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A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady (original 1923; edition 1972)

by Willa Cather

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1,020278,298 (3.66)96
Title:A Lost Lady
Authors:Willa Cather
Info:Vintage (1972), Paperback
Collections:Your library

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A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (1923)



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English (25)  Spanish (2)  All languages (27)
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The lost lady of Willa Cather’s novella is Marian Forrester, wife to Captain Forrester who of late was instrumental in the building of the railway. She is the very breath of light and spring to many a young boy in Sweet Water. In particular, Niel Herbert falls under Mrs. Forrester’s spell as a boy when she tends him after he has fallen and broken his arm. But her charms captivate one and all, not least the Captain’s many powerful friends. Yet hers is a free spirit and, in some senses, even from the outset she is already a lost lady. However, her losses only become apparent years later after the Captain first loses his fortune and then, following a stroke, much of his mobility. His infirmity traps her in Sweet Water, preventing her from joining with her friends in Colorado for the winters. And that is when Niel begins to really notice her changing.

Along with a vividly painted portrait of a woman very much of her own mind, this story treads through both the beautiful meadows and the marshy backwater of the American hinterland. Early in the story we witness perhaps the most awful example of wanton cruelty I have ever encountered in a story. It is so startling that it makes it hard to even focus on what Cather is doing here. But I suppose that, since nothing much comes of that act at the time or later, it must be meant to serve as a caution on how we ought to treat of Marian’s own actions. Fate, it seems, can be as cruel as the cruelest of young boys.

Cather’s writing is never less than riveting. She seems to evoke a prairie locale with the mere wave of her hand, but it is surely the work of a great artist. Her central characters are as complex as any imaginable: full of contrary actions, missteps, magnanimity, and baseness. Almost too much for such a slight work. But gently recommended, as ever. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Apr 1, 2016 |
Love Cather's writing, her characters, her quiet way. ( )
  mamashepp | Mar 29, 2016 |
Love Cather's writing, her characters, her quiet way. ( )
  mamashepp | Mar 29, 2016 |
I really enjoyed this. A woman with ups and downs, who recovers well from the downs. ( )
  mahallett | Jan 27, 2016 |
This short novel by Willa Cather is a great example of the Schiff-era output of The Limited Editions Club as he changed the direction of the LEC from using book illustrators and graphic artists to using “fine art” artists to produce Livres d’Artiste style books. While I haven’t seen a lot of the Schiff produced books, the emphasis does seem to be on the artist over the writer and the work of literature. In this case, the choice of author can certainly be justified. Willa Cather was a well-respected writer of the early 20th century and was a Pulitzer Prize winner. The illustrations are perfectly suited to the text. The book itself is beautiful and it was a joy to read.

The Monthly Letter that accompanied the edition back in 1984 was especially full of interesting tidbits about Cather. It notes that A Lost Lady was published in 1922 at a “crossroads in literary attitudes” with Marcel Proust dying and Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land being published. The book certainly looks back with nostalgic longing and forward with disdain, but more on that later. The Letter also notes that along with George Bernard Shaw, Cather was one of the few authors to have knowledge of typefaces and a desire to dictate which ones to use for a given work:

"At Cather’s request, the first edition of A Lost Lady was set in Caslon, and The Limited Editions Club could do no less for this deluxe edition—especially since Caslon is a perennial favorite."

Their first publisher, Alfred Knopf, honored their typeface requests for Death Comes for the Archbishop as well, setting it in Monotype Old Style No. 31 to make it seem like it was printed on a “country press”.

Finally, the letter brought it to my attention that some think Cather’s ability to develop their male characters and those characters’ admiration for remarkable women stem from their sexual orientation as a lesbian. What!? As if male writers who are able to capture a female’s perspective must also be homosexuals and the ones that can’t are obviously heterosexual. Give me a break. The only thing the revelation of their sexual orientation did for me was to make me switch to gender-neutral pronouns. Since they lived before choosing pronouns was a thing, and I don’t know what they would have chosen. Got your back, Willa.

But enough about the Monthly Letter, this is a solid example of book design and craftsmanship. The combination of the printed cloth covering the boards and the German aniline leather quarter binding is elegant and a perfect match for the period of the story. Three different papers were used for the edition, a Mohawk Mills cream-white letterpress stock for the text, Somerset for the frontispiece etching, and an unidentified paper for the pen-and-ink drawings. The insertion of tissue for each of the drawings is a nice touch and greatly appreciated even if there is no trace of bleeding after thirty years. The two antique initials that begin Parts 1 and 2 are another little touch of elegance.

All this being said, I’m still scratching my head about this choice from Willa Cather’s oeuvre. The introducer, John Hollander, loves it and calls it “one of those strong, intense shorter novels which literary modernism prefers to great, sprawling ones, and whose careful and significant structure and control of indirection enlist the reader in filling and fitting it out.” But if Willa Cather were to have one book given the private press treatment, why this one? Why not My Antonia or Death Comes for the Archbishop? Maybe Schiff or his art director and editor David Glixon also loved it. And with the dearth of women writers who have received a private press tribute, I can think of two others that wrote in the first half of the 20th century that I would have preferred: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or Mari Sandoz’ Crazy Horse. But while I probably won’t hurry to reread A Lost Lady, I’m still happy to have a nice copy of it in my library.

AVAILABILITY: Copies can be found on the secondary market for a song considering the quality. I think I paid $40 for mine with just a little spine fading.

For the complete book review, including images of the physical book, visit my blog The Whole Book Experience at http://www.thewholebookexperience.com/
  jveezer | Dec 30, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Willa Catherprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Byatt, A.S.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lietzmann, SabinaContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mulot, SibylleContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baardman, GerdaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weerdt-Schellekens, Henriëtte vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"...Come, my coach!
Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies,
Good night, good night."
Information from the Spanish Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Para Jan Hambourg
First words
Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer today than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere.
Willa Cather was a writer whose gifts, and critical reception, were paradoxical. (Introduction)
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.
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Wikipedia in English


Book description
Marian Forrester is the symbolic flower of the Old American West. She draws her strength from that solid foundation, bringing delight and beauty to her husband, an elderly railroad pioneer, to the small town of Sweet Water where they live, to the prairie land itself, and to the young narrator of her story, Niel Herbert. All are bewitched by her brilliance and grace, all are ultimately betrayed. For Marian longs for 'life on any terms', and in fulfilling herself, she loses all she loved, all who loved her.
Generally considered to be Willa Cather's most perfect novel, this exquisite portrait of a troubling beauty is also a haunting evocation of a noble age slipping irrevocably into the past.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679728872, Paperback)

A portrait of a woman who reflects the conventions of her age even as she defies them and whose transformations embody the decline and coarsening of the American frontier.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:04 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

"Written from the perspective of a male narrator, Willa Cather's classic novel is an Amercian version of "Madame Bovary". It is a portrait of a talented woman trapped in the conventions and economic restraints of a marriage. It is the story of a woman who defies expectations, and whose personal changes coincide with the transforming American Frontier. In this work, Willa Cather expressed her profoundly modern feminist views in the life of an ordinary and gifted woman who is stifled by marriage."--Ingram.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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