“People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know.”
I’ve had this strange, sad little novella for some time, the trouble with tiny little books is that they are easy to overlook. I do love Willa Cather’s writing, there’s a sense of place in her novels I feel right at home in. Her characters step from the pages fully formed and believable – as if from life. My Mortal Enemy was written during Willa Cather’s most creative period, I’m surprised it isn’t better known. One can’t help but feel that in the character of Myra Henshawe we must have someone who Willa Cather knew – or had at least heard of from somebody. According to A S Byatt in the introduction to this old Virago edition, this is indeed the case – we don’t know from exactly where the character comes, but it seems she was someone Cather knew. There is a quite definite deliberateness to the shortness of this little book, Cather gives us the essence of these people, and leaves us asking questions about them. It’s quite brilliant.
Our narrator Nellie Birdseye is fifteen when she first meets Myra Henshawe who is visiting Nellie’s home town with her husband. Nellie has grown up in Parthia, Illinois, hearing the stories of Myra Henshawe’s runaway marriage – how on one snowy night she had walked proudly out of the gates of her uncle’s wealthy home, to join Oswald Henshawe; the young man her uncle had forbidden her to marry.
‘But they’ve been happy, anyhow?’ I sometimes asked her.
‘Happy? Oh yes! As happy as most people.’
That answer was disheartening; the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people.”
Myra had walked away from her inheritance; no one believed that her uncle would ever change his mind. Nellie’s Aunt Lydia has fuelled Nellie’s imagination with romantic stories about Myra – and so at first Nellie is rather disappointed in the reality, a woman fussing about her husband’s shirts, much older than she had expected.
“After I went home from that first glimpse of the real Myra Henshawe, twenty-five years older than I had always imagined her, I could not help feeling a little disappointed. John Driscoll and his niece had suddenly changed places in my mind, and he had got, after all, the more romantic part. Was it not better to get out of the world with such pomp and dramatic splendour than to linger in it, having to take account of shirts and railway trains, and getting a double chin into the bargain?”
Myra at around forty-five, is sharp, often sarcastic, a figure of legend, who Nellie is so ready to be impressed by. Nellie and Aunt Lydia travel to New York City to spend Christmas with the Henshawes. Here the Henshawes live in an apartment – which Nellie loves the moment she sees it – in genteel poverty, surrounded by various artists and actors. Oswald enlists Aunt Lydia’s help in a small, but possibly significant deception to thwart his wife’s jealousy and Nellie later witnesses an argument between the Henshawes. Nellie and Aunt Lydia spend Christmas dinner with friends of Myra and Oswald and New Year they meet yet more artists. As Nellie and her aunt leave New York by train they are suddenly joined by Myra who has apparently quarrelled again with Oswald and she is on her way to visit friends in Pittsburgh.
Ten years later Nellie meets Myra and Oswald again. Both the Henshawes and Nellie have been driven to a little town on the west coast by economic necessity. Nellie has come as a teacher, a position that Myra heartily disapproves of. Myra is very ill, bedridden she is cared for by Oswald who when not caring for Myra works full time for the city traction company, a poorly paid lowly position. The Henshawes flat is small and shabby; their upstairs neighbours are dreadfully noisy. The dying Myra tells Nellie – about her life, how ‘they were never really happy’ instructs Nellie to ditch teaching and try journalism. Nellie takes Myra to a headland above the sea – a place that Myra becomes enchanted by and returns to again.
Poor Myra; achieved legendary status when she walked out on her inheritance one snowy night many, many years earlier, but then lived an ordinary, unremarkable life. Her great love turned sour, although we can only ever guess why. So the reader leaves Myra Henshawe with many questions still about her.