This was my first foray into Willa Cather’s writing and I found this a thoughtful and engaging novel that works on several levels. It is a character study of a woman at a time of change in the American west; a character study of America at the time of the railroad boom as it evolves alongside changing ideas of morality and social convention; a study of a complex web of relationships: friendship, love, loyalty rooted in respect, gratitude or feudal class-based tradition. I was left under no illusions, Cather was obviously a supporter of the old ways.
Mrs Forrester, the ‘Lost Lady’ of the title is married to an ageing Captain in a small, backwoods town in the transitional America of the railroad era. This work deals with her complex relationship with her husband, her lovers and a youth of the town, Neils, who idolises the image of her and reveres her husband and his old fashioned morals and conventions. The new, crude manners of the upcoming generation contrasts with Neils’ old-school outlook. Cather shows him as outdated, left behind by his compatriots. As you follow this trio of characters through to the death of the Captain, we see Neils’ polarised idea of right and wrong in the light of the complexities of the emotional and moral ties that bind the other characters. Ultimately, Neils’ innocence dies with Captain Forrester as his illusions are shattered by the realisation that all live with some kind or moral compromise and none of his idols fit into his succinct categories of morality. As for the ‘Lady’ herself, on the one hand, the reader is tempted to dislike her for her perceived disloyalty. However, ultimately it becomes clear that, in her own way, she was as loyal to her husband as others and that loyalty and faithfulness are not necessarily synonymous and in some ways this redeems her.
It is an interesting and beautifully crafted novel and the characterisation is very competently realised. Criticism has been levelled at Cather’s work, implying that she was over-reliant on her devotion to the old America of a time that was passing and that she refused to accept the newer world; that she was wasting her obvious talent by not turning it loose on the modern world. However, for me, it is exactly this viewpoint that makes the novel so poignant. I would certainly recommend this. It is a very engaging and fast read but definitely a pleasureable one too.