A Lost Lady   by   Willa Cather


Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born near Winchester, Virginia.  When she was ten, her family moved from the peace of Virginia to the wild prairies of Nebraska.  She was graduated from the University of Nebraska at twenty-one, and did newspaper work and teaching in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the next few years.  She published a book of verse in 1903 and over the years wrote twelve novels, four volumes of short stories, and two volumes of essays.  She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1923.


Her novel A Lost Lady is a wonderfully crafted story of Mrs. Forrester, a beautiful and wonderfully alive woman.  She is married to a much older man and they are very well off.  He is retired from his work helping to build railroads due to an accident he has had.  As the story unfolds, he loses the family fortune, has a stroke which he largely recovers from, and another stroke that leaves him an invalid, and then he dies.  (It is important to note that he chose to lose the family fortune because the bank he was a director of fails and he uses his own personal fortune to make sure none of the small depositors lose their money.  He is a very noble and trustworthy individual.)


Cather has Mrs. Forrester described for the most part through the eyes of Niel.  Niel falls from a tree while trying to help a bird blinded by an evil young man by the name of “Poison” Ivy Peters and breaks his arm and is unconscious.  He is carried into the Forrester home and briefly and tenderly cared for by Mrs. Forrester before the doctor comes.  He is in love with her from that point on as the years go by and he grows into a handsome and well educated young man. 


He sets her on a pedestal, which almost guarantees that she will fall from it at some point.  He discovers that she has an ongoing affair with another man who visits the Forrester home as their guest from time to time as his travels bring him into the area.  Neil hates her for this but tends to forgive her only to get angry with her again over time.  Cather describes his reaction as follows: “It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal.  Beautiful women, whose beauty meant more than it said…was their brilliancy always fed by something coarse and concealed?  Was that their secret?” (p. 87---all quotes are from the Vantage Books, N.Y. edition).  Eventually Niel, who has a great deal of respect for Mr. Forrester, also known as the Captain, begins to see what is going on with Mrs. Marian Forrester’s affair differently.  “Niel had often wondered just 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” (p. 117).


When Mr. Forrester finally dies, Mrs. Forrester returns to her native California and eventually remarries and moves to South America with her rich new husband.  But before she does this she gets involved with Ivy Peters who has grown into a morally and physically repugnant shyster lawyer. 


Cather uses her story to attack those who are taking over our country.  “The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold.  Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything” (p. 106).


Keep in mind that Cather grew up on the frontier and valued that heritage.  Keep in mind that Cather was a woman who grew up in an era that did not let women vote and she published this novel in 1923.


So, having finished the book, I am faced with trying to understand just what this excellent novelist is trying to communicate.  My options are legion.


  1. Is Cather simply telling a story, like the newspaper woman she once was?  She is not trying to moralize, just provide the facts and let you know about this family?
  2. Is she using the story to attack the moral degeneration of business leaders that she observes happening in America?  Remember, five years after the publication of her novel the country plunges into a dark and long depression.  If we had more Captain Forresters, we would have perhaps avoided the depression?  If we had more of them in leadership positions today, might not our country be far better off?
  3. Is Cather trying to get you to be more accepting of others?  She sets up Mrs. Forrester as this fabulous person and then gives her feet of clay.  Is she reminding us not to be the casters of the first stone?  That we all live in glass houses?
  4. Is she telling us something about forgiveness?  The most noble character in the book, the only really outstanding person is the Captain.  He has a wife that is unfaithful.  He doesn’t throw her out.  He accepts and forgives her. 
  5. Is Cather saying the Niel loved this woman all along and should have proposed marriage to her instead of judging her?
  6. Is the author telling us that women need to be seen from a very different light than they were when she wrote her book?  (Mind you, the same message is relevant today.)


I encourage you to read this excellent short novel and come to your own conclusions as to its meaning.  More importantly, I encourage you to do what I have done above after reading a good book or watching a fine film.  Stop and think about what you have just been exposed to.  What does its creator want you to carry away from their work of art?  I assure you that they have written this or created this work as an opportunity for you to learn some eternal verity.  Don’t miss the opportunity to grow that they have provided to you.