Women in Fiction

Willa Cather has not chosen to add another great calm painting — or, if you will, another great calm piece of music — to Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, For a partial likeness to Lucy Gayheart (Knopf, $2.00) one must, go as far back as to A Lost Lady — for a matching fleetness of narrative, a matching concentration and vehemence of emotion. In the opening paragraph, Lucy Gayheart is described as her fellow townsmen used to see her: ‘ walking swiftly with intense direction, like a bird flying home.’ With the same swiftness and direction the story moves.
Lucy Gayheart is in a modest way a darling of the gods. She is the loveliest girl in her small town, the most gifted, the most admired. The ‘biggest’ young man in the community is inclined to believe that she will do nicely for him. Music, her passion, is also her talent. After she has studied the piano for a time in Chicago, she is found able enough to be recommended, as his accompanist for his hours of practice, to the great baritone who is her idol. Thrilled and scared, she enters into what proves to be an unimagined heaven. But the gods’ darlings are traditionally in danger.
I do not know whether Miss Cather’s power of rendering the emotional undercurrents of a situation shows better in those scenes in Clement Sebastian’s studio in which Lucy’s artistic and personal ardors expand so rapturously, or in the episode of Harry Gordon’s advent from the home town for opera week with Lucy — Harry Gordon, all ignorant of the change in her, superfluously reënforced in spirit by three new suits and a pocketful of opera tickets, but rather touchingly resolved that this time he will not be as funny as he can in the art museum.
The author’s rare sense of form shows once more in this novel. The narrative, compact as it is, follows a beautiful design. A strong sense of actuality is given to the persistence of Lucy’s spirit, with its ‘belief in an invisible, inviolable world,’ in the place where she is not; and to the evolution of the bumptious and supremely self-satisfied Harry Gordon into a man very much a man and at the same time touched with a fanciful tenderness that in someone else he would once have shouted down with mighty laughter. I am inclined to believe that what will persist longest, in memory from a reading of the book is its swiftness, and the intense reality of the visual images.
Illyrian Spring, by Ann Bridge (Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $2.50), is a vivacious and thoroughly entertaining novel that is also a penetrating and wise one. As in Peking Picnic, the charm of the central figure and of the beautiful setting is enhanced by the charm of the lucid, delicately cadenced style. In recalling this novel, one retrieves the sensation of transit, through a lovely land under highly diverting circumstances that yet leave one something to think about. For the problem presented is a serious one.
The attractive Lady Kilmichael is in a plight that reduces itself to this: she has arrived at the realization that her husband and her daughter think her rather a fool. As she is a person of rare humility, the fact that she is a painter of mark, a painter rated very high indeed by the most knowing, fails to bolster her spirit. Bit by bit, the atmosphere of easy or irritated contempt, at home has destroyed her self-confidence. As the last straw, her husband, a distinguished economist, astonishingly seems to be developing an excessive regard for his secretary, a woman of attainments but of no visible charm. Flight, for the purpose of getting things into perspective, flight with the secret option of no return, appears to Lady Kilmichael her only possible course. How should she foresee that her project of letting everything but her art slide for a time, in a beautiful retreat, with all communication cut off, should be upset by an odd encounter with an oddly attractive boy, a difficult, demanding, pertinacious, lovable boy?
I doubt if the friction between an extremely punctilious mother and an extremely casual daughter has been better presented than in this novel. In a letter to her best friend, young Linnet states the situation crisply and not without subtlety: ‘When I tell Aunt G. why I did X or Y, she takes it in, and just says, well, I ’m not to again — and that is . . . that. Whereas Mums always begins to think about my moral character and latent tendencies to evil, and is simply blinded by fuss over all that to the plain good reason I had then for doing so.
Lady Kilmichael is that inspiriting phenomenon, a mature person willing to learn at the cost of humbled vanity. She can drain the dose of acknowledging to herself her regrettable feeling for the too-young man who feels so regrettably toward her. More than that, she can take the bitterer dose proffered by Dr, Halther, the eminent psychiatrist: that she is thought stupid in her home because, for all her brilliant talent, there she is stupid — stupid with maternal love and fussiness. I suspect the core of this gayly wise book to be not in the great man’s ‘ What is freedom? It consists in two things: to know each his own limitations and to accept them,’ but in Lady Kilmichael’s application of his dictum: ‘I have n’t been content to be stupid, as it were.’