A Lost Lady (1923) is a story drenched in melancholy. A short-lived world is coming of age and, caught in its remaking, its inhabitants seem to be constantly circumscribing a void and falling through to the other side. They are not so much losing themselves in its changing, as they are disclosing to each other what they always were.
The book is set in the small town of Sweet Water, in Nebraska, along the Transcontinental Railroad. Marian Forrester, the ‘Lost Lady’ of the title, is a refined, vibrant, enchanting woman, twenty-five years younger than her husband, Captain Daniel Forrester. Captain Forrester is an elderly pioneer who made his fortune building railroad tracks. The couple lives in the nicest house in Sweet Water, where they receive many friends.
The story is framed by the perspective of Niel Herbert, a young man who had grown up in Sweet Water and had fallen under the spell of Marian when he was a child. Niel’s uncle, Judge Pommeroy, is one of the Captain’s friends, and Niel becomes a regular guest in their house. We follow Niel as he grows up, and through his eyes we witness the Captain’s financial and physical decline, and Mrs. Forrester’s gradual moral deterioration. The couple’s gradual downfall mirrors the end of the old pioneering days – the transition from an idealized age of noble pioneers to the age of greedy, amoral capitalists.
As Niel grows up, Sweet Water changes from a “town of which great things were expected” to a place whose “future no longer looked bright”. Ruined families move away, and the promising young men leave for the big cities: “there would be nothing to come back to”. Likewise, the Forresters fall on hard times, and have to rent their land to Ivy Peters, a disreputable lawyer. Men of integrity, like the Captain, are replaced by dishonest men like Ivy Peters, who eventually takes over the Forresters’ land. While the Captain holds deep affection for his land and preserves it untouched for its beauty, Ivy Peters loses no time in exploiting the land for profit, draining the Forrester’s marsh and turning it into wheat fields. The Lost Lady’s fall from grace is framed within the exploitation and adulteration of a landscape which had once been pure and untouched, as well as within the transition from a rural-idealist to a modern-industrialist age.
The novel combines not only the character study of the heroine referred to in the book’s title, but also a coming-of-age story of the character whose perspective guides the narrative through. Niel idealises not only the pioneering days, but also Marian Forrester and everything she represents: her decline symbolizes, for him, not only the end of his world and its old ways, but also the end of his boyhood. In a sense, Marian’s downfall reflects back Niel’s own loss of innocence as he grows up. Niel longs for her to remain the same, so that he can be spared having to face the crumbling of his childhood’s ideals. But Marian will spare him nothing: she is the bridge between those two generations, the old pioneer – represented by the Captain – and the greedy capitalist – represented by Ivy Peters.
In Niel’s eyes, Marian is degenerating; but does he ever understand her? He somehow cannot grasp that the old ways have become a prison to Marian. Niel’s seems to be a zero-sum game: he wants to enjoy the opportunity to leave Sweet Water, but he also wants to keep it as a place he can always come back to, unchanged; he wants the freedom of growing up, but he rejects its corollary – the pain of giving up his idealistic view of life. He obviously cannot have both: one of them will give way, and Marian embodies this complexity. A fall from grace is not only impending, it is necessary: Marian will throw herself into it with her full heart, gladly. In a sense, her decline is her only way out; changing is her only way of keeping true to herself.
Or maybe the real change is happening in Niel: he is growing up; he is having to face up to the facts. Marian’s downfall is his slow but steady sentimental education. The title comes back to me in its true force: it is not so much Marian who has lost herself, but Niel who has lost her. She will always be to him his lost world, his lost innocence – and his lost lady.
“He came to be very glad that he had known her, and that she had had a hand in breaking him in to life. He has known pretty women and clever ones since then,– but never one like her, as she was in her best days. Her eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one`s own, seemed to promise a wild delight that he has not found in life. “I know where it is,” they seemed to say, “I could show you!” ― Willa Cather,
“Niel felt tonight that the right man could still save her, even now. She was still her own indomitable self, going through her old part,–but only the stage hands were left to listen to her. All those who had shared in fine undertakings and bright occasions were gone.” ― Willa Cather,
“He could remember the very first time he ever saw Mrs Forrester, when he was a little boy. He had been loitering in front of the Episcopal church one Sunday morning, when a low carriage drove up to the door. Ben Keezer was on the front seat, and on the back seat was a lady, alone, in a black silk dress all puffs and ruffles, and a black hat, carrying a parasol with a carved ivory handle. As the carriage stopped she lifted her dress to alight; out of a swirl of foamy white petticoats she thrust a black, shiny slipper. She stepped lightly to the ground and with a nod to the driver went into the church. The little boy followed her through the open door, saw her enter a pew and kneel. He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognised her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known.” ― Willa Cather,
“Long, long afterward, when Niel did not know whether 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 could hear that long-lost lady laugh again he could be gay.” ― Willa Cather,
About the book
- Vintage Classics, 1990, 150 p. Goodreads
- Virago Modern Classics, 1980, 178 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1923
- My rating: 5 stars
- The novel was made into a movie twice: in 1924, directed by Harry Beaumont (IMDb); and in 1934, directed by Alfred E. Green (IMDb).
- This book was read in May for the Virago Author of the Month (LibraryThing Group).