A Lost Lady

by Willa Cather. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1923. 12mo. 174 pp. $1.75.
‘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 defense, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men . . . who had never dared anything, never risked anything.’
There are a good many recurrences of such a motif in Miss Cather’s new novel; but it is a motif which, in this least rugged and most sophisticated of her major works, has rather less than its calculated share in the effect. For one thing, the railroad-builders and land-holders who, in A Lost Lady, suggest the pioneer type — by contrast with the ‘shrewd young men, trained by petty economies,’ who followed them — are themselves children of the modern complexity and softness when placed beside the truly elemental types of their predecessors; so that their qualities constitute the heroic half of a comparison only when set off against the positive ignobility of a succeeding generation. But the fundamental truth is that, in essence, A Lost Lady is not a regional novel. Its background of time and place, intrinsically an important enough chapter in the social history of the West, does not exist here to be expressed by the characters. It is but a set of circumstances attendant on one dominant character who vividly contradicts her environment — an exceptional individual whose tragic pathos can be seen only against surroundings grotesquely unrelated to her personality. In the kind of society which makes a natural place for such as she, she would seem relatively trivial. Her conspicuous greatness resides in her being from the outset, so far as her environment is concerned, a lost lady.
Marian Forrester is the woman who makes a purely decorative art of living and of her personal relations; who with unconscious arrogance claims all tributes by virtue of her sheer charm, and with that same charm answers all responsibilities, rewards all services. It is easy to point out the sterility of such a personal gift and of the life lived to conserve it: but the answer is that charm itself creates and blesses. It is simply a more generalized form of the fatal gift of beauty, which changes all who come within its spell. The true appraisement of Marian Forrester’s gift is in, for one example, the attitude of her obscurely heroic husband, who valiantly protects, not only others, but even himself from seeing the weak spots in her armor. Men feel that the one thing which such a creature owes them is to keep her charm immaculate; and for this reason they will deny their own senses when they find her conduct faithless or her character tawdry.
A Lost Lady is Miss Cather’s version of the loveliness whose appointed task it is to include virtue as the whole includes the parts, and whose failure to be born with the strength for this high destiny is the supreme tragedy.