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  • Burning Mrs. Southworth:True Womanhood and the Intertext of Ellen Glasgow's Virginia
  • Paul Christian Jones

Near the beginning of the novel Virginia, Ellen Glasgow's 1913 study of the southern lady, the reader is presented with an intriguing scene wherein young Susan Treadwell tells her friends, including the novel's title character Virginia Pendleton, of the arrival of her cousin Oliver, who has been in Europe for his studies and has now come to stay with the Treadwell family in the small Virginia town of Dinwiddie. At twenty-two, Oliver is said to have his head "full of all kinds of new ideas he picked up somewhere abroad" (9). Among these ideas is his commitment to pursuing a literary career, specifically as a playwright, rather than accepting a position from his uncle in the family bank. A firm believer in the power of literature, Oliver is convinced that as a writer he can make a difference in the world, and "he talks for hours about art and its service to humanity" (18). Susan tells her friends that Oliver is particularly disappointed in the Treadwell family library and "laughs at every book he sees in the house" (19). He immediately becomes an advocate for improvements in the family's reading habits. On one occasion, when he overhears Susan's mother offering her seamstress, Miss Willy Whitlow, one of E. D. E. N. Southworth's novels to take home to read, he sarcastically asks his aunt how she can "allow such immoral stuff in her room" and encourages Miss Willy instead to reject Southworth's work in favor of more worthwhile reading, [End Page 25] namely John Stuart Mill's Essay on Liberty (19). Because Mrs. Treadwell so values her nephew's opinions and "would make a bonfire of her furniture if he asked her to do it," she responds to his criticism by "burn[ing] all of Mrs. Southworth's [books] that she had in the house" (19).

E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819-1899) was one of the best-selling of the phenomenally successful nineteenth-century female novelists often known as the "scribbling women" because of Nathaniel Hawthorne's well-known criticism of the group. Published between the 1850s and 1880s, her fifty or so novels were sentimental and often incredible accounts of women's struggles in the antebellum South, most frequently on plantations in Virginia and Maryland. Little scholarly attention has been given to Glasgow's commencing her novel's ironic treatment of "both the Southern lady and Victorian tradition" with the incineration of the work of this popular female literary predecessor (Certain Measure 79). While the reference to Mrs. Treadwell's reading and Oliver's literary snobbery can certainly be regarded as a fine touch of authentic detail, part of Glasgow's intention to make her collected novels a social history of Virginia, it also serves a larger role as an intertext to Glasgow's work. Southworth, her work, and the ideas that Glasgow's readers hold about that work function as what John Frow has called a "particular intertextual reference" leading the reader to the reconstruction of "the canonic structures against which [a] text is shaped" (157). In other words, observing how Glasgow employs this intertextual reference becomes crucial to the reader's appreciation of her novel's message. My argument in this essay is that Glasgow uses Southworth as a symbol of what she is trying to eradicate by writing Virginia, that is, the True Woman whose time has passed and the body of literature that helped to propagate True Womanhood as a cultural ideal for so many decades.

Michael Riffaterre has conceived of intertextuality as "that form of reference experienced when the reader finds that a text presupposes another and that the latter provides the former with the means of interpreting it and of justifying its formal and semantic peculiarities" (2). Thus, the intertext is "another text . . . that shares its lexicon and its structures with the one we are reading" and that "represents a model on which the text builds its own variations" (2). This relationship depends upon "the reader's awareness of the structural variants—namely, the text's deviant versions of their...


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