Ellen Glasgow was born in Richmond, Virginia, on April 22, 1873, to Anne Jane Glasgow and Francis Thomas Glasgow, manager of Tredegar Iron Works. Ellen was the eighth of ten children. During her childhood, she was particularly sensitive to the nervousness and depression from which her gentle, aristocratic mother suffered, undoubtedly the result of Anne Glasgow’s almost incessant childbearing. This experience was to motivate Ellen’s later work for women’s rights and was clearly reflected in her fiction.
Ironically, in temperament, Glasgow was more like her father than her mother. Even though she rejected her Calvinistic faith, she retained a strong ethical sense, which is evident throughout her works. Furthermore, her own fierce independence of thought and rebelliousness of spirit were the very qualities which had motivated her Presbyterian ancestors in their defiance of monarchs.
In lieu of formal instruction, Glasgow was educated by relatives and, perhaps even more important, was allowed to choose books at will from her father’s extensive library. When she was still a child, she began to write. Although later she accused her family of lacking sympathy for her ambitions, Glasgow was probably exaggerating their unkindness. Always delicate, always aware of her mother’s unhappiness, Glasgow seemed destined to develop a sense of alienation. Even while she was flirting and dancing at the innumerable balls to which a young lady of a good Richmond family would be invited, she was becoming more and more convinced that her real interests were creative and intellectual.
Guided by George Walter McCormack, the husband of her sister Cary Glasgow McCormack, Ellen read the works of philosophers, economists, playwrights, and novelists. She also continued to write. When she was eighteen, she took a novel that she had written to a New York agent, but when he made advances to her, she was so angry that she destroyed the manuscript. When Glasgow was twenty, she was so shattered by her mother’s sudden death from typhoid fever that she destroyed the manuscript of another novel. Fortunately, after two years had passed, she reconsidered and reconstructed the work. This novel, her first full-length work to be published, The Descendant, appeared anonymously in 1897.
With its illegitimate, politically radical hero and its independent, art-student heroine, both southerners in New York, The Descendant was a marked departure from the sentimental, nostalgic novels which had come to be expected from southern writers. The book was well received and sold well. It was followed in 1898 by Phases of an...
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Whether in serious works or comic, satirical novels, Glasgow’s primary goal is to show life as it is. Like the southern realists who followed her, Glasgow invents plots full of missed chances and chance decisions that lead to alienation and tragedy. Her characters often destroy themselves by deluding themselves; by the time they attain self-knowledge, it is often too late to salvage their lives. Furthermore, Glasgow presents the societies in which her characters live as repressive and hypocritical, particularly in their treatment of women, whom they pretend to revere but actually enslave.
Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow’s father was a strict Scotch Presbyterian; her mother was a member of an established Tidewater family. Glasgow was too nervous to attend school, so she was educated at home. In late adolescence, her attention was directed to the work of writers such as Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche, and she read extensively in philosophy, political economy, and literature. She began to go deaf at the age of sixteen, and throughout her life she felt handicapped in social situations. In 1918, after a quarrel with her fiancé, Glasgow attempted suicide. She was engaged twice, but she never married. Although she always regarded Richmond, Virginia, as her home, Glasgow traveled widely. She received honorary...
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Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1873, Ellen Glasgow came from a combination of stern Scotch-Irish pioneers on her father’s side and Tidewater, Virginia, aristocratic stock on her mother’s side. Francis Glasgow was an ironworks executive, an occupation well suited to his Puritan temperament and character. Ellen Glasgow had little positive to say about her father. Her mother was a cultivated, gracious, and humane woman. These divergent influences provided the crucible from which Glasgow’s writings were to emerge.
The next to the youngest in a family of four sons and six daughters, Glasgow experienced a more or less lonely childhood, with Rebe, her younger sister, and Mammy Lizzie Jones, her black nurse, providing her only companionship. Because of fragile health and a nervous temperament that precluded adjustment to formal schooling, her isolation was increased, and most of her education came from her father’s extensive library. As a child, Glasgow admired the novels of Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, and Jane Austen. From Dickens, she gained reinforcement for her already strong aversion to cruelty, and from the latter two, she learned that only honest writing can endure. “Lesser” novelists, she felt, lacked “the creative passion and the courage to offend, which is the essential note of great fiction.”
Glasgow grew up in that period following the American Civil War when, as she described it, the “prosperous and pleasure-loving” agrarians of the antebellum years were struggling for existence amid “the dark furies of...
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