In Pioneers & Caretakers: A study of 9 American Women Novelists (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, ), 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.