The Garden Lodge by Willa Cather, 1905
The magic trick:
Demonstrating an understanding of both the social elite and the bohemian
One of the great things about early Willa Cather is the way it bridges Edith Wharton with Mary Gaitskill.
That might be a bit of a stretch if your immediate thought with Gaitskill is the bravery to deal with sexual topics with a raw honesty. That’s not really what I’m talking about here. What I mean is Cather’s ability to recall Wharton and Henry James in terms of her psychological analysis and thorough understanding of a certain class of New Yorkers, while also adding a touch of the bohemian artist community that Gaitskill knew so well nearly a century later.
I love it. It seems like such a rare thing when that perspective is included in literature.
In this story, the garden lodge plays host to Caroline’s transformation from a practical woman to a romantic. And in order to show that transformation, the author must understand both mindsets, both worlds.
So we see at the outset how she is perceived by her peers as relentlessly practical. Then we get a lengthy backstory, explaining how her bohemian youth informed her pragmatic approach toward advancing through life. Finally, we see how the visit of an opera singer forces her to reconcile her philosophies and feelings.
You could say it’s a very practical – and artistic – way to tell a story.
And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.
Caroline’s coolness, her capableness, her general success, especially exasperated people because they felt that, for the most part, she had made herself what she was; that she had cold- bloodedly set about complying with the demands of life and making her position comfortable and masterful. That was why, everyone said, she had married Howard Noble. Women who did not get through life so well as Caroline, who could not make such good terms either with fortune or their husbands, who did not find their health so unfailingly good, or hold their looks so well, or manage their children so easily, or give such distinction to all they did, were fond of stamping Caroline as a materialist, and called her hard.
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