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Ellen Glasgow: The Battle-Ground

Glasgow’s father had been head of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond during the Civil War, so the War was very much factor in the Glasgow household. This was Glasgow’s first novel set in Virginia (her first three were set in New York) and inaugurates her Virginia social study. The novel is the story of two aristocratic Virginian families – the Amblers and Lightfoots. Peyton Ambler is a former governor and slaveowner. However, he is ill at ease with the idea of slavery. He has two daughters, Virginia and Betty, the heroine of the book, a typical independent-minded Glasgow heroine. Major Lightfoot is a military man through and through. Their daughter eloped some years ago with Jack Montjoy. The son of that marriage, Dan, is now an orphan and comes to the Lightfoot home where he is welcomed. Inevitably, Dan and Betty fall in love. The opening part of the book shows their idyllic relationship and antebellum Virginia where the slaves are all happy and everything is wonderful – the great myth of the Old South.

However, things start going wrong. Dan argues with the Major and leaves and, of course, the Civil War comes. We follow Dan’s adventures through the War, from the beginning when it is all a game to the reality of bloodshed and death. The women suffer too. Virginia has a miscarriage and dies, while Betty has to perform all the heavy chores. Dan returns home – the house has been burnt to the ground – in ill health but Betty is waiting to take care of him. But Glasgow’s message is not one of gloom but shows that after the War, the South (or, at least, the white South) will survive though it will have to change. This is still an immature work and there have been better Civil War novels but it is still fascinating as it inaugurates her Virginia series and already starts to show some of the characters we will see in her more mature works.

Publishing history

First published 1902 by Doubleday