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Ellen Glasgow: They Stooped To Folly

The title comes from Oliver Goldsmith:

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy?
What art can wash her guilt away?

This could, of course, be said to be the theme of many of Glasgow’s novels. It certainly is of this one. Mr. Virginius Curle Littlepage is a successful lawyer. He lusts after a”fallen woman”, Amy Dalrymple. She was divorced for adultery, went abroad, remarried, was widowed, worked as an ambulance driver in the war and was decorated for heroism. She now lives a life of comfort but is rejected by the polite society to which Mr. Virginius Curle Littlepage belongs. He compares her to his Aunt Agatha, who became pregnant by her lover and was disgraced and is now a poor relation, and to his secretary, Milly Burden, who had a child that died but never told her lover. Milly, however, is not a fallen woman like Aunt Agatha but is determined to carry on her life. To his horror, Littlepage’s daughter, Mary Victoria, marries Martin Welding, the man who had seduced Milly Burden.

The first part of the book is called Mr. Littlepage and presented the man’s point of view. The second part is called Mrs. Littlepage and gives the woman’s point of view. Unbeknownst to Mr. Littlepage, Mrs. Littlepage also has her sexual fantasies and finds her husband as boring as he finds her. Indeed, she is closest to her unmarried female friend, Louisa who had understood her more absolutely than any man can understand the woman he loves. But Mrs. Littlepage, just like Milly Burden’s mother, Kesiah, is unable to get through to her daughter. Neither of them feels able to help her daughter with her problems.

The final section is called False Spring. While Littlepage is having a fling with Amy Dalrymple, his wife dies. His guilt makes him discontinue the relationship. His daughter, pregnant, is abandoned by her husband. At the end, Mary Victoria is awaiting her baby, Milly leaves to go off on her own and Littlepage and Louisa are left to fend for themselves. This is a sad tale but reflects the changing post-war mores that Glasgow is seeing. Aunt Agatha is left to rue her momentary fling, Amy Dalrymple is rejected by society but Milly and Mary Victoria must and will make the best of their life.

Publishing history

First published 1929 by Doubleday