- Having vs. Seeking a Room of Her Own
Reading Darlene Harbour Unrue's Katherine Anne Porter biography after reading Pamela R. Matthews' collection of Ellen Glasgow's correspondence with women, one is struck by two particular points of distinction: the biography's emphasis on the men in Porter's life in contrast to the few references to men in Glasgow's letters, and the preeminent tone of frustration in the biography versus the overwhelming expressions of affection in the letters. Interesting, too, is reading Unrue's Porter biography along with Mary Titus's new critical study. Titus focuses on Porter's exploration of gender roles and sexual identity in her fiction while Unrue emphasizes the connection between Porter's unhappiness and her unconventional life as a woman artist.
Recently, Oprah Winfrey felt compelled to deny rumors that she and her close friend Gayle King are lovers. While the gay community may have been offended by the "defensiveness" implicit in a public statement, one might also find Oprah's explanation for the misunderstanding as [End Page 152] troubling as its defensive tone: "There isn't a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women." It is much more encouraging to be reminded that a woman who lived in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, Ellen Glasgow, felt no compulsion to apologize for or explain her friendships. She simply enjoyed and appreciated them.
Though twice engaged to be married, Glasgow remained single her whole life. Consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, she seems to have determined that to be a successful woman writer, she needed to maintain her independence from the domestic expectations of wives, which would take up her time. As a single woman, too, she had a whole house of her own and her own money, and her prolific output provides evidence of the validity of Virginia Woolf's argument in A Room of One's Own. Glasgow's letters reflect how much time she also had for travel and reading as well.
The major frustration reflected in these letters is the fact that life is not long enough to be able to give as much time to one's friends as one would wish. Glasgow's letters to women—family, friends, and fellow writers—share her sense of compatibility with her correspondents; plan, with happy anticipation, a visit with a friend or express gratitude for a recent experience of hospitality or a recent visit of a friend to her own home; praise the other woman's writing or thank her for complimenting her own; and recommend reading material (by both men and women). She almost never comments negatively on another person's book. In her introduction to the volume, Matthews contrasts the Glasgow revealed in these letters with the woman often shown in biographical studies to have been in conflict with her male counterparts (James Branch Cabell, for example), who are often depicted as competitors rather than colleagues. In these letters, which include correspondence with such writers as Radclyffe Hall, Mary Johnston, Margaret Mitchell, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Glasgow certainly did not suggest any sense of competition with her female colleagues; nor did she complain to her women correspondents about any conflicts with men, writers or lovers.
So much biographical study of Glasgow's life focuses on her failed romances—the broken engagement with Henry Anderson, the identity of Gerald B.—yet this collection offers the possibility that these disappointments (if in fact they were actually so disappointing) were not ultimately major events in the writer's life. One is reminded of Matthews' monograph, Ellen Glasgow and a Woman's Tradition (1994), in which she calls The Sheltered Life "a very angry novel" and proposes that the source of the anger is the change in times...