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Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow, 1873-1945
Virginia
Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1913.

Summary

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Ellen Glasgow was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1873 to Francis Thomas Glasgow and Anne Jane Gholson Glasgow. Her parents claimed two distinct regional heritages within Virginia society, which contributed significantly to Ellen's exploration of regional differences in her literary work. Francis Glasgow, descended from the hardy Scotch-Irish who settled the Shenandoah Valley, was raised in Rockbridge County and graduated from Washington and Lee College. He eventually rose to managing director at Richmond's renowned Tredegar Iron Works, the largest supplier of ordnance and munitions during the Civil War. He worked there tirelessly until his retirement in 1912 at the age of eighty-two. Ellen's mother, Anne Glasgow, descended from the Tidewater landed gentry and signified to Ellen the more gracious and cultivated side of her ancestry. Throughout her life, Ellen associated herself with her mother and manifested a strong resentment for her father. Francis Glasgow's severe Calvinist manner, domineering household presence, and adulterous tendencies led Ellen to accuse him of lacking all compassion. Anne Glasgow, who had survived ten childbirths and a war, fell prone to depression and nervous exhaustion. Anne died in 1893, leaving the twenty-year-old Ellen devastated and further at odds with her father.

Even before her mother's death, Ellen Glasgow followed an atypical path for someone of her class in Richmond society. Because of her difficulty adjusting to the social experience of school, she was not formally educated. Yet she immersed herself in books at home as a means of nurturing her intellect while avoiding the agony of social pressures. By age seventeen she had refused her debut into Richmond society, and instead completed her first full-length novel, which was later published under the title The Descendants in 1897. Though Ellen would eventually find intellectual companionship, including friendships with writers such as James Branch Cabell, H. L. Mencken, and Allen Tate, her happiness was mitigated by her struggle with deafness and the early deaths of her mother, sister, and brother-in-law, as well as the 1905 death of a lover she referred to as "Gerald B." Glasgow never married, though she was engaged and romantically involved with different men throughout her life. She was a prolific writer, publishing twenty-four novels during her lifetime. For In This Our Life (1941) she received the 1942 Pulitzer Prize. Ellen Glasgow wrote up until her death on November 21, 1945 in Richmond at the age of seventy-two.

Designating Virginia society as the subject for most of her writing, Ellen Glasgow eschewed the ranks of fellow writers who sentimentalized the South or were guarded in their depictions of its problems. Instead, she chose to write a social history of Virginia through her novels that directly engaged contemporary issues of race, class, and gender. Her first three novels of the twentieth century, Voice of the People (1900), The Battle-Ground (1902), and The Deliverance (1904), together create a history of Virginia beginning with the Civil War and continuing up to the turn of the century.

Critics generally acknowledge that Glasgow's eleventh novel, Virginia (1913), is one of her most autobiographical works. The novel also demonstrates a shift in her literary interests from sweeping historical fiction to the more personal history of its main female character and the region she represents. Set in the small town of Dinwiddie, Virginia, during the years of 1884 to 1912, the novel revolves around Virginia Pendleton, whose traditional Victorian upbringing ultimately prevents her from embracing the changes beckoning a postwar South. Focused on becoming a wife and mother, Virginia fails to see beyond her own mother's wearied example that "the slaving of mothers was part of the natural order" (49). Indeed, Virginia's marriage to Oliver Treadwell ultimately wearies the both of them. Oliver, a budding playwright whose work leads him away from Dinwiddie to New York City, quickly tires of their domestic life. Virginia, burdened with childrearing, struggles in vain to hold onto the marriage as the romance of their courtship fades. By midlife Virginia finds herself abandoned and without children or husband to give her purpose.

Tragically, Virginia has devoted her strength to maintaining traditions that are slow to erode in the state that shares her name (vii). She is a vestige of antebellum Virginia, caught in a time of changing gender roles and increasing intellectual opportunities for women, to which she does not know how to adapt. Her early education in social and intellectual passivity at Miss Pricilla Batte's Academy for Young Ladies as well as her firm grounding in Episcopalian principles prevents her from understanding or successfully navigating this transition. Both satirizing and sympathizing with Virginia's plight throughout the novel, Glasgow suggests that much of Virginia's suffering is beyond her control.

See also the entry for Ellen Glasgow from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Francisco, Edward, Robert Vaughn and Linda Francisco, eds., The South in Perspective: An Anthology of Southern Literature, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall,2001; Goodman, Susan, Ellen Glasgow: A Biography, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998; Glasgow, Ellen, Virginia, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company,1929; James, Edward T., ed., et al, Ellen Glasgow, Notable American Women, 1607-1950, vol 3, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard, 1971; Martine, James J., Ellen Glasgow, Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Novelists, 1910-1945, vol 9, Detroit: Gale Research, 1981; Wagner (Wagner-Martin), Linda W., Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention, Austin: University of Texas, 1982.

Armistead Lemon

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