At the end of my first year at university, the day after the final exam, I paid my first visit to the literature shelves in the basement of the university library. There were only a few shelves, because I was at university that – at the time – had no arts faculty. Those shelves didn’t look entirely promising, but there was a small run of green Virago Modern Classics. Half a dozen books by the same author; an author I hadn’t heard of before.
That was my introduction to Willa Cather.
I picked up the smallest book first – ‘My Mortal Enemy’ – just to see if I liked her. I loved her, I read all of those green books, I tracked down all of the others …..
That was a long time ago, and I’ve been thinking that maybe I should re-read Willa Cather’s novels is chronological order for quite some time. Willa Cather Reading Week was just the push I needed.
Now that I’ve read it again I have to sat that it isn’t her finest work. The story is a little underdeveloped, a little contrived; the writing, though lovely, is sometimes a little less than subtle. But it is a very accomplished and very readable first novel. Her understanding of character, her skill in evoking places was there; I could see so many signs of the fine novelist she would quickly become.
I’m so pleased that I have begun to re-read Willa Cather’s novels in order, but I do have to say that if you haven’t read her before I don’t thinks it’s the best place to start.
The story is set not in the American west that she is most associated with, but in Boston, in New York, and in London. She catches those places very well, and she sets up her story beautifully.
Professor Lucius Wilson arrives in Boston to visit a former pupil. His hostess, Mrs Winifred Alexander, arrives home just before him and he pauses to observe her:
“Always an interested observer of women, Wilson would have slackened his pace anywhere to follow this one with his impersonal, appreciative glance. She was a person of distinction he saw at once, and, moreover, very handsome. She was tall, carried her beautiful head proudly, and moved with ease and certainty. One immediately took for granted the costly privileges and fine spaces that must lie in the background from which such a figure could emerge with this rapid gait.”
Mrs. Alexander explains that her husband is working late, and she is so hospitable, so warm, so charming, that Wilson is almost disappointed when her husband arrives and she leaves the two men alone to talk.
Bartley Alexander has been working on a major bridge in Canada. The bridge has the greatest span of its type, it will be an extraordinary achievement, it will place him at the pinnacle of his profession. But he is unsettled:
“After all, life doesn’t offer a man much. You work like the devil and think you’re getting on, and suddenly you discover that you’ve only been getting yourself tied up. A million details drink you dry. Your life keeps going for things you don’t want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don’t care a rap about. I sometimes wonder what sort of chap I’d have been if I hadn’t been this sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too.”
It’s understandable: Bartley feels that pressure of responsibilities, he misses the energy and vitality of his youth, and he is aware that he is ageing and that his life is finite.
When he visits London he catches a glimpse of Hilda Burgoyne, an Irish actress who he had loved years earlier, and he starts to walk the streets near her home:
“He started out upon these walks half guiltily, with a curious longing and expectancy which were wholly gratified by solitude. Solitude, but not solitariness; for he walked shoulder to shoulder with a shadowy companion – not little Hilda Burgoyne, by any means, but someone vastly dearer to him that she had ever been – his own young self …..”
Inevitably, the two meet. They rekindle their relationship is resumed and Bartley finds himself emotionally torn between his perfect wife and his great lost love.
Willa Cather draws the love triangle so well, and with such subtlety. I understood Bartley’s emotions and I appreciated that both women – one aware of the other and one not – loved him and wanted the best for him.
They understand and accept the realities of life and their situation, in a way he can’t quite.
That side of the story was brilliantly executed; the way that the older side of the story played out though, the story of the bridge-builder- was a little contrived and a little predictable.
But the telling of the tale was lovely; the depth and detail of the characterisation, and the way that it was woven , made it a joy to read; and I am so, so pleased that I have started my second journey through Willa Cather’s novels.