Midweek @ Musings Review: The Lost Lady, by Willa Cather (a first edition!)

Last Christmas, Santa my dear husband gave me a first edition of Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady.  This was a perfect gift; he knew I enjoyed two of Cather’s novels (click to read my reviews of The Professor’s House and One of Ours).  If he was a very astute observer he would also have noticed 5 more Cathers on my shelves, mostly Viragos.  In this case, he politely withheld comment on all those unread books, and further contributed to the “problem” with his gift.  It’s nice to be married to someone who understands the tactile pleasure of books, and is thoughtful enough to go scouting for something unique.

My first edition has a pale green cover, with no dust jacket.  The book is small:  LibraryThing’s new physical description fields tell me it’s 20cm (8 inches) tall.  And while it’s only 173 pages, the paper is quite thick, making this a short & chubby little book.  It felt delicate in my hands, and I had to take care when turning the pages.  Normally I bring my current read with me to work, but decided against it for this book, because Murphy’s Law would have caused something terrible to happen to it in my briefcase.

As for the novel itself, I enjoyed it well enough, although Cather is really at her best when describing the American west in all its pioneer-era glory.  This book lacked that dimension, and didn’t tug at my heart as much as I think it was supposed to.  Read on for my review …


Captain Daniel Forrester and his younger wife, Marian, live in a prairie town with tight connections to the Burlington railway.  Mrs. Forrester maintains a distant relationship with most people, but her charm and good looks still have them eating out of her hand.  Early in the story, Mrs. Forrester gives a group of schoolboys permission to play on her property, and she brings them food.  One of the boys, Niel, develops a crush on her and Mrs. Forrester’s story is then told largely through his eyes.

Niel is a studious young man, reading classics and working to overcome his humble origins.  Captain Forrester, a self-made man, counsels Niel that he need only work hard to get what he deserves in life:

All our great west has been developed from such dreams; the homesteader’s and the prospector’s and the contractor’s. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains, just as I dreamed my place on the Sweet Water. (p. 55)

As Niel matures he watches the Forresters, and pines for Mrs. Forrester who of course sees him as nothing more than a nice schoolboy.  Niel’s illusions are shattered when Mrs. Forrester shows her own human weaknesses.  Unfortunately, I failed to develop an emotional connection to these characters.  The novel was improved by Cather’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape:

The sky was burning with the soft p[ink and silver of a cloudless summer dawn. The heavy, bowed grasses splashed him to the knees. All over the marsh, snow-on-the-mountain, globed with dew, made cool sheets of silver, and the swamp milk-week spread its flat, raspberry-coloured clusters. There was an almost religious purity about the fresh morning air, the tender sky, the grass and flowers with the sheen of early dew upon them. There was in all living things something limpid and joyous — like the wet, morning call of the birds, flying up through the unstained atmosphere.  (p. 84)

This was a decent novel, just not one of Cather’s best.

Review: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns

Sophia is young and naive when she falls for Charles, a painter.  Believing love will see them through all sorts of troubles, they decide to marry even though neither has a reliable way to make a living.  Charles keeps hoping his talents will be discovered, and Sophia earns a bit of money here and there as a model for other artists.  They are desperately poor, and blissfully unaware of the need to “take precautions.” Sophia soon becomes pregnant, and at this point Charles turns into a bit of an ass.  He’s not keen about having a child, but reluctantly agrees it might be okay if it were a girl.  Of course it’s a boy, and he only halfheartedly fulfills his parental responsibilities.  Sophia is a bit slow to realize Charles is an ass, until she has an affair with a much older man.  The affair runs its course, as affairs often do, and she must then take decisive action to change the course of her life.

This sounds like a fairly typical love story, and on one level, it is.  But Sophia is a memorable, engaging and eternally optimistic narrator.  Here’s a typical excerpt:

That is the kind of stuff that appears in real people’s books.  I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read, the kind of business men that wear stiff hats with curly brims and little breathing holes let in the side.  I wish I knew more about words. Also I wish so much I had learnt my lessons in school. I never did, and have found this such a disadvantage ever since. All the same, I am going on writing this book even if business men scorn it.  (p. 54)

Sophia prattles on like this for over 220 pages, and she’s just so much fun to “listen” to.  Even when you know she’s heading for trouble, you can’t help but like her and hope for the best.  This is an unusual novel, and the first Comyns I’ve read.  I’ll definitely be back for more.

Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady is a story of Americans abroad, and a story of love and loss.  Isabel Archer arrives in England with her aunt, Lydia Touchett, who is intent on broadening her horizons.  Lydia is the mother of Isabel’s cousin Ralph, who lives with his father on their English estate, Gardencourt.  Within a few weeks of her arrival at Gardencourt, Isabel turns down two marriage proposals, insisting on maintaining her independence.  She inherits a considerable sum of money, and it appears she will be able to achieve her goal.  Unfortunately, her “friends” have other ideas, and when Isabel travels to the continent, she soon finds herself falling for Gilbert Osmond, an American living in Italy.  Sadly, their marriage is not a happy one and Isabel is stuck making the best of a bad situation.

The story evolves quite slowly, but there’s much more to this rich novel than can be described in a simple plot summary.  Henry James’ writing is complex, but not as difficult to read as I’d feared.  James was himself an American living abroad, and he clearly loved his adopted country.  Speaking through Ralph Touchett’s father, James offers a delightful point of view of an American living in England:

I’ve been watching these people for upwards of thirty-five years, and I don’t hesitate to say that I’ve acquired considerable information. It’s a very fine country on the whole–finer perhaps than we give it credit for on the other side. There are several improvements I should like to see introduced; but the necessity of them doesn’t seem to be generally felt as yet.

And the characterizations are superb.  Ralph cares deeply for Isabel, but never acts on his feelings.  Lydia is self-centered, but in an amusing way.  Madame Merle, a good friend of Lydia, is quite eccentric and takes Isabel under her wing; however, there is a mysterious side to her as well.  Isabel’s friend Henrietta is assertive and brash, perhaps representing the “typical American” in Europe.  Gilbert Osmond is completely unlikeable, and his sister Amy, the Countess Gemini, is vapid and self-centered, but pulls off a major feat near the end that shows there’s much more to her than meets the eye.

Throughout this novel Isabel is caught between a desire for independence, and societal pressures and expectations.  James’ understated prose delivers surprising emotional intensity, through a collection of memorable characters.  Highly recommended.

Review: The Colour, by Rose Tremain

In 1864, Joseph Blackstone, his new wife Harriet, and his mother Lilian emigrated from England to New Zealand in search of a better life. Lilian, recently widowed, pines for her former lifestyle and resents having to live on their remote farm.  But at the same time, she also hopes to rise above her station, and is disappointed to encounter familiar class barriers in New Zealand:

The familiar feeling of being snubbed — a feeling she’d thought belonged only to England, where the disdain of the upper classes infected every encounter — made Lilian want to weep, or, worse, give Dorothy Orchard a vicious swipe across her badly coiffed head. Lilian was particularly vexed by the knowledge that she never understood exactly how people like Dorothy Orchard achieved their instantaneous mastery over others outside their class.  It happened before you noticed it, like a perfectly executed card trick.  (p. 78)

Joseph is arrogant and stubborn, refusing to listen to advice from the locals on where to build his house, and what materials to use.  Joseph and Harriet have an odd relationship.  Joseph has a secret in his past, and married for all the wrong reasons.  It’s not clear what they see in one another, and it doesn’t take long for Harriet to realize she will never truly love Joseph:

For day by day, she kept secret from him her own lovelessness.  It piled up in her. At times, it was not merely lack of love that she felt; it was hatred of the blackest kind. And though she struggled to conceal it from him, perhaps she succeeded no better than he did with his blatant heaps of earth? In the nights, she often awoke at first light to see him staring at her, his eye close to hers, his fists clenched around the sheets. Did he know that she did not love him? Did he understand all too clearly that she loved the wilderness he had brought her to, but not him? (p. 95)

Yet both Harriet and Lilian are committed to making their farm a success, even after Joseph finds gold in a nearby creek and decides to join the hundreds of other men seeking their fortunes in New Zealand’s gold rush.  Circumstances eventually force Harriet to go off on her own, in search of Joseph.

The story is told from alternating points of view with chapters narrated by Harriet, Joseph, and a couple of other characters who weave nicely into the storyline.  Joseph turns out to be an arrogant and hapless loner, unable to relate to women and desperate to please his mother by accumulating wealth.  Harriet is strong and independent, undaunted by Joseph’s failings and refusing to bow to societal expectations of women.  It is only through Harriet’s intelligence that the couple have any chance of finding gold and making something of their lives together.

But that’s only part of this story; Rose Tremain has more to say than “just” historical drama laced with love.  She also shows how the quest for gold took its toll on the land and destroyed both individuals and communities.  Those who are untouched by greed and continued leading simple lives were by far the happiest and, one could argue, the most successful.

Review: The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead

This is a most unusual family drama, simultaneously frightening, funny, and intense.  Sam and Henny Pollit have six children.  Eldest daughter Louisa was a product of Sam’s first marriage; Henny has been nothing more than Sam’s brood mare, spawning an assortment of children that offer endless amusement to Sam and endless stress and torment to Henny. Sam is self-centered and without a care in the world; he prides himself on being the “fun” parent, organizing all manner of escapades with his children.  He speaks in a language all his own, full of cutesy nicknames and odd turns of phrase.  Henny grew up in a wealthy family, and cannot accept the reduced circumstances of her life with Sam.  She lives beyond their means, both materially and socially.

Sam and Henny neglect many of the practicalities associated with raising a family.  At 13, Louisa is far too young to shoulder these responsibilities and yet there she is, fixing breakfast every day, and making sure the household runs smoothly.  Henny has never accepted Louisa into the family, and verbally abuses her.  Sam showers her with pet names like Looloo, but also smothers her with his prying and controlling behaviors.  Louisa longs for summer holidays, when she stays with her mother’s family:

For nine months of the year were trivial miseries, self-doubts, indecisions, and all those disgusts of preadolescence, when the body is dirty, the world a misfit, the moral sense qualmish, and the mind a sump of doubt: but three months of the year she lived in trust, confidence, and love. (p. 163)

Sam and Henny have such a poor relationship that all communication occurs through their children.  Even Sam’s impending posting to Malaya is communicated to Henny via her eldest son.  And when they argue, all hell breaks loose:

When a quarrel started (Henny and Sam did speak at the height of their most violent quarrels) and elementary truths were spoken, a quiet, a lull would fall over the house. One would hear, while Henny was gasping for indignant breath and while Sam was biting his lip in stern scorn, the sparrows chipping, or the startling rattle of the kingfisher, or even an oar sedately dipping past the beach, or even the ferry’s hoot. Exquisite were these moments. Then the tornado would break loose again. What a strange life it was for them, those quiet children, in this shaded house, in a bower of trees, with the sunny orchard shining, the calm sky and silky creek, with sunshine outside and shrieks of madness inside.  (p. 326)

Louisa often finds herself caught in the middle of this marital drama, trying to break up the fights and protect the younger children.  While Sam is away in Malaya, life settles into some semblance of order, and on his return it seems as if normalcy will continue.  But a series of events dramatically change the family’s place in the community.   Sam and Henny are unable to work through this together, and when Sam takes charge you just know it won’t end well.  Louisa continues to serve as a stabilizing force, but increasingly resents Sam’s intrusion and control.

By now the “frightening” and “intense” elements of this novel should be clear.  It’s strange and uncomfortable to admit that in the midst of all this, there are funny elements as well.  Sam is larger than life.  He’s a complete prat and yet amusing and likable.  He and Henny share equally in their family’s dysfunction, and as much as she’s a victim of Sam’s ridiculous notions, I couldn’t help liking Sam more.  But Sam does some really awful things to his children, things that (if they were real people) would scar them for life.  As a reader, I felt really conflicted, which I think is by design.  Christina Stead is able to make the reader feel like one of Sam and Henny’s many children — fond of both parents, hurt and abused, and completely caught in the middle.

This is not an easy book to read, but not for the reasons you might think.  Yes, the subject matter is difficult, and it’s a bit like watching an impending train wreck.  But the prose also makes its demands on the reader, particularly Sam’s invented language.  However, those willing to invest the time and effort in this book will be rewarded in the end.

More reviews of The Man Who Loved Children:

Review: At Mrs Lippincote’s, by Elizabeth Taylor

What I love about Elizabeth Taylor is her ability to develop rich characters through such understated language.  At Mrs Lippincote’s opens with Roddy and Julia, a middle-aged couple, moving into a rented house (belonging to the Mrs Lippincote in the title).  Through their conversation about trivial matters, Taylor manages to convey both the stress of moving and the fragile state of Julia and Roddy’s relationship.

The accommodation has been arranged to enable Julia, Roddy, their son Oliver and cousin Eleanor to be together during Roddy’s Royal Air Force posting.  It’s 1945, and the family feels safer in the country than in London.  But the hardship of war has worn them down as well.  Oliver is a sickly boy — or, at least, the family thinks he is, finding one excuse after another for not sending him to school.  Eleanor finds work at the school, and befriends a group of hapless political activists in an attempt to have a life of her own.

And Julia is stuck at home, forced to play the role of officer’s wife. She is hopeless at it, never quite saying the right thing or wearing the right clothes.  She strikes up a friendship with Roddy’s commanding officer, based on a shared love of the Brontë sisters.  She also encounters a man they once knew in London, who has fallen on hard times and become a waiter/bartender.  She finds herself drawn to him, simply to overcome her loneliness.

Each of the characters in this book, even the young boy Oliver, are dramatically changed during their stay in Mrs Lippincote’s house.  And yet the story unfolds quietly and subtly; to get the full effect, you have to pay attention to the nuances.  At Mrs Lippincote’s is a showcase for Elizabeth Taylor’s gift for subtlety and nuance.

Review: The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country features one of literature’s more memorable characters:  Undine Spragg.  Beautiful, vapid, self-centered, ambitious, money-grubbing … need I say more?  She’s thoroughly despicable, but so well-drawn that I loved this book.

When the story opens, our heroine and her parents have just moved from Apex, Kansas to New York City, where Undine is to make her way in society while her father’s business ventures satisfy her every need.  Undine asks her father to buy her a box at the opera.  He grumbles about how expensive it is, but he buys it.  We soon come to understand the long-standing pattern: what Undine wants, Undine gets.  In fact, her insatiable desire for the finer things was the impetus for the family’s move to New York.

Undine watches her social circle like a hawk.  She wants to stand out, and is well aware of the effect her looks have on others.  Yet she also constantly monitors shifts in status and power, so she can ally herself with the most advantageous people:

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative.  She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion of ideals thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses. (p. 10)

Undine marries Ralph Marvell, who comes from old New York money and is trying to make his way in some sort of ambiguous business venture.  Unfortunately, Ralph has difficulty keeping Undine in the style she demands.  Where the men in this novel improve their status through business deals, Undine deals in relationships, climbing a social and economic ladder through her men.  Each one brings new material rewards, but Undine’s appetite knows no bounds, and she will stop at nothing to reach the next rung on the ladder.

At each phase of Undine’s life, I hoped she would finally grow up and be sensible.  I wanted her to learn enough about the world around her to be able to carry on meaningful conversation.  I wanted her to be happy with her station in life, and make a personal investment in her relationships.  I felt terrible for Ralph Marvell, and for their son Paul, growing up with a mother who was completely clueless about the needs of children.

In The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton was largely satirizing the concept of the American dream, and the social climbing typical of New York’s “new money.”  But Wharton also offers an important lesson that is still relevant today:  there’s more to life than material possessions, and possessions alone cannot and will not make you happy.

Review: Holiday, by Stanley Middleton

After his marriage breakup, Edwin Fisher decides to spend a week at an English seaside resort, to clear his head and lick his wounds.  He returns to Bealthorpe, a familiar venue after years of childhood holidays.  Edwin moves aimlessly through his first day or so, stretching the most simple tasks just to fill the time.  He bumps into his in-laws, astonished to find they are also on holiday in Bealthorpe, and as they begin to meddle in his affairs, he strives to maintain appropriate yet minimal contact.  Edwin finds a social life through some of the other lodgers in his hotel.  They all gather for drinks and dinner at the hotel, and finish their evening in the pub.  Edwin experiments with a flirtation, soothing himself with the knowledge that he is still attractive to someone.

Alone most of the time, Edwin has plenty of opportunity to reflect on his marriage.  The novel takes place almost entirely in Edwin’s head:  taking in the sights, observing other tourists, and then, more often than not, recalling an incident between he and his wife, Meg.  Through his reminiscences the reader gradually pieces together the puzzle of Edwin’s marriage, and details of the critical emotional event that was just too much for them to bear.

Middleton writes wonderfully descriptive scenes which bring the holiday resort to life:

In the dining-room this evening, silence blossomed once the families began to eat. Fisher enjoyed the activity, the tucking of bibs, the wiping of mouths, the tipping of plates for the last spoonful, the pause between courses where one put on a small show for the other tables or angled for the correct snippet of conversation which would set the rest to chatter or laughing.  These people worked hard, holding their fingers correctly, not marking the tablecloths and this ceremony pleased him.  In this room decorated with dolls and paper flowers it was proper to act the gentleman, ape the lady. When the standard was judged, by Monday evening at the latest, there’d be a relaxation, a few aitches would topple, salacious asides allowed, confidences would be exchanged, but at this the first dinner after a complete day’s holiday matters were formal.  (p. 52)

Middleton’s style reminded me a bit of Virginia Woolf’s To the LighthouseHoliday had a similar dreamy, “day in the life” feeling, accompanied by the imagery of long, slow summer days.  And as in Woolf’s novel, many small incidents are used to paint a big picture of a character and his relationships, making for a very enjoyable read.

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