Friday, March 16, 2012

Virginia Women Writers at Home #3

Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945)

Ellen Glasgow, like Johnston, was sickly and also had a reputation for resisting conformist strictures. Her father was an industrialist in the new south. She lived in Richmond and spent summers at plantations in the area. Her works followed romanticism to realism writing styles, Virginia plantation life to urban life, and pretty feminism to active feminism.

Only seven years separated the re-publication of the Burwell memoir and Glasgow’s The Battle-Ground (1902). Their descriptions of antebellum period are similar; however, Glasgow’s views on the outcome of the Civil War are in sharp contrast with Burwell’s views. The Battle-Ground was part of a trilogy that Glasgow hoped “might become in time a complete social history of Virginia since the Civil War [and] would embrace the whole varied structure of Virginia society.”[i] Glasgow’s novel drew on the recollections of living family members and friends. While these recollections of the period before the War could have come from Burwell,[ii] Glasgow also observes the ironies of this time. Glasgow describes the mistress of one the plantations as one who was made “worn and fragile” by her household duties and ministrations in quarters and from which she “never rested from her labor.” The master, her husband, “pondered“ while watching his wife’s care for a dying slave, that he “should hardly known her [the slave] had he met her last week in the corn-field; and it was by chance only that he knew her now when she came to die.”[iii]

While the women managed the plantation household, the men in their silk vests extolled the State: “If you want polish, come to Virginia, if you want chivalry come to Virginia.... The blood of the Mother of Presidents is here.” [iv] Glasgow explored the meaning of a Virginia gentleman before, during, and after the War. In the hardships and fighting, her Virginia gentleman found companionship among other classes that created a leveling of class distinctions. At the end of the novel, the transitional character, Dan Montjoy, returns to his burned plantation home to find the love of his life, Betty, has adapted to the new realities. She was managing from the former overseer’s house two farms and was the moral support of an old southern gentleman, his wife, and the freed slaves.

In what scholars consider Glasgow’s more mature novels, her female characters become increasingly independent in thought and action. In The Barren-Ground (1925), in which critics say Glasgow reached her artistic maturity, she explores the early 20th century changes that are affecting Virginia and the south. Many consider the 1932 The Sheltered Life Glasgow’s best novel, though In This Our Life (1941), with its depiction of southern racial discrimination earned her the Pulitzer Prize.[v] Glasgow died in Richmond in 1945 and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery.

[i] Ellen Glasgow. The Battle-Ground. Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. Garden City, NY 1939. Preface.
[ii] The character of Burwell in the novel reads as though could have been modeled on Burwell’s father.
[iii] Battle-Ground 23, 211.
[iv] Battle-Ground. 55.

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