Like Willa Cather’s novels O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918), A Lost Lady, a novella-length work, is linked with the landscape of the western American plains. A Lost Lady is set in the Colorado prairie town of Sweet Water, where the history of Marian Forrester unfolds, as seen primarily through the eyes of her youthful admirer, Niel Herbert.
As in much of Cather’s work, the driving tension in A Lost Lady grows out of shifting values as the stewardship of the American West passes from pioneers to speculators and developers. From the outset, we learn that there were two distinct social strata in the prairie states: the homesteaders and hand workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers and gentlemen ranchers who traveled there from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money and to develop the great West (9–10). Nineteen-year-old Marian Ormsby becomes Captain Forrester’s bride after he rescues her from a near-fatal fall in the Sierras. He is honorable and compassionate, 25 years her senior, and a member of the first small band of whites to enter the West. He prepared the way for the railroad, and influential members of the western upper class regularly visit the Forrester home, which, although a bit gaudy, is the finest in town. Financial crisis strikes Captain Forrester when he personally covers deposits made by poor working folk when a bank on whose board he served fails, and his bankruptcy, incurred through honesty and compassion, marks the beginning of his decline. As he physically declines, first falling from his horse, then suffering a stroke, and finally dying, he signifies the passing of his era.
To Niel Herbert, himself part of the new generation of westerners, it is Marian who most effectively mirrors the decline of the West. Physically beautiful and passionate, she seems to him the perfect consort for a past ideal he has not yet perceived as lost. He imagines her the epitome of loyalty until he discovers her in a passionate extramarital affair with Captain Forrester’s young bachelor friend, Frank Ellinger. Ivy Peters, pictured at the beginning of the narrative as a cruel adolescent slitting the eyes of a woodpecker, exemplifies the worst of the new West. Peters gradually gains control of the Forrester land, and after Captain Forrester dies, he enters into a crass liaison with Marian Forrester, solidifying her decline in Herbert’s eyes.
Men like Ivy Peters see the land primarily as a resource from which to derive material wealth, and degradation of the land also marks the passing era. On the Forrester place, the captain and Marian have always kept a pristine marsh in its natural state. Peters, upon assuming control of the property, drains the wetlands and plants it in wheat, but we learn that he emptied the land of its beauty not because he could grow crops on it but because by doing so he could obliterate a few acres of something he hated, although he could not name it, and could assert his power over the people who had loved those unproductive meadows for their idleness and silvery beauty (106). The West becomes a world in which men like Captain Forrester and land like Sweet Water Marsh cannot survive.
Marian Forrester survives, however, and she returns to her childhood home in California after Peters marries and moves into the Forrester house. She meets a wealthy Englishman living in Buenos Aires, remarries, and moves to South America, where she prospers. Herbert takes years to reconcile his conflicting feelings for Marian Forrester; he cannot forgive her for not passing away with the era she so clearly represented to him. Recently much insightful critical attention has focused on the shortfalls of Herbert’s selective telling of history and on Cather’s feminist perception. Although this criticism is valuable, it seems clear that Cather, at least in A Lost Lady, remains most deeply concerned with the demise of the western prairie that helped form her life and usher her into art.
Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. New York: Knopf, 1923.
———. On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as Art. New York: Knopf, 1920. Murphy, John J., ed. Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.
Roskowski, Susan J. “Willa Cather and the Fatality of Place: O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and A Lost Lady.” In Geography and Literature: A Meeting of the Disciplines, edited by William E. Mallory and Paul Simpson-Housely. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987.
———. “Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady: The Paradoxes of Change.” Novel 11, no. 1 (1977).
Urgo, Joseph R. “How Context Determines Fact: Historicism in Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady.” Studies in American Fiction 17, no. 2 (1989).