Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

I was assigned My Antonia for a class in undergrad (between 20 and 25 years ago), but I didn’t read it. A couple of years ago I did, and it really blew me away. After a reread last year, I consider it a masterpiece. I went on to read five more Cather novels, including this one. My Mortal Enemy was the other that I liked nearly as well as My Antonia, but I’ve liked all of them, with the exception of the ending of O, Pioneers, in which I didn’t completely buy Alexandra’s choice to forgive Frank. Or rather, not that she forgave him, but some of the reasoning and some of what she said to him just felt strange, and I was not sure what Cather intended.

Some of that same sense of not fully understanding what Cather was getting at troubled me here as well in the early parts of the novella. This is the story of a society lady, Marian Forrester told primarily through the eyes of Niel Herbert, a young boy who grows up thinking of her as a paragon of virtue and womanhood and is very distressed when she commits adultery and later falls into bad company after her husband’s death. Niel’s ire is mainly focused on Ivy Peters, a lawyer who comes from a lower class and becomes a particularly crass type of capitalist in adulthood.

For the first two thirds or so of A Lost Lady I thought it might join O Pioneers near the bottom of Cather’s novels for me. Cather seems to always be concerned with class to some extent or another in her books, but the way the book talked about it and the way the point of view characters talked about Mrs. Forrester didn’t sit well with me. In the other books I’ve read, her attitude seemed to be very practical; you should work hard and make sure that you’re able to live comfortably. Here the point of view characters seemed to buy into class as reflective of character in a way that felt wrong. This isn’t the first of her books to talk about the main female character through the eyes of a male. It was near the end of the book before I realized the extent of its irony, and the extent to which it is a repudiation of Niel Herbert’s point of view. I still need to think more about Cather’s view of class, but her attitude toward women’s place in society is clear.

Cather is a writer I’ve come to really love. If I prefer My Antonia and My Mortal Enemy to this, it is a testament to those books and no slight towards this one.


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