Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Lost Lady

One of the saddest American novels I've read is Willa Cather's A Lost Lady. No one in the twentieth century writes more tragically and exquisitely than Cather, though she’s often designated a regional writer and craftsman rather than a tragedian and artist. She influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald, a midwestern writer who did not write about the midwest, and surpasses him because she realistically documented life on the prairie after she moved east, unlike Fitzgerald, who preferred to write about New York and France. Yet she is often despised for her "sentimental" novels about the pioneer era and its decline. Her work is passionate more often than sentimental, but many critics cannot see that and dislike her nearly perfect, simple style, believing it is less significant than that of her successors, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

A cup of tea and Cather’s descriptions of winter in A Lost Lady are grand: they make one feel the cold of the terrible Nebraskan winters. The structure of A Lost Lady is complex. We see Captain Forrester and his wife, Marion Forrester, through the eyes of Niel, a small-town boy who grows up to admire the Forresters. Niel's uncle, Judge Pommeroy, is one of their few social equals. Marion Forrester is a vivacious woman who flirts with men and boys, allows the boys to fish on her property, and feeds them fresh cookies. Her husband, one of the richest men in town, is 25 years older, but she seems devoted to him. Questions are raised about this as the novel continues, yet we understand her duality. As long as the Forresters can spend the winter in Denver with friends, Marion can endure life in Sweet Water, Nebraska. But after Captain Forrester gives away his money to protect the working-class men who have lost everything in a failed Denver bank, Marion begins to drink and no longer cares if people know about her affair with a man in Colorado. Her morals are worse than the Captain’s and her ideals non-existent: Niel and Judge Pommeroy are disappointed and shun her. After the captain's death, Marion allows Ivy Peters, a base, cruel lawyer, to control her investments and business affairs. She doesn’t care that he cheats Indians and the poor.

“Money is a very important thing,” she tells Niel. Later, she explains to him why she has given her business to the working-class, scornful Ivy Peters. “[Your uncle] wouldn’t attempt to sell [the house] for more than twelve. That’s why I had to put it into other hands. Times have changed, but he doesn’t realize it. Mr. Forrester himself told me it wouldn’t be worth that. Ivy says he can get me twenty thousand, or if not, he will take it off my hands as soon as his investments begin to bring in returns.

Hermione Lee writes a chapter on "Lost Ladies" in her amazing critical study, Willa Cather: Double Lives. She writes:"There is a crucial change, now, from the early pioneering novels. The foucs 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 intos 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."

No one respects Marion Forrester after a time. Yet Niel retains an affection for her. He learns the end of her story: she has finally gotten away. So was she lost? Was she right to change her business in changing times? Niel has the old values. So do we. Yet we think she might have straightened out near the end, after leaving Sweet Water, which was a kind of death to her.


Ellen Moody said...

I'm dialoguing with you in blogosphere too.

Dear Kat,

I love Cather's books. We read one of her less effective or partly unsuccessful ones last year (or maybe the one before), but it was marred by an inability to shrug off delusions about patriotism or maybe she knew she couldn't have gotten it in print unless she had validated the loss of life in WW1. However, until the war sequences start and at the end of them (when all are killed who are valuable) _One of Ours_ is a great book in her usual artistic profoundly insightful way.

If many critics disparage her work, most of them are male (as most critics in academia until recently were -- recently the humanities in the US is turning into a female ghetto, so that in any given room at a conference the young women outnumber the young men in big numbers, making it by-the-way much easier for young men to get tenure for an all-female department or nearly so is embarrassed at itself), most of them I say male and refusing to acknowledge the amount of sentiment in male books because they liked what the male books were sentimental about. Alfred Kazin's much lauded On Native Grounds only disses two authors: Ellen Glasgow and Willa Cather. Now what do they have in common? We are told they are retreaters, not engaging in large social issues, romantic (a bad word here) and so on.

Hermione Lee is one of those who discusses values lucidly and explicitly and doesn't hedge. She's not afraid to speak the unspeakable outside literary criticism and fictions and art in her own non-fiction voice as critic-scholar.

I enjoyed your piece and want to understand it better. So I ask respectful questions.

Why does the heroine give up after her husband loses most of his money? I assume they just aren't rich any more. This reminds me of the characters in Jhabvala, Jumpha Lahiri and Andrea Barrett -- to name three of the short story collections we've read. The woman seems deliberately to allow others to destroy her. In the stories I remember best the woman simply had the probable bad luck to have voracious tenacious relatives who wanted all she had, or end up in the hands of an unscrupulous lawyer or working for a real bastard. And they had no one to turn to. So they collapsed. You don't say why Marion suddenly revealed her shame and shamed herself further. Are we to think she's somehow enthralled by Peter and doesn't know how to escape him, has no where or person to help her to escape?

You say he's the only one who demands a lot of money. Is he the only lawyer she knows or has contact with? If so, why reveal her affairs with others? How are the two connected?

Cather presents sex as a pit people can fall into. She doesn't go further than this than to present them already fallen. Is it that?

Since the world is made up of closed communities, it's easy for bad luck to occur to a woman. That's what happened to Lady Vane (whose memoirs I mean to summarize tonight).

People sometimes interpret stories that tell such truths as about masochistic women. But I don't think the women are. They just have no one or who will help them who is decent. There's also the problem of the author not delving clearly into sex enough. They don't tell why the woman or man is attracted to the bastard nasty person and stays with them. What they get out of it? For they do usually get something important out of such a relationship.

Why is Marion lost? Because she left the awful community? Is Cather suddenly turning on her own insight and saying one must stay within the group, no matter how bad, or die of inanition? aloneness?


Mad Housewife said...

Dear Ellen,

I'm catching up on e-mail after an exhausting trip. So here goes, a little late...

What does Willa Cather think of Marion Forrester in A Lost Lady? I suppose that’s really the question. Cather portrays her as through a glass, revealing the different angles from which men see her. The narrator, Niel, and his uncle, the gentleman judge, admire Marion as a charming hostess with a perfect marriage. Neither one has any experience of women, I might add. But from the beginning Ivy Peters, the poor sadistic young man who rises to be a lawyer, despises her because he is not in the Forresters’ circle. Ivy wants to hurt her; Niel wants to save her. This is their relationship from the beginning. Niel falls from a tree and breaks his arm trying to save a woodpecker that Ivy Peters has injured with a taxidermy kit on the Forresters’ property. Ivy breaks Marion’s rules--no hunting on her property--while Niel tries to stop him. But in the end who saves her? Perhaps she saves herself from Ivy Peters' taxidermy needles.

Marion loathes Sweet Water, Nebraska, based on Cather's hometown, Red Cloud. Cather’s sympathy is, I think, with Marion. She understands that Sweet Water has ruined Marion’s character. Marion has a lot of hidden anger: she can only express herself in sweetness and charm, but her husband has brought her to the godforsaken small town, though he knows Marion adores parties, cards, and winters in Denver. She dislikes other women (especially pretty ones) and flirts with men young and old, sometimes coming out in her “wrapper” to greet them. And though her husband loves her, he doesn’t see her, either, as the sexy woman she is. He is 25 years older, very dignified, and treats her as a hostess or glorified housekeeper. He saved her years ago, after an accident in California, after a scandal with a man she loved.

After her husband gives away the money to immigrant workers and has a stroke, she doesn’t bother to hide her drinking or her affair with a man in Colorado. She is the "man" of the house. Captain Forrester cannot help her. She is not a likable heroine, but the reader understands her better than the men, who see only her attractions. She cuts corners. She would not have given up her fortune to immigrants.

Niel, who wants to help/save Marion, takes a year off from MIT after Mr. Forrester has his stroke. "No, he ain't much on manners," Captain Forrester says to Niel, who is appalled that Ivy now rents the marsh from them and is on familiar terms with Marion. After Mr. Forrester’s death, when Marion takes her money from Judge Pommeroy’s law practice to Ivy Peters’s, the townspeople turn against her. Here is the ironic thing. Niel leaves Nebraska for Massachusetts and it civilizes him. Yet he blames her for wanting to leave and for investing her money with ”fast” Ivy. (Ivy Peters is crooked: I suppose it would be like turning your money over to Enron. And he’s ruining the countryside by developing it). Yet in the end Ivy’s money seems to save her. She leaves Nebraska and marries another rich man. . She is not as good as Mr. Forrester, Judge Pommeroy, or Niel. But, as you point out, all three of them were in charge of their destinies, while Marion can express herself only through relationships with men.

So she is “lost.” She doesn’t live up to Mr. Forrester even when she lives with him. And when she does invest money, she makes "bad" investments that pay off. But she does save herself and get what she wants, even though she falls below the upper-middle-class standards to get it.

A peculiar book.


Ellen Moody said...

Dear Kathy,

As you retell the story in a different way in order to explain more, I see so many parallels in American literature of the 1st half of the 20th century. For example, Sinclair Lewis's _Main Street_ and _Dodsworth_. Marion is the heroine of _Main Street_ who is taken to live in a small town as a respectable physician's wife who loathes it -- because none of her gifts are at all wanted, and she rages with boredom. But there is this same hostility to heterosexual woman (I believe the heroine in _Main Street_ is a Carol) one finds in the depiction of Fran in _Dodsworth_. My reference to Joan Crawford comes partly from having been reading about the types she depicted: she was often the fringe person, the ruthless one in upper class milieus. (One of the many essays on _Now Voyager_ says not only did Bette Davis usually play mean women, she rarely played upper class ones, so this movie showing her upper class, speaking elite English and ending up ever so idealistic and inspired reveals how class-inflected "goodness" and "badness" are in movies). If Cather's sympathy is with this type, it's ambivalent.

The older man theme recalls all the novels where a younger woman is married off to be saved by the older man. From _Sense and Sensibility_ (Marianne Dashwood married off to Brandon; Brandon's cousin was not so saved) to _Summer_.

The one of Kathy's retelling reminds me of Henry James and Edith Wharton too. There is still valuing of civilization as if it's a vision in the mind's eye as you sit there being polite (even if impulses are atavistic and savage), but it's fragile and around the corner is literally gone if you lose your place. Cather substituted her vision of the past here, her worship of France (idealized -- as we saw in _One of Ours_), and also of the American pre-European past (Native Americans in say _The Professor's House_, in "Tom Outland's Story').

Doubtless I don't know enough but as her other work seems to me quintesentially American. Laura and I visited a museum yesterday which was trying its very hardest to give visual history to real American culture insofar as its 20,000 objects allow (you'd think it'd manage, but as Virginia Woolf said a great deal of what is made is of a narrow conventional terrain which does not reflect anything real; I'd add is only didactic on behalf of the present order or upper class)

It's so very wrong that Alfred Kazin writes a book still central to American studies where he says Glasgow and Cather's books are sheer escapism, not worth reading, not about central social issues. That's because he has not begun to understand how a woman's vision works and what women see and experience.

Alas that Cather's book reinforces the idea that it's men who matter.

Ellen .