Monday 11 May 2015

Cather Again: My Mortal Enemy

I've been reading Willa Cather again - My Mortal Enemy, a short novel (indeed barely a novella) published in 1926, between The Professor's House and Death Comes for the Archbishop, and regarded by Cather scholars as something of an enigma and an anomaly. It does, though, have obvious parallels with A Lost Lady, being essentially a complex, subtle, ever-changing portrait of a lady seen through the initially idealising, later disillusioned eyes of a younger person.
 In My Mortal Enemy, the young person is the narrator, Nellie Birdseye, and the object of her fascinated attention is Myra Henshawe, or rather Myra and her husband Oswald. Their romantic elopement, in the teeth of immovable opposition from her family, is the stuff of legend in the small Illinois town where Nellie grew up. It is there that, as a teenager, she first meets Myra, on a rare revisit with Oswald. She is impressed and dazzled, but with a sense of disappointment that the Henshawes don't quite live up to the romantic picture in her mind. However, a later visit to New York, where the Henshawes live in style on Madison Square, Myra surrounded with artistic types and young people in need of romantic guidance, restores much of the glamour to Nellie's view of the fabulous Henshawes. Until, that is, she is presented with undeniable evidence that the great romance is more than tinged with bitterness and disappointment on Myra's part, and flawed in ways Nellie had never dreamed of.
 The second part of the story is set in an unspecified western city ten years later, where Nellie, purely by chance, comes across the Henshawes again, living in sorry circumstances in a rooming house. Oswald's money has gone and Myra is an invalid, seriously ill, deeply unhappy, bitter and seething with resentment towards her husband. Here, as events unfold, the last of Nellie's romantic idealism is stripped away, though she continues to love and care for Myra and, less intensely, the flawed and helpless Oswald.
 'My Mortal Enemy' are the last three words of the story, spoken by Myra, and one of the puzzles of this intriguing book is who or what she means by them - and whether they indeed have a special meaning for Cather, who took them as her title. The book seems to be a kind of exorcism of the author's own youthful tendency to idealise and romanticise those she admires, and it reads as if it is based on events and people in her life, and is the product of a kind of crisis. Cather gave nothing away, but, in an essay in the Willa Cather Archive, Charles Johanningsmeier presents a very persuasive argument that the models for the Henshawes were S.S. McClure (founder of McClure's Magazine) and his wife Hattie.
 Be that as it may, My Mortal Enemy is a fascinating, absorbing, often startling book, beautifully written, with never a wasted word or a redundant detail. This is a novella that punches way above its weight. As ever with Cather, there is so much more going on than is apparent on the surface - 'It's the heat under the simple words that counts,' as she herself once wrote. The heat under My Mortal Enemy is intense.

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