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Ellen Glasgow’s Novels

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

The Old Dominion Edition of the Works of Ellen Glasgow. The Voice of the People, The Battle-Ground, The Deliverance, The Miller of Old Church, Virginia, Barren Ground, The Romantic Comedians, They Stooped to Polly. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50 a volume.

Under the chaperonage once of an old friend of his, I was listening to Sinclair Lewis chatting about American writers when in a banteringly argumentative way he declared that there was no American novelist who had written a good book after his second successful novel. I knew that he was just baiting me for the fun of the thing but I denied the statement—for the fun of the thing—with a vigor that sent him into shouts of merriment and the challenge: “Name two and I’ll surrender.” I named Cabell. As I had expected, he granted me Cabell, with the comment that “he didn’t count because he was an exception to all rules.” He accepted Willa Cather too, with a boyish ardour of admiration. Then I ventured the reckless generality that every one of Ellen Glasgow’s novels was better than the one that came before it. I think he rallied me a bit for choosing three novelists born in Virginia, but in our general agreement and enthusiasm for her later novels we forgot the original wager in a ripplingly shifting argument as to whether “They Stooped to Folly,” which had just been published, is better than “The Romantic Comedians,” which had preceded it.

Now that Ellen Glasgow has crowned her own career with “The Sheltered Life,” a novel too good to win the Pulitzer prize, and her publishers have printed eight of the best of her other novels in the uniform “Old Dominion Edition,” it is easier to see, in re-reading consecutively her representative work, the development of one of the most significant novelists that America has had. I should modify a little the sweeping statement with which I sought to provoke Mr. Lewis to argument. Each of Ellen Glasgow’s novels shows growth since the one before it; but I do not think that “The Deliverance” is as successful a novel as “The Battle-Ground” or “The Voice of the People,” which were earlier; and “Virginia” was her best novel until “Barren Ground” was published. To my judgment, too, “The Romantic Comedians” represents most nearly the perfection of her art. “The Sheltered Life” is richer in variety and range, perhaps it has more depth of meaning. But “The Romantic Comedians” is perfect of its kind and (if we omit Meredith, whose novels are too sparkling and vividly individual to be without flaw) it is, of its kind, as far as I know, the only English novel of which that can be said. It is to the novel somewhat what “The Way of the World” is to the drama; but while Congreve wrote with a brilliance that Ellen Glasgow cannot equal, the flash of his wit lacks the contrasting background of wisdom in her novel. A compassionate sense of the tragedy of life gives an ironic flavor to her comedy of manners which makes its wit more biting, without turning bitter the kindliness of her tolerance.

In one of the prefaces which add an interest to the new edition of her novels, Miss Glasgow expresses the wish that she had waited until she was thirty before she published a novel. With a sense of the exquisite power of the later novels, one can understand the artistic sensitiveness that would give her that feeling; but for the America, not to speak of the Virginia, of their decade the four earlier novels can stand on their merits without concession for the early age of their author. They form a group, “The Voice of the People,” “The Battle-Ground,” “The Deliverance,” and “The Miller of Old Church,” that succeeds in the author’s purpose, as no one else could then have succeeded, in giving a social history of Virginia since the Civil War. That so young a woman should have seen the irony of the situation of the South torn between its loyalty to an old tradition and its hunger for the recuperative sustenance that was promised by industrialism, is in itself amazing, but it seems even more so to the critic who feels that in her younger books she herself showed a belief in some of the nostrums that the materialistic “progressives” had to offer. She sought an honest realism, and within the books that many people read for the brightness of their romantic coloring there was a wholesome ironic core; but that was an anachronistic idealism rather than a critical realism which made her view the effects of slavery and aristocracy in the old South in a spirit more akin to that of an abolitionist than of a philosophical historian. She was tolerant even in her salad days and as an analyst of a social tradition she was always keen but never sharp. She was as witty and almost as wise in those earlier writings as in her later ones, only the wit crackled more and shone less, and the wisdom was more “knowing” and less comprehending. She got her effects, and the interest with which the stories can be re-read after all these years without seeming at all literary museum pieces proves that she was a competent craftsman from the beginning. Yet her frame-work was somewhat set and formal, and her love of animals and desire to make certain characters sympathetic betrayed her into sentimental lapses which she must have been totally unconscious of; such as young girls saving a yellow dog from the ravaging pack at the risk of life, or taking rabbits out of traps and feeding them before setting them free.

She came of age as a novelist with the publication of “Virginia.” Except for a minor detail or two, such as Oliver Treadwell’s giving all his money to a starving student in Germany because he is of more worth to the world, she is, to quote her own Uncle Ish, “no mo’ un inspector er pussons den de Lord is”; she gives to each the fate that his character as formed by his acceptances and his choices has made for him. “Virginia” and “Barren Ground” stand together as two of the most honest realistic studies of American life so far written. “Barren Ground” is the most ambitious novel that Ellen Glasgow has written and she says that it is the one which she would select for “the double-edged blessing of immortality.” The very theme, the triumph of “the spirit of fortitude over the sense of futility,” forces critical comparison upon another plane from that of, let us say, “The Romantic Comedians,” which of its kind is matchless. One feels something of the effort that has made “Barren Ground” the powerful book that it is and one remembers other novels of the soil that are greater, but one understands why the story of Judge Honeywell flowed “into words with an effortless joy.” She is not, to quote her own words, said of one of her characters, “maintaining throughout the struggle her manner of unconquerable irony”; she is letting her own creative mind play wittily upon the lives of people of the sort that she knows best and the novel grows like a day or a plant, to the very last line when “all the tender little leaves of April were whispering together.”

Her three “comedies of manners” alone, “The Romantic Comedians,” “They Stooped to Folly,” and “The Sheltered Life,” place Ellen Glasgow among the three most important living American novelists. That, of course, is a dogmatic thing to say, but my dogmatism may prove as good as the next man’s, and dogmatism offers one way of being emphatic. In these later books her technique has grown in artistry without having become self-conscious. Her style is less crisp and consciously clever and more flowing and rippling as though it threw up the sparkling wit and poetry and humor like spray from the force and depth of its own movement. She has the sophistication born of sympathetic experience and her wisdom has become an enveloping philosophy of life in which tolerance and understanding are blent, rather than flashes of insight into separate problems and individual characters. She is as clear-eyed now in viewing “this mass production of mediocrity” called “progress” or in satirizing “a popular young man without charm but as loud and bright and brisk as the New South,” as she was, and is, in puncturing the “belief that a pretty sham has a more intimate relation to morality than has an ugly truth.” The background of these novels of contemporary life is still the past, the Virginia in which the memory of a Saint Me-min portrait could give a weak wife a feeling of superiority to her wealthy husband, and where a girl like Cynthia Blake “would have crucified her happiness with her own loyal hands rather than have dishonored by so much as an unspoken hope the high excellencies inscribed upon the tombstones of those mouldered dead.” And for what she thinks the false idealisms left over from days that are dead, she does not “sweeten disapproval with tenderness”; but her themes are more elemental, of the eternal tragi-comedy of man and woman rather than of the spirit of commercial materialism that was born “from the ashes of a vanquished idealism.”

From the beginning Ellen Glasgow realized, as Hardy did, that life must have its roots in time and place. She has written the social and spiritual history of Virginia from the period of the Civil War to the present and in this respect her work has an essential unity. She sets her scenes with her own ancestral furniture. Microphylla roses, syringa, and crape myrtles grow in her old gardens and pink oleanders stand in green tubs. Her heroines of the past wear a gardenia or a Jacqueminot rose in their hair. Paulownias and magnolias grow in the streets, deer-berries and black gum in the woods, and broom sedge in the fields. Her people speak in Virginia accents and pay homage to Virginia loyalties. So the stage must be set for all human comedy or tragedy. In the truth with which she has shown the elemental in man in the setting that she knows, she has achieved the universal. When she has forgotten to tell us how wrong slavery was, how the Civil War has given the poor white man his chance, how Victorian women were what men made them and the men the victims of their own creations, and remembered the eternal themes, by so much has she been the more universal in her appeal.

In the range in which she excels as a novelist, Miss Glasgow has a quality that is fine and will prove enduring. Her work is always sincere and understanding. She has beauty of expression and a store of poetic imagery from accurate observation. Her constructive skill is manifested by the sustained effects and cumulative interest of all her stories. Her insight into character is deep and her intellect is penetrating and wholesomely sophisticated. Her novels are not remarkable for range or variety of robust characterization nor for a spectacular power of creating memorable scenes. Her best scenes are quiet ones, marked by a subtle intensity. She writes in a spirit of friendly urbanity and gives to her pages a charm that is best suggested by the word, fragrance. Above all, her wit is forever fresh—with an epigrammatic tang that makes everything she writes delightful.


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