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.
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
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