I've just finished this, the first of that pile of birthday books. They are all, as perhaps the picture showed, Virago Modern Classics. I must admit that though I have read a lot of contemporary fiction lately, it is the classics I love the best. This one was written in 1923, though it is set some years earlier. I had read a couple of Willa Cather's novels some years ago but though I remember enjoying them, I'm sure I didn't enjoy them as much as this. A Lost Lady is going to be one of those books that stays with me for a long time. Set in Nebraska, it tells the story of Marian Forrester, the young and beautiful second wife of the ageing Captain Daniel Forrester, a wealthy "railroad man". Forrester, respected by his colleagues and friends for his generosity and uprightness, in many ways stands for the old pioneering West -- a quiet and restrained figure in the novel, he is a marvellous creation, whose dignity and tolerance become clearer and clearer as he ages in declining health. But of course the central figure is Mrs Forrester herself, who is seen through the eyes of the young Neil Herbert, nephew to the local Judge. Neil first encounters Marian when he is ten years old and has an accident on the Forrester estate which results in a broken arm. As he grows up into a handsome and intelligent young man, Mrs Forrester takes a special interest in him, and he spends many happy hours at the house. But, as he does so, he begins to see aspects of Marian's life that disturb him -- in particular, he discovers her attachment to the raffish charmer Frank Ellinger. Terribly shocked and disillusioned, he nurses this knowledge in secret until one day Captain Forrester hands him some letters to post, including one from Marian to Ellinger:
"For some reason Neil felt embarrassed and tried to slip the letter quickly into his pocket. The Captain, his two canes in one hand, prevented him. He took the pale envelope again, and held it out at arm's length, regarding it.
'Mrs Forrester is a fine penman; have you ever noticed? Always was. If she made me a list of articles to get at the store, I never had to hide it. It was like a copper plate. That's exceptional in a woman, Neil'.
... Neil had often wondered how much the Captain knew. Now, as he went down the hill, he felt sure that he knew everything; more than anyone else; all there was to know about Marian Forrester".
The Captain, in truth, loves, appreciates and understands his wife in a way that Neil will never achieve -- a rather repressed and prim young man, he fails to see that her passion and energy are as much to be valued as her fragility and her sweet and elegant charm. Here's the first description of her, early in the novel:
"She stood beside his desk in her long sealskin coat and cap, a crimson scarf showing above the collar, a little brown veil with spots tied over her eyes. The veil did not at all obscure those beautiful eyes, dark and full of light, set under a low white forehead and arching eyebrows. The frosty air had brought no colour to her cheeks -- her skin always had the fragrant, crystalline whiteness of white lilacs. Mrs Forrester looked at one, and one knew she was bewitching. It was instantaneous, and it pierced the thickest hide....There could be no negative encounter, however slight, with Mrs Forrester. If she merely bowed to you, merely looked at you, it constituted a personal relation. Something about her took hold of one in a flash; one became acutely conscious of her, of her fragility and grace, of her mouth that could say so much without words; of her eyes, lovely, laughing, intimate, nearly always a little mocking".
There is so much skill in the way this novel is written, not least the way Cather uses Neil as the story's point of view: idealistic, a little prudish, he never fully understands the world he is drawn into observing. The writing is superb -- so simple and pared down but so full of meaning. Buy it and read it, please! You won't regret it.