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Ellen Glasgow: Barren Ground

This is Glasgow’s grittiest, toughest, hardest novel. It is not one I enjoyed but one I recognised for putting forth Glasgow’s point of view in as strong a manner as possible. She wrote it after her unhappy love affair with Henry Anderson, and Dorinda, in her rejection of love and her concentration on making a successful life, undoubtedly reflects this. Dorinda Oakley comes from a poor family in poor country – poor, starved, desolate. Her father came from a reasonably well-to-do family but worked hard, after the manner of his class, to lose everything that was left but Dorinda, like many Glasgow heroines, is, initially, romantic and she fixes her heart on Jason Greylock, a young doctor. They get engaged and Dorinda becomes pregnant. Unfortunately, it turns out that Jason had an affair with another girl and her family had forced him to marry her. She tries to kill Jason but fails and leaves for New York.

In New York, she has a miscarriage and, like other Glasgow heroines before her, says that she wants nothing more to do with love. After working for a physician for two years in New York, she returns home. It is not a pleasant homecoming. Jason has become an alcoholic like his father and neglects his work. His wife goes mad and kills herself. Her father dies. Her brother kills a man and her mother dies after giving false testimony for her son, broken by the ordeal. Dorinda, like a good Glasgow heroine, is determined to survive. She buys land and cattle and works hard to become rich. She marries a local store-owner, Nathan Pedlar, not for love but for business reasons. After nine years of loveless marriage, Nathan is killed in a train accident. Jason has appeared on and off and every time Dorinda has looked down at him with contempt. Now, when he is ill and weakened with alcoholism, she is asked to look after him. She reluctantly agrees and nurses him till he dies. Only now is she reinvigorated.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Doubleday