This ‘new’ green VMC seems to one of a number of POD VMCs with covers reminiscent of those lovely old original greens. It seems – from a recent discussion on the Librarything Virago group – that a few selected titles have been available for a while. They have a heavier more robust feel to them than the old original greens but for me are greatly to be preferred to some of the modern VMCs with their silly, frothy cover art.
Willa Cather is firmly established as one of my favourite authors, I have been slowly eking out her books, and although I did only read My Mortal Enemy recently I felt suddenly compelled to read this one now. Lucy Gayheart was Cather’s penultimate novel, and in it she returns to themes explored in some of her best loved novels, O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. There is an exquisite bittersweet elegiac quality to this novel which makes it unforgettable.
The story takes place in 1901/1902, with an extraordinarily beautiful epilogue taking place twenty-five years later. The novel opens with a retrospective remembrance of Lucy Gayheart, and the reader senses immediately that there will be sadness at the very heart of this story.
“In Haverford on the Platte the townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart. They do not talk of her a great deal, to be sure; life goes on and we live in the present. But when they do mention her name it is with a gentle glow in the face or the voice, a confidential glance which says: ‘Yes, you too, remember?’ They still see her as a slight figure always in motion; dancing or skating, or walking swiftly with intense direction, like a bird flying home.”
As she did with The Song of the Lark, here Cather considers the incompatibility of those wanting to dedicate themselves to the arts (in this case music) and the confining nature of small town Nebraskan life. At eighteen Lucy leaves her small town for Chicago to study music. As the novel opens Lucy is home in Haverford for the Christmas holidays, the young people of Haverford enjoy the traditional skating parties on the stretch of ice by Duck Island and Lucy is courted by the most eligible bachelor in town. Harry Gordon is determined to have a wife who other men will envy – and has chosen Lucy despite her family’s relative poverty. Lucy’s father gives music lessons from the room behind his watch repairer’s shop, while Lucy was effectively brought up by her sister Pauline.
“Yesterday’s rain had left a bitter, spring like smell in the air; the vehemence that beat against her in the street and hummed above her had something a little wistful in it tonight, like a plaintive hand-organ tune. All the lovely things in the shop windows, the furs and jewels, roses and orchids, seemed to belong to her as she passed them. Not to have wrapped up and sent home, certainly; where would she put them? But they were hers to live among.”
The holidays over – Lucy is back in the city – living independently in her room above a German bakery. Lucy has been studying music under the tutelage of Professor Auerbach who introduces her to his friend Clement Sebastien a renowned baritone singer. Sebastien is married (seemingly estranged from his wife,) middle aged and looking for an accompanist for his practise sessions – his regular accompanist will continue to play for his concerts. Lucy finds herself immediately deeply affected by Sebastien – his voice and the manner of expressing the songs he sings, his kindness and tenderness towards her can have only one result. At Sebastien’s studio Lucy meets Sebastien’s valet Giuseppe of who she becomes very fond of and James Mockford – the regular accompanist who she feels strangely uneasy about. Embarrassed by having her feelings for Sebastien exposed Lucy is relieved and grateful for his kindness and understanding, and although it becomes obvious that he returns her feelings Sebastien won’t take the next step – old enough to be her father he fears her feelings are not real.
While Sebastien is away on tour, Harry pays a visit to Chicago, and he and Lucy visit museums and see several concerts. Harry’s thoughts turn to the future, the one he imagines he will have with Lucy – Lucy tells him quite cruelly that she loves someone else, and further, in a hastily spoken lie – taunts him with the how far their relationship has gone. Broken, Harry returns to Haverford and makes a hasty impulsive, sensible marriage with the kind of woman he had always wanted to not spend his life with. In Chicago Sebastien returns for a few days before he Giuseppe and Mockford head off for a European tour. All Lucy can do is work at her music and wait for his return. However, fate is destined to be unkind to Lucy – but I shall say no more – for here is where part one of three ends and there is a hundred pages to go.
“It was a gift of nature, he supposed, to go wildly happy over trifling things – over nothing! It wasn’t given to him – he wouldn’t have chosen it; but he liked catching it from Lucy for a moment, feeling it flash by his ear. When they stood watching the sun break through, or waiting for the birds to rise, that expectancy beside him made all his nerves tingle, as if his shooting-clothes, and the hard case of the muscle he lived in, were being sprayed by a wild spring shower. His own body grew marvellously free and light, and there was a snapping sparkle in his blood that made him set his teeth.”
That last hundred pages is what turned a solid four star read into a five star read – I can’t adequately express the beauty and poignancy of the writing that Cather produces here. She explores her themes of love, loss and failure eloquently and with perfect understanding.
The sense of place – particularly in Haverford where the novel begins and ends – is extraordinarily strong – something Cather always does well – here she leaves her readers with images that will live long in the mind.