Something funny happened to me when I was reading Ellen Glasgow’s Virginia. First of all, I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I don’t read summaries of books before I start them, so I try to go in with as little knowledge of the book as possible. So all I knew about this book was the publication year – 1913 – and the fact that the author, Ellen Glasgow, is herself from Virginia.
But I went into the book assuming that, like most novels written by women and published prior to WWI, the main character (a girl named Virginia living in Virginia in the decades following the Civil War) was A Girl That Was Different. You know what I mean – a Elizabeth Bennett or Jane Eyre or Jo March or Anne Shirley. A woman who bucks the conventions of her time, whatever they are, who is full of spirit, reads books, and has Different Ideas About Men and how they might feature in her life.
After a while, I realized that this is not what I was going to get with Virginia. Virginia Pendleton is exactly a woman of her time – molded and raised in Dinwiddie, Virginia to be the perfect wife and mother, lovely and devoted without a consequential thought to anything outside her domestic world. Unlike her more independent friend Susan, Virginia herself never had any ideas about going to college. She barely read any books at all during her education, in fact, and much emphasis is put on how little she knows and understand about the world. Oh dear, I thought. Is this a social parody? Am I going to survive this book?
Because, let’s face it. Even a book from 1913 that focuses on A Girl That Was Different is going to still be out of step with our own expectations and social conventions. Jane Eyre may not seem a particularly a feminist hero to a contemporary young reader – certainly she didn’t to me, reading for the first time! You have to consider them in the context of their time. But here I am, reading an almost-four-hundred-page-novel about a woman who is nothing special even for her time, but exactly what her era wanted her to be. Yikes!
But here’s what was funny – once I decided to grit my teeth and finish this book (after all, despite Virginia’s naivete being occasionally infuriating, it was a very well written novel), I found that I stopped thinking of Virginia as a social parody or a writing experiment and started to truly care of her, in spite of myself.
And, what do you know, it turns out that Ellen Glasgow did the same thing! I read the introduction and some background of the book after I finished it, and learned the Glasgow started out writing Virginia satirically but, by the end, was fully engaged in Virginia’s life and world, and was writing her story in earnest. And that makes a lot of sense to me, especially when I think how much closer Virginia’s life and experiences would have been to Glasgow’s own than even to mine, which are several generations removed.
Glasgow’s painstaking effort gives a voice to a type of woman that didn’t get written about a lot in a sympathetic light often (after all, most of the time, the writers themselves were exceptional if they had the grit and determination to get themselves published in those early years, so they were unlikely to put themselves in the shoes of a woman like Virginia with a great deal of care and thoughtfulness). And that care made me feel a kinship with her that I was completely disarmed by.
Up til now, my descriptions of this book have been such that you would assume I am unrestrictedly recommending it. However, it would be disingenuous of me to not mention the painful fact that racism is present throughout this novel, not just as an element of the characters’ worldviews, but embedded in Glasgow’s narrative too. The black characters are shockingly caricatured in a way that would (should) make modern audiences deeply uncomfortable.
Having said that (and it really can’t be denied in any manner), I do have to give Glasgow some credit: there is a subplot in the novel where Glasgow calls out a character’s callousness in his denial of the son he fathered with the black household servant (a son who is later in trouble with the law, that this white man could probably save by claiming him as his son).
Most white writers of her era, particularly women writers, would not have been brave enough to have included such an indictment of this behavior (even though these actions would have been endemic of well-off white men in Virginia at the time), considering it such an “indelicate” topic for writers to include. In fact, I’m a bit surprised her editors didn’t insist on taking it out…
So, you have some major pluses and some major minuses for this book. I’d be interested enough to explore more novels of Glasgow’s (I believe this is considered her best-written, although her others were better-selling books, such as Barren Ground). And I’m going to stay on my southern writers kick – I’ve already started Carson McCuller’s Clocks Without Hands, which is the only novel of hers I have left to finish.