Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady

a lost lady cather vintage 1972 51nRiPWgiIL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_

“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.”–Marion Forrester in A Lost Lady

Year ago I discovered Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, attracted by the pretty cover of a Vintage paperback (see above).  I have read this classic many times.

In 2007, we traveled to Willa’s hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska, the headquarters of the Willa Cather Foundation.  On a splendid  tour of the pretty small town, we saw the house of the original models for two of the main characters in A Lost Lady, Captain Silas Garber, founder of Red Cloud and of the town’s bank, and his wife,  Lyra, a charming, pretty woman from California. In the novel, the couple are called Captain and Mrs. Forrester.

Red Cloud rekindled my interest in A Lost Lady.  It is a complicated novel, told in the form of a frame story. The narrator, Niel Herbert, depicts Marion Forrester through the lenses of idealization and disillusion. She and Captain Forrester are the aristocrats of the town.  They live part of the year  in Sweet Water, Nebraska, but winter in Denver.  Marion brings sophistication to Sweet Water.   She and the Captain are not only charming to Niel’s uncle, Judge Pomeroy, but also entertain bank presidents and railroad magnates who are traveling from Denver to Chicago.

Marion’s delicate charm  makes me think of a watercolor painting. When she gives Niel and the other boys permission to fish in the creek, Niel is the first to spot her bringing them a plate of cookies for lunch.  He sees

…a white figure coming rapidly through the grove, under the flickering leaf shadows,–Mrs. Forrester, bare-headed, a basket on her arm, her blue-black hair shining in the sun. It was not until years afterward that she began to wear veils and sun hats, though her complexion was never one of her beauties.  Her cheeks were pale and rather thin, slightly freckled in summer.

Mrs. Forrester/Mrs.Garber meant a great deal to Willa. In Mildred R. Bennett’s fascinating biography, The World of Willa Cather (University of Nebraska Press), she quotes a 1925 interview Cather gave to The New York World.  Cather said,

A Lost Lady was a woman I loved very much in my childhood.  Now the problem was to get her not like a standardized heroine in fiction, but as she really was, and not to care about anything else in the story except that one character.  And there is nothing bu that portrait.  Everything else is subordinate.

I didn’t try to make a character study, but just a portrait like a thin miniature painted on ivory.

willa-cather-a-lost-ladyIt takes time for Niel to realize that no one can live in an ivory portrait, any more than on a pedestal. He learns Mrs. Forrester is having an affair with one of her husband’s friends.  And after Captain Forrester loses his money by reimbursing the customers of  the failed bank, he has a stroke. Marion is  stuck in Sweet Water year-round, with no money for hired help. And she frenetically entertains young men from Sweet Water who are far beneath her in class, including Ivy Peters, a corrupt lawyer.

Hermione Lee observes in Willa Cather:  Double Lives that A Lost Lady signifies a new kind of writing for Cather:

There is a crucial change, now, from the early pioneering novels. The focus has shifted from the immigrants to the American ‘aristocracy’; and from female heroism to femininity. These heroines are ‘ladies,’ socially adept, self-conscious, sophisticated, decorative. They have no children, they are separated from their family roots, they have no independent occupations, and they define themselves in terms of their relation to men. They are confined and thwarted, not expansive and self-fulfilling. Their energies are poured, not into something impersonal and bigger than themselves–the shaping of the land, the making of an art–but into personal feelings and self-expression. They are much more elusive and less reliable than the pioneering women-heroes.

I pity Marion Forrester, living in Sweet Water, a small, dying town, losing population and wealth. After the Captain dies,  she is very lonely and  poor, and switches her legal business from respectable Judge Pomeroy to the hustler Ivy Peters. Niel loses all respect for her.  But when he  learns years later that she escaped from Sweet Water, he relents.  Her words on money (see epigraph to this post) look cynical, but Marion needed to leave Nebraska.  Ivy Peters found her the money; Neil and his uncle could not.  Is it ever right to stoop to the level of Ivy Peters?

I don’t know.  But Marion had to get out–under any circumstances.

This short, perfect book would make a perfect gift, by the way.  It’s spare, taut, and lyrical, and the new Vintage Classic edition also has a lovely cover..