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.
Posted by Frisbee at 9:26 AM