From Scribner's, October 1932
The Sheltered Life. By Ellen Glasgow. Doubleday, Doran. $2.50.
One has the feeling, all through this book, that a mind of unmistakable delicacy and power is present, causing characters to show themselves and scenes to appear. The people of The Sheltered Life, where they are and what they do, are under the quiet and effectual control of a relentlessly sensitive and orderly intelligence. For, though the world of Miss Glasgow is not grand or unlimited, it has found in her an aesthetically agreeable and impressive mistress.
In her latest book, Miss Glasgow combines varying mentalities. The sunny outwardness of Jane Austen or Thackeray is present, together with something of the caverns of the smoky Russians; and that life of mind under mind the description of which is psychoanalytically and vexedly sought for in Vienna. Miss Glasgow will quite rapturously and in detail describe a gardenwith a good deal of a Victorian novelist's loving abandon; and the next while she will be burrowing gracefully in those quite hideous places of mind that the groomed intellects of 1850 and 1880 had no use for. In the title of her book itself, Miss Glasgow is making tragic fun of something in a way that would have been difficult to understand some years ago.
The Sheltered Life shows the messes and uncomely sorrows that come into the lives of people living carefully, sedately, and rather tastefully in an old Virginia city. There is stately General Archbald, who simply never did what he wanted to do; he is seventy-six when the book begins. He lives in a handsome, dignified house with his two daughters, the wife of his dead son and her daughter, Jennie Blair Archbald. What goes on in the mind of selfish, bright and pretty Jennie is the big thing in the book. She is forced to please herself and, by pleasing herself, she is forced to cause gruesome mischief. For by getting, subtly and unknown to herself, the love of George Birdsong, married to the proud and marvellously beautiful Eva Howard, she leads the already much-tried and sorrowing wife to kill her careless, yet intricate husband. And through the book go the forlorn passionate meditations over past fears, agonies and delights of old General Archbald; who also meditates on the meaning of the proceeding seasons and the never-to-be-equalled beauty and feminine eminence of Eva Birdsong. There is Etta, whose ugliness from the start makes for pretense and many-sided known and unknown wretchedness. There is Cora Archbald, Jennie's managing mother, who has made for herself a complete universe of glib and cheerful make-believe, with which to cope with indelicate and unwelcome life.
Under Miss Glasgow's artistic guidance these people and doings make a praiseworthy and pleasing unity. It is not a unity that reaches terrifying heights, or breathless poetic depths. The Sheltered Life is not a book that is at home among the stranger jaggednesses of reality and the more massive and flaming activities of feeling; but it is a work, none the less, of radiance, keenness, honesty.