Brutal Winters in Willa Cather: Why Aren’t Women’s Clothes Warm?

a lost lady cather vintage 1972 51nRiPWgiIL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_Winters can be brutal in the Midwest.  Think  Willa Cather. She was the first writer I read who described the bitter winters of Nebraska (and  contiguous states).  I spent winter nights my senior year in college reading her books in a chilly rented room in a run-down house.  One of the pleasures of winter is reading about winter.

In one of Cather’s most brilliant novels,  A Lost Lady, the heroine, Marion Forrester, can hardly bear winter in Nebraska. She and her husband, a railroad magnate, used to winter in Colorado Springs.  He was an officer for a bank in Denver, and when it failed, he  compensated the bank customers’ losses with his own money.

Marion Forrester is gracious and sophisticated, but she wishes he had kept some of the money.  Temperamentally she is unsuited for country life.

“Oh, but it is bleak!” she murmured. “Suppose we should have to stay here all next winter, too,… and the next! What will become of me, Niel?” There was fear, unmistakable fright in her voice. “You see there is nothing for me to do. I get no exercise. I don’t skate; we didn’t in California, and my ankles are weak. I’ve always danced in the winter, there’s plenty of dancing at Colorado Springs. You wouldn’t believe how I miss it. I shall dance till I’m eighty.… I’ll be the waltzing grandmother! It’s good for me, I need it.”

I have known desperate women in small towns, and who isn’t desperate in winter?  Gradually Marion compromises herself in her association with Ivy Peters,an exploitative lawyer she has known since boyhood who speculates dishonestly.  All of Cather’s characters are vivid, perhaps because they were her friends and acquaintances in real life.  Cather based the Forresters on a gracious couple in her hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska.  The model for Captain Forrester was Silas Garber, the fourth governor of Nebraska, and the founder of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank in 1889.  When the bank failed in 1893,   he gave his own money to the customers. (Would anybody do that nowadays?)   Like Niel, the narrator of A Lost Lady, Willa frequently visited Mrs. Garber (the model for Mrs. Forrester), a charming woman who, in the words of my guide on a Cather tour of Red Cloud, ” brought sophistication to the town.”

Keeping warm is half the battle of liking winter.  All of my friends had trouble keeping warm.  None of us had a car. We all walked and walked.  Our rooms were within walking distance of downtown and campus.  We wore  parkas with fur-trimmed hoods, or layers and layers under wool coats from thrift stores.  The best thing about working–and everybody had part-time jobs–was that we were temporarily in a very warm building.

The thing is, it is harder and harder for women to find warm clothes.   You can’t get them at the mall.  You need to order from outdoorsy catalogues.  Here’s what I’ve noticed.  The jeans and corduroy pants from Lands End are thinner than they used to be, and no longer have pockets. When I walk out the door, my trunk is warm because of the parka, but I need long underwear under these thin girlish pants because my legs are freezing even when it’s over 30 degrees.   These clothes are made for women who walk from the house to the car, and then from the car to work.  For long distances, you need warmer clothes.

It’s like saying to women, “You aren’t supposed to be outdoors.  You’re supposed to be ornaments.”

Nobody should say that to women ever.  Not if they take walks and bike. And we do.

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..