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My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather
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My Mortal Enemy (1926)

by Willa Cather, Willa Cather (Author)

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My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather; (3*)

The protagonist in this novel, Myra, is not a sympathetic character. In the beginning one thinks she is doing the right thing for the right reason but with her small minded ways she eventually ruins both she and her husband's lives and so they live out their days in misery.

Myra was an orphan raised by her very wealthy Great Uncle John and she was the apple of his eye. She had everything she wanted and then some. As she grew into her teen years she fell in love with the 'wrong' man, Oswald, according to her uncle. Oswald had put himself through University and had a promising future but there was bad blood and a grudge between Oswald's father and Myra's Great Uncle John. He and he forbade his great niece to have anything to do with Oswald.

Though it was forbidden she continued to write and to see him through her Aunt Lydia, who was their go between, and he had his letters to Myra sent there and she had hers to him posted from there.

Her uncle's will left her two thirds of his remaining fortune while one third was to go the the church. However if she married this man she would not see a penny.

The story was told at every family gathering. How Myra had fallen in love with with a man her uncle did not approve of and in eloping with him she lost a great fortune. Such a romantic story but unbeknownst to the family, as the years went on, Myra became condescending toward Oswald and was also a spendthrift. Of course the marriage soured somewhat but the couple remained together and Oswald was ever devoted to her.

As I read this small novel I wondered how Myra had come to be this way but then I realized that many marriages do indeed turn thusly. Cather has, in the writing of this novel, kept herself in check through the entirety of the book. I doubt there is a spare word throughout. It is a quick read and worthy of the reading but I was not charmed by it. I don't believe it was written to be a charming book. While it is a quick read I didn't find it an especially easy read. I don't believe it was written to be an easy read. There is so much between the lines here that I am sure I will one day need to read it again. Even now I am looking at it and thinking: Hmmm....... ( )
3 vote rainpebble | May 23, 2017 |
My Mortal Enemy tells the tale of Myra Henshawe, who defied her great-uncle/guardian and lost her inheritance to elope with the love of her life in a grand gesture. The story is narrated by Nellie, niece of Lydia, Myra's childhood friend. In Part One, Nellie is 15 when she first meets Myra, now in her 40's. Part Two takes place 10 years later as Myra is dying, bitterly regretting much of her life. As narrator, Nellie is part innocent observer, part judge of character, and part authorial voice. There are the usual strengths in Cather's writing, but I found the novella rather truncated, stingy almost. I prefer Cather in her amplitude, rather than in a condensed, short form. ( )
  janeajones | May 21, 2017 |
I’ve had this strange, sad little novella for some time, the trouble with tiny little books is that they are easy to overlook. I do love Willa Cather’s writing, there’s a sense of place in her novels I feel right at home in. Her characters step from the pages fully formed and believable – as if from life. My Mortal Enemy was written during Willa Cather’s most creative period, I’m surprised it isn’t better known. One can’t help but feel that in the character of Myra Henshawe we must have someone who Willa Cather knew – or had at least heard of from somebody. According to A S Byatt in the introduction to this old Virago edition, this is indeed the case – we don’t know from exactly where the character comes, but it seems she was someone Cather knew. There is a quite definite deliberateness to the shortness of this little book, Cather gives us the essence of these people, and leaves us asking questions about them. It’s quite brilliant.

Our narrator Nellie Birdseye is fifteen when she first meets Myra Henshawe who is visiting Nellie’s home town with her husband. Nellie has grown up in Parthia, Illinois, hearing the stories of Myra Henshawe’s runaway marriage – how on one snowy night she had walked proudly out of the gates of her uncle’s wealthy home, to join Oswald Henshawe; the young man her uncle had forbidden her to marry.

‘But they’ve been happy, anyhow?’ I sometimes asked her.
‘Happy? Oh yes! As happy as most people.’
That answer was disheartening; the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people.”

Myra had walked away from her inheritance; no one believed that her uncle would ever change his mind. Nellie’s Aunt Lydia has fuelled Nellie’s imagination with romantic stories about Myra – and so at first Nellie is rather disappointed in the reality, a woman fussing about her husband’s shirts, much older than she had expected.

“After I went home from that first glimpse of the real Myra Henshawe, twenty-five years older than I had always imagined her, I could not help feeling a little disappointed. John Driscoll and his niece had suddenly changed places in my mind, and he had got, after all, the more romantic part. Was it not better to get out of the world with such pomp and dramatic splendour than to linger in it, having to take account of shirts and railway trains, and getting a double chin into the bargain?”

Myra at around forty-five, is sharp, often sarcastic, a figure of legend, who Nellie is so ready to be impressed by. Nellie and Aunt Lydia travel to New York City to spend Christmas with the Henshawes. Here the Henshawes live in an apartment – which Nellie loves the moment she sees it – in genteel poverty, surrounded by various artists and actors. Oswald enlists Aunt Lydia’s help in a small, but possibly significant deception to thwart his wife’s jealousy and Nellie later witnesses an argument between the Henshawes. Nellie and Aunt Lydia spend Christmas dinner with friends of Myra and Oswald and New Year they meet yet more artists. As Nellie and her aunt leave New York by train they are suddenly joined by Myra who has apparently quarrelled again with Oswald and she is on her way to visit friends in Pittsburgh.

Ten years later Nellie meets Myra and Oswald again. Both the Henshawes and Nellie have been driven to a little town on the west coast by economic necessity. Nellie has come as a teacher, a position that Myra heartily disapproves of. Myra is very ill, bedridden she is cared for by Oswald who when not caring for Myra works full time for the city traction company, a poorly paid lowly position. The Henshawes flat is small and shabby; their upstairs neighbours are dreadfully noisy. The dying Myra tells Nellie – about her life, how ‘they were never really happy’ instructs Nellie to ditch teaching and try journalism. Nellie takes Myra to a headland above the sea – a place that Myra becomes enchanted by and returns to again.

Poor Myra; achieved legendary status when she walked out on her inheritance one snowy night many, many years earlier, but then lived an ordinary, unremarkable life. Her great love turned sour, although we can only ever guess why. So the reader leaves Myra Henshawe with many questions still about her. ( )
2 vote Heaven-Ali | May 5, 2016 |
This is a short novel/novella from the 1920's. The language and storytelling was beautiful. This turns out to be a rather sad story, eventually throwing ice water on running away for romantic love. We see parts of the life of Myra Henshawe and her husband Oswald through the eyes of young Nellie. Nellie is 15 when she first meets Myra at 45. Nellie has heard family stories, the stuff of legend, of the young Myra and is rather surprised at the reality. Myra seems to be rather quickly moving from nice to not so nice. Myra ends up living a broken life, having given up an inheritance to marry the man she loved. That isn't how it begins, but that is how it ends. Interesting set of characters and very descriptive scenes made this very much worth reading, but as I said, rather sad by the end.

Cather is quite a writer. 3 1/2 - 4 stars ( )
1 vote RBeffa | Jan 5, 2014 |
I read this book in one night. Novellas are cool, they're like a novel condensed, or a short story with more development. My Mortal Enemy sticks with a couple themes, and a couple characters - there isn't space for any more. I was interested in the characters, though they weren't all that original. The things they said, however, are quite memorable. ( )
  allisonneke | Dec 17, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Willa Catherprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cather, WillaAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Dwiggins, W. A.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I first met Myra Henshawe when I was fifteen, but I had known about her ever since I could remember anything at all.
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Book description
Through the eyes of a young girl, Nellie, we view the life of Myra Driscoll Henshawe, a legend in the Southern town where both were born. There Myra was raised in luxury, a luxury she romantically abandoned to elope with the impoverished Oswald Henshawe. We-and Nellie-meet them twenty five years later living in elegant poverty in a New York apartment frequented by singers, actors, poets-the artistic community of old New York. We-and Nellie-are dazzled by Myra's worldly, imperial manner, her charismatic presence and the devotion of her husband. It is not until ten years later, when Nellie encounters the Henshawes again-in real poverty now, living in a jerrybuilt West Coast hotel-that the high purpose of Myra's life, love itself, is revealed as the enemy within...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679731792, Paperback)

First published in 1926, this book is Cather's sparest and most dramatic novel, a dark and oddly prescient portrait of a marriage that subverts our oldest notions about the nature of happiness and the sanctity of the hearth.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:15 -0400)

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