one’s saying than any other contemporary? “The impulse toward something better” makes for all her novels, even those that carry social satire, a principle that gives an integration to the universe. There is an idealism throughout her fiction that might be expressed by a phrase that she has quoted: “An honorable end is the one thing that cannot be taken from a man.” Her work has been done in the belief that beauty and wit are as realistic as ugliness and stupidity.


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