A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

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!

27 comments

  1. I’ve just checked and I do have a copy of ‘A Lost Lady’ sitting on my shelves, the old green Virago edition in my case. Cather is one of those writers who has been on my ‘must read’ list for a long time without ever quite making it to the top. Maybe I should take a leaf out of your book and take it with me next time I have a journey to make.

    1. Oh I’m so glad you have a copy you can read! The Virago edition is gorgeous, as well; I love the painting of the woman’s face on the front cover. A Singer Sargent, I believe! I really do think Cather is a magnificent writer, and when her books are so short, there’s no excuse not to get stuck in!

  2. That bookplate is charming. I have bought books and vintage postcards from that very spot in the shadow of Notre Dame. When you go to Paris you will find that those book stalls are still in place all along the Left Bank of the Seine and they are filled with treasures. Be sure to take an empty suitcase with you!

    1. Charles, I didn’t even notice there were books in the picture! I have real trouble with making out objects in unfamiliar images – it must be the way my brain works! I was hoping someone would be able to identify where the image is set and you have done just that – it sounds like an incredible place and I will visit one of these days! I will be sure to follow your advice..those stalls look dangerous. Perhaps this is where my Cather was purchased?!

  3. Your reviews always take my breath away, Rachel, and sets me about checking to see if I have the book in question. You weave your postings as intricately as the books themselves and are a delight to read. While Cather’s My Antonia sits upon a dusty shelf, A Lost Lady does not, and I shall have to remedy that soon.

    One of my favorite reads is 84 Charing Cross Road, which I recently commented on, and I do hope to someday spend some time there, hoping to find a treasure such as yours. My heart leapt when you relayed finding it in a basement bargain bin. The “famous” bookplate only sweetened the pot, and there you are, across the pond, giving me a history lesson on the Monsantos. I recently came upon an interesting blog called Frognall Didbin’s Shelves and the most recent post is about the very same topic of a “famous” bookplate.

    Thank you for another interesting book review. I need to get planting – then an hour or two reading Chocolate With Hitler.

    1. You are too kind Penny! Thank you! My Antonia is supposed to be spectacular so I hope you read it soon and enjoy it. I will be interested to hear your thoughts.

      I LOVE that book! Charing Cross Road is indeed a treasure trove and as I use Charing Cross station every day to come into work and go home again I frequently take a brief detour to visit the shops along the road (the bookshops are actually at Leicester Square rather than Charing Cross but they are on Charing Cross Road). I hope one day you will visit as I am sure you will be delighted with what you find!

      You must let me know how you find Chocolate Cake with Hitler!

  4. A Lost Lady is a great book. I loved the frosty sleigh ride and the scene where Marian breaks down is written so beautifully. Great review as always!

    1. Oh I loved those scenes too. I have your wonderful review of Lucy Gayheart to thank for propelling me to start reading my unread Cather collection in the first place, so the praise is mutual!

  5. I’ve read a disgustingly small number of Willa Cather’s novels. One. And I am a fellow Nebraskan. I am sure I have this on my shelf and perhaps I should go and pull it off right now. My high school English teacher constantly urged us to read her work–in particular My Antonia (not sure why we never just read it in class), and being a silly teenager I then would have nothing to do with her since she was so oft talked about. Of course now that I am a grown up I do want to read her, but I can’t seem to squeeze her in–so perhaps I should just go and pick up a novel and start reading (I ignore my other current reads often enough anyway….). And I love the story of the bookplate–isn’t amazing that that woman also probably held the book in her hands and read it, too, and don’t you wonder what she thought?

    1. Oh really? Is Nebraska as bleak as Cather describes it?! You really should just run out and grab a Cather and start reading – banish those memories of High School from your brain and start afresh! Lucy Gayheart and this are the only ones I’ve read, but they were both brilliant and also mercifully short, so you will be done reading in an hour, promise! The bookplate is so wonderful – I love old books precisely for their history, and to be able to track down and even find a photo of the original owner was so exciting for me! I would love to know what she thought of the book…but as she clearly liked it enough to bookplate it, I gather it was loved!

  6. Like you, I read this on the fly, standing up in the library. I love really concise novels (There Were Two Pirates, No Signposts in the Sea) and high they highlight the author’s voice. Like all WC works, it is great romance story first, social commentary second. She is always what I call a ‘slick’ read.

    1. Standing up in a library? You must have been engrossed! Concise novels are starting to win favour with me too – I love how life is so finely distilled within their pages. I’m glad you are a fan of Cather, and thank you so much for reading and commenting!

  7. I do love Cather and am enjoying reading my way through her books, all of which are Virago modern classics. Your copy is rather lovely though too🙂

    1. The Virago editions of Cather are gorgeous! Do you have the original Greens? Some of them are rare and worth quite a bit from what I’ve seen.

  8. Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl is similar in tone if not in storyline: A woman who appears to embody the classic virtues actually does not, and she strikes out repeated at a beautiful slave of whom she is jealous. It’s also an interesting view of the late days of slavery in the American south and the underground railroad that took fugitive slaves to safety in the north. Like A Lost Lady, Sapphira is a fast read, but you’ll think about it for a long time after you finish it.

    1. Thank you so much for the recommendation – I have seen that title and wondered what it was about. It sounds fantastic and I would certainly welcome an education on the underground railroad – I’ll definitely look out for it now.

  9. I found a Virago copy of this last week in a charity shop having become converted to Willa Cather’s work after reading Lucy Gayheart last year following a rave review from Nicola at Vintage Reads.
    Really looking forward to reading it now after your review!

  10. I love that you’ve included the details of your edition along with the thoughts on the book: wonderful! This is also one of my favourite Cather novels. I especially enjoyed The Song of the Lark too, although I know that she (and perhaps others) considered it a flawed work; I’m fond of it because it was the first of hers that I read, and also because I love what it offers about women and creativity (music, specifically).

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed that part – I love the look and feel of books as much as what they contain and I never know whether it bores or pleases other people to read about that side of things! The Song of the Lark sounds very interesting – in fact, so does all of Cather’s work – if I were allowed to buy books I’d be snapping all of her titles up now, but I must be strong and resist temptation – I have another Cather on my TBR shelves so I must read that before I even contemplate buying any more!

  11. I just finished the book and had the same swept-away reaction as you did. I learned of the book some 20 years ago while at university – it was among some 100 on a reading list for some literature course, I can’t even remember which one now, but I apparently held onto that list and have used it ever since to guide my various book purchases. The teacher of the course, by the way, was a Catholic nun, and I find this quite enchanting, that she would have found the book also remarkable and included it on her course reading list.

    In reading the book now, I’m moved by the fact that I just vacationed at my parents’ house in California (I live in Berlin, Germany) and watched as my mother has begun carrying for my father, recently diagnosed with dementia. I identified with Mrs. Forrester’s sense of loss of a happier past, and the book caused me to recall my own mother’s easy living as a young woman, at the dance halls in San Francisco in the 1950s, shopping with girlfriends, parties on the weekends, a carefree existence if there ever was one. Cather writes of Mrs. Forrester perhaps sensing her husband is a ‘drag’ as he dies his slow death. I so appreciate that Cather speaks the unspoken and challenges what we think is the only ‘morality’ allowed.

    1. Hi Elizabeth, thanks so much for coming by and commenting. What a wonderful and interesting comment – I so enjoyed reading about what led you to read it and your personal reaction. How sad about your father, and I completely understand your comparison to Mrs Forrester…so much of how we feel is not ‘correct’ and it’s sad that even today those feelings of frustration and sadness can’t be aired.

  12. Hi; I’m doing a bit of research on the Mendes Monsanto family (from whom I am descended). I think you may have confused Olguita Queeny with her mother, Olga Mendes Monsanto Queeny. Olguita was born to the founder of Monsanto Chemical, and seems to have married Englishman Thomas Berington.

    1. Ah! Fascinating! Thank you so much. That makes sense, as then it would explain how the book ended up in London. I am so grateful for you letting me know, and good luck with your research!

  13. Correction: Olguita Queeny was the daughter of John Francis Queeny. Olga Monsanto Queeny was JFQ’s wife and the mother of Olguita. Olguita’s brother was Edgar Queeny who took control of the company around 1928.

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