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Ellen Glasgow


Ellen Glasgow is one of those Southern women writers (Caroline Gordon and Ellen Douglas are other obvious examples) who has not had the recognition she deserves, in part because she is Southern. The interest in women’s writing in the 60s and 70s, both in the USA and Britain, briefly gave her some exposure but now her books seem to be disappearing again. Of course, her subject matter and style are not exactly Jacqueline Susann. She set out with the very firm intent of writing the social history of Virginia and, with her Calvinist background, her writing is not strong on humour (though irony and satire are two of her main weapons). However, it is strong on showing the ambiguous situation of Southern women of her class. For Glasgow the writer and, undoubtedly, for Glasgow the woman, the change from the genteel lady of tradition to a contemporary woman, who was independent and able to stand up for herself was a key theme and one she wrestled with in both her life and in her writing. Her main characters are all women – women striving to make their ordinary everyday lives worthwhile. The men in her books, however, tend to be shallow and worthless. She is concerned with the struggle of women in a man’s world.

Glasgow was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1873. Her father had been head of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, the main supplier of munitions for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The shadow of the Civil War hung over the Glasgow household as it did over Richmond. Glasgow’s image of her father was as a man of iron. When she was fifteen, the family moved to 1 West Main Street, Richmond, which was to be her home for most of the rest of her life. She started writing in her teens and had her first story published in 1895. In the meantime, double tragedy struck. Her mother died and her brother-in-law, Walter McCormack, whom she considered a mentor, killed himself. She had made a few trips to New York – she had tried, unsuccessfully, to have an agent represent her for her first novel Sharp Realities but after he had made advances to her, she left and tore up the novel. Her first published novel was The Descendants (dedicated to McCormack) about a young painter in New York, Rachel Gavin. The book was published anonymously (Harper’s, the publishers, had originally thought it was written by a man). The writer, Hamlin Garland, gave it a favourable review. Her next two novels were also set in New York.

Her next novel started off the Virginia series. Novels about the Civil War were plentiful but The Battle-Ground, though not the best, is still a fine novel about the changes in the South as a result of the War. According to Glasgow’s autobiography, she was at this time having an affair with a married man, known only as Gerald B. They travelled together and continued their relationship for seven years. She called him one of the great loves of her life. It is not known who he was. According to her autobiography, he died in 1905 though that might just have meant that the relationship ended. In 1907, she became engaged to the Reverend Frank Paradise, whom she had met in New York and who was the minister at the marriage of Rebe, Glasgow’s younger sister. However, she broke the engagement off (she later said she could not marry a man who wrote such bad poetry). In 1909 she suffered further tragedy when her brother Frank killed himself and then, in 1911, her sister Cary died of cancer.

In 1911 she moved to New York and only returned to Virginia after the death of her father in 1916. That year she got engaged to Henry Anderson, a lawyer. However, the relationship did not work out well, not least because Anderson was apparently having an affair with the Queen of Rumania. She tried suicide but, fortunately, did not succeed. The relationship with Anderson became purely platonic and they remained friends but no more. She now started to have considerable literary success, starting with the publication of Virginia in 1913 but, particularly, during the 1920s. She received various awards (election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Pulitzer Prize). She had had health problems most of her life and in 1939 had her first heart attack. Her fourth heart attack, in 1945, finally killed her. Her posthumous autobiography The Woman Within surprised those who knew her. They had always supposed that this witty, elegant and sociable woman had been essentially happy. However, her autobiography showed that her life had been miserable – a long tragedy she called it.

Books about Ellen Glasgow

Louis Auchincloss: Ellen Glasgow
Susan Goodman: Ellen Glasgow: A Biography (the standard biography)
Blair Rouse: Ellen Glasgow

Other links

Ellen Glasgow
Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow, 1873-1945
Catalyst of Change: Ellen Glasgow
Representative American Story Tellers: Ellen Glasgow


1897 The Descendant
1898 Phases of an Inferior Planet
1900 The Voice of the People
1902 The Battle-Ground
1902 The Freeman and Other Poems
1904 The Deliverance
1906 The Wheel of Life
1908 The Ancient Law
1909 The Romance of a Plain Man
1911 The Miller of Old Church
1913 Virginia
1916 Life and Gabriella
1919 The Builders
1922 One Man In This Time
1923 The Shadowy Third and Other Stories
1925 Barren Ground
1926 The Romantic Comedians
1929 They Stooped To Folly
1932 The Sheltered Life
1935 Vein Of Iron
1938 The Virginia Edition of The Works of Ellen Glasgow
1941 In This Our Life
1943 A Certain Measure: An Interpretation of Prose Fiction
1954 The Woman Within (autobiography)
1958 Letters of Ellen Glasgow
1963 The Collected Short Stories of Ellen Glasgow
1966 Beyond Defeat: An Epilogue to an Era
1988 Ellen Glasgow’s Reasonable Doubts: A Collection of her Writings