By birth and tradition Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow (GLAS-goh) was as deeply involved as John Esten Cooke or Thomas Nelson Page in the historical situation and society of her region. From the beginning, however, her path cut straight across the elegiac romanticism of the plantation school of fiction, a literature that came into being partly to redeem the pride of a defeated people. As an apprentice novelist, Ellen Glasgow was forced to look elsewhere for the lessons of experience.
Ellen Glasgow grew up in a society that had emerged from the Civil War with its principles, if not its property, almost intact. Her mother came from an aristocratic family of the Tidewater; her father, descended from Scots-Irish pioneers who had settled west of the Blue Ridge, was the manager of an ironworks that had manufactured cannon for the Confederacy. Deemed too delicate for formal education, Glasgow found her real teachers—writers and thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Voltaire, Plato, Charles Darwin, and Adam Smith—in the books in her father’s library; no university in the South could have provided a more liberal education at the time. Although the University of Virginia did not admit women, she read for, and passed, the honors examination in political economy. These studies prepared her for lifelong revolt against a code of evasive idealism whose only meaning lay in a backward look toward glory. Although Southern writers of an earlier generation spoke eloquently for the tradition uprooted at Appomattox, their sentiments were too cloying for a young woman who had read literary masterpieces as well as the great scientists and philosophers.
More personally, as she told in her posthumous autobiography, The Woman Within, domestic tensions and the experience of a love doomed to unfulfillment helped to shape a philosophy of life that was essentially tragic, and gave her deeper insight into the gap between appearance and reality. With skepticism as her natural habit, Glasgow wrote with indulgent irony on the final disenchantment of a society caught in the entanglement of its social and moral codes. Few writers have revealed more candidly the influences contributing to their development of a point of view and a literary method. Henry Fielding gave her the model of his comic epic in prose. Leo Tolstoy showed that a writer may remain provincial and yet deal with the universal. Jane Austen provided a depth of critical penetration and an illuminating irony that sets everything in its proper place within a small, conservative society. The novels of Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola demonstrated a method for tracing patterns of change through whole social groups.
By the time she was eighteen...
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