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Ellen Glasgow: The Sheltered Life

Jenny Blair Archbald lives in a household ruled by her grandfather, General Archbald, a man who remembers the Civil War and slavery. Their neighbours are George Birdsong and his beautiful wife, Eva. Eva has given up a musical career to marry George, a poor lawyer and now a philanderer. Outsiders think they have the perfect marriage but, as this is an Ellen Glasgow novel, we know that this is not the case. Jenny is in love with them both. The first section, appositely entitled The Age of Make-Believe ends at a ball when, after dancing with Eva, George goes off with a pretty young woman. Eva breaks down and George has to take her home but the episode invigorates Jenny Blair. The section ends with her crying I’m alive, alive, alive, and I’m Jenny Blair Archbald.

The second part, called The Deep Past, gives us General Archbald’s point of view. Eva is having an operation in hospital while Archbald is regretting his lost opportunities as he had to play a role, carry out what was expected of him. It is this conception of roles and expectations that makes him justify George’s infidelities. Life would be more agreeable if women could realise that man is not a monogamous animal.

The final section, The Illusion, starts with Jenny Blair, now eighteen and ready for her début. I don’t care about men. All I want to do is to live my own life, an echo of other Glasgow heroines. Eva has her operation but her beauty is ruined and she has a breakdown. When you’ve never been yourself for forty years, you’ve forgotten what you really are. She advises Jenny Blair not to give herself wholly to love. But Jenny is having an affair with George and they are discovered by Eva, who kills her husband. Jenny’s moral failure is shown by the last words of the novel. I didn’t mean anything, she tells her grandfather, I didn’t mean anything in the world. For Glasgow, independence and moral responsibility go hand in hand.

Publishing history

First published 1932 by Doubleday