Tag Archives: change

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Readers of my blog have previously enjoyed O Pioneers! and My Antonia. Both these novels by Willa Cather were from her early period when she delighted in the people who turned the vast prairies of middle America into vast wheat fields and made themselves a good living. The families she described came from the European diaspora, chasing some kind of idyll. By the time she came to write A Lost Lady in 1923 the world had turned, and new generations, new values and new enterprises were changing the mid-west again. This short novel is concerned with these changes.

A Lost Lady

The novel is set at the end of the 19th century, in a town that had been key to the great railroad building enterprises of that century. The story opens with a description of the Forrester Place just outside Sweet Water, and of its social importance to the ‘railroad aristocracy of that time’. The novel is chiefly told from the point of view of Niel, a young citizen of Sweet Water, an observer of the comings and goings at the Forrester Place on the hill. Think The Great Gatsby. Niel observes the Forresters’s summer visits and their many wealthy guests, and when they come to live permanently in Sweet Water he is of service to the couple. 

Captain Forrester is twenty-five years older than his wife. It is his second marriage. He made his money as a railroad entrepreneur and came to live at Sweet Water because he was attracted by the hill where he built his house. The Captain and his wife represent the old ways, the pioneers, with values of trust and decency. The Captain loses his fortune because he insists that the board of his bank honours the small investors, and so loses everything. Later he has a series of strokes and comes to depend on his wife and a decreasing circle of friends.

Mrs Forrester is very beautiful and charming and very popular with everyone. She is a generous hostess and does not dismiss the young boys of Sweet Water. Niel is a boy when he first meets her, and he falls under her spell. He is a frequent visitor with his uncle, the Forresters’s lawyer. As a young man he goes East to study architecture and on his return 2 years later he finds the Captain is very frail and puts off his studies for a year while he helps care for him. The reader, as well as Niel, has noted that Mrs Forrester likes to drink and that she is not above having affairs with men she attracts. 

Niel’s generation are keen to make a quick profit, especially Ivy Peters, who is known to be cruel and have no respect for money and class. As the Forresters’s fortunes decline Ivy takes advantage, first he rents and then he buys the land and the house and even becomes intimate with Mrs Forrester. 

The difference in the values between the generation of pioneers, represented by the Captain and his friends, and the profiteers such as Ivy Peters is starkly explained in a passage where Niel meditates on his return to Still Water.

The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory that they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life of the great landholders. The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest. All the way from the Missouri to the mountains this generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times, would do exactly what Ivy Peters had done when he drained the Forrester marsh. (104-5)

Mrs Forrester is the lost lady. She has been brought up to act as a charming social hostess, but she resents the restrictions of her life in Still Water. She does not flaunt her affairs, but her lack of faithfulness to her husband is shocking to Niel, especially when he understands that her husband knows. She drinks, and this too marks her as something of a fallen woman. 

Niel never had hopes or desires of becoming anything to Mrs Forrester, but he has valued the pioneer spirit and what it brought to that part of the country. He prefers the idea of Mrs Forrester to the realities of her life.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

Born in 1873, Willa Cather’s family moved to Nebraska when she was young, and she received her education there. She adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. She had a career as a journalist even before she began her novels. She was well-established by the time A Lost Lady was published in 1923. It was her 6th novel; she wrote 12 in all between 1912 and 1940. She travelled in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. 

Her qualities as a writer were often ignored in the second half of the twentieth century, but she has a strong following today. AS Byatt is among her admirers. Readers have a high regard for her evocation of place. It plays its part too in A Lost Lady.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, first published in 1923. Reissued as a Virago Modern Classic 1983, with an introduction by AS Byatt. 178 pp

Related posts

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (October 2018)

My Antonia by Willa Cather (January 2018) 

Book Snob’s review of A Lost Lady from May 2010

HeavenAli’s blog review of A Lost Lady from December 2014

AS Byatt’s article in the Guardian about Willa Cather, American Pastoral, from December 2006

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The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald falls periodically into the category of neglected female writer. The publisher of her first novel refused to consider any more from her arguing that she was ‘only an amateur writer’. Penelope Fitzgerald responded to his sexism-ageism with insight and wit. 

I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?

Two years later in 1979 she published Offshore which won the Booker Prize. Three other novels written by her were included in Booker Prize shortlists, including The Beginning of Spring. She doesn’t sound like an amateur to me.

The focus of her novels is very varied: historical, European, a bookshop in Suffolk, a houseboat on the Thames. And with each novel she probes deeply, exploring her themes with wit and meticulous research or knowledge. The Beginning of Spring is a novel to recommend highly, which presents as being about a mystery, but widens the idea to explore the mystery of people’s reactions to the changes in their lives.

The Beginning of Spring

The setting of this novel is curious. We are in Moscow, in the period between the first stirrings of revolution in 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War which brought on the fall of the Romanovs, and the Bolshevik Revolution. 

Her main character is also a curious choice: Frank Reid owns a printshop in Moscow, inherited from his father. He lives with his wife Nellie and their three children, supported by another Englishman, Selwyn Crane, a follower of Tolstoy. He is the printworks manager and a poet. 

The events of the story take place over a few weeks, that period when Moscow begins to emerge from the lockdown of winter. Everything in this novel is about change: the weather, the marriage of Frank and Nellie, the children who are growing up, the politics of Tsarist Russia, even new technology in the print business.

It is Frank we follow in this story of change, whose wife leaves him at the beginning of the novel. As he comes to terms with her disappearance, he must decide what to do about the care of the children, rather alarmingly sent back from a railway station having begun the journey with Nellie, and treated like so much unwanted baggage. He must also keep the print works going at a time of industrial unrest and subjection to the many imperial regulations applied to foreign businesses. 

He employs a young woman whom Selwyn has found, and she becomes a kind of governess for the children. Frank falls for her. But it seems that her life is not without complications, for a student breaks into the print works one night seemingly connected to her in some way.

Frank appears to be a rational man, but he is as caught up in the mysteries and changes brought by life as any of the characters are. Selwyn is much concerned about the print run of his poems Birch Tree Thoughts. He is known as a man who tries to do good for everyone, but a more selfish side is revealed towards the end of the novel. 

While change is the dominant theme and reflected in the title, another theme of the novel is strangeness, foreignness. The small English community in Moscow is depicted as very small-minded and full of gossip. Tolstoy’s philosophies do not sit well with British conservatism nor with the radical politics of the student revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia. Selwyn Crane’s poems have to be set in English in Roman type, whereas the printworks uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The children are able to negotiate the boundaries between Russia and their English family, even if they do not understand what they see, such as the gathering in the birch trees near the dacha. The adults are all in search of some utopian life. 

There are some splendid depictions of smaller characters; Kuriatin is a neighbour, nouveau riche and keen to show off his westernised purchases. The chief craftsman at the printshop Tvyordov; Charlie, Frank’s brother who visits during Nellie’s absence. Each of these characters are individuals, with complicated lives and to a greater or lesser degree, with very little knowledge of the world outside their own concerns.

Nothing is clear, but the season turns into spring and we learn about Nellie’s departure and her plans, and as the novel ends Nellie returns. 

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 – 2000)

She published her first novel when she was 61. She had been active in the London literary world having worked as an editor and a biographer before embarking on her own fiction. She led a difficult life, not least because her husband was debarred, having passed dodgy cheques, forcing the family to live in near poverty, including for a while on a houseboat on the Thames which sank. She used her experiences in some of her novels, the houseboat being the setting of Offshore.

The Beginning of Spring was set in Moscow, a place that she had only visited once. Despite this the novel is full of details of the city. She also included information about the printing trade, and details of Russian life that indicate her depth of research. The research is not produced clunkily, to impress the reader, rather it is used to enhance her themes of change and foreignness. 

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in1988 by Collins. I used the edition by Flamingo from 2003. 246pp

Related post

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2014)

Bookshops in Books (Bookword January 2018) 

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