I wish I could remember where I heard of this book. I suspect that I saw a blog post or article somewhere about its author, Ellen Glasgow, and decided to try this book because of its subtitle, “A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields.” I grew up in the Virginia tobacco fields, and I can’t recall any books written about them. The tobacco fields figure prominently in this 1904 novel, set just after the Civil War. It’s a time of great change in Virginia, as the old economic system, built on slavery, has been dismantled.
The novel focuses on the change of fortune experienced by the Blake family who owned Blake Manor for 200 years, but lost it to their former overseer, Bill Fletcher. The rumor is that Fletcher had been cheating the family for years, amassing the money that enabled him to buy the estate when the Blakes fell on hard times. In a complete reversal, the Blakes live in the former Fletcher home, where Christopher Blake plots revenge against the Fletchers.
Revenge plots are tough for me to take sometimes. It’s too common for them to be all about the satisfaction of seeing bad people get what they deserve, even through nefarious means. A good revenge plot needs to show some awareness of the evil behind the impulse to take revenge. It’s clear almost from the start the Christopher doesn’t have the mettle for revenge. In a comic sequence of events, he even ends up saving the lives of both Fletcher children. He can’t help himself when he sees someone in distress. But these failures don’t set him off his course. He still wants to see Bill Fletcher suffer, and so he looks for his weak point, his son, Will.
Bill Fletcher wants his son to grow up to be a great, educated man, to rise above his class and usher the Fletchers into a new status. But Will is bored with schoolwork and easily drawn by Christopher into secret hunting trips and to his first taste of alcohol. Those early adventures ruin him for the kind of life his father has in mind, and Christopher is always there to help him escape. Christopher acts without consideration for Will’s best interest, wanting only to see his father suffer from the rejection, and so Will continues to spiral downward.
Meanwhile, others in Christopher’s family are trying to avoid their own downward spiral. In one ridiculous plot thread, the family manages to keep their aging and blind mother both literally and figuratively in the dark about the abolition of slavery and their move out of the manor. This deception goes on for more than 15 years! It’s so audacious that I have to respect it even though I can scarcely believe it. The family also longs to see the youngest daughter, Lila, advantageously married. The eldest daughter, Cynthia, has thrown herself into doing the housework so that Lila can remain the pristine southern lady she would have been a generation before. Lila, however, has her own ideas about how things should be.
One of the things I appreciated about this book is how accepting many of the characters are about change and how the best, most admirable characters aren’t bogged down by nostalgia. The novel is not exactly condemnatory about the South’s past as a world built on slavery, but it doesn’t come across as a story that wishes for that past to return. The characters who thrive are those who see their circumstances clearly and are able to forge a new path for themselves, maybe even crossing boundaries that the old system would have kept in place.
The novel concerns itself primarily with the white people of the region, and Glasgow allows readers to get some small sense of the layers of social classes among whites of the time, often using dialect to indicate class. But her depiction of the black characters, mostly people formerly enslaved by the Blake family, is of its time, which is to say it’s not great. They exist mostly on the fringes of the story, as servants or plot devices. Plus, their dialect is nearly incomprehensible—I had to read a lot of it out loud to get a handle on it. Mostly, though, the novel just isn’t interested in their story.
I think the story’s real concerns are about how to make progress, both as a society and as individuals. Focusing on the wrongs and injustices—especially those you can’t correct—will do no good. It’s better to endure and hope. Late in the novel, Maria Fletcher, daughter of Bill reflects on her suffering:
“I went down into hell,” she said passionately, “and I came out—clean. I saw evil such as I had never heard of; I went close to it, I even touched it, but I always kept my soul very far away, and I was like a person in a dream. The more I saw of sin and ugliness the more I dreamed of peace and beauty. I builded me my own refuge, I fed on my own strength day and night—“
Maria’s way is the one the book ultimately endorses. The way of resentment and revenge leads only to misery. Looking for beauty is the way forward. Perhaps because Maria dreamed so much of peace, she was better able to enjoy—and even create—peace when the opportunity arose.