Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ellen Glasgow’s Vein of Iron is a novel of many messages, the principal one of which is encapsulated in a brief dialogue on its last page. The protagonist, Ada, and her husband, Ralph, in middle age have returned to Ironside, their native village in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Misunderstandings, failures, poverty, sicknesses, deception, and deaths lie behind them. Ralph gently chides Ada for being a dreamer but adds that it is queer that a dreamer nevertheless should be a rock upon which to lean. Understanding in her heart that Ralph is confessing his softness and his dependence upon her, Ada exclaims, “And you . . . Oh, Ralph we have been happy together!” Less open and communicative than Ada, Ralph at last replies, “Yes, we’ve had a poor life, but we’ve been happy together.” Through fortitude, Ada had kept her heart and femininity alive to appreciate the gifts of life. Love had made everything worthwhile for her even if Ralph, the recipient of it, was weaker than she. Not least, Ada understands that happiness is a blessing, not a right.

Casting herself as the third-person narrator, Glasgow divided Vein of Iron into five parts of unequal length. Part 3, for example, “Life’s Interlude,” is composed of two brief chapters, while part 5, “The Dying Age,” the novel’s lengthiest section, has eighteen chapters. The story unfolds chronologically, opening in part 1, “Towards Life,” when Ada is ten, a portion of the novel that provides the cultural setting and introduces Ada, John Fincastle and his wife, Mary Evelyn, Grandmother, Ralph McBride, and Janet Rowan and her family. Subsequent parts advance the characters toward middle age.

Some of the novel’s reviewers and critics have focused on John Fincastle, the admirable, almost mystical philosopher who is portrayed as an anachronism in an age enamored of science and devoted to riches, as the central figure. The book’s major events do transpire within his ken and are shaped in important ways by his intellectual and moral integrity. Glasgow provided no clues,...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Glasgow was a self-defined feminist who informed readers of Good Housekeeping in 1914 that feminism represented a “revolt from pretense of being” and “a struggle for the liberation of personality.” Half a century after her death, a number of prominent feminists continued to regard her as an illustrious predecessor.

From personal experience, Glasgow distilled her beliefs that feminism expressed women’s desire to be themselves and to have their achievements measured without reference to their sex. To her, the evolution of this total perception of women was more important than gaining economic opportunities and political recognition.

Ellen Glasgow’s personal conduct throughout her life, although she was unmarried, childless, and alone, remained conventional. Unlike other noted feminists, she did not abandon family, religion, home, or husband to live with men to whom she was not married and thereby defy the male-dominated world around her. She did distinguish herself by early rebellion against her father and his religion. Because she revealed in her memoirs, The Woman Within, published posthumously in 1954, that she never really felt “liberated,” however, scholars and critics have sought a fuller understanding of her feminism, of her unsettled emotions, illusions, and dreams in her novels.

In these, her protagonists invariably are strong women. Besides John Fincastle and one or two other exceptions, Glasgow’s representative males, regardless of the advantages vouchsafed to them by customs, are weak or flawed creatures who, like Ralph McBride, must be sustained by their Adas. Profoundly influenced by Darwinism, Glasgow made it clear that women, not men, were best fitted for survival. After having been sexually harassed by a publisher while she was still young, moreover, Glasgow’s reactions to male sexual aggressiveness, to sex, and to the offspring that frequently resulted from such behavior, was a disdainful one, and her fantasies tended to be lived out by her heroines. Otherwise outwardly a model of grace and charm in society as well as a self-assured, self-supporting, tough, and efficient businesswoman, she set lofty standards for the women novelists who were to follow her.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Glasgow, Ellen. The Woman Within. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954. The author’s review of herself. A warm straightforward, introspective, and informative account that must be read by those who are seriously interested in Glasgow’s work. Includes an appendix that traces Glasgow’s family history and a useful index.

Goodman, Susan. Ellen Glasgow: A Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Supersedes the only previous biography, both in terms of providing new and more reliable information on Glasgow’s life and conveying sensitive intepretations of her fiction. Includes notes and bibliography.

Holman, C. Hugh. Three Modes of Southern Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1966. An excellent treatment of Glasgow in company with William Faulkner (whom Glasgow detested) and Thomas Wolfe in the various contexts of Southern writing. Contains a bibliography and a useful index.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Ellen Glasgow: Centennial Essays. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976. Offers ten essays about Glasgow and her work. Six of these were read at the Centennial Symposium honoring Glasgow at Mary Baldwin College and the Richmond Public Library in Virginia in 1973.

McDowell, Frederick P. W. Ellen Glasgow and the Ironic Art of Fiction....

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