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phases of an inferior planet

10 june 2024

I remembered from astronomy class that only inferior planets – for us, Mercury and Venus – exhibit phases, waxing from new to full and waning again like the Moon. Well, I remembered wrong. It's not that the superior planets (Mars and the rest) have no phases; it's just that they never wane very much.

But if you were looking for an evocative title for a novel, and in 1898 Ellen Glasgow was, you might choose Phases of an Inferior Planet and then apply the idea to Earth itself. There is some science represented in Glasgow's novel, though not much astronomy. She clearly had an ear for titles, though. I'm surprised no band has used "Phases of an Inferior Planet" as an album title.

The setting is New York City in the late 19th century. Our heroine is Mariana Musin, a young woman from the South who has come, opera-struck, to the big city and longs to sing professionally. I did not know the opera connection when I picked the book up, but it's an interesting motif. For Glasgow and her readers in 1898, the canon consisted of Gounod and Wagner, and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Mariana will name her own daughter Isolde … but I am getting ahead of the story.

Before Isolde can be born, Mariana has to meet Anthony Algarcife, a budding philosopher of science. Algarcife burns the midnight oil trying to come up with a grand unified theory of evolution and a bunch of other things. Of course the two go from neighbors in an apartment building to lovers and spouses and parents. But romance without finance is a nuisance, and they go from poor to poorer, losing Isolde to illness along the way. The child's death tears the young couple apart.

Fast-forward to the next "phase" of the book. Anthony, once a polemical atheist, is Father Algarcife, most charismatic of the city's clergymen. But he harbors a terrible secret: he doesn't believe in God any more than he used to. His pastoral career has beeen undertaken in fulfillment of a debt to a priest who saved him from despair after Mariana left him. The bohemian company that Anthony and Mariana once kept in their apartment building are now well-known artists and politicians. Mariana herself has been married to and separated from a wealthy Englishman. Her opera career came to nothing, but her status as a mysterious, fashionable lady has never been higher. Can the couple reunite? Should they? Will the fates allow it?

Chronologically and thematically, Phases of an Inferior Planet is about halfway between Marius the Epicurean and The House of Mirth. Glasgow's novel is talky, florid, philosophical, melodramatic … and yet somehow fascinating. She does not choose believable situations or characters, but she has a great sense of relationship dynamics, and writes with strong attention to visual detail.

The novel contains a great deal of moralizing, but it does not seem to have a moral attached. Life is ephemeral and contingent; happiness is impossible. But people forge ahead and find connection, even love, amid the wreckage. What I don't sense is much of a social agenda. Glasgow would later become a strong voice for women's rights, but Mariana is not much of a feminist heroine. She breaks away from two strong men in search of her independence, but she cannot find a way to live apart from a husband or lover. And her failure is not really theorized; it's just the way things are.

Mariana is from white aristocracy; her grandmother "lived upon her plantations and owned a great many slaves" (Chapter 15). Mariana has left the South behind; she marries Anthony rather than go back to live with her father. Yet she doesn't expend much time thinking about race or class. She remembers her Black "Mammy" fondly and repeats some of her quirky sayings.

Yet behind Mariana is a narrator who can say, early on, of Mariana's ancestors, that they expressed

that blatant boast of liberty which swelled the throats of the Western colonies, even while their hands were employed in meting out the reward of witchcraft and in forging the chains of slavery. (Chapter 2)
And suddenly we seem to be hearing a 21st-century voice.

Glasgow, Ellen. Phases of an Inferior Planet. 1898. Kindle Edition.