Written by Pulitzer winner Willa Cather, A Lost Lady is an example of American Pioneer literature. Of course, I did not know all this when I randomly picked this book in the local library. Pioneer literature covers the trials and tribulations of the American explorers who moved westwards in search of land and riches from the heavily populated East. Most of the expansion was by settlers who worked on railways which were being built to connect mining towns. Any Pioneer’s town population was often divided into two sets of classes. The management comprising of the land owners, or rich industrialists that came into the west with the railroad and mines. They set up an upper class of society which included their bankers and solicitors. Then there was the working class – the farmers who leased the land, the miners and the railroad workers. While there existed no open resentment, the actions of the rich were subject of much observation and gossip as they continue to this very day.
The novella centers around Mrs. Captain Forrester, a young beautiful something who marries a man almost twice her age for reasons not clear initially. Everyone around her admires her for grace, kindness, and vivacious personality. As a reader however, you can sense that something is not right or there is some flaw which is waiting to burst out the gossamer of beauty that is set up around her. The narrative is in third person and in most places presents the picture as seen in front of Niel, a young family friend of the Forrester’s. He is spends a lot of time at the Foresters partly due to his admiration for the Captain and the partly for his boyish infatuation for Mrs. Forrester. The story runs in two parallels. There is the illusion and the dream of the west – of wealth, beauty and the old world gentility. All this slowly falls apart as the economy collapses due to the bubble and the middle class then emerges, now in a position to negotiate for lands, jobs and deals that they had no chance at earlier. The old values give away to the new more mercenary demands. The other story is that of our Lost Lady, Mrs. Forrester who to Neil is the promise of everything wealthy, beautiful and classic. Then as layers of her character and her unfaithfulness revealed, the illusion breaks. He realizes that everything about her is transient. What gave her beauty was not herself but her marriage to the Captain who was a better human being than her. When the Captain dies she is a rudderless ship and all restraint and class disappears – she is truly lost. Lost to herself and lost to the world.
The story primarily made an impression on me because it talks of a culture and time that I am completely unfamiliar with. There are some elements of feminism in Mrs. Forrester’s character and while she may not be the best of persons, she does seem a victim of the times as much as that of her own transgressions. I really did enjoy the writing too especially how Cather captures the untouched beauty of the west in her descriptions of the wilderness surrounding the small town in Omaha. One can’t help but yearn for a time and place so far away from the rush of our daily lives.