Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘willa cather’

deathcomes

“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”

I love the writing of Willa Cather, and I have been trying to spread out her books so I don’t read them all too quickly. I just have some story collections and The Professor’s House left to read (although I think I have read that before – I just can’t remember it).

I have seen Death Comes for the Archbishop described as Cather’s masterpiece, and given the quite wonderful writing, and the scope of the novel I can understand why. Personally, it isn’t quite my favourite (that would be A Lost Lady) but it is still, quite simply wonderful – and definitely in my top three. Some of Cather’s best known novels deal with the realities of rough pioneer life in Nebraska, and the creative life of great singers. This novel is very different to those.

Willa Cather became interested in the deserts and Indian villages of the American South West years before writing this novel, and found the story of the Catholic church in that region of great interest. She formed a friendship with a Belgian priest on a visit to Santa Cruz and it was from him that she learned a great deal about the traditions of the people in New Mexico and the stories of the nineteenth century French priests who are the quiet heroes of this novel.

In 1848 on a summer evening in Rome, three cardinals and a missionary gather for their evening meal, and together decide the fate of one, simple French parish priest; Jean Marie Latour. Father Latour is go as a missionary to New Mexico, taking the Catholic faith with him, into a vast region of desert, adobe villages and native American peoples.

“One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me not to rest so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

Accompanying Father Latour on his marathon journey to Santa Fe – a journey on horseback, taking months, – is old friend Father Valliant. The two were in the seminary together in France as young men, and together had set out on their missionary life together. Death Comes For the Archbishop takes place over a period of around forty years, beginning when Father Latour is a young man.

“In New Mexico, he always awoke a young man, not until he arose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry ‘To-day, to-day,’ like a child’s.”

The story of Father Latour’s ministry, and the life he makes for himself among the rocky landscape of New Mexico, is told in a series of vignettes spanning several decades. We witness the friendship which exists between Father Latour and Father Valliant, the perilous journeys on horseback or on donkeys as the Frenchmen journey into the furthest reaches of their territory, and meet the people they minister to.

In these stories, we meet a host of memorable characters. An old rogue Pare Martinez, and his friend the miserly Father Lucero. Dona Isabella, who is so vain of her youthful beauty she almost loses everything in a lawsuit rather than admit her real age. Magdalena, a young woman whose violent, husband sets his murderous sights on the two French priests, is rescued by the two men, and restored to a better life. One of Father Latour’s most unlikely friends perhaps, the Navajo Eusabio.

Throughout his ministry in New Mexico, Father Latour dreams of building a cathedral, using the golden yellow stone from the desert, a Romanesque Cathedral in a simple French style, that will celebrate his faith and stand for it after he is gone. The death of the title, is merely one event out of many, in the course of a life well lived. Death comes for the Archbishop as it must come for us all one day, and when it does, he is in a place he loves, surrounded by people who know his worth. The ending I felt was sheer perfection, there is a feeling of everything being in its right time.

Throughout this novel Cather weaves together, the French culture and spirituality of the priests with the traditions, history and vibrant stories of the people of New Mexico.

“Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!”

This exquisite novel – which I loved more and more the further on I got with it, is a story of faith and the nature of love and friendship. Set against a backdrop of a beautiful, wild, untamed land which existed on the edge of the American civilisation of the nineteenth century, it is surprisingly tender.

willacather3

Read Full Post »

IMG_20160520_164326

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.

willa cather

Read Full Post »

shadowsontherock

Published in America in 1931, Shadows on the Rock was one of Willa Cather’s later works, and one with, unusually, a historical setting. Set in seventeenth century Quebec City among the French settlers who struggle to survive the harsh winters, looking forward to the yearly arrival of ships from France bearing news and goods from home. There is not much of an actual plot as such; we follow instead the inhabitants of Quebec through one typical year – with an epilogue taking place fifteen years later. As with her novels of Pioneer life in the Nebraskan Prairies, in Shadows on the Rock, Cather examines the European immigrant experience, the pull of home, and the dawn of a new age.

“Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship. Others have their family; but to a solitary and an exile his friends are everything.”

The novel opens in 1697, Euclide Auclair; apothecary and physician, has been in Quebec for eight years. As he stands on Cap Diamant, which overlooks the St. Lawrence River, watching as the last ship of the season returns to France, he silently longs to return to his native country himself soon. Euclide came to Quebec in the service of Count de Frontenac, the governor of the Quebec colony.

“After all, the world still existed, Auclair was thinking, as he stood looking up the way La Bonne Espѐrance had gone out only an hour ago. He was not of the proper stuff for a colonist, and he knew it. He was a slender, rather frail man of about fifty, a little stooped, a little grey, with a beard cut in a point, and a fair complexion delicately flushed with pink about his cheeks and ears. His blue eyes were warm and interested, even in reflection; – they often had a kindling gleam as if his thoughts were pictures. Except for this lively and inquiring spirit in his glance, everything else about him was modest and retiring. He was clearly not a man of action, no Indian fighter or explorer. The only remarkable thing about his life was that he had not lived it to the end exactly where his father and grandfather had lived theirs, – in a little apothecary shop on the Quai des Cѐlestins, in Paris.”

Two years earlier Euclide’s wife died, and so many of the general housekeeping duties have fallen to his twelve year old daughter Cécile, with whom Euclide enjoys a relationship of great sympathy and understanding . Cécile remembers virtually nothing of her home land, and loves Quebec and its people, the yearly routine punctuated by the arrival and departure of the French ships. Life is hard for these people, the winters long and gruelling, with many people only surviving by eating lard and smoked eels; others manage to grow a few vegetables through the earth floor of their basements. quebec

Cécile is a kind hearted girl; she enjoys caring for her father and for some of the less fortunate members of the community. One of the people who visit the Auclair home regularly for a little soup is Blinker is a poor disabled man, who Cécile’s mother had been charitable to. However, it is six year old Jacques, the neglected son of a local prostitute for whom Cécile feels particular concern. Jacques (his feelings like so many similar young boy Cather characters before him) is awed by Cécile and her father, their home of kindness is unlike anything he has known. When Cécile is sent a nativity set by her aunt in France, Jacques shyly adds his precious carved beaver to the scene, a prized gift from one of his mother’s sailor clients.

The church plays a huge role in the colony and two Bishops with different approaches minister to the people of Quebec; Bishop Laval, a kindly ageing Churchman, and Bishop Saint-Vallier, a younger man, of poorer judgement, who Auclair describes as “less like a churchman than a courtier.” Saint-Vallier looks down on Laval, managing to undo much of the good the elder man had brought to the management of the Parish and the education system of the colony over a twenty year service.

Pierre Charron is a hunter and fur trader, and a great friend of the Auclair’s, Cécile is delighted whenever he appears, with his stories of the great wildernesses. When summer comes Pierre takes Cécile on a trip to Île d’Orléans to visit a family of friends, Cécile is excited to be taking a trip down the river, and visiting a place she had only ever heard of. Once there, the reality of the family’s shabby home appals her and she longs to return to her own well-ordered little home in Quebec.

Change is heralded by the coming again of the ships, news from France, and the declining health of the count. Fifteen years later, we are given a lovely glimpse of the life now lived by some of these people as the new century is under way.

“The glorious transmutation of autumn had come on: all the vast Canadian shores were clothed with a splendour never seen in France; to which all the pageants of all the kings were as a taper to the sun.”

This is a wonderful novel, Cather’s writing remains as atmospheric and nostalgic here as in her novels of the Nebraskan prairies. Her descriptions of light, colour, the cramped homes and Canadian landscapes are just lovely. This is yet another Cather novel which will live long in my memory.

willacather3

Read Full Post »

20141206_212723

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.

willacather3

Read Full Post »

willacather reading week

Welcome to Willa Cather reading week. Today would have been Willa Cather’s 141st birthday. So over the next seven days lots of readers will be reading Willa Cather novels and stories in celebration. Born in Virginia, Willa Cather grew up in Nebraska where some of her most famous and loved novels and stories are set.

cathershouse

Working for magazines and journals took her to Pittsburgh and New York, and following some poetry in 1903, Willa Cather published her first collection of short stories; The Troll Garden in 1905. In 1912 came her first novel Alexander’s Bridge. Following that, her Prairie Trilogy, O! Pioneers, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia, depict the life and landscapes she knew growing up in Red Cloud Nebraska. In 1922 Cather won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for her World War 1 novel One of Ours. Many of Cather’s work feature artists of one kind or another, musicians and singers feature strongly. There appears to have been a time when Willa Cather’s work was viewed as being too nostalgic and out of step with the world, but now I think she is generally regarded as one of the great writers to have come out of America, and is read and re-read with great affection. For me one of the things I have come to love about Willa Cather’s writing is the way she captures the landscapes of her Nebraskan home. She writes just as well about New York, Chicago or London, but it is the images of those Nebraskan prairies that stay with me. And trains, is it just me or does she love the romance of the train? A railway siding on a snowy evening, she captures so evocatively.  catherprairie

I began my Willa Cather reading week a few days early – so I may be having a Willa Cather ten days instead – with the Troll Garden and Selected stories on my kindle – review in a day or two. I am now into A Lost Lady – the opening paragraph captured me immediately (I think I may have read it before- but so long ago that I have no memory of it).

Make sure you all check back here on Wednesday – when I will be giving you details of a little giveaway for which we must thank the lovely people of Oxford University Press who sent me two lovely copies to give away.

In the meantime, if any bloggers out there review Willa Cather books or blog about the reading week in general please let me know, you can link to your post in the comments here or in the original Willa Cather reading week post. At the end of the week – or more likely a day or two later I will post a little round up – and would love to include as many people in it as possible. If you are not a blogger, I would still love to know what you’re experiences of reading Willa Cather have been, via blog comments, Twitter (#willaCatherreadingweek), whatever. Most of all and more importantly of course, I hope all of you reading Willa Cather this week, enjoy whatever you choose and I can’t wait to see which Cather books get chosen.

willacather3

Read Full Post »

The song of the lark

Having promised myself that I would read more Willa Cather novels this year, it was pretty certain that TheSong of the Lark would be one of the novels I would finally get around to. First published in 1915 – it was Cather’s third novel and is considered to be the second novel in her Prairie Trilogy.

“The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing — desire.”

At almost 600 pages it is certainly one of Cather’s longer novels, if not the longest, and it has a scope to match. There is so much to this novel in terms of depth and scope, that I will only try to give a flavour of it, it’s a truly great story, and a quite ambitious work, beautifully written as one would expect, memorable and engaging. The title comes from a painting of the same name, by Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton. songofthelark1

The beginning of the story is set in the fictional town of Moonstone, Colorado, where Thea Kronberg, one of seven children of the Swedish Methodist minister, at eleven years old is already showing signs of becoming a gifted musician. Thea’s strong, intelligent mother allows Thea space to grow, she knows her daughter is different to the others, Thea’s aunt Tillie, who lives with the family is a bit silly, irritates so many other people, is surprisingly tolerated by the adolescent Thea. Many years later, Tillie’s fierce pride in her niece survives as she remains alone in Moonstone. Even at this young age, one of Thea’s greatest friends, is the young town doctor, Dr Archie, a friendship that will survive decades and Thea’s raise from her humble background to become a great opera singer. The novel is told in six parts, charting Thea’s growth as an artist and a woman, as she progresses from Moonstone to Chicago and New York, studies in Europe and her eventual great success in her debut as Sieglinde at the Metropolitian Opera.

“Many a night that summer she left Dr. Archie’s office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside her low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window — or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation. It was on such nights that Thea Kronborg learned the thing that old Dumas meant when he told the Romanticists that to make a drama he needed but one passion and four walls.

A fiercely determined young girl Thea helps to look after her younger brother, born at a time when Thea was gravely ill and attended by her good friend Dr Archie. While learning piano from hard drinking, Professor Wunsch, by fifteen Thea is already teaching pupils herself, using the money she makes to create her very own room under the eaves, this jealously guarded private space becomes a place where Thea can be herself. Often asked to sing at funerals Thea also competes with her singing rival the pretty Lily Fisher. Wunsch lives with the local tailor Kohler and his wife who live within sound of the Mexican community, where Spanish Johnny and Mrs Tellamantez live, sing and dance; and who along with Dr Archie, The Kohlers, Prof. Wunsch, and railwayman Ray Kennedy form Thea’s group of adult friends. Thea only partly understands what desires lie inside her, her striving and ambition, her wish to move beyond Moonstone and her music pupils. Wunsch leaves Moonstone, and Thea leaves school to take on greater numbers of pupils and earn her own money. When Ray Kennedy, whose secret wish it is to marry Thea when she is old enough is killed, his bequest of six hundred dollars gives Thea the opportunity to leave and study in Chicago.

In Chicago Thea studies hard at piano, but her true gift is in her voice so when her voice is revealed to her piano teacher he sends her to work with a great vocal teacher instead. However Thea is sometimes dissatisfied, frustrated in herself and those around her, she begins to show those personality traits we might expect of a great artist. Thea struggles to adjust to her new life, living with two German women, and close to a Swedish reform church where she often sings in the choir. When Thea returns to Moonstone for a holiday she finds herself out of step with her old home, seeing resentment on the faces of her siblings and angered to have herself talked about by the local community. Returning to Chicago to embrace her studies, Thea puts Moonstone firmly behind her, the first of the sacrifices she makes in her determined pursuit of her voice. While studying with her teacher Bowers, Thea must play piano for other singers, something she tires of, resenting the success of less gifted singers and despising the public’s preference for them. Then Thea meets rich young man Fred Ottenberg, with whom she spends some wonderful carefree healing days in Arizona on a holiday arranged by Fred. However like Thea’s great friend Dr Archie, Fred too is trapped in an unhappy marriage. These two men however remain close to Thea as she eventually succeeds to the greatness that is her destiny.

Apparently loosely based on the life of soprano Olive Fremstad, The Song of the Lark is the story of an artist, of determination, ambition and sacrifice. Moving from a small Colorado town in the 1890’s to the New York concert halls in the first decade of the twentieth century Cather captures perfectly the psychology of a truly gifted singer, the almost paralysing ambition and the sacrifices which come with that. Cather’s characterisation of Thea is honest and unsentimental, Thea is sometimes difficult, as she does rather shrug off the people in her life she cannot take with her.

The Song of the Lark, my first read for this year’s All Virago/All August was a  great big, brilliant read, and makes me want to read all the other Willa Cather novels I have.

willacather

Read Full Post »

sapphiraandtheslavegirl

Sapphira and the Slave girl was my classic club spin book result. I am currently on something of a Cather kick, this is the second Willa Cather novel I have read this month, and I now have four other Cather novels tbr.

Willa Cather is perhaps best known for her novels which portray the Nebraskan frontier life that she knew growing up. However the first eight years of Willa Cather’s life were spent in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, and it is to this community that she pays homage in her final novel. Sapphira and the Slave girl, has elements of family autobiography about it – Willa Cather herself making a somewhat surprise appearance in the epilogue of the novel, as a five year old child who witnesses the return of a runaway slave. Willa Cather’s maternal grandmother had assisted in the woman’s escape, just as Cather’s character Rachel Blake does in the novel. The Virginian community that Willa Cather was born into – like that of the community in this novel, was not a traditionally slave owning one. Willa Cather’s own family represented both sides of this bitter divide.

So on to the novel itself, it is 1856 and Sapphira Colbert is one of the few Virginians who own slaves. She is an ageing woman, disabled by dropsy, her mill owner husband has little to do with the slaves and would much rather free them, but views them as Sapphira’s property which she brought with her into their marriage. Sapphira presides over her property absolutely with the help of her maid Till, who has been with Sapphira’s family many years. Henry, Sapphira’s husband has taken to spending more and more time at the mill, often sleeping there, and young slave Nancy often goes down to the mill to clean up Henry’s room. Henry comes to enjoy her gentle, quiet presence, appreciating the wild flowers Nancy places in a jar on his window sill.

“The miller, in his bed, heard her come and go. He lay still and prayed earnestly, for his daughter and for Nancy. Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without thy knowledge. He would never again hear that light footstep outside his door. She would go up out of Egypt to a better land. Maybe she would be like the morning star, this child; the last star of night…She was to go out from the dark lethargy of the cared for and irresponsible; to make her own way in this world where nobody is altogether free and the best that can happen to you is to walk your own way and be responsible to God only.”

Overhearing a conversation between two of the other women slaves in her household Sapphira begins to have concerns about the relationship between her husband and Nancy, Till’s beautiful daughter. Sapphira demonstrates the power she unjustly holds over these people, and Willa Cather brilliantly depicts the awful contradictions of slave owners who actually seem to believe they care for the slaves they own, and have earned their loyalty. Sapphira of course holds sway over these human beings – their fate is completely in her hands, and yet we see Sapphira tolerating the absences and laziness of one slave, and deeply saddened over the death of the elderly Jezebel whose dreadful story of capture from Africa is told in flashback. However there is also a definite feeling of wistful nostalgia in the novel, nostalgia for a time already in the distant past for Cather herself. Cather was certainly against the practice of slavery – already abolished by the time she was born, however I think maybe, that when one has grown up hearing the stories of a time long before that of our own, there is a tendency to see it with a slight rosy glow, and it is this taint of nostalgia that leaves an impression.

Sapphira’s daughter, Rachel Blake, is a young widow, recently returned to Back Creek from Washington, with her two young daughters, she lives nearby. Rachel and her mother don’t really see eye to eye, Rachel has been influenced by her politician husband, and the abolitionist postmistress and a sympathetic preacher she has been befriended by. When Sapphira invites her husband’s nephew Martin to stay, a man known for his rakish behaviour, Rachel becomes convinced it is with the deliberate intention of ruining Nancy. It is to Rachel that Nancy runs for help, as she finds it increasingly hard to keep out of Martin Colbert’s way. Rachel’s decision to help Nancy will set her against her mother, but change Nancy’s life forever.

I am not going to go on about the fact that there is language used in this novel that we would find deeply offensive and inappropriate now – that surely is a given. The novel is set in the 1850’s and was first published in 1940 – but I think Cather’s intention is clear enough. She was not writing an angry treatise on slavery – her novel is a retrospective of a society and a time thankfully long over but which concerned the generation of her grandparents, and about which she was brought up hearing stories of. Cather’s depiction of the Old South, and the relationship between an old, white woman and her black slaves who are her legal property – is beautifully poignant, the sense of time and place so absolutely spot on, that the Back Creek Valley of Cather’s grandparents’ day envelops the reader completely.

I loved this novel, it may not be perfect – but it was a definite five star read for me, and my Cather kick, continues, threatening to turn into a definite obsession.

willacather

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »