A Lost Lady is Cather’s elegiac portrait of the spirit of an earlier age. In her depiction of Marian Forrester, the much-admired figurehead of culture and society in the town of Sweet Water, Cather evokes a quality of life that began, for her, to vanish sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century. To Cather, much of what was wrong with twentieth century life was the absence of those qualities that Mrs. Forrester embodies: charm, warmth, and a certain graciousness of manner that has no place in the harsher climate of an industrialized society.
The novel traces the fortunes of the Forresters from their position in the book’s opening chapters as wealthy and prominent citizens who divide their time between Sweet Water and the more sophisticated society of Denver, to their financial ruin and the decay of spirit that it precipitates. As in My Ántonia, the title character is seen through the eyes of a young man, Niel Herbert, although the voice here takes the form of a third-person narrator. From the time he is twelve and is nursed by Mrs. Forrester after a fall from a tree, Niel regards Marian as the standard against which all other women are measured. His devotion to her continues throughout his teenage years until the morning when he becomes aware that she is involved in an affair with a friend of her husband. For Niel, the shock is overwhelming. As Cather phrases it, “It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal.”
The revelation of Mrs. Forrester’s secret life coincides with the Forresters’ financial ruin, brought on, in large part, by Captain Forrester’s sense of honor. The captain had made his money in railroads and is serving on the board of directors of a bank when the bank’s failure threatens to wipe out the savings of many investors for whom the captain’s name has been an important draw. Determined not to let his investors down, Forrester liquidates his own fortune and pays it out to the investors. The strain brings on a stroke from which he never fully recovers.
The change in their fortunes quickly takes its toll on Marian Forrester. Ill-equipped to cope with a life uncushioned by her former wealth, she quickly declines to the point where Niel returns from school to Sweet Water to stay with the couple and see them through their difficulties. No longer able to travel, Marian soon feels the narrow constraints of small-town life and begins to drink. As time passes, she comes to rely more and more on Ivy Peters, an unscrupulous lawyer with a longstanding grudge against the Forresters, who takes advantage of Marian’s helplessness.
It is clear that, for Cather, Marian Forrester represents a way of life that has been lost in the face of changes in modern society. Ivy Peters personifies those changes, emerging as an unsavory representative of an age in which money has replaced loyalty and honor as the standards by which a man is judged. The contrast between Captain Forrester and Peters is stark and not at all favorable to the latter, making the reversal in their fortunes—one beginning the novel in a position of wealth and authority and the other having seized the reins by its close—all the more painful. In an episode that saddens Niel greatly, Marian invites several of Ivy Peters’s group of friends to dinner for an evening which seems to Niel a coarse mockery of the earlier days when an invitation to the Forresters was a much-sought-after prize.
Marian Forrester rallies, surprisingly, at the book’s close, leaving Sweet Water and marrying again, to a husband who treasures her as Forrester had. Ultimately, however, she remains for Niel—and for Cather—a figure from a lost era and a reminder of the ways in which the world has changed.
The Forrester home at Sweet Water is a stopping-off place for railroad magnates riding through the prairie states along the Burlington line. Old Captain Forrester likes to drive his guests from the train station and watch them as they approach...
(The entire section is 1,871 words.)