Thursday, October 6, 2022

Willa Cather's A Lost Lady

"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." [58]

Willa Cather's A Lost Lady came out in 1923. It had previously been serialized in Century Magazine, and when the novel was issued by Knopf in book form, it was Knopf's largest print run to that date. Which then sold out, and required two more printings within weeks. It was a hit.

The lady is Marian Forrester. She married an older man, Captain Daniel Forrester, a successful railway contractor in the Western United States. They settle in Sweet Water, Colorado, a town on the railroad where Captain Forrester has built his dream house. The story of their courtship is told near the end of the novel.

Marian is mostly seen through the eyes of Niel Herbert, who grows up as a boy in the town. He's nephew to Judge Pommeroy, the town's lawyer, and as a young man goes east to study architecture. He's fascinated/half in love with Marian Forrester already from his boyhood.
"But we will begin this story with a summer morning long ago, when Mrs. Forrester was still a young woman, and Sweet Water was a town of which great things were expected." [6]

Niel Herbert is just a boy, off fishing--or horsing around and only pretending to fish--with his friends. That first scene includes a bit of horrifying cruelty to animals, the sort of thing boys are reputed to do, but much worse than pulling the wings off flies, and our novel's villain is identified.

The novel covers a number of years, and while Cather is coy about dates, that first scene is likely around 1880. The transcontinental railroad has just been pushed through Colorado. Captain Forrester is a successful, and still vigorous, man.

Later Captain Forrester has a horse-riding accident and can only walk with a cane; a bank for which he's a principal fails; he honourably makes good on the bank's debts, but at the cost of his own fortune. This must be the panic of 1893.

Later still Captain Forrester has several strokes and, with the money gone, it's up to Marian to take care of him. She does it, she probably even still loves the Captain, but she tells Niel, "I feel such a power to live in me, Niel." [70] She drinks too much, she has an affair with Frank Ellinger, a man she knew before her marriage, ends up drunk-dialling Ellinger, in Niel's presence, when she learns Ellinger has married. Is she lost?

Great things may have been expected of Sweet Water but they don't come off. Judge Pommeroy's business stalls, and he's not the only lawyer in town anymore: that villain mentioned above has become a lawyer:

"'...rascality isn't the only thing that succeeds in business.'
'It succeeds faster than anything else, though.'" [69]

Eventually Captain Forrester dies. Marian returns to California, and Sweet Water's lady is lost. The last Niel hears of her, the last we hear as well, is that she's remarried and living in Argentina.

"Long, long afterward, when Niel did not know where Mrs. Forrester was living or dead, if her image flashed into his mind, it came with a brightness of dark eyes, her pale triangular cheeks with long earrings, and her many-coloured laugh. When he was dull, dull and tired of everything, he used to think that if he hear that long-lost lady laugh again, he could be gay." [39] 

But who or what is it that's lost? Maybe she did laugh in Buenos Aires.

It's a pretty great novel, I think.

It seems F. Scott Fitzgerald thought so, too. He read it while he was working on The Great Gatsby, and after Gatbsy came out (1925) he wrote a letter to Cather saying how much he admired A Lost Lady, and hoped she wouldn't think he'd plagiarized it to produce Daisy Buchanan. Cather wrote back to say she admired Gatsby in return, and no, she wasn't worried about it. (Frankly, while Gatsby is amazing as a whole, I find Daisy Buchanan thin beer in comparison to Marian Forrester.)

Page numbers come from the Library of America edition of Willa Cather's Later Novels

If you've read it, what did you make of the 'lost' of the title?  


  1. This is one of Cather's novels that I haven't read yet. But now you've got me thinking about the title and what it might mean! ;D

    1. I don't know why it's not as popular as some others of hers--I found it equally as good.

  2. I didn't even think to think about the word "lost." I was to busy looking for myths and comparing Marian to Phaedra and so on.

    1. I went back & read yours on A Lost Lady. I hadn't even thought of Phaedra, but of course the mention of the Heroides is right there. There's so much going on. I wrote a long paragraph on broken bones, falling in love, and ring composition, before I thought better of it and deleted it...

  3. I'm always intrigued with female main characters who have difficulty finding their way in life. I haven't read this, but it sounds like a book I'd like to read.

    1. I do think it's a good one, even by Willa Cather's already high standards.