Old Bestsellers: A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather
A review by Rich Horton
One of my secret shames is a habit of introducing myself to great writers I haven't tried by picking really short books. So, for example, George Eliot: I haven't read Middlemarch but I have read Silas Marner and The Lifted Veil. Don De Lillo: I haven't read Underworld but I have read The Body Artist and Cosmopolis. Edith Wharton: not The Age of Innocence but instead Ethan Frome. John Banville: not The Sea but The Newton Letter.
And so when I ran across a copy of A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather, it seemed like a good opportunity to mend another of the many lacunae in my reading, without having to tackle something long like O Pioneers! or My Antonia. And actually this turns out to have been a very worthwhile choice! (And it seems it's a book that is very highly regarded among her oeuvre.)
This blog is about "Old Bestsellers", supposedly, though I often enough violate that rule. Willa Cather, as it turns out, actually enjoyed very good sales for her work; and even once, with Shadows on the Rock, appeared on the Publishers' Weekly list of Bestselling Novels of 1931 (it was third). That's actually not at all one of her better known books. To me it seems that O Pioneers! and My Antonia are very clearly, at this remove, her best-remembered novels; but some will plump for Death Comes for the Archbishop or her Pulitzer-winning One of Ours.
Cather (1873-1947) is regarded as a writer of the American West, particularly the Great Plains, more particularly still Nebraska. She was born in Virginia, but spent many of her formative years in Nebraska, in the town of Red Cloud (close to the Kansas border). She moved back East (to Pittsburgh) as a young woman. As with some other women of about that generation that I've covered (Ivy Compton-Burnett and Octave Thanet for two) she lived for a long time with another woman, and many scholars assume she was a Lesbian, but she did not seem to choose to identify herself as such, and the question of her sexuality is controversial. It's easy enough to explain that reticence as the natural reaction of people to society's prejudices -- and indeed that seems a plausible explanation -- but personal lives are complicated things, so who knows?
Anyway, to A Lost Lady. This is a short book, just a bit over 30,000 words. It was first published in 1923. My copy is from 1945. It's set in Sweet Water, Nebraska, a small town pretty clearly based on Red Cloud. Sweet Water is on the Burlington railroad line (which also runs through my home town of Naperville, IL), and Captain Daniel Forrester is a man in late middle age, retired from building railroads, who owns a beautiful property on the outskirts of town. His second wife, a great deal younger, Marian Forrester, is a striking woman, very fashionable, very sociable, and a great hostess to the men of the railroad that the Captain entertains.
We see snapshots of her over a decade or more, mostly through the eyes of young Niel Herbert, who is smitten with Mrs. Forrester from the age of 10 or so. She seems to him the epitome of womanhood, and manners, and class. And Captain Forrester is a pillar himself, a strong man slowed a bit by an injury, a rigorously honest man, and a symbol of, one supposes, the pioneer spirit. As Niel, an orphan, grows older he studies law with his Uncle, the town lawyer, and finds himself occasionally invited to the Forrester house. It seems Mrs. Forrester has a special liking for him, and she introduces him to her Denver friends, including some people who make Niel a bit uneasy, such as Frank Ellinger.
It is by slow degrees that we learn that Mrs. Forrester is unfaithful, for some time carrying on with Ellinger, though Niel refuses to see this. Then a series of reverses affect the town of Sweet Water, and most particularly Captain Forrester, whose honesty compels him to take the full burden of the failure of a bank he has invested in; and who is further felled by a stroke. We learn, as Niel is slow to, that Mrs. Forrester needs the Captain's money more than his person -- and finally Niel is fully disillusioned when she takes up with a loathsome local man.
So, it is a portrait of a "Lost Lady" -- with a back story involving her marriage to the Captain that is only revealed late. She is a sad character, much more to be pitied than held in contempt, and Niel's early admiration can be seen as not really so misplaced, if misemphasized. And of course there is behind all this the story of the West, and of the displacement of the pioneer spirit (represented by Captain Forrester) with the corruption of money-grubbing Eastern ways (represented by Ivy Peters, the loathsome fellow, who becomes a slimy lawyer, with whom Mrs. Forrester takes up).
I thought it a marvelous book, beautifully written and honest and convincing. And with some really striking passages. Here's one: "The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were practical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of people like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything." I confess I'm not entirely sure that she's correct with her point here -- but, it's pretty to think so! Here's another passage: "He had seen the end of an era, the sunset of the pioneer. He had come upon it when already the glory was nearly spent. So in the buffalo times a traveller used to come upon the embers of a hunter's fire on the prairie, after the hunter was up and gone; the coals would be trampled out, but the ground was warm, and the flattened grass where he had slept and where his pony had grazed, told the story."