Some of you may remember that I read Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather just before Christmas last year. I absolutely loved it, and last week I thought it was high time I read another novel by her. One of the most remarkable things about Cather’s novels is that they are very quick to read; I managed to finish A Lost Lady in just over an hour, on my combined journeys to and from work on the train. However, they are not simplistic or superficial, by any means; the writing is rich with imagery, the characters fascinating, multi faceted individuals, and the overall impression haunting and thought provoking. I always feel like I’ve just plunged into ice cold water when I read a Cather; it’s a fleeting experience, but the effect is enough to leave you breathless, drenched in the world she creates, and chilled to the core for the rest of the day by the actions and feelings and thoughts of the people she lays before you.
A Lost Lady is about the inhabitants of the small town of Sweet Water, situated at the confluence of several important railway lines. It is told largely through the eyes of Niel Foster, a young boy when the novel opens and a young man by the end. The story begins with a description of the beautiful Marian Forrester, the ‘Lost Lady’ of the title, who lives in the nicest house in Sweet Water every summer with her much older husband, Captain Forrester, who is a big shot in the railroad world. Marian’s beauty and charm bring an elegance and grace to the big white house on the hill, and Captain Forrester’s generosity and kindness means they have many friends who flock to their home to visit them during the summer months. The whole of Sweet Water seems to come alive when the Forresters come back to their home after their winters spent abroad, and Niel Foster is one of many young boys enchanted by the black haired, dancing eyed Mrs Forrester.
As Niel grows up, he admires Mrs Forrester more and more. Through family connections, he spends a lot of time at their house, and though Captain Forrester has retired and the railroad industry has collapsed, leaving Sweet Water more of a backwater than the bustling town it once was, Marian hasn’t changed. Always elegant, always beautiful, always knowing the right things to do and say, she lends an air of capability and grace to everything she does, and Niel idolises her. But as their finances grow thinner and Captain Forrester becomes ill, the Forresters cease going away for their winters and are stuck in the house at Sweet Water all year round. Still fairly young and lively, Marian begins to go stir crazy, and she confides in Niel that she is often frustrated and longs for the life of parties and friends she used to so enjoy. When Niel is invited to a rare gathering of a few old friends, he realises that Marian’s friendship with a male friend is more than what it initially seemed, and his opinion of her is changed forever when he realises that she is not the Diana he thought she was.
This is a remarkable and moving novel about the innocence of youth and the illusionary nature of love. Niel never quite captures the essence of Marian, and she is ‘lost’ to him in many senses, as he doesn’t truly understand her character, her desires, or her inner life. Marian is a paragon of womanhood to Niel and the other men in town; she is always clean and fresh, always lively and beautiful, always attentive and entertaining. She dotes on her husband, is a wonderful hostess, and the life and soul of any party. But this is all a veneer, ready to crumble at the first piercing of its surface. When she falls from the pedestal Niel places her on, he realises that he has been mistaken in her, and in his idealistic view of life. Nothing and no one is perfect, or incorruptible. Set amidst the rapidly changing old and new worlds of the early twentieth century, Niel’s experiences with his ‘lost lady’ are representative of the lost way of life of Niel’s childhood and that of his parent’s generation. As times and standards change, and people change with it, ideas and beliefs have to adapt to fit the new ways of thinking and being, and by the end, Niel has come to understand that his expectations of Marian were unrealistic, and that the model of womanhood he so adored could never really be attained.
I loved this novel. Cather’s prose is sparse, but evocative, and Marian, Niel and the various other inhabitants of Sweet Water came effortlessly alive on the pages, as did the spartan Nebraska landscape. I haven’t ever read anything quite like her novels; she has a style all of her own, one that sweeps you into the world she creates without bogging you down with unnecessary detail. In the flash of an eye or the redness of a lip she can tell you all you need to know to understand the heart of a character, and in one line of reported speech she can manage to break your heart. I think she is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors, and I long to read everything she ever wrote.
Going away from the story, I’m just going to briefly mention the book itself; my edition is a lovely original American hardback with thick, ribbed hand cut pages and a stunning orange design on the endpapers, but the most delightful thing about it is the wonderful bookplate that has been stuck in. As with my copy of No Name, I have yet again found a famous former owner; this time, it’s Olga Monsanto Queeny, or Olguita, as she clearly called herself, as that’s the name on the bookplate, whose husband founded the famous agricultural company Monsanto, implicated in many a scandal during the 20th century, and named it after her. I even managed to find a photograph of Olga, to the left. She was the daughter of European aristocrats and grew up in South America before marrying John Francis Queeny. I wonder where this book lived during its time with her,what it saw, and how it ended up in the bargain basement of a bookshop on Charing Cross Road. I wonder what Olga thought of it, and whether she had any other of Cather’s books. If only books could talk!