Marian Forrester is the symbolic flower of the Old American West. She draws her strength from that solid foundation, bringing delight and beauty to her husband, an elderly railroad pioneer, to the small town of Sweet Water where they live, to the prairie land itself, and to the young narrator of her story, Neil Herbert. All are bewitched by her brilliance and grace, all are ultimately betrayed. For Marian longs for 'life on any terms', and in fulfilling herself, she loses all she loved and all who loved her.
Mm. I knew from the very first sentence that I was going to enjoy this book. Cather’s writing is a delight throughout. Her prose is simple, direct, elegant, evocative.
I went into the book knowing next to nothing about it—something I rarely do—and found that made for an extremely freeing experience. The story takes place near the end of America’s great push west, as the old pioneers are gradually giving way to a generation of young men who take life on the Great Plains for granted. This is a subject about which Cather was very passionate, and on which she touches numerous times over the course of the novella, but her scope here is much narrower than that. Mostly, A Lost Lady is a character study. It is an examination of one Marian Forrester, the young wife of one of those old pioneers, as seen through the eyes of young Niel Herbert.
Cather, to say the least, does an eerily good job of writing from a young man’s point of view. Few female authors have captured the male psyche this well. (Daphne du Maurier, in My Cousin Rachel, is the only name that comes to mind at the moment.) I personally saw quite a lot of myself in him.
But it is not Niel, finally, that this story is about. When I was halfway through the book, I told my grandmother I was reading it. Her comment was, “Oh, that Mrs. Forester, she’s such a … nice lady, isn’t she?”
I was shocked. “Nice” is not exactly the word I would use to describe the old railway man’s wife. Fickle, manipulative, shallow, false? Yes. Strong, independent, charming, loyal? Yes, all those as well. She is a tremendously complex character, the kind one cannot exactly put one’s finger on. And those are, of course, the very best kind.
I cannot say I was wowed by A Lost Lady, but then, I don’t think that was Cather’s intention. It is a book of modest pretensions, beautifully executed. Because of the quality of the writing, and the fact that it is a s short and easy read, this gets a solid recommendation from me; Cather, meanwhile, has moved to the top of my list of American authors whose works I wish to explore.
Niel is a studious young man, reading classics and working to overcome his humble origins. Captain Forrester, a self-made man, counsels Niel that he need only work hard to get what he deserves in life:
All our great west has been developed from such dreams; the homesteader's and the prospector's and the contractor's. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains, just as I dreamed my place on the Sweet Water. (p. 55)
As Niel matures he watches the Forresters, and pines for Mrs. Forrester who of course sees him as nothing more than a nice schoolboy. Niel's illusions are shattered when Mrs. Forrester shows her own human weaknesses. Unfortunately, I failed to develop an emotional connection to these characters. The novel was improved by Cather's beautiful descriptions of the landscape:
The sky was burning with the soft p[ink and silver of a cloudless summer dawn. The heavy, bowed grasses splashed him to the knees. All over the marsh, snow-on-the-mountain, globed with dew, made cool sheets of silver, and the swamp milk-week spread its flat, raspberry-coloured clusters. There was an almost religious purity about the fresh morning air, the tender sky, the grass and flowers with the sheen of early dew upon them. There was in all living things something limpid and joyous -- like the wet, morning call of the birds, flying up through the unstained atmosphere. (p. 84)
This was a decent novel, just not one of Cather's best.
One may view A Lost Lady as a brilliant epilogue to Cather’s famous pioneer novels; however, it has a different tone, not heroic and optimistic like the Whitmanesque O Pioneers! but bittersweet and retrospective like Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. As one who loves Cather's beautiful writing style I found this a touching taste from her pen.
In A Lost Lady, Willa Cather presents the complementary side of prairie life to the "homesteaders and hand-workers" who populate O Pioneers! and My Antonia. This is the story of "the bankers and gentlemen ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money and to 'develop our great West.'" Especially one such banker, Captain Daniel Forrester, who lived in the prairie town of Sweet Water with his young, beautiful, charming wife, the former Marian Ormsby.
Captain Forrester made his fortune building the railroad and many railroad VIPs made a point of stopping at "the Forrester place" on their business trips back and forth on the railway. In those "happy days" Mrs. Marian Forrester presided over this remote outpost of Denver and San Francisco society. It was the image of Mrs. Forrester as the perfect wife and hostess that captivated Niel Herbert, a boy growing up in Sweet Water. But bank failure and crop failure turned Sweet Water into "one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad" and drained the fortune of Captain Forrester. The VIP visits grew fewer and fewer.
Neil is another of Cather's emasculated male characters and it is through his eyes that we see the decline of Mrs. Forrester. Unfaithful as wife, a clandestine affair with the notorious Frank Ellenger. Abandoned by Ellenger, a drunken telephone call to him overheard by the town gossip. Putting her business affairs in the hands of the shylock, Ivy Peters. Later allowing those hands familiar access to her person. Niel is first appalled and ultimately contemptuous of his fallen goddess. His judgment: "she was not willing to immolate herself . . . she preferred life on any terms."
Of course she preferred life--she was a survivor, as much as Alexandra and Antonia were survivors. At age 19 she survived the murder of her millionaire fiance and the ensuing scandal; the fall off a mountain cliff that killed her guide; the isolated life of a prairie town with no indigenous social peers. She did what she had to do, suffered what she must. Her talent was not tilling the earth, but tilling society. She had a charm that brought admirers from across the country, and when those admirers no longer came to Sweet Water, she knew she had to go to them. She mortgaged herself to Ivy Peters until she had the means to leave. She did leave then, found another millionaire and lived out her life in her own grand style. She remained true to herself, if not always to others. She was a lost lady only to the jejune Niel Herbert.
Cather's direct, spare language is perfect for the setting. She draws a nuanced portrait of a Niel, a sensitive young man, a little out of place among his peers and drawn to the fine manners and beauty of Mrs. Forrester. The reader discovers Mrs. Forrester through the Niel's own realization of her character.
This little novella is the perfect thing to take on your next short flight. Cather's calm, straightforward prose is the perfect way to tune out a plane full of screaming toddlers --
"The room was cool and dusky and quiet.... The windows went almost down to the baseboard, like doors, and the closed green shutters let in streaks of sunlight that quivered on the polished floor and the silver things on the dresser. The heavy curtains were looped back with thick cords, like ropes. The marble-topped washstand was as big as a sideboard. The massive walnut furniture was all inlaid with pale-coloured woods."
Along with a vividly painted portrait of a woman very much of her own mind, this story treads through both the beautiful meadows and the marshy backwater of the American hinterland. Early in the story we witness perhaps the most awful example of wanton cruelty I have ever encountered in a story. It is so startling that it makes it hard to even focus on what Cather is doing here. But I suppose that, since nothing much comes of that act at the time or later, it must be meant to serve as a caution on how we ought to treat of Marian’s own actions. Fate, it seems, can be as cruel as the cruelest of young boys.
Cather’s writing is never less than riveting. She seems to evoke a prairie locale with the mere wave of her hand, but it is surely the work of a great artist. Her central characters are as complex as any imaginable: full of contrary actions, missteps, magnanimity, and baseness. Almost too much for such a slight work. But gently recommended, as ever.
Mrs Forrester, the 'Lost Lady' of the title is married to an ageing Captain in a small, backwoods town in the transitional America of the railroad era. This work deals with her complex relationship with her husband, her lovers and a youth of the town, Neils, who idolises the image of her and reveres her husband and his old fashioned morals and conventions. The new, crude manners of the upcoming generation contrasts with Neils' old-school outlook. Cather shows him as outdated, left behind by his compatriots. As you follow this trio of characters through to the death of the Captain, we see Neils' polarised idea of right and wrong in the light of the complexities of the emotional and moral ties that bind the other characters. Ultimately, Neils' innocence dies with Captain Forrester as his illusions are shattered by the realisation that all live with some kind or moral compromise and none of his idols fit into his succinct categories of morality. As for the 'Lady' herself, on the one hand, the reader is tempted to dislike her for her perceived disloyalty. However, ultimately it becomes clear that, in her own way, she was as loyal to her husband as others and that loyalty and faithfulness are not necessarily synonymous and in some ways this redeems her.
It is an interesting and beautifully crafted novel and the characterisation is very competently realised. Criticism has been levelled at Cather's work, implying that she was over-reliant on her devotion to the old America of a time that was passing and that she refused to accept the newer world; that she was wasting her obvious talent by not turning it loose on the modern world. However, for me, it is exactly this viewpoint that makes the novel so poignant. I would certainly recommend this. It is a very engaging and fast read but definitely a pleasureable one too.
The scene early in the book with Ivy Peters and the woodpecker is shocking. I kept thinking that even in 1923 there were psychopaths! This event, unknown to the Forresters, colors both Niel and the reader's view of later events involving Mrs. Forrester's connections with Ivy Peters.