My second read for Willa Cather reading week was A Lost Lady first published in 1923, is seen by many as her best novel. A novel about the passing of the old order, an elegy for the days of the Pioneer, it tells the story of the gradual deterioration of a woman’s reputation and values.
Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer today than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere.
The story is told through the eyes of Niel Herbert, who as a young boy falls in love with the beautiful, elegant, almost other worldly Marian Forrester. Married to an elderly railroad pioneer, to whom she is a constant delight, Marian charms the community of Sweet Water where the couple live mainly during the summer months. The summer this story opens, Niel is twelve years old, he and his friends, fish, picnic and play on the land surrounding the Forrester home, Marian Forrester watching them from the house sends some newly baked biscuits out to them. Another local boy, a little older than Niel and his friends is Ivy Peters, a scornful, cruel boy, amused by Niel’s affection for the Forresters.
“He could remember the very first time he ever saw Mrs Forrester, when he was a little boy. He had been loitering in front of the Episcopal church one Sunday morning, when a low carriage drove up to the door. Ben Keezer was on the front seat, and on the back seat was a lady, alone, in a black silk dress all puffs and ruffles, and a black hat, carrying a parasol with a carved ivory handle. As the carriage stopped she lifted her dress to alight; out of a swirl of foamy white petticoats she thrust a black, shiny slipper. She stepped lightly to the ground and with a nod to the driver went into the church. The little boy followed her through the open door, saw her enter a pew and kneel. He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognised her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known.”
Marian and Captain Forrester play host to the Captain’s friends at their comfortable home, they are a popular couple, their home a place of genial company. As a boy young Niel is bewitched by Mrs Forrester – and from the day he is carried into her home, injured, to await the local doctor, his life in Sweet Water is lived on the periphery of the Forrester home. Niel’s uncle, Judge Pommeroy is one of the Captain’s particular friends and so Niel becomes a regular and welcome guest in their home, Marian becomes fond of the boy, encouraging his visits. The Captain and his slowly declining health represent the end of the old pioneering days, as his old fashioned investments lose money and he and his wife are forced to live in their Sweet Water home all year round.
Several years later, Niel is working with his uncle, before leaving Sweet Water to train as an architect, still a regular visitor at the Forrester’s house he is introduced to Frank Ellinger and Constance Ogden. Marian wants Niel to entertain Constance who is the same age as Niel, but Constance seems more taken with Frank, a large, sociable man of about forty, who Niel feels uncomfortable around, and he notices, spends a lot of time with Mrs Forrester.
Niel’s faith in Marian Forrester is severely shaken, for him she loses a lot of the glamour she had before Frank Ellinger became a regular visitor. When the Captain returns from town with the news that they have lost most of their money, Niel struggles to reconcile Marian Forrester with a woman who will have to undertake her own household tasks. For Niel, Marian Forrester’s decline is a slow sad education into the truth of human frailties. Like Emma Bovary perhaps, Marian Forrester is not entirely unsympathetic, even in the midst of his increasing disappointment over the years Niel can’t entirely turn away from her.
“Long, long afterward, when Niel did not know whether Mrs Forrester was living or dead, if her image flashed into his mind, it came with a brightness of dark eyes, her pale triangular cheeks with long earrings, and her many-coloured laugh. When he was dull, dull and tired of everything, he used to think that if he could hear that long-lost lady laugh again he could be gay.”
Marian is a woman who has known excitement and glamour, twenty five years younger than her husband she is not quite ready to sit ageing by the fire. She looks after her husband tenderly; yet she still knows how to charm the men around her. Marian is faithless but steadfast, vulnerable yet capable of doing whatever she needs to survive. Old Pioneers like Captain Forrester eventually shuffle off to make way for the new capitalist generation represented by Ivy Peters – who has bought up land around the Forrester home, and in time manages Marian’s estate – taking unpardonable liberties in Niel’s opinion with the way he speaks to one who should be his social superior. Niel has to accept that Marian is not the idealised creature she had appeared to that small boy, and so faithful to the last Niel attempts to protect Marian from herself.
A Lost Lady is a delicately rendered novel, the writing exquisite, marking a half way point in Cather’s writing career. It is simply superb, poignant and memorable.