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Ellen Glasgow: Virginia

This is the book Glasgow wrote after the death of her beloved sister Cary and it is dedicated to her. Virginia Pendleton is an old-fashioned Virginia belle. To look at her was to think inevitably of Love. For that end, obedient to the powers of Life, the centuries had formed and coloured her, as they had formed and coloured the wild rose with its whorl of delicate petals. The book is about Virginia Pendleton but it is also about Glasgow’s home state. I could not separate Virginia from her background, because she was an integral part of it, and it shared her validity.

The first part of the book is called The Dream and is about the nineteen-year old Virginia, growing up as the daughter of a poor minister. Her best friend is Susan Treadwell, a complete contrast to Virginia for Susan is the independent-minded Glasgow heroine. Susan’s cousin, Oliver, a playwright, comes to town and Virginia and Oliver are attracted to one another. Virginia has a vision of what her life might be like – Was that a woman’s life, after all? Never to be able to go out and fight for what one wanted! Always to sit at home and wait, without moving a foot or lifting a hand toward happiness! But she brushes such doubts aside.

The second part of the book is called The Reality. Virginia is married and the married couple move to Matoaca City, a mining town where Oliver has found work. Reality sets in as she has four children in quick succession (one dies in infancy) and becomes a dowdy mother. The magic has gone from the marriage. Oliver has continued to write plays but his great play has proved to be a flop and he starts writing popular dramas. But he is moving further away from Virginia. As a wife Virginia was perfect; as a mental companion, she barely existed at all.

The final part of the book is called The Adjustment. Her parents die. Her husband, while a successful playwright and able to give his wife material comforts, is never at home and often with his mistress, the actress Margaret Oldcastle. The children have grown up and have no use for their boring mother. Virginia then finds out about her husband’s mistress. She goes to New York to confront her but realises her rival is a stronger person, so she grants her husband a divorce. She has nothing left.

Publishing history

First published 1913 by Doubleday