Today I’m looking at two novellas by Willa Cather, which were my first encounters with this legendary author of frontier life.
Alexander’s Bridge (1912, 176 pages) was Willa Cather’s first novel, although she was already an established journalist, poet and short story writer. Apparently she didn’t think much of this first attempt at long-form prose, but I thought it had much to recommend it.
Bartley Alexander is an engineer who, it will surprise you to learn, builds bridges. He has a huge project happening in Canada, but it is when he is London on business that he runs into an old flame, Hilda. Although he is married, an affair begins. The focus is not the romance or betrayal, but rather Alexander’s futile attempt to recapture his youth that is the focus of Cather’s writing:
“Solitude, but not solitariness; for he walked shoulder to shoulder with a shadowy companion – not little Hilda Burgoyne, by any means, but someone vastly dearer to him than she had ever been – his own young self, the youth who had waited for him upon the steps of the British Museum that night, and who, though he had tried to pass so quietly, had known him and came down and linked an arm in his.
It was not until long afterwards that Alexander learned that for him this youth was the most dangerous of companions.”
I think had I known what this was about, I would have been put-off reading it. A deceitful man having a mid-life crisis is not a subject matter that I have a great deal of patience with. What engaged me was Cather’s beautiful writing and her psychological insight. She also managed to bring an impressive depth to the story considering its short length. Overall I was left with a sense of the sadness of lives wasted in a search for meaning when not knowing where to look.
“Something had broken loose in him of which he knew nothing except that it was sullen and powerful, and that it wrung and tortured him. Sometimes it came upon him softly, in enervating reveries. Sometimes it battered him like the canon rolling in the hold of the vessel. Always, now, it brought with it a sense of quickened life, of stimulating danger.”
I suspect if you’ve read some of Cather’s classic work such as My Antonia or O, Pioneers! you might find this a disappointment. However, it left me eager to read more of her work to see how she developed into a writer so greatly loved.
A Lost Lady (1923, 178 pages) was where I went next. It tells the story of the beautiful Marian Forrester, a rich (at first) young woman married to the older Captain Forrester, living in the West in a town called Sweet Water:
“She never stopped to pin up a lock; she was attractive in dishabille and she knew it. She had been known to rush to the door in her dressing-gown, brush in her hand and her long black hair rippling over her shoulders, to welcome Cyrus Dalzell, president of the Colorado & Utah, and the great man had never felt more flattered. In his eyes, and in the eyes of the admiring middle-aged men who visited there, whatever Mrs Forrester chose to do was lady-like, because she did it.”
However, following crop failures, the town starts to go downhill. It is close to the Transcontinental railroad, but the trains start passing through. Captain Forrester has a lot of money sunk into the railroad and an idealised view of this capitalism:
“All our great West has been developed from such dreams; the homesteaders and the prospectors and the contractors. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains”
Niel Herbert, from whose viewpoint the story is mainly told (although it remains in third person) has a different view of these dreamers:
“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. Now all the territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything… The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factor splinters the primeval forest.”
Ivy Peters represents the move to a capitalist industrial economy and he is truly despicable. At the start of the story he is a young boy too, slightly older than Niel, and he commits an act of vindictive cruelty on a bird; it truly made me feel sick. As an adult he sexually blackmails Mrs Forrester. Niel witnesses this as he witnessed Marian’s affair with a man named Ellinger. The feeling this raises in Niel are complicated; he does not quite have a crush on the woman, it’s more that he idealises her as a representation of the pioneer spirit, and so when he feels she is debased, he is angry that she has let down this broader ideal.
“It was not a moral scruple she had outraged but an aesthetic ideal”
The presentation of Marian Forrester is intriguing. Her beauty mesmerises people and places her in the more elite society, but Cather shows that she is a woman of flesh and blood, with both sexual desires and a desire to live. She will do what it takes.
This meant that while I could not embrace the romanticised notion of the pioneer (I think we now know enough of what happened to First Nations Peoples during the period for any romanticism to have well and truly died –briefly touched upon in this story) I thought there was a great deal of interest around the role of women. Marian is a lost ‘lady’ but she is a woman who knows herself and knows that as a woman in this period she does not have the freedom or choices of men. They will use her, but she is not a victim, although she self-medicates with alcohol at times. She endures, and so as a representation of the west, and pioneer spirit, I think Cather chooses to personify how times change and are lost forever, but the only choice is to keep on.
“It was what he most held against Mrs Forrester, that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.”
It’s a bittersweet novella, and Cather packs huge themes into a small space. Truly impressive.