Thursday, 6 March 2014

WILLA CATHER A Lost Lady (1923)

Penguin Twentieth Century Classics UK, 1999

It was what he held most against Mrs Forrester, that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.  In the end, Niel went away without bidding her good-bye.  He went away with weary contempt for her in his heart.

The NovelAs a boy, Niel Herbert is fascinated by Marian Forrester, the beautiful new wife of Captain Daniel Forrester, builder of the midwest's new 'lifeline' –– otherwise known as the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railway.  It's a fascination shared with every other male in the small prairie town of Sweet Water, who treat the gracious and elegant Forresters like its uncrowned king and queen.  For them, the enchanting and flirtatious Marian represents everything that's sophisticated, glamorous and morally irreproachable, the magical 'other side' of the humdrum, occasionally venal lives most of them are forced to lead as residents of a dull and isolated frontier community.

As he grows to manhood, Niel feels proud to be included in the Forrester's circle of friends and flattered to find himself included on the guest lists for Marian's lavish dinner parties and more intimate card evenings.  But his feelings for his idol change after he smells liquor on her breath one day and  accidentally overhears her laughing with her lover, Frank Ellinger, while strolling past her bedroom window a few mornings later – an unforgivable betrayal, as he sees it, of the Captain's unstinting love for her and his own, overly-romanticized vision of what she is and, more significantly, of what she represents.  Marian's betrayal is soon compounded by the Captain losing most of his railroad fortune as the result of an unforeseen bank failure and suffering the first of several debilitating strokes which, without permanently paralyzing him, in time reduce him to a helpless shadow of his former vigorous self.

Niel goes east to college and returns to Sweet Water several years later only to find the Forresters and the town whose social life they once dominated both greatly changed.  Marian has now been reduced to doing her own housework and selling or renting out most of their land to outsiders to keep herself and her incapacitated husband clothed and fed.  While she strives hard to retain her old flirtatious manner, she's visibly aged and seems somehow tarnished by her new life of impoverishment and unwilling social exile, still seeking compliments and flirting with men like the attractive young hostess she no longer is and will clearly never be again.  Insult is added to injury when she learns that Ellinger –– a man she still loves despite his casual rejection of her –– has married a young girl he originally met at one of her no longer fashionable soirées.   

Marian's semi-hysterical reaction to the news of her former lover's wedding is enough to permanently shatter Niel's already unfavorable image of her and he soon leaves town again, hearing no more about her until several years pass and he happens to run into another former Sweet Water resident while visiting a Chicago hotel.  Mrs Forrester is dead, his friend informs him, but not before she found the opportunity to regain at least some of her former status by remarrying a cranky Englishman who owned vast land holdings in Brazil, where she was once again free to play her former role as the sparkling society hostess they had known and so fondly admired in their youth.  Niel finds, after this, that he can and must forgive Marian for her shallowness and her various moral and social weaknesses, realizing that she represents not only the passing of his own boyhood but also the passing of a never-to-be-recaptured era in American life.  Marian truly is a 'lost lady' –– as 'lost' as the rapidly vanishing remnants of 'the Old West' she once so colorfully personified.  Like the past, she's become the victim of that terrible but ever-recurring disease the world calls 'progress.'

Alfred A Knopf Inc first edition, 1923
A Lost Lady appeared at a time when the United States –– and particularly the frontier which had for so long dominated the world's image of its newest and most vibrant democracy – was undergoing a period of rapid and irreversible social change.  These changes are embodied in the characters of the highly adaptable Marian and the idealistic if somewhat naïve Niel and, to a lesser extent, in those of Captain Forrester, Frank Ellinger and Marian's final Sweet Water lover, the greedy and unscrupulous lawyer Ivy Peters.  Cather viewed the passing of the Old West –– a place she'd known first-hand during her own Nebraska girlhood – as a tragedy not only in terms of what it was going to cost the nation socially and culturally but also, more disturbingly, in terms of what it would do to the character of the American people in a financial, political and particularly in a moral sense.  Like many of her generation, Cather equated the term 'modernity' with immorality and viewed the rapacious commercial exploitation of the American frontier as the first step towards stripping her countrymen of their values, their ideals and ultimately of their souls.  Yet she also recognized that these changes were inevitable and, as such, could not be successfully prevented but only resisted by individuals for as long as they proved capable of doing so.  As Marian tells Niel on his first visit home from college: 'Money is a very important thing.  Realize that in the beginning; face it, and don't be ridiculous in the end, like so many of us.'  It's Cather's honest exploration of this conflict –– between money and honor, illusion and reality, acceptance of facts and the desperate and ultimately futile efforts of the Forresters and others to ignore and deny them –– which makes A Lost Lady the most realistic and, in the end, the most completely modern of her many fine novels.

The WriterWilella 'Willa' Cather was born on 7 December 1873 on her family's farm in the small Virginia town of Back Creek Valley.  Her paternal grandfather, a farmer of Irish descent, moved to Nebraska in 1877, leaving their sheep farm, called Willow Shade, in the care of Cather's father.  When Willow Shade burned down in 1883, the now homeless Charles Cather was also forced to move his young family to Nebraska –– a place his clever ten year old daughter initially found to be 'as bare as a piece of sheet iron.'

In September 1884 Willa and her family –– she already had a younger brother named Roscoe and would eventually have three more –– moved from her grandparents' house into a comfortable home of their own in the growing prairie town of Red Cloud.  Here she regularly began attending school for the first time and met the immigrant Czech, Russian, Scandinavian, French and German farmers whose lives she would later portray so vividly and so movingly in her breakthrough 1918 novel My Àntonia.  Although she would do a lot of traveling and live in many different towns and cities during the next sixty-three years, Cather always thought of Red Cloud as 'home' and maintained strong ties with many of the people, especially women, she had known there as a girl.  Indeed, all her closest relationships, outside those with members of her immediate family, were with intelligent, cultured and artistically-minded women who, like herself, had quietly refused to don the straitjacket of conformity their ultra-conservative midwestern upbringing demanded they should wear. 

After graduating from high school, Cather attended a prep school where she did well enough in Greek, Latin, chemistry and mathematics to earn herself a place at the University of Nebraska.  In 1891 an essay of hers titled 'Concerning Thomas Carlyle' appeared in the Nebraska State Journal.  It was her first appearance in print and persuaded her to abandon science, her original choice of career, to try her hand at writing.  Within a year she had become literary editor of the university paper Hesperian, with many of her stories and poems subsequently appearing in its pages.  During this time she was also active in the university debating and theatrical societies and began to dress in male clothes, a habit she soon dropped –– along with those of referring to herself as 'William Cather' and keeping her hair cut mannishly short – in order not to make a spectacle of herself or embarrass her family.

1893 saw Cather begin to contribute regularly to the Nebraska State Journal –– a practice she would continue, although not so regularly, until 1900.  In 1895 she graduated and became associate editor of the Lincoln Courier.  Soon bored with this newspaper job, she applied for an instructor's position at her old alma mater.  When she failed to be offered the position, she impulsively moved to Pittsburgh, where she shortly became the editor of Home Monthly, a widely circulated women's magazine.  In addition to her magazine work, she wrote and published stories, poems and drama reviews both locally and in nationally distributed literary journals like The Overland Monthly.  Pittsburgh was to remain her home until 1906 –– she had by this time become a well-traveled woman, spending her summers with an ever-expanding circle of friends in New York, Washington DC, Ohio as well as in 'emerging' western states like Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona –– when she moved to New York to take up yet another editing post at McClure's Magazine.  It was while working here that she met Edith Lewis, a fellow editor who was to remain her confidante and companion for the next thirty-nine years.

Cather spent much of the time between 1908 and 1914 traveling.  During this period she met new friends like novelist Sarah Orne Jewett (who encouraged her to find her own voice as a writer and to write about the places she'd grown up in) and visited London and the Continent both for pleasure and in her new professional capacity as Managing Editor of McClure's Magazine.  Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, was published by the magazine in three installments in February 1912 before being republished in book form by the firm of Houghton Mifflin in May.  It received a mixed reception, with several critics comparing it unfavorably to the work of Henry James, who was still considered America's preeminent (if physically absent and no longer publishing) novelist at the time.  Cather's second novel O Pioneers! –– a story based on her Nebraska childhood which appeared in 1913 –– was more popular and helped to cement her reputation as one of American literature's most promising new talents.  The publication of her third novel, The Song of the Lark, in 1915 prompted the esteemed US critic HL Mencken to state that she had 'stepped definitely into the small class of American novelists who are seriously to be reckoned with.'  

Mencken's praise did little to improve the sales of her fourth novel My Àntonia (1918), which sympathetically examined the life of a Czech immigrant girl and remains one of the most emotionally affecting and realistically drawn portraits of the immigrant experience ever published anywhere.  As had been the case with all of her previous novels, Cather chose to make its narrator a man.  She generally preferred the work of dead male writers to that of living female ones.  'When a woman writes a story of adventure,' she once wrote, 'a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn, anything without wine, women and love, then I will begin to hope for something great from them.'  

The latter half of Cather's career saw her move further afield than her childhood memories of Red Cloud for inspiration and material.  Although the early chapters of One of Ours (1922) –– a bestseller which won her that year's Pulitzer Prize, despite the criticism leveled at it by some reviewers who accused its author of romanticizing what had been a very brutal and costly war –– and all of A Lost Lady (1923) were set in Nebraska, her two succeeding novels The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes For the Archbishop (1928) revealed a new interest in the landscapes and native cultures of the American southwest.  Cather changed direction again with Shadows on the Rock (1931), her first genuinely 'historical' novel, which tells the story of a young girl's coming of age in seventeenth century colonial Québec.  This was followed in 1935 by Lucy Gayheart, a contemporary tale about a young opera singer and her struggle to fulfill her artistic potential which saw Cather return once more to Nebraska for inspiration, albeit to a Nebraska that was in the process of undergoing radical social and economic change that would soon make it unrecognizable as the rugged frontier state she'd grown up in and had loved all her life.

Cather published her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, a tale of slavery set in antebellum Virginia, in 1940.  By then her style of writing had come to seem irrelevant and old-fashioned to younger, left-leaning critics like Edmund Wilson, causing several of them to dismiss her and her work as outmoded relics of a bygone age.  She planned to write another novel set in France but was unable to complete more than a few dozen pages of it due to a painful hand condition and other recurring health problems which plagued her during her later, increasingly reclusive years.  Her work enjoyed something of a revival during World War Two, earning her hundreds of letters from grateful GIs who wanted to thank her for bringing to life a 'vanished' America that many of them wanted and needed to believe they were fighting to defend.  Although her last years were marked by ill health and grief at the loss of family members and many old friends, she did manage to complete a final book of stories, The Old Beauty and Others, which appeared, posthumously, in 1948.  

Willa Cather died on 28 April 1947 and was buried – not, as might seem obvious, in her hometown of Red Cloud –– but in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, close to the Canadian island where she'd spent at least part of every summer with her partner Edith Lewis since 1922.

Click HERE to visit THE WILLA CATHER ARCHIVE, a website maintained by the University of Nebraska which offers further information on every aspect of the writer's life and career.  To read A Lost Lady as a free downloadable eBook, please click HERE

You might also enjoy:
EDITH WHARTON Ethan Frome (1911)
DAWN POWELL Come Back to Sorrento (1932)
JOSEPH CONRAD The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907)

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