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atmosphere of a Southern home. Miss Glasgow
comes to New York "for the change," and also to
get the life of New York which has alternated with
the life of Virginia in her later books.

Virginia, as her most popular book and the cause
of a considerable controversy on its appearance in
1913, must receive some attention in this sketch. It
is the first book of a trilogy provided Miss Glasgow
writes the third! Life and Gabriella was the second
book of the uncompleted trilogy. Let us see what
Miss Glasgow has had to say about these books. We
assume that the reader knows her to have been an
ardent suffragist and advocate of economic independ-
ence for her sex.

"Success for a woman" (Miss Glasgow is speaking)
"must be about the same as for a man. Success for
a woman means a harmonious adjustment to life.
Material success is not success if it does not also
bring happiness.

"The great thing in life is the development of
character to a point where one may mold his destiny.



ELLEN GLASGOW 31

One must use the circumstances of life rather than
be used by them. The greatest success for a woman
is to be the captain of her own soul.

"Women have always been in revolt." (This in
answer to a question as to whether Life and Gabriella
was intended to express the modern revolt of wom-
en.) "It is only now that the revolt is strong enough to
break through the crust. No matter what her condi-
tion or class, woman does not now have to marry for
support, because she is ashamed to be unmarried, or
because she is hounded to it by her relatives. She
dare remain single.

"I believe that marriage should be made more dif-
ficult and divorce easier. I also believe that divorce
laws should be made more uniform. Laws made for
traffic and commercial ends may need to be changed
when a certain arbitrary boundary is passed, but laws
made for human nature should be everywhere the
same, for the man who lives in California and the
one in Maine are just men.

"The mistake women, wives, have always made is
that they have concentrated too intensely on emotion.
They have made emotion the only thing in the world.
Husband and wife must be mentally companionable
if their happiness is to last through the years.

"I find one of the most fascinating dramas in all
the facets of life to be the great epic of changing con-
ditions and the adjustment of individuals to the new
order. Naturally the battle is always sharpest and
most dramatic in those places where the older system
has been most firmly intrenched. And that is why
the coming of the new order in the South has been



32 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

attended by so many dramatic stories. When I began
Virginia I had in mind three books dealing with the
adjustment of human lives to changing conditions.

"In Virginia I wanted to do the biography of a
woman, representative of the old system of chivalry
and showing her relation to that system and the
changing order. Virginia's education, like that of
every well-bred Southern woman of her day, was de-
signed to paralyze her reasoning faculties and to elim-
inate all danger of mental unsettling. Virginia was
the passive and helpless victim of the ideal of feminine
self-sacrifice. The circumstances of her life first
molded and then dominated her.

"Gabriella was the product of the same school, but
instead of being used by circumstances, she used them
to create her own destiny. The two books are exact
converses. Where Virginia is passive, Gabriella is
active.

"Virginia desired happiness, but did not expect it,
much less fight for it, and consequently in a system
where self-sacrifice was the ideal of womanhood she
became submerged by circumstances just as have been
so many other women of her type. Gabriella, on the
other hand, desired happiness and insisted on hap-
piness. Gabriella had the courage of action and
through molding circumstances wrested from life her
happiness and success."

"And the third book?" The reader must not think
from the condensed and coalesced extracts of what
Miss Glasgow has said about her work that she talks
readily. She does not. You have, sometimes, rather
to drag it out of her that is, what you want concern-



ELLEN GLASGOW 33

ing her own work. On literature generally she talks
with freedom, wisdom and point.

"The third book may never be written," Miss Glas-
gow answered. "If it should be, it will deal with a
woman who faces her world with the weapons of in-
direct influence or subtlety."

Gabriella's philosophy was summed up in her
words: "I want to be happy. I have a right to be
happy, and it depends on myself. No life is so hard
that y6u can't make it easier by the way you take
it." In the face of disaster which would have broken
the hearts of many women, she won her success, her
happiness, from the cruelties of life.

"I believe," Miss Glasgow once said, "that a per-
son gets out of life just what he puts into it or
rather he puts in more than he gets out, I suppose;
for he is always working for something unattainable;
always groping vaguely with his spirit to find the
hidden things. Gabriella, as you may remember, was
'obliged to believe in something or die.' '

We have heard Miss Glasgow tell how she lives
with a character. She is, or was, living with the
character which will become the central figure in the
third novel of her probable trilogy. "The time is
not ripe to write," she said, when last speaking about
this possible book. "As soon as I begin to speak of
the character it all leaves me. For some years I wrote
one book every two years. Three years elapsed be-
tween Virginia and Life and Gabriella. I have no
idea when the next will be finished. I cannot under-
stand how any one can finish and publish two books
a year regularly. It seems that one ought to give



34 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

more of one's self to a book than that. For my
own part, I should like to write each novel and keep
it ten years before I publish it. But my friends tell
me, 'Of course, that is impossible. You change so
much in ten years all would be different. You
would be obliged to write it all over again.' I sup-
pose that is true."

Very true. But the dissatisfaction with the ten-
year-old novel would be the dissatisfaction of the
conscientious artist, Ellen Glasgow. It would not be
the dissatisfaction of the novel reader. At least, re-
reading The Deliverance these fourteen years after
its first publication, your admiration for Miss Glas-
gow's finished art, her sense of drama, her penetration
of the human heart, her portraitive skill, her fine sense
of the retributive conscience implanted in the human
breast all these blended perceptions and satisfactions
are as lively as they were when the book first came
out. Really the only difference is that now you look
confidently for them and are, though no less rejoiced
and grateful, not in the least surprised at the finding.

Miss Glasgow's peculiar brilliance has never re-
ceived a more honest or better tribute than in what
Gene Stratton-Porter had to say after reading
Virginia. It is worth quoting in full:

"The writings of Miss Ellen Glasgow have always
possessed a unique and special charm for me that has
carried me from one book to another for the pleas-
ure derived from reading, with no special effort on
my part to learn just why I enjoyed them. Last
summer a man quoted in my presence a line of Miss
Glasgow's, something like this: 'Not being able to



ELLEN GLASGOW 35

give her the finer gift of the spirit, he loaded her
with jewels/

"My dictionary defines an epigram, 'A bright or
witty thought tersely and sharply expressed, often
ending satirically/ A saying like this almost reaches
that level. At any rate, it stuck in my mind, and
when a friend recently sent me a copy of Miss Glas-
gow's latest book, I began reading it with the thought
in mind , that I would watch and see if she could
say other things of like quality. My patience! She
rolls them unendingly. Before I had read twenty
pages I realized just where lay the charm that had
always held me. It was not in plot, nor in char-
acter drawing, not in construction; it was in the
woman expressing her own individuality with her pen.
What a gift of expression she has! I know of no
other woman and very few men who can equal her
on this one point.

"Chesterton does the same thing, with a champagne
sparkle and bubble, but I would hesitate to say that
even he surpasses her, for while he is bubbling and
sparkling on the surface, charming, alluring, holding
one, she is down among the fibers of the heart, her
bright brain and keen wit cutting right and left with
the precision of a skilled surgeon. Not so witty, but
fully as wise.

"You have only to read Virginia to convince your-
self.

" 'Having married, they immediately proceeded, as
if by mutual consent, to make the worst of it.'

" 'Having lived through the brief illumination of



36 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

romance, she had come at last into that steady glow
which encompasses the commonplace/

" To demand that a pretty woman should possess
the mental responsibility of a human being would
have seemed an affront to his inherited ideas of gal-
lantry/

" 'If the texture of his soul was not finely wrought,
the proportions of it were heroic/

" 'From the day of his marriage he had never been
able to deny her anything she had set her heart upon
not even the privilege of working herself to death for
his sake when the opportunity offered/

" 'You know how Abby is about men/ 'Yes, I
know, and it's just the way men are about Abby/

" 'How on earth could she go out sewing by the
day if she didn't have her religious convictions?'

" 'Anybody who has mixed with beggars oughtn't
to turn up his nose at a respectable bank/ 'But he
says that it's because the bank is so respectable that
he doesn't think he could stand it/

" 'She was as respectable as the early '8os and the
21,000 inhabitants of Dinwiddie permitted a woman
to be/

"These lines are offered as a taste of her quality,
and they roll from her pen in every paragraph/'

In accordance with the general method of this
book we have thought it best to put Ellen Glasgow,
certainly a genius, certainly one of the greatest living
American novelists, perhaps one of the greatest since
there has been an American literature we have
thought it best to put her, we say, before the reader
chiefly in her own words and in her aspect to others,



ELLEN GLASGOW 37

just as she would herself let a character in one of
her books reveal himself by his speeches and his ac-
tions and stand before you as the other characters
sized him up. She would not tell you what sort of
man he was and require you to swallow her account
of him; she would set him before you, talking and
going about; she would give you the impression he
made on those about him, and let you judge him for
yourself the only right way. We have only one
thing rtiore which we want to point out at the close,
Miss Glasgow's insight into the mind and conscience
of her people. It is best illustrated, and we give the
close of a chapter in The Deliverance after all, is not
this wonderful story the finest of Miss Glasgow's
novels, we wonder? Christopher Blake, the illiterate
heir of a great name, the cherisher of an undying hate,
has succeeded in ruining or hastening the ruin of Will
Fletcher, grandson of the man who stole the Blake
plantation. It is Blake's revenge. He can reach old
Fletcher through the boy and he has done it. He, a
Blake, living in a wretched shack, while the erstwhile
negro overseer dwells at Blake Hall !

"Before him were his knotted and blistered hands,
his long limbs outstretched in their coarse clothes, but
in the vision beyond the little spring he walked proudly
with his rightful heritage upon him a Blake by force
of blood and circumstance. The world lay before
him bright, alluring, a thing of enchanting promise,
and it was as if he looked for the first time upon
the possibilities contained in this life upon the earth.
For an instant the glow lasted the beauty dwelt upon
the vision, and he beheld, clear and radiant, the hap-



38 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

piness which might have been his own ; then it grew
dark again, and he faced the brutal truth in all its
nakedness : he knew himself for what he was a man
debased by ignorance and passion to the level of the
beasts. He had sold his birthright for a requital,
which had sickened him even in the moment of ful-
fillment.

'To do him justice, now that the time had come for
an acknowledgment, he felt no temptation to evade
the judgment of his own mind, nor to cheat himself
with the belief that the boy was marked for ruin
before he saw him that Will had worked out, in
vicious weakness, his own end. It was not the weak-
ness, after all, that he had played upon it was rather
the excitable passion and the whimpering fears of
the hereditary drunkard. He remembered now the
long days that he had given to his revenge, the nights
when he had tossed sleepless while he planned a widen-
ing of the breach with Fletcher. That, at least, was
his work, and his alone the bitter hatred, more cruel
than death, with which the two now stood apart and
snarled. It was a human life that he had taken in
his hand he saw that now in his first moment of
awakening a life that he had destroyed as deliberately
as if he had struck it dead before him. Day by
day, step by step, silent, unswerving, devilish, he had
kept about his purpose, and now at the last he had
only to sit still and watch his triumph.

"With a sob, he bowed his head in his clasped
hands, and so shut out the light."

Powerful? Yes, the passage shows an unlimited
mastery of the novelist's real material, the human



ELLEN GLASGOW 39

soul. The Deliverance is a story of revenge with
few equals and, that we can recall, no superiors; but
it goes far beyond that, because it shows also the re-
tributive and regenerative forces at work in Christo-
pher Blake and their final effect upon him. The hour
in which he surrenders himself to justice as Fletcher's
murderer, while the dead man's grandchild flees, is
the outward and visible sign of an inward and spirit-
ual reformation, a reformation to come but to be pre-
ceded by an atonement. Wonderful among heroines
is Maria Fletcher; wonderful, infinitely pathetic,
matchlessly moving, is the blind grandmother sitting
stiff and straight in her Elizabethan chair, directing
the hundreds of slaves who are slaves no longer, dis-
coursing upon the duties of the children who inherit
a splendid name, recalling with tenderness and spirit
and racial pride the great people of her youth, giving
orders that are never executed, eating her bit of chicken
and sipping her port, blind blind successfully de-
ceived, successfully kept alive and contented and in a
sort of way happy these twenty years since the slave
Phyllis " 'got some ridiculous idea about freedom in
her head, and ran away with the Yankee soldiers
before we whipped them/ '

A magnificent portrait, by an artist of whom Ameri-
ca can never be anything but proud.

BOOKS BY ELLEN GLASGOW

The Descendant, 1897.

Phases of an Inferior Planet, 1898.

The Voice of the People, 1900.



40 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

The Freeman and Other Poems, 1902.

The Battleground, 1902.

The Deliverance, 1904.

The Wheel of Life, 1906.

The Ancient Law, 1908.

The Romance of a Plain Man, 1909.

The Miller of Old Church, 1911.

Virginia, 1913.

Life and Gabriella, 1916.

Miss Glasgow's first two books were brought out
by Harper & Brothers, New York; all the rest are
published by Doubleday, Page & Company, New
York.



CHAPTER IV

GERTRUDE ATHERTON

GERTRUDE ATHERTON has been the sub-
ject of more controversy than any other living
'. American novelist. It is one of the best evi-
dences of her importance. England, we are told,
regards her as the greatest living novelist of America.
Many Americans so rate her. Abroad, the opinion
of her work approaches something like unanimity and
it is very high. At home unanimity is nowhere.
Prophets are not the only ones who occasionally suf-
fer a lack of honor in their own countries.

A good deal of it comes out of Mrs. Atherton's
long-standing and vigorous assault on the literary
schools of William Dean Howells and Henry James.
Pick up her novel Patience Sparhawk and Her Times,
written over twenty years ago, and you will find a
trace of that feeling in her delineation of Patience's
schoolteacher, who read these literary gods. But Mrs.
Atherton seldom speaks her mind by indirection; all
who cared have known her opinions as fast as she
reached them. She has no use for commonplace
people in life or fiction; and by commonplace people
we mean not everyday people, but people .about whom
there is no distinction of thought or sensibility, who
have no sharpness, no individuality however simple,
no gift however slight. Henry James Forman says

41



42 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

that Mrs. Atherton is the novelist of genius, but this
is one of those brilliantly epigrammatic characteriza-
tions which convey the truth by bold exaggeration.
She has not always written of geniuses, but always
she has written of men and women who had backbone,
courage, distinct and recognizable selves, ambition,
wit, daring, not merely flash but fire. She really writes
about herself in dozens of reincarnations. Nothing
daunts her that is alive vulgarity, wickedness, weak-
ness and bold sin she can understand and portray as
accurately as the shining virtues. The only thing she
cannot endure is the dead-alive. Mr. Forman was
in essentials right when he said of her in the New
York Evening Post of June 15, 1918:

"Genius has a particular fascination for her, and
with a rare boldness she would rather face difficulties
of creating or re-creating genius in her fiction than to
waste time on mediocre protagonists. With the newer
school of English and American novelists, with the
Frank Swinnertons, the J. D. Beresfords, or the Mary
Wattses, she has nothing in common, unless it be
their patience. But she will not expend that patience
on the drab or the colorless.

"An Alexander Hamilton or a Rezanov seems to
be made to her hand, and if she cannot find what she
wants in history or in fact, she prefers to dream of
a woman genius, the young German countess, Gisela
Niebuhr, a Brunnhilde who leads her sisters to re-
volt against Prussianism and all that makes Germany
hideous to the world to-day.

"To understand genius, it has been said, is to ap-
proach it, and Mrs. Atherton beyond any doubt under-



GERTRUDE ATHERTON 43

stands genius. She understands its trials, temptations,
vagaries and accomplishments. She knows that the
fires which feed it are certain to break out in many
ways aside from its recognized work. Did Mrs.
Atherton take the trouble to acknowledge the exist-
ence of Mrs. Grundy, it would be only that she might
destroy that unpopular lady.

" 'Brains' is Mrs. Atherton's favorite word. Any
printer who sets up a novel of hers must add a spe-
cial stock to his font of the six letters that spell it.
Neither in her life nor in her work has she any pa-
tience with dullness. She could no more have writ-
ten Polly anna than she could have written the Book of
Job. The blithe, all-conquering brain is her field of re-
search."

Mrs. Atherton, he tells us, neither talks nor writes
"like a book." She is "always buoyant and stimulat-
ing. Brains occupy as much space in her talk as in
her books. She is never dull." And turning to The
Conqueror, he develops his idea:

"There were, we know, a few persons who resisted
Alexander Hamilton. But important though they
were, they were as dust under Mrs. Atherton's feet.
Hamilton led a charmed life. Hurricanes had spared
him and the storms of war, of party, of faction left
him safe. He was a genius, and cosmic forces en-
folded him as in a protective shell. Surely no char-
acter was ever more certainly created to the hand of
a novelist than was Hamilton for Mrs. Atherton. Not
a merit or fault of his, but Mrs. Atherton could
caress it with a mother's hand. How she hates Clin-
ton because he fought her idol, and how much she



44 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

despises Jefferson! But Washington even the most
austere of the virtues of Washington pass with Mrs.
Atherton, because he loved Hamilton as a father loves
a son. . . .

"Critics have sometimes charged Mrs. Atherton with
the grave misdemeanor of writing like herself, not
like somebody else; of not being Mrs. Wharton, of
not being Henry James or Robert Louis Stevenson.
The charge is just. She is not any of those persons,
nor in the least like them. She does not write for a
handful of other writers, nor does she waste much
time in polishing sentences. She writes for the pub-
lic. . . . You cannot read five pages of her fiction
without feeling certain that their author has lived life,
not merely dreamed it."

This is the most illuminating comment on Mrs.
Atherton that has so far seen the light of day, and
we shall not attempt more than to supply a footnote
or two. Mr. Forman says that Mrs. Atherton writes
for the public and not for writers. True, but is it
the public which reads Gene Stratton-Porter or Polly-
anna ? Decidedly not. Her public a very large one
consists of those who do not ask or desire that fiction
shall interpret them to themselves or shape their lives
for them, consciously or otherwise. It is made up
of the thousands who are capable of some degree of
purely aesthetic enjoyment in literature. For the pure
aesthetes Mrs. Wharton et al. For the unsesthetic
and ethical the two Mrs. Porters. For the great host
who appreciate literary art and story-telling skill but
who won't sacrifice everything for them, who demand
a real narrative, color, action, suspense and seek no



GERTRUDE ATHERTON 45

moral end in the tale to justify the tale's existence
for them Mrs. Atherton. And they these people of
her vast audience are the great middle ground. They
represent in their attitude toward fiction the healthiest
note of all.

The "literary" or highbrow attitude toward Mrs.
Atherton is perfectly conveyed in an article upon her
by Mr. H. W. Boynton, also published in the New
York Evening Post but over two years earlier, on
February 26, 1916. We extract a few illustrative
sentences :

"I may say frankly that I write of Mrs. Atherton
not out of a special admiration for her work," begins
Mr. Boynton, in a highly self-revelatory manner, "but
because for any surveyor of modern American fic-
tion she is so evidently a figure in some measure 'to
be reckoned with/ . . . Her publicity may be said to
have been extraordinary in proportion to her achieve-
ment. . . . The person who is examining her work
as literature can find nothing to the purpose here
(Mrs. Balfame)."

How comfortable to feel like that ! Mrs. Atherton,
with an amused smile, would probably say, at the in-
timation that there was no "literature" in Mrs. Bal-
fame, and perhaps other of her books : "But life is
so much more than literature!" When Mr. Boynton
charges her with leaving life out of her books Mrs.
Atherton will be seriously exercised.

Gertrude Atherton is a great grandniece of Ben-
jamin Franklin. She was born in 1859 in San Fran-
cisco, the daughter of Thomas L. Horn. She was
educated at St. Mary's Hall, Benicia, California, and



46 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

at Sayre Institute, Lexington, Kentucky. At an early
age she was married to George H. Bowen Atherton,
a Calif ornian who declined to travel and who died
when he finally was lured to Chile as a guest on a
warship. Mrs. Atherton describes her marriage as
"one of the most important incidents of my school
life."

She had always wanted to go round about the
world and when she wasn't able to do so she amused
herself by writing complete travel books, taking her
characters through all parts of Europe. She knew
enough geography to make her stories truthful.

"And I believe," Mrs. Atherton told Alma Luise
Olsen in an interview appearing in Books and the
Book World of The Sun, New York, on March 31,
1918, "that I apply some of those same ideas to my
writing of fiction to-day. Most lives are humdrum
and commonplace, on the surface at least. So I take
characters that haven't had half a chance in real life
and re-create their destinies for them and well, my
books are the result. I got the idea from Taine when
I was very young."

This interview also threw interesting light on Mrs.
Atherton's novel, The Avalanche, announced for pub-


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Online LibraryGrant Martin OvertonThe women who make our novels. → online text (page 3 of 23)