Saturday, 3 April 2010

Two Lonely Ladies

I recently finished reading two novels. A Lost Lady, by the American novelist, Willa Cather; and The Sweet Dove Died, by the British novelist, Barbara Pym.

On the face of it, the two novels, separated in time and geography, have little in common.

A Lost Lady, published in 1923, is set in American West. It tells the story of Marian Forester, through the eyes of Niel Herbert, although it is not a first person narrative; rather Herbert is a ‘reflector-narrator’. The Sweet Dove Died, Barbara Pym’s last novel, was published in 1978, and is set in London. Its main protagonist is Leonora (we never know her surname), a fifty something spinster.

A Lost Lady, as A.S. Byatt has noted, is mainly concerned with the ‘passing of the old order’ and the ‘degeneration of values and character’. Marian Forrester, the ‘lost lady’, is the second wife of a rich contractor, Captain Forrester, who is 25 years her senior. Captain Forrester has made his fortune building rail tracks for the Burlington Railway when the American pioneers of the nineteenth century conquered the frontiers of the Old West. The childless couple lives in a house on a ‘low, round hill, nearly a mile east of the town [Sweet Water]’. The old captain Forrester’s adherence to the old values of chivalry, honesty, uprightness, and rectitude is in danger of becoming anachronistic in the changing world and its values, exemplified by the grubby Ivy Peters, a young man lacking in principles, of questionable morals, and possessing no inner compass save his personal ambition to guide him. The Forresters are living in a marital bliss; or are they? The old captain is unable to meet the sexual, and possibly emotional, needs of his much younger and vivacious wife, who is having a long term affair with a family friend. The captain is aware of this, and in a scene, very poignantly described, he lets Niel Herbert, the naive and idealistic, but in many ways limited, observer of the family, know that he knows everything there is to know about his wife; but still greatly values her brio and exuberance. He may be a cuckold, but he is a cuckold who will not let go of his gravitas. Then the old captain suffers first financial reverses resulting in his losing most of his fortunes and then a series of strokes which leave him debilitated and infirm. Under the strain and exhaustion of looking after him and managing the household, Marian Forrester goes to pieces; and, when he dies, finds succour in the arms of Ivy Peters, the long term paramour having discarded her in favour of a younger woman, who, to add insult to injury, is the daughter of a family friend, who, in the glory days of her late husband, has frequently wined and dined at their place. Under the influence of Ivy Peters, Marian drops her old friends, convinced as she is that the wheeling-dealing Peters is the answer to all her financial problems. This is how the omnipresent and invisible narrator records the disillusionment of Niel Herbert and all those who were once close to the Forresters: ‘It was Mrs Forrester who had changed. Since the death of her husband she seemed to have become another woman. For years Niel and his uncle and all he friends had thought of the captain as a drag upon his wife; a care that drained her and dimmed her . . . But without him, she was like a ship without ballast, driven hither and thither by every wind. She was flighty and perverse. She seemed to have lost her faculty of discrimination; her powers of easily and graciously keeping everyone in his proper place.’ However, Niel and all others have underestimated the deep reserves of strength in Mrs Forrester, who, contrary to their (and the reader’s) expectations, does not come to a sad end. She survives.

In The Sweet Dove Died, Barbara Pym, in her unostentatious and unornamented prose, describes a nexus of relationships between Leonora, Humphrey, and his nephew, James. The story is set in the 1970s London, and Leonora (like perhaps her creator) is beginning to feel that her generation and the values it held dear are becoming passé. She is a spinster who is nearing fifty. James’s first impression of her is as follows: ‘James admired Leonora very much, particularly the unusual and old-fashioned elegance of her wide-brimmed hat which cast fascinating shadows on a face that was probably beginning to need such flattery.’ Humphrey and James are both attracted to Leonora and her ideas about ‘proper behaviour’ which probably belong more to the era of Marian Forrester—she does not drive and expects men to drop her to and from parties, and is never more pleased when they hold open the door of a room for her—than the times she actually lives in. Humphrey feels he stands a better chance, as he is nearer to Leonora’s age; but it is precisely James’s youth that attracts Leonora to him. Although their ‘friendship’ never becomes intimate, Leonora becomes more and more possessive of James. When she learns that James may have ‘a mistress’—Leonora’s term to describe a young woman, Phoebe, whom James has met at a party and with whom he has slept—she schemes ruthlessly to force James to discard her, her task having been made easier by the maladroitness and gaucheness of Phoebe. Leonora, however, is helpless against the guiles of James’s next lover who is more than a match for her when it comes to cunningness, and who has the advantage of both youth and gender. James swings both ways, and his new lover, Ned, makes James discard Leonora with the same pitilessness Leonora had shown towards Phoebe. Leonora is disconsolate, but accepts her defeat with good grace and retreats with dignity—she is so ‘deliberately good’ and ‘understanding’ all the time that James, who has more pangs of conscience when he drops her than when he had dumped Phoebe, almost wishes that she forget her dignity for a moment and make a scene. And when James finally returns to her—Ned, for whom the dull and not very bright James was never more than a temporary diversion during his year in England, has returned to America—Leonora makes it clear, in her subtle and excruciatingly polite manner, that things will never be the same and James cannot just treat her as fallback after his dalliance is finished.

Marian Forrester and Leonora could not be more different from each other in their characters. Marian is spontaneous, exuberant, full of vitality, energy and joi de verve. Leonora is the opposite: mannered, calculating, relentlessly polite, and always formal—there is nothing spontaneous about her and her butt-cheeks could not be prised apart with a blow torch. Yet the two women have one thing in common; and the thing they have in common is the absence of a fulfilling relationship. Leonora, having never married, is obviously lonely; but so is Marian, who finds herself locked in a marriage that does not sustain her. And both women attempt to find the solution in pursuit of youth. In Marian’s case it initially involves having an affair with a man her own age, but later, after her elderly husband dies and she is truly lonely, she invites a man much younger than she into her life. Leonora, though she belongs to a different, younger, generation—you would imagine that Marian Forrester’s second lover, Ivy Peters, would be slightly older than Leonora—and is living her life in a different epoch (and of course in a different book), is also attempting to find fulfilment by pursuing youth. Both Marian and Leonora suffer setbacks in their pursuits, and, while Marian appears to be dealing with them less effectively, or at least not as dignified a manner as Leonora, it is she who eventually finds the love that would nourish and sustain her. Leonora, on the other hand, is left with her dignity and her sense of propriety, but not much else; however, that is her choice. She is more empowered than Marian; but is she happier?

A Lost Lady and The Sweet Dove Died are interesting character studies of two lonely ladies, and their attempts to find love.