Writing fiction is like making pie crust; you need to know when you’ve done enough.
Ellen Glasgow hadn’t learned that lesson yet when she published her second bestseller, The Wheel of Life.
The Wheel of Lifeby Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow
Doubleday, Page & Co. 489 p. 1906 bestseller #10. Project Gutenberg eBook #14696. My grade: B+.
The novel contains several stories that regularly idle alongside one another, like city transit buses at interchanges.
One story is about Laura Wilde, rising poet and seemingly confirmed spinster.
A second is about magazine editor Roger Adams, married to a woman with whom he has little in common. Adams’ wife, Connie, has mental problems, is using cocaine, and having an affair with a married man
A third story is about Gerty Bridewell, Laura’s best friend, and Gerty’s philandering husband, Perry, who, oddly enough, admires Roger Adams enormously.
A fourth story is about Arnold Kemper, a divorced cousin of Perry Bridewell reputed to have had an affair with opera star Madame Alta.
There’s much to admire and enjoy in this novel. Glasgow does all the right things, except cut out what she doesn’t need—like the budding playwright in love with Laura and the old lady selling kittens to finance her husband’s funeral
On the whole, however, the best we can say is, “It shows promise.”
Picking the most enduring bestselling novels from 1916 presented a bit of a problem. Of the four that I found were best-written on worthwhile topics, I could remember only the barest information about three of them by the time I needed to pick my favorites.
The good novel I remember (I remember quite a bit about the novels I thought were awful) is The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster.
It, and two other good but forgettable novels, explore marriage in the twentieth century.
The Real Adventure
Webster focuses on a bright young woman whose suffragette mother and University of Chicago education didn’t prepare her to do anything except be a society hostess.
After Rose Stanton becomes Mrs. Rodney Aldrich, however, she wants to be more than social hostess and mother to Roddy’s children.
She wants to be worthy of the same level of mutual professional respect Roddy accords his male friends.
That means Rose needs to find something she can actually do.
Adinner guest’s remark that the chorus line was the only good-paying line of work open to good-looking, unskilled young women with moral principles sticks in her mind.
After her twins are born, Rose packs a suitcase and leaves home.
She gets a room a few physical blocks but hundreds of Chicago socio-economic miles away.
As she hoped, Rose gets a job in a chorus line.
She has no talent for dance, but she’s good-looking, works hard, and gets along with everybody.
When new costumes are needed quickly, Rose volunteers to design and sew what’s needed.
Rose has found her niche.
She still has to develop a professional career on a par with that of her lawyer husband.
Webster makes the differences of Rose’s and Roddy’s response to settling into marriage seem perfectly plausible.
And Webster doesn’t take sides.
He makes the making of the Aldrich marriage a real adventure.
Life and Gabriella
I suspect that Life and Gabriella: The Story of a Woman’s Courage is a better-written novel than Webster’s work, but Ellen Glasgow chose a more ordinary life for her heroine, one that had been used repeatedly in other novels.
Good, reliable Gabriella Carr sacrifices herself to take care of her irresponsible family and later her even more irresponsible husband.
I enjoyed Glasgow’s writing while I was reading it—her workmanship is delightful—but Gabriella herself made little impression.
She’s just one more self-sacrificing heroine in a long string of indistinguishable, self-sacrificing heroines in novels.
The Heart of Rachael
The Heart of Rachael is another kettle of fish entirely. Nobody would call Rachael Fairfax self-sacrificing or principled.
Rachael always chooses the path of least resistance.
She married a divorced man whom she did not love because that looked like an easy way out of spinsterhood.
Later she divorces him and marries another man when that looked easier than coping with an alcoholic husband and rebellious stepdaughter.
Kathleen Norris makes Rachael believable, but she can’t make her likeable: Rachael has too little core for readers to care about.
Norris focuses her attention on the topic of divorce. Even there her attention to detail is admirable, but not memorable.
Ellen Glasgow’s Vein of Iron and Edna Ferber’s Come and Get It would have tied for first place on my list of the best of the 1935 bestsellers, with Rachel Field’s Time Out of Mind as runner up, if they had not been up against Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.
(My review of The Forty Days is here. My discussion of its historical significance is here.)
All three women’s novels are first-rate, with believably complex characters and situations and real insights into the long-term cultural significance of those situations.
Glasgow shows us how ordinary working people were affected by the depression. Their lives were very hard, but Glasgow shows how they coped. She makes readers understand that merely coping can be an act of bravery.
Vein of Iron isn’t a cheerful novel, but it’s an optimistic one: If you can cope with today’s problems, you can cope with tomorrow’s.
Ferber’s characters are real people on a different scale. The boy who cried, “Come and get it” to lumbermen grows into a giant of a man who makes millions by outworking and outsmarting other late nineteenth century giants.
Ferber reveals not only how big American industrialists were, but how big an impact they had on the environment for decades to come because they focused on short-term profits.
Field’s story also looks at people in a time of economic transition.
In Time Out of Mind, the main characters are in the household of a New England shipbuilding family in the period when steam was replacing wind power for commercial vessels. Dysfunctional to begin with, the family unit falls apart as their business falls apart.
Field lacks Ferber’s and Glasgow’s skill with characterization and the story’s outcome is predictable, but her insight into into the far-reaching negative impacts that changes in technology and the economy can have on people’s lives is still relevant today.
You can’t go wrong with any of these three novels.
Ellen Glasgow’s sets The Deliverance, a tale of repressed sexual passion and hatred, in the tobacco fields of Reconstruction-era Virginia.
When the Confederacy lost the war, the Blakes lost their slaves and money. Former overseer Bill Fletcher bought their plantation for $7000.
The remnants of the Blake family were forced to move to what had been the overseer’s house where they keep the truth of their economic situation from blind old Mrs. Blake.
Young Christopher Blake hates Fletcher with a passion. When opportunity comes to get back at Fletcher by turning his grandson against him, Chris takes it.
Fletcher’s granddaughter, Maria, arouses Chris’s passions, too. Fortunately she marries and goes to Europe before his rage turns to rape.
Though Glasgow could have taken the story in any of several directions from there, she sticks to the promise of her subtitle and produces a romance.
The printed Southern dialect is annoying, but there’s not much of it past the first few chapters.
In the intensity of its characters’ loves and hatreds, The Deliverance reminds me of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In Glasgow’s novel, however, the main characters seem to outgrow their hatred rather than spending their passion. Even Glasgow’s minor characters mature in ways that are both surprising and realistic.
In The Sheltered Life, Ellen Glasgow tells a story about a girl who grows up in the early 1900s “without coming in touch with the world.”
When Jenny Blair Archbald scrapes her knees roller skating, Eva Birdsong’s laundress, Memoria, patches her up. George Birdsong, Eva’s handsome husband, swears he won’t tell Jenny’s mother she was in the colored section of town if she won’t say he was at Memoria’s house.
As she grows into her teens, Jenny has no interest in boys her own age. She adores Eva Birdsong while fantasizing about Eva’s husband.
Eva knows all about George’s weakness for women, but insists he loves her. He does care enough to try to protect her from being confronted by evidence of her affairs.
Weakened by the emotional stress of keeping up appearances, Eva is despondent after “female surgery.” George takes her away to recuperate.
Jenny is young and pretty, but she’s not innocent, only naive. Her sheltered life has kept her from knowing the destructiveness of selfishness.
When the Birdsongs return, Jenny throws herself in George’s way. The results are disastrous.
In the final chapter, Jenny sees her motives stripped bare, while her family clings to the deception that she’s young and innocent.
The Sheltered Life
Doubleday, Doran, 1932
1932 Bestseller #5
My Grade: B+