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A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady (original 1923; edition 1972)

by Willa Cather

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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 (17)  Spanish (2)  All languages (19)
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My second read for Willa Cather reading week was A Lost Lady first published in 1923, is seen by many as her best novel. A novel about the passing of the old order, an elegy for the days of the Pioneer, it tells the story of the gradual deterioration of a woman’s reputation and values.

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.

The story is told through the eyes of Niel Herbert, who as a young boy falls in love with the beautiful, elegant, almost other worldly Marian Forrester. Married to an elderly railroad pioneer, to whom she is a constant delight, Marian charms the community of Sweet Water where the couple live mainly during the summer months. The summer this story opens, Niel is twelve years old, he and his friends, fish, picnic and play on the land surrounding the Forrester home, Marian Forrester watching them from the house sends some newly baked biscuits out to them. Another local boy, a little older than Niel and his friends is Ivy Peters, a scornful, cruel boy, amused by Niel’s affection for the Forresters.

“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.”

Marian and Captain Forrester play host to the Captain’s friends at their comfortable home, they are a popular couple, their home a place of genial company. As a boy young Niel is bewitched by Mrs Forrester – and from the day he is carried into her home, injured, to await the local doctor, his life in Sweet Water is lived on the periphery of the Forrester home. Niel’s uncle, Judge Pommeroy is one of the Captain’s particular friends and so Niel becomes a regular and welcome guest in their home, Marian becomes fond of the boy, encouraging his visits. The Captain and his slowly declining health represent the end of the old pioneering days, as his old fashioned investments lose money and he and his wife are forced to live in their Sweet Water home all year round.

Several years later, Niel is working with his uncle, before leaving Sweet Water to train as an architect, still a regular visitor at the Forrester’s house he is introduced to Frank Ellinger and Constance Ogden. Marian wants Niel to entertain Constance who is the same age as Niel, but Constance seems more taken with Frank, a large, sociable man of about forty, who Niel feels uncomfortable around, and he notices, spends a lot of time with Mrs Forrester.

Niel’s faith in Marian Forrester is severely shaken, for him she loses a lot of the glamour she had before Frank Ellinger became a regular visitor. When the Captain returns from town with the news that they have lost most of their money, Niel struggles to reconcile Marian Forrester with a woman who will have to undertake her own household tasks. For Niel, Marian Forrester’s decline is a slow sad education into the truth of human frailties. Like Emma Bovary perhaps, Marian Forrester is not entirely unsympathetic, even in the midst of his increasing disappointment over the years Niel can’t entirely turn away from her.

“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.”

Marian is a woman who has known excitement and glamour, twenty five years younger than her husband she is not quite ready to sit ageing by the fire. She looks after her husband tenderly; yet she still knows how to charm the men around her. Marian is faithless but steadfast, vulnerable yet capable of doing whatever she needs to survive. Old Pioneers like Captain Forrester eventually shuffle off to make way for the new capitalist generation represented by Ivy Peters – who has bought up land around the Forrester home, and in time manages Marian’s estate – taking unpardonable liberties in Niel’s opinion with the way he speaks to one who should be his social superior. Niel has to accept that Marian is not the idealised creature she had appeared to that small boy, and so faithful to the last Niel attempts to protect Marian from herself.

A Lost Lady is a delicately rendered novel, the writing exquisite, marking a half way point in Cather’s writing career. It is simply superb, poignant and memorable. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Dec 23, 2014 |
prose is wonderful. couldn't quite get into the Mme Bovary on the frontier story nor the mourning for the Pioneer era & its titans. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
I love this book for its insights into human nature. Niel finds that Marian Forrester is not faithful to the trustworthy and admirable Captain and yet she is ultimately charming and irresistible. She does what she must to survive. ( )
  Becky221 | Jul 18, 2013 |
A Lost Lady is about Mrs. Forrester the wife of a railroad man (Captain Forrester) who lives in a small town upon the railroad line always at the ready to greet guests which her husband bring home, or to make sure the local boys who play in the fields or fish in the creek near her house are always welcome. Told through the narrative of Neil Herbert, the nephew of a local judge and Captain Forrester’s lawyer.

The novel shows how as he grows up he learns more about Mrs. Forrester and she becomes less like the model wife he had thought her when he was a young child. Although, she stays with the captain until his very end, even through the threat of losing their beloved home and after he has a stroke and must not travel anymore.

Each time Neil found out something more which caused him to lose his love of the Mrs. Forrester he had grown up with my heart grieved. He might have been a tad naive rowing up, but there are some things which need to stay in the dark and for him to have to find out about these things is saddening. It is akin to finding out dark secrets about your own parents and then not being able to tell anyone. ( )
  getrus | Feb 21, 2013 |
Im Mittelpunkt des Romans steht die hübsche und charmante Mrs. Forrester. Marian Forrester ist verheiratet mit einem Self-made-Mann. Ursprünglich verbringen die Forresters nur wenige Monate in Sweet Water. Die restliche Zeit leben sie im Osten (Osten Amerikas). Nach Mr. Forresters Erkrankung "geht es mit Marian Forrester bergab". Sie stürzt sich in Affären mit jungen Männern, die der neuen Generation, der der seelenlosen Amerikaner, angehören. ( )
  steckruebe | Dec 3, 2012 |
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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."
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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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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.
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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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