The Deliverance by Ellen Glasgow (picture from here) is a wonderful family saga set in rural Virginia in the years after the Civil War. It has everything you could want – romance, revenge, tragedy, self-sacrifice, family feuds & manipulative elders trying to control their children.
The Blake family are old money. They had owned their tobacco plantation for generations until the Civil War brought financial ruin. Mr Blake died soon after the plantation was sold to his former overseer, Bill Fletcher. Where Fletcher got the money to buy the land has always been a mystery but shady dealing is suspected. The Blakes – Mrs Blake, her daughter, Cynthia & twins, Christopher & Lila – are living in a rundown house on the outskirts of their former home, all they could salvage. Christopher was only ten when his father died & his desire for revenge has dominated his life ever since.
Fifteen years after the end of the war, the Blakes are still scraping a living, growing tobacco on their small plot of land. Mrs Blake is now paralysed & blind, & believes that she is still living in her mansion with all the luxuries she has known all her life. Her children & the few servants keep up the pretence, even though they are on the edge of poverty as they are afraid of the effect the truth would have on her fragile mental state. Cynthia takes in sewing & Christopher works in the fields. He even works in Fletcher’s fields when he needs the money. Cynthia refuses to let Lila help at all as she wants her sister to preserve the white hands & pale complexion of a lady, no matter how impractical that is. Uncle Tucker, Mrs Blake’s brother, also lives with the family. He lost an arm & a leg in the War but is the most contented of them all. He spends his days sitting on a bench in the sun, observing Nature & trying to advise Christopher.
Bill Fletcher lives with his grandson, Will, who he loves & spoils. His granddaughter, Maria, has been sent away to school to become a lady & returns home for a short time before she is to be married to a rich young man. Christopher is attracted to Maria but hates her because of her name & her family. He has always refused to sell his farm to Fletcher &, when he is forced by necessity to borrow money from him, will even deceive his mother when he becomes desperate to repay the loan rather than allow Fletcher to triumph over him.
Will Fletcher hero worships Christopher & Christopher uses this as the ultimate way to revenge himself on Bill Fletcher. He teaches Will to drink & gamble & deceive his grandfather. Will runs away from university, gets into debt & marries a young woman who is despised by his grandfather & eventually he is cut off & falls into poverty, helped only by Christopher who now begins to feel some responsibility for Will’s plight. Maria returns home after the end of her unhappy marriage but her efforts to reconcile her grandfather & Will lead to tragedy.
There are many echoes of Wuthering Heights in this novel. Christopher saves a boy trapped in a runaway cart & then realises it’s Will Fletcher whose life he saved. It reminded me of the scene when Heathcliff catches young Hareton when Hindley drops him over the bannister. They’re both dismayed at the opportunity for revenge they’ve lost. When Christopher decides to take advantage of Will’s affection for him, I was reminded of Heathcliff saying of Hareton, “And we’ll see if one tree won’t grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it!“. Christopher, though, has much more moral sense than Heathcliff ever did. His love for Maria looks set to be just as thwarted as Heathcliff’s for Catherine as he refuses to admit his feelings & clings to his dreams of revenge.
I don’t want the book to sound unrelievedly gloomy as it’s not. There’s a lot of humour, much of it quite black. One of my favourite characters was Mrs Susan Spade, wife of the local store keeper. Susan is self-righteous, uncharitable & always pleased to find fault with her neighbours. She delights in carrying tales to old Mr Fletcher about Will & his sweetheart, Molly Peterkin, sliding in all the malicious gossip about Molly that she can manage while the old man nearly has a seizure on the spot. Susan herself has never put a foot wrong of course & keeps her husband & their business on a tight rein.
There’s also a gentler romance to counterpoint the stormier passions of Christopher & Maria. Christopher’s sister, Lila, is courted by Jim Weatherby, a kind & generous man who has worshipped Lila for years before gathering the courage to speak to her. Cynthia is appalled by Jim’s courtship as Jim & his family were poor farmers, never on the same social level as the Blakes. In some ways, Cynthia is as deluded as her poor, blind mother as she tries to stop Lila working in the kitchen as though she has a full social season of balls & parties to attend. Jim’s patience & tolerance are tested to the limit as he bides his time, listening to old Mrs Blake’s gracious condescension when she asks him about his farm & tells Cynthia to give him something to eat in the kitchen before he leaves.
Ellen Glasgow writes about the Virginia countryside with real feeling & her descriptions of the farms & the weather are beautiful. The novel is divided into five Books & each one ends on a cliffhanger. I was reading The Deliverance with my 19th century bookgroup & it was a struggle to stop at the end of each week’s instalment. I did read the last two Books in one sitting because I just couldn’t wait to find out what happened. I loved this book. The characters were real & I sympathised with Christopher & his sisters in their endless struggle to keep the farm going while keeping their true situation from their mother.
The Deliverance is available as a free ebook from Project Gutenburg.