“Virginia” at Forty

April 6th, 2010

“But if ever a girl looked as if she were cut out for happiness!” exclaimed an old school teacher when she caught sight of Virginia, the heroine of Ellen Glasgow’s novel of the same name, set in a southern town called Dinwiddie. In the story, Virginia wasn’t ready for happiness: the virtues she had been taught—to be self-effacing, to make no demands, to put others before herself, to be bound by duty and honor—would prove a hindrance to the happiness that she had seemed destined for, given her good family and good looks. “Virginia” is a tableau of a “southern lady,” an idée fixe that was already fading when Glasgow’s novel was published in 1913. She called the novel “a history of manners,” one that sought to give meaning to “the South,” as so many writers had done in the decades before.

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