Monday, August 9, 2010

Ellen Glasgow's Richmond

I am reading Romance of a Plain Man by Ellen Glasgow. It is set in Richmond, Virginia and opens with scenes on the Church Hill section of the city in 1875. Little Benjy Starr is playing in the churchyard of St. John's Church (where Patrick Henry made his give me liberty or give me death speech). Throughout the novel, or at least what I've read so far, there are real locations mentioned, places that I have seen.

When little Benjy playing in the churchyard cemetery, he comments: "One sleeper among them I came to regard, as I grew somewhat older, almost with affection - not only because he was young and a soldier, but because the tall marble slab implored me to 'tread lightly upon his ashes.' Not once during the many hours when I played in the churchyard, did I forget myself and run over the sunken grave where he lay."

Now I want to know, do that grave and tombstone really exist in St. John's cemetery? A soldier from which war? The story opens in 1875, but my impression of the cemetery is that most of the graves date from long before the Civil War. I sent an email to the church asking if they know of such a grave. If I don't hear back from them, I will go over to there and take a look for myself.

Romance of a Plain Man is a compelling read.

I love novels which convey a sense of place, and Ellen Glasgow was masterful in this regard. Her Richmond comes alive in this book. In doing some online research about Glasgow I found mention of what I thought was a book called Ellen Glasgow's Richmond by Tricia Pearsall. It turned out to be a chapter in a book of essays titled Regarding Ellen Glasgow. After a trip to the Library of Virginia this morning, I am now reading that chapter, longing for the weather to cool off so I can track down some of the houses said to be models for homes in Glasgow's novels.

I also learned that Elizabeth Van Lew was a model for at least one Glasgow character. Van Lew was a Richmond resident who acted as a spy for the Union army. After the Civil War she was shunned by Richmond society. Her house no longer stands, but Glasgow mentions in A Certain Measure that when a shild she heard Van Lew being discussed and saw her from a distance.

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