The Sheltered Life

by Ellen Glasgow

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638


Queenborough. Fictionalized version of Virginia’s capital city, Richmond, during the early twentieth century. In the years following the Civil War, Queenborough is sharply divided into three distinct geographical areas: Washington Avenue, Granite Boulevard, and Canal Street. Queenborough society is divided by these physical delineations as well. Granite Boulevard is the neighborhood where the most expensive and elegant homes are located. Only those families who are secure financially and socially live in this neighborhood.

Washington Street houses the older families, those who lack the financial means to move to Granite Boulevard or are determined to maintain the status quo. The Archbald family, headed by General David Archbald, and the Birdsong family, consisting only of the comparatively impoverished George and Eva, are the mainstays of the upper end of Washington Street.

On the opposite end of town lies Canal Street, where only the poor families and those on the fringes of society make their homes. Though Canal Street is physically only three blocks distant from Washington Street, socially it is much farther removed.

Penitentiary Bottom

Penitentiary Bottom. Section of Queenborough near the penitentiary, where the lower classes of society live. Penitentiary Bottom is located at the lower end of Canal Street on the opposite end of town from the Archbalds and the Birdsongs. Nine-year-old Jenny Blair Archbald, curious to see where a bad smell comes from, decides to go to this place to see for herself what it is like. The chemical factory that is the source of the odor is also located here, and it symbolizes change, progress, and the New South. When Jenny returns, she asks her grandfather, General Archbald, if only bad people live there. He assures her that there are good people everywhere, even in Penitentiary Bottom.

Archbald garden

Archbald garden. Property of the Archbald family on Washington Street. Jenny Blair sees her family garden as a place where time moves at the same steady pace it always has. The beauty and serenity of the walled garden are occasionally marred, however, by the odor from the chemical factory on the other side of town. Even within the walls of the family garden, the “stench” of progress is beginning to take over. The world outside the Archbald home and garden is a place of factories, steam whistles, bad smells, and modern “touring cars.” In direct opposition to the outside world, inside the Archbald property is a place of sounds from the stable, piano playing, and hushed voices discussing private family matters.

Birdsong garden

Birdsong garden. Property of George and Eva Birdsong on Washington Street. Unlike the Archbald property, the Birdsong home and garden seem to be succumbing to the ravages of passing time. The gardener, Uncle Abednego, fights a losing battle to keep the house and garden in good repair. But for Jenny Blair, the Birdsong property has taken on the beauty of Eva Birdsong, the embodiment of the Old South for Queenborough. The Birdsong property symbolizes the dying values and ideals of the Old South. No matter how much work is put into trying to return the property to its days of former glory, time and change are slowly taking their toll. Even the name of the resident bullfrog, Old Mortality, conveys a feeling of the passage of time and the passing away of the old way of life once lived on Washington Street and indeed in all of Queenborough.


Curlew. Country home of the Peyton family. This home is a place reminiscent of the kinds of balls and parties attended by the important Queenborough families in the years just before and after the Civil War. Even in 1906, the wealthy families gather at Curlew for a ball, symbolizing their attempt to reclaim the past. However, progress is unrelenting, and even the presence of Eva Birdsong is unable to restore the past to Queenborough.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 165

Inge, Thomas M., ed. Ellen Glasgow. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976. Excellent centennial essays on “Miss Ellen’s” work, including pithy critical comments by Louis Rubin, Jr., on The Sheltered Life.

McDowell, Frederick P. W. Ellen Glasgow and the Ironic Art of Fiction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960. Includes lucid analyses of The Sheltered Life in chapter 1, which provides fine background, and in chapter 11, which deals exclusively with this novel.

Raper, Julius Rowan. From the Sunken Garden. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Fine survey of Glasgow’s fiction between 1916 and 1945. Chapter 8 focuses on The Sheltered Life and places it in context with other Glasgow writings.

Scura, Dorothy M., ed. Ellen Glasgow. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. An immensely helpful and enlightening collection of contemporary reviews of Glasgow’s writings, including an entire section devoted to The Sheltered Life.

Thiebaux, Marcelle. Ellen Glasgow. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982. A lucid and informative survey of Glasgow’s novels. Includes an analysis of The Sheltered Life in chapter 7.

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