23 January 2012

Ellen Glasgow: The Sheltered Life (1932)

In Pioneers & Caretakers: A study of 9 American Women Novelists (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1965]), Louis Auchincloss sees Ellen Glasgow as 'the necessary bridge between the world of Thomas Nelson Page and the world of William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams.' The Sheltered Life is generally considered to be one of – if not the – best of Glasgow's novels.

This is the final novel of Glasgow's Queenborough Trilogy, following The Romantic Comedians (1929) and They Stooped to Folly (1929), and Queenborough is a model for the city of Richmond in Virginia where Glasgow spent most of her life.

The novel begins in the early years of the 20th century and (after a gap of eight years) ends shortly after the beginning of World War I, when the South was still very slowly adjusting to the changes after the Civil War (1861–65) and Reconstruction (1865–77). Washington Street only houses two remaining stalwart Old South families, the Birdsongs (of whom Eva and her husband George are of central importance) and the Archbalds (of whom Jenny Blair (aged nine and 17–18) and her grandfather the General (aged 84 at the end) are of central importance).

Eva represents the Southern belle (or the older Southern lady) who strives to maintain her dignity while her husband strives to conceal his philandering activities, although both fail miserably.

The pervasive stench from the chemical works is a constant reminder of the hegemony of the industrial New South to this redoubt of the aristocratic agrarian Old South, whose principal defensive strategy is maintaining appearances. For Eva, 'Keeping up an appearance is more than a habit [...]. It is a second nature.' However, it's obvious that things around them are falling apart, and the image of the mother of Jenny's friend Bena as 'a Confederate flag in the rain' is very appropriate. Eva can't keep up the pretence, and breaks down: 'I'm worn out with being somebody else – with being somebody's ideal'. And then when she leaves hospital and finds George in the arms of the 18-year-old Jenny Blair she shoots him dead, but appearances have to be kept up: he shot himself, didn't he?

Ellen Glasgow's The Sheltered Life is a powerful attack on the cult of domesticity, the ideal of womanhood, the exclusion of women from public life, the mental suicide that Old Southern patriarchal society imposed on women. In some respects, I'm not so sure that's it's a wholly historical story: surely certain ingrained attitudes remain today?

The house where Glasgow lived in Richmond is still there, although it is now a business concern. Shots I took of the exterior in 2009 are here.

In addition, there's an thesis online by Emma Domínguez i Rué entitled 'Ellen Through the Looking-Glass: Female Invalidism as Metaphor in the Fiction of Ellen Glasgow', which is split into three sections, and the links are here: Section One, Section Two, and Section Three.


e.f. bartlam said...

Mental suicide? That's pretty strong Dr.

My Grandmother was raised during this period by people who lost the war and lost out because of it. She was much more like the women in When Sherman Marched North from the Sea than a mental suicide. In fact most of the women I grew up around were like that.

Still, I like what you do here. It's always interesting.

Dr Tony Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Tony Shaw said...

(This is without the typo.) Thanks a lot for this, e.f. I know I'm sometimes given to exaggeration, but I don't think I am exaggerating in this case, at least not judging by the wreck that is Eva Birdsong, who could well be an imaginative representation of Glasgow if she had married. But Glasgow of course never married, and I don't think the social difficulties of her deafness can be given as a credible reason, as she wasn't short of admirers, and had had an on-off affair with Henry Anderson for many years but decided, I believe, that she didn't want to be swallowed up by a dominant (and philandering) male. She'd already tried physical suicide over the guy, it appears, so she wasn't going in for the mental side.

Obviously, though, by no means all Southern males were patriarchal scumbags then!

e.f. bartlam said...

I see. I took it more as a commemnt on Southern domestic culture than Glasgow's circumstances. My maternal grandmother fits more into that catagorey...but, she had clinical mental issues. True, her state was made worse by my Grandaddy's behavior but, he was able carry on like he did not because it was acceptable but, because very little was expected of his "class"...for lack of a better word.

We've just dealt with (I say dealt with...more like had a laugh over or ignored) yet another attempt to make scratch of the Americans' obssesion with how they imagine we lived and live our lives.

It was The Help this year..there'll be copycats. In fact, I know there are a few in the works. It never ends because it's very reassuring to a certain group of Americans.

I'm happy to read what you're doing here and I thank you for writing it.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thank you for this, which has suddenly reminded me that I should have posted links to an online thesis on Ellen Glasgow's fiction and invalidism, which I have now done. I think only Glasgow fans will persevere, but there's a lot of interesting stuff in it.