In the realm of farming novels, perhaps no work I’ve encountered stays as closely tied to the land as this product of Ellen Glasgow’s later career. Barren Ground was published in 1925, when the author already had fifteen novels to her credit. It traces the life of Dorinda Oakley who falls in love with a young doctor, Jason Greylock, only to wind up pregnant and single when the spineless physician is coerced into marrying the daughter of a wealthy family. Dorinda responds by fleeing to New York where she bonks her head in the street and fortuitously encounters a kindly doctor. For no abundantly clear reason this doctor takes a liking to Dorinda, hiring her as a nanny and then loaning her a considerable sum when she determines to go back home to put into practice the “modern farming” knowledge she has accumulated in her spare time.
Upon her father’s death, Dorinda becomes the moving force behind the family farm, transforming it into a thriving place, pushing back the encroaching broomsedge, and employing an ever-increasing cast of locals. Meanwhile, less than a mile away, Jason Greylock lives with his wife Geneva. Curiously, the pair almost never see one another, mostly because Dorinda has so consumed herself in work. We do learn, mostly second hand, that the marriage is a disaster, Geneva is mentally unstable, and Jason is following his father’s decline into drink.
Eventually–decades later–Dorinda’s industry has so paid off that she is able to buy the Greylock farm at auction, ousting her former lover in the process. In a farming novel, what revenge could be as sweet as purchasing the property of an enemy? The peculiar turn at the end of the book comes when Dorinda, after initially resisting offering less intrusive assistance, moves the dying Jason into her own home. Presumably this marks the completion of whatever healing she needed to experience.
On the surface, this story seems to be one of agrarianism triumphing over the lures of the city. Late in the story, Dorinda is asked, apparently repeatedly, if she might want to return to New York.
“’No, I shall never go back. I had enough of it when I was there.’“’Wouldn’t you rather look at the sights up there than at cows and chickens?’“Dorinda would shake her head thoughtfully. ‘Not if they are my cows and chickens.’“In this reply, which was as invariable as a formula, she touched unerringly the keynote of her character. The farm belonged to her, and the knowledge aroused a fierce sense of possession. To protect, to lift up, rebuild and restore, these impulses formed the deepest obligation her nature could feel.”
Not only does the novel seem to champion agrarianism over the urban but it would seem to argue for a modern, scientific sort of farming. It is in the city that Dorinda attends lectures relating various topics that she puts into practice upon returning home. The problem with this appearance is that Dorinda’s “scientific and modern” farming is really not all that exceptional, not more enlightened than that of her most successful neighbor. And for all of her modernism, Dorinda works herself to a premature loss of youth, passing up all of the enjoyments of her younger years. She is no less work-obsessed than the most vilified industrialist.
In response to her disappointment in love, Dorinda embraces the fecundity of her land, but exchanges it for the promises of genuine relationships. Aside from a perfunctory marriage that she never really appreciates and a friendship with Fluvanna, a Black woman who lives with her but never gains complete respect, Dorinda’s only real love is for a club-footed stepson to whom she will leave both farms but only an arms-length measure of affection.
Dorinda abandoned early the religious enthusiasm of her mother, and enthusiasm she had once shared:
She remembered vividly the way grace had come to her, a softly glowing ecstasy, which flooded her soul and made her feel that she had entered into the permanent blessedness of the redeemed. It was like the love she felt now, only more peaceful and far less subject to pangs of doubt. For a few months this had lasted, while the prosaic duties of life were infused with a beauty, a light. Then, suddenly, as mysteriously as it had come, the illumination in her soul had waned and flickered out like a lamp. Religion had not satisfied.
In the end, satisfaction is not something that Dorinda experiences in a life that, while taking place on ground increasing less barren, winds up being a largely barren life.