A Review of A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather, Limited Editions Club

There are many books whose enjoyment of is immensely increased by the time and surroundings in which it was read.  For instance, I will always recall fondly Dicken’s David Copperfield, as I devoured it while waiting in the hospital immediately before and after my first child was born.  It has woven it’s way into that special experience.  Last weekend, while enjoying two days of peace and serenity at a beautiful, private lodging in an area I consider Arizona’s best kept secret (the Verde Valley region, just outside of Sedona, near Page Springs and Cornville), I read, actually should say I experienced, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady.

I am sure A Lost Lady will be indelibly burned into my memory as the writing and story were fantastic, as was the circumstance of immersing myself in it with an excellent bottle of wine (Roar Pisoni Pinot if you must know), my fiancé reading O Pioneers! next to me, in a stunning Monet-like setting of natural beauty and idyllic reading conditions (complete silence except sounds of nature on a lazy Saturday afternoon with perfect weather and zero possibility of being distracted or interrupted).  Many, many years from now I will recall this time and this setting very fondly, and A Lost Lady will be part of it.

Verde Valley/Oak Creek Valley, from the reading room at dusk

A Lost Lady is only a hundred pages or so, but Cather spins such a good story with immense depth of character that one feels deeply immersed in the story, feeling like a direct observer with intimate knowledge of both main characters.  A Lost Lady refers to the main character, Marian Forrester, a beautiful and charming aristocrat in a small mid-western, late 1800’s railroad town. Cather further describes her:

..whatever Mrs. Forrester chose to do was “lady-like” because she did it.  They could not imagine her in any dress or any situation in which she would not be charming…..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…Something about her took hold of one in a flash; one became acutely conscious of her, of her fragility and grace, of her mouth which could say so much without words, of her eyes, lively, laughing, intimate…

She is not lost per se, but is lost to Neil Herbert, the protagonist, who grows up placing Forrester on a pedestal, deeply in love with what she represents (grace, beauty, kindness, innocence, loyalty, freedom, success, etc.).   Cather introduces Neil in her straight-forward style with:

Neil was a tall, straight, deliberate boy.  His features were clear-cut, his grey eyes, so dark that they looked black under his long lashes, were rather moody and challenging…his reserve, which did not come from embarrassment or vanity, but from a critical habit of mind, made him seem older than he was, and a little cold.

Neil’s critical habit of mind comes from a passion of Neil’s which most reader’s of this blog share; reading classics.  Don Juan, Tom Jones, Wilhelm Meister, Montaigne, Ovid, etc.  Cather describes his love for books and learning in a way that stirs a reader’s soul:

He had no curiosity about what men thought; but about what they had felt and lived, he had a great deal.  If anyone had told him these were classics and represented the wisdom of the ages, he would doubtless have left them alone.  But ever since he had first found them for himself, he had been living a double life, with all its guilty enjoyments…He did not think of these books as something invented to beguile the idle hour, but as living creatures, caught in the very behavior of living,–surprised behind their misleading severity of form and phrase.  He was eavesdropping upon the past, being let into the great world that had plunged and glittered and sumptuously sinned long before little western towns were dreamed of.

Early in the story, as the town is a booming railroad town, and the Forrester’s are part of that boom, Marian Forrester’s husband sums up the positive feeling and optimism that always pervades such times:

My philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of your self, so to speak–you will get.  You will get it more or less……Because a thing that is dreamed of in the way I mean, is already an accomplished fact.  All of our great West has been developed from such dreams….

As Neil grows into a man, he learns things about Marian that shatters his image of her perfection, thereby losing the ideals she represented.

In that instant between stooping at the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life.  Before the dew dried, the morning had been wrecked for him; and all subsequent mornings…This day saw the end of that admiration and loyalty that had been like a bloom on his existence.  He could never recapture it.  It was gone, like the morning freshness of the flowers…Grace, variety, the lovely voice, the sparkle of fun and fancy in those dark eyes; all of this was nothing. It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal.

This is accelerated by a loss of money and prestige as Forrester’s world collapses around her.  As the boom ends, the optimism fades, as do the types of people that created the boom in the first place, replaced with lawyers and speculators.

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. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom…{later} this was the very end  of the road-making West; the men who had put plains and mountains under the iron harness were old; some were poor, and even the successful ones were hunting for rest and a brief reprieve from death.  It was already gone, that age; nothing could ever bring it back

It is during this decline that Neil remains suffering with bitterness at the loss of his ideal. What Neil holds against Marian is:

…that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.

Marian Forrester is a very sympathetic character, with all the grace and kindness that Neil senses when he was a child.  Her loss of innocence in his eyes really represents his loss of innocence as he grows older.  The weaknesses she has, the mistakes she makes are not sins of evil, but typical human flaws.  The story is beautiful, the unraveling of Forrester over the years feeding into the maturing of Neil Herbert.  To the end, after many years of absence up to and including her death, Forrester retained the traits that Neil so enjoyed when young, while Neil Herbert finally seems to realize her flaws did not define her.

He came to be very glad that he had known her, and that she had a hand in breaking him into life…she always had the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring.

The characters are real, not over-stylized, nor parodies of any set type of character.  Neil and Marian are likable and believable, with a vitality that adds depth to the novel.  Even the antagonist, Ivy Peters, is the type of guy we all run across in our lives, an opportunist, not likable, yet somehow succeeds and ends up in a position of some power.  The story is timeless, the events and characters could exist in any time and any place.  The book is simply a nice read, thought provoking and enjoyable.

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was one of America’s preeminent authors of the early 1900’s.  A Lost Lady and Death Comes for the Archbishop are her most important works.  Her midwestern, frontier upbringing influenced many of her works, certainly giving A Lost Lady a realism that adds substantially to the mood and setting of the story.  The writing is reasonably simple, direct and beautiful, flowing like a river through the desert.  Here is her description of the Forrester home, which I find a nice example of the simplicity, yet descriptive power, of her style:

The Forrester place, as everyone called it, was not at all remarkable; the people who lived there made it seem much larger and finer than it was.  The house stood on a low round hill, nearly a mile east of town; a white house with a wing, and sharp-sloping roofs to shed the snow. It was encircled by porches, too narrow for modern notations of comfort, supported by the fussy, fragile pillars of that time, when every honest stick of timber was tortured by the turning-lathe into something hideous.  Stripped of its vines and denuded of its shrubbery, the house probably would have been ugly enough.

William Bailey, the illustrator, is also from the midwest.  He is a significant American artist, whose focus is still-life and figure painting.  The realism of his illustrations nicely match Cather’s style (other than I do find some of the illustrations to be a bit darker in tone than what feels right for the story).  In particular, his original etching on the frontispiece of Marian Forrester is nearly mesmerizing, stunning in beauty but real in it’s presentation (see below for a photo of this). Forrester comes to life just as she is.

As for the Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition itself.    It was printed in 1983 and sent to subscribers in January 1984.  Like many of the LEC books from this time period, they truly represent excellence in book-making.  The book is simply beautiful, as you will see in pictures below.

  • Limited to 1500 copies (mine is #398)
  • Three quarters bound in burgundy aniline leather with cloth boards by Robert Burlen & Son, Hingham, Massachusetts
  • Contains an original etching on the frontispiece by William Bailey, printed by Bruce Chandler at the Heron Press on Sumerset soft-white
  • Signed by the illustrator, William Bailey, who produced pen and ink drawings throughout
  • Designed by Ben Shiff
  • All three edges gilded in 22 – kt gold by R. Marchetti and Brother of New York City
  • The text composed in Linotype Caslon Old Face, 14 point size, with two points of space between the lines
  • Two antique initials from the Anthoensen collection begin part 1 and part 2
  • Printed on cream white Mohawk letter-press paper by The Anthoensen Press, Portland, Maine
Pictures, A Lost Lady, LEC
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A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Cover
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Original Etching
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Sample Page with Text
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Second Sample Page with Text
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Sample Page with Text & Illustration
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Second Sample Page with Text & Illustration
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Third Sample Page with Text & Illustration
A Lost Lady, Limited Editions Club, Colophon Page

3 thoughts on “A Review of A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather, Limited Editions Club

  1. One of Shiff’s better efforts. If only he had stuck to books and left art alone …. we wouldn’t have to be reading about the Decline and Fall of the LEC.

    I’m probably the only one who doesn’t care for the illustrations for Wuthering Heights. Now that I’ve seen them here, I don’t desire the book so much. Some one said the characters in the illustrations look like they just stepped out of Gatsby. I think the poster was wrong. they look ike they just stepped out of Alice in Wonderland.

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