My Mortal Enemy

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Read 03/09/2019-04/09/2019

Rating 3 stars

Read for the 20 Books of Summer readathon

My Mortal Enemy is a very short novella, more an extended short story. In it, Willa Cather’s narrating alter ego, this time a young woman called Nellie, remembers a woman she first encountered as a teenager.

The protagonist, Myra Henshawe, is an orphan raised by her uncle, a self-made man, who throws over her inheritance to marry the man she loves, running away to New York with him.

Nellie meets her when she and Oswald, her husband, return to their home town. Nellie’s Aunt Lydia was instrumental in facilitating Myra’s romance and elopement and has sustained her friendship with both Myra and Oswald.

When Lydia takes Nellie to New York and they visit the Henshawes it becomes clear that Lydia’s affection for Oswald is stronger than her feelings for Myra.

Myra is capricious. When you are in favour with her, she is all charm and delight. Cross her, though, and she transforms into a viper.

At first Nellie believes the Henshawes to be a happily married couple. As time passes, though, she comes to see a tension. Cather captures the perspective of a 15 year old girl well. Nellie hasn’t the life experience to understand the Henshawes’ relationship, but she senses that all is not well beneath the surface and she recognises something in Oswald’s enigmatic demeanour.

The first part of the story is almost entirely set in the Madison Square area of New York. I enjoyed the description of the Square, still partly residential but increasingly commercial. It reminded me of Henry James’s New York novels. I also enjoyed the references to the German business community that Myra cultivates for the betterment of her husband’s prospects. On my last trip to New York, I visited the Tenement Museum and learned about the community in what was known as Little Germany. The social engagements with the Germans are all conducted in German, as almost everything about Little Germany was at that time.

I also enjoyed the figures Cather draws from nature to describe metropolitan life. The night sky and the furnishings in Myra’s apartment are compared with violets, plums and figs in colour. As much as Myra is snakelike, she is also compared to a dove.

Myra’s other social circle, the one that sustains her, is made up of actors, singers and literary types. Through Myra, Nellie meets the stars of the day. Oswald takes her to see Sarah Bernhardt perform as Hamlet.

From this brief glimpse of Myra’s successful world in New York, Cather then moves forward 10 years to the West Coast where Nellie is teaching in college. She tells us that she has ended up there due to her family’s reduced circumstances. One evening on the stairs of her cheap boarding hotel Nellie reencounters Oswald Henshawe, also much reduced in circumstance.

The second part of the story is centred on the decline of Myra into illness. Cather writes tenderly but doesn’t descend into sentimentality. Myra is still a viper dressed as a dove, still capable of hurting those who love her the most.

Again, there’s a moment where Cather reveals her racism. Again, it’s hard to stomach. Her racism in this novella, mercifully brief as its expression is, is offensively casual. The character’s skin colour didn’t need to be mentioned at all, it has absolutely no bearing on the story. It opens up a question for me about how I treat writers whose literary talent is worthy of admiration but whose personal viewpoint about race is offensive. Do I gloss over it because it’s partly a product of its time or do I reject the writer because the time being different isn’t an excuse and such feeling towards other human beings ought never to have existed? Do I perpetuate the racism by reading it? Does not reading it nullify its existence?

My Mortal Enemy is well written and a good example of literature that recalls a lost time, warts and all. Cather’s characters are flawed and realistically human. I felt no sympathy for any of them but I was curious about their lives. This novella gave me a similar feeling to the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Myra Henshawe is both Blanche and Jane, spoiled and jealous as well as sick and reclusive. Oswald, Lydia and Nellie are her puppets.

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