Tuesday, September 14, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather is one of the lesser known novels by the author of O Pioneers!My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Published in 1923, this is a lovely classic.

Set in Sweet Water, a western town established alongside the Transcontinental Railroad in pioneer days, the novel focuses on the slow decline of its heroine, Mrs. Marion Forrester. At the beginning, she is the charming young wife of a railroad contractor, Captain Daniel Forrester. Many years older than his wife, he’s an old-fashioned aristocrat, benevolent with a strong sense of duty and honor, and a love of beauty. He’s devoted to his wife and, as he ages, comes to depend upon her completely. 

Mrs. Forrester is widely known for her graciousness, her vivacious charm, and her hospitality. Everyone who knows her loves her, although some of the townswomen do so grudgingly. She does act rather superior to other women and tends toward the catty, though that’s not something her many male admirers notice.

The story is narrated by Niel Herbert, a younger man who has admired Mrs. Forrester since he was a boy and she was a young wife. As one of the better educated, better mannered youths of the town, he is able to appreciate her finer qualities. He’s brought up by his uncle, a judge, who is a particular friend of Captain Forrester, so Niel spends many evenings as a young man in the company of the couple. As the Captain ages and his finances decline, Niel helps keep an eye on them. In the process, he discovers that Mrs. Forrester is not as loyal to her husband as he’d thought, a realization that disillusions him but does not completely ruin his image of her.

When the Captain suffers a series of strokes, his wife takes care of him, but with difficulty. She isn’t meant for a life of boredom and drudgery. Often, Niel finds her smelling of alcohol.

Niel escapes Sweet Water for a time, attending architectural college in Boston, but he returns to find the Forresters sunk low and his own uncle ailing. He delays his return to school until after Captain Forrester dies and Mrs. Forrester sinks to new lows. At this point, he gives up on her. It’s only later that he can recall her with any fondness, and even then, he likes to remember her as she was in her vivacious younger days, before his disillusionment.

There is much in the novel glamorizing the settling of the American West, the superiority of the early settlers and ground breakers, contrasted with the inferiority of those in the next generations. Mrs. Forrester’s decline is emblematic of the loss of luster after the closure of the frontier. Niel’s nostalgia for his youth, his memory of Mrs. Forrester as she was, and Sweet Water as it was, make for a melancholy read.

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