Rating 4 stars
Read for the 20 Books of Summer readathon
Do you ever have trouble deciding which book to read next, or whether to read an author’s works in the order they wrote them? I’ve been having a mini quandary with two novellas by Willa Cather that I bought secondhand from Beckside Books in Penrith on a recent holiday. I put both of them onto my 20 Books of Summer list, thinking that I would make a decision when I got to them.
The earlier book, A Lost Lady, has been described as Willa Cather’s best work. The linear bit of my brain wanted me to read it first, to set it in the order of Cather’s writing career, but the blurb on the back of My Mortal Enemy drew me to that novella more strongly as my next reading experience. Although both have similar themes, it seemed like the later book would fit better with the mood I was in following the explorations of relationships I’d encountered in Wayward Girls, Bret Easton Ellis, and The Nakano Thrift Shop. So that’s the one I pulled from the pile.
When I started reading A S Byatt’s introduction, though, her comparison of My Mortal Enemy with A Lost Lady made me feel again that I should read the earlier novella first. Flip flop. I picked it up and here we are.
Byatt also wrote the introduction to A Lost Lady. It’s a more critical piece than the introduction to My Mortal Enemy. She draws out Cather’s yearning for a lost way of life that becomes more apparent in her writing from the 1920s onwards. Because we’re living in an era where much of our politics is suddenly, inexplicably focused on some kind of mythical golden age when white people didn’t have to think about how racist their all encompassing desire to dominate the rest of the planet is, when Byatt quotes Cather as saying, “Our present is ruined … but we had a beautiful past”, my stomach knotted a little. Byatt and some of the critics she refers to portray Cather as having been resistant to the modernising change that followed the First World War, stuck in a past that was never coming back, fractured as the world was by that terrible, mechanised slaughter. But that said, Byatt quotes another critic who positions A Lost Lady as Cather’s “most explicit treatment of the passing of the old order … the central work of her career.”
Having loved My Ántonia with its basis in the reality of Cather’s own past and its portrait of a person she grew up knowing, and the tenderness with which Cather treated her story, I was excited to read another of her novels that paints a portrait of someone real from her past.
The lost lady of the title is Mrs Forrester, wife to a local grandee 25 years her senior. She is charm itself, loved by everyone except Ivy Peters, a young man who thinks people like the Forresters are no better than he. The story is set in the Nebraska town of Sweet Water, a stop off on one of the railroads that pushed civilisation into America’s West. Captain Forrester helped build the railroad and consequently is a man that visitors to the town show respect to by accepting his hospitality.
The story begins with the nephew of Captain Forrester’s lawyer falling from a tree on the Forresters’ land and developing a crush on Mrs Forrester when she nurses him while waiting for the doctor to arrive. Niel Herbert is from a less well off family than his uncle and the Forresters. His mother married beneath her and his father fell on hard times after the death of his wife. His connection to Judge Pommeroy, though, brings him into regular contact with the Forresters and their circle, particularly when he begins to work for his uncle.
Niel is the one who observes Mrs Forrester most closely, and it’s through him that we get to know this lost lady. She isn’t lost at first, of course, but when the town starts to decline and many of the settlers from the East begin to cut their losses and return home, her life begins to change. Her husband suffers an accident that leaves him too invalided to continue working for the railroad and she loses some of the independence that she had enjoyed while he was away working. The age difference between her and Captain Forrester begins to tell.
Mrs Forrester is an independent spirit. She deals with her growing frustration with rural isolation by being a skillful hostess to her husband’s friends and colleagues. Niel admires her for the way she balances being a dutiful wife to an older man with being an individual among their friends. Or he does until he realises that one of the Forresters’ friends is more than that to Mrs Forrester. At that moment the idealism with which he regards her is shattered. Cather renders it as an awakening for this sheltered young man who has no real experience of the world and certainly none of women. Cather portrays Mrs Forrester, who becomes Marian at this point, as fully human, a woman with desires and her own inner life.
It made me angry that Niel, representing male attitudes, saw Marian Forrester as a fallen goddess when she reveals that she has needs and desires of her own beyond being a doting wife and elegant hostess. The double standard of men being free to act as they wish and any supposed scandal being exciting while at the same time excoriating women for doing the same is infuriating. Niel is incredibly judgemental and, instead of offering help to Marian Forrester in her grief and her collapse, when she is drinking too much and keeping lively company, he abandons her completely because she is no longer the paragon of virtue he believed her to be.
It interests me that in both the novels I’ve now read by Cather, she casts as observer a young boy who grows into a man in the time he is observing the female lead in the story. The observer character is Cather herself, drawing on her memories of people she knew and loved as a girl in Nebraska. I haven’t read any formal biographies about Cather, so don’t know what the reason was behind this choice. Certainly, in the period she wrote about, men had more social freedom than women, so perhaps it’s a way of making the story seem authentic. A young woman wouldn’t be able to be in the spaces in which Niel finds himself, and so wouldn’t be able to tell the full story. A young woman would necessarily have to take the role of confidante, which would make for a very different novel.
I don’t know that this is Cather’s best novel. It is a more conventional one than My Ántonia and bears the hallmarks of writers who inspired Cather, like Edith Wharton and Henry James. It reminded me in parts of Effi Briest, too. The writing is as beautifully crafted as that in My Ántonia. Cather’s skill was in scene setting and creating a real feeling of what is happening in a scene and across a story. It’s not just observation, it’s inhabitation.
And as for whether Marian Forrester is a lost lady, in the sense that Niel believes her to be, lost to immorality and shameful behaviour, no she isn’t. She’s lost to him because he doesn’t understand her and can’t see beyond his own prejudice to even try to understand her. She’s lost to everyone because she has to play a role and can’t be the person she truly is. Niel comments on this at the end of the book, thinking back on what he thinks he has lost.
He would like to call up the shade of the young Mrs Forrester, as the witch of Endor called up Samuel’s, and challenge it, demand the secret of that ardour; ask her whether she had really found some ever-blooming, ever-burning, ever-piercing joy, or whether it was all fine play-acting.
The latter, Niel. Definitely the latter. Because, as with the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, almost all women find ways of suppressing our true selves in order to be found acceptable to wider society, whether it’s sticking a fork in the back of our hands while smiling through dinner conversation or faking it to make it in the glass ceilinged world of work, and it’s something that most men don’t have to think about.
A note on prejudice of the racist kind: there are numerous examples of Cather’s unwillingness to see anyone who isn’t white as anything other than subhuman, from the black servants who work for the white landowners of Sweet Water and the First Nations people who are being defrauded of their land to the generic Chinese person who is supposedly dishonest in every aspect of their being. Saying she was a product of her time doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.
This is a slim tome, only 175 pages long, but it packs a punch and is definitely worth a read if you enjoy US literature of the late 19th/early 20th century.