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Ellen Glasgow: Life and Gabriella

After her first three books, which were set in New York, Glasgow had set most of her books in Virginia. Here she returns to New York where she was living when she wrote the novel. Gabriella Carr, the heroine of this novel, is in marked distinction to Virginia, the eponymous heroine of Glasgow’s previous novel. She is not beautiful like Virginia Pendleton but she is intelligent and capable of being independent. Gabriella lives with her widowed mother and her sister, Jane, who is separated from her husband and whose failed marriage is a warning against matrimony. Women rarely made successful marriages in Glasgow’s work because they were obliged – either by the husband or by the conventions to which they felt constrained to adhere – to subjugate themselves to their husband. This is the case with Gabriella and her husband, George Fowler. In one thing, however, they were passionately agreed and that was the aim and end of their marriage was to make George perfectly happy.

Like Virginia Pendleton, Gabriella has made a bad marriage. Fowler requires her to live with his parents in New York and soon reveals himself as a typical Glasgow man – a drunk, a womaniser and a poor provider. He leaves her – with a a daughter and son to bring up. Unlike Virginia, however, Gabriella does not give up. She divorces Fowler and gets a job in Maison Dinard as a milliner. She gets matrimonial offers but states she has had enough of marriage to last me a lifetime. She buys her way into Maison Dinard and is doing well when she meets Ben O’Hara. O’Hara is a simple, self-made man. This is the sort of man for her. The novel ends with her plighting her troth to O’Hara.

In this novel, Glasgow sets out to show how a woman can make it on her own and that men and marriage are unnecessary, indeed, in many case, a drawback. A key scene is when she is borrowing money off the old and ugly Judge Crowborough. She had been to him with a sound business proposition. He, however, expects some payment in kind. Was there ever a man too ugly, too repulsive, or too old to delude himself with the belief that he might still become the object of passion? She rejects him and demands that she be treated as a gentleman and the judge recognises that she is a gentleman. Women can and should be the equals of men, Glasgow is saying, an obvious statement now but fairly revolutionary in 1916.

Publishing history

First published 1916 by Doubleday