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Willa Cather: A Lost Lady

A Lost Lady is really a novella rather than a novel. However, it is included here but because it is considered as one of Cather’s finest works. The lost lady is Marian Forrester, wife of the railroad man, Captain Daniel Forrester. Her story is told through the eyes of Niel Herbert who, at the start of the story, is a young innocent. For Herbert, Mrs. Forrester is the ideal lady – beautiful, gracious, friendly, in short, a perfect lady. Not only does she have class but she also deigns to notice Herbert and his friends, lets them play on her land and even bakes them cookies. But the fortunes of the Forresters take a turn for the worse and their standard of living drops. Gradually, Mrs. Forrester is seen by us in a less flattering light (though Herbert still continues to admire her) as she comes to depend on Ivy Peters, a lawyer who conforms to our views of the shyster lawyer, rather than on the amiable country lawyer she had counted on hereto. Her house is revealed to be less than perfect and she takes to drink. Eventually, the Captain, after a second stroke, dies. At this point, the old Mrs. Forrester fades away completely. Herbert only hears about her from a distance, learning that she has moved to Mexico, remarried a man with money and eventually died.

It has been said that this story is about the death of the Old West and, indeed, it is. Cather clearly admires Captain Forrester and his railroad pioneering but also clearly sees him as crippled, not just physically but as far as his ideas of the West go. She is well aware that the new West will be won by the Ivy Peters of this world, those without any pioneering spirit but who are quick to take advantage of those that did the pioneering and she clearly despises Ivy Peters and his kind (he is portrayed early in as wantonly cruel.) But this is more than a simple story of the old West v. the new West. It is a wonderful story of love from afar, for Niel Herbert clearly loves Marian Forrester but, because of the age difference and that she is married, he conceals it, even to himself. Cather’s beautiful control of her medium and her style make this one of the foremost American novellas.

Publishing history

First published 1923 by Alfred A. Knopf
It was republished in 1990 in the Library of America series (Later Novels)