My Mortal Enemy is a brief little novella, a mere 122 pages of wide-spaced type in which Willa Cather manages to convey the salient moments of a whole life. Inside the frame of this narrative is a portrait of Myra Henshawe, the sort of fascinating woman that Cather seemed to be drawn to, a woman who through beauty and talent should have the world at her feet, but who makes a disastrous choice for love and is forced to regret it bitterly. And like other Cather novels, this portrait is delivered to us from the perspective of a young innocent, the joyfully named Nellie Birdseye, who is our (Birds)eye witness, flying high above the mess that Myra’s life and marriage eventually becomes, and who grows wiser and less idealistic as the narrative unfolds.
Nellie is fifteen the first time she meets Myra Henshawe, but she has already been primed for this encounter by family stories of the old days, in which Myra’s narrative takes special precedence. Nellie’s Aunt Lydia has long remained one of Myra’s close friends and will tell her ‘about that thrilling night (probably the most exciting in her life), when Myra Driscoll came down that path from the house and out of those big iron gates, for the last time.’ What Myra is leaving behind is a comfortable fortune, and she has exchanged it for a passionate love affair with Oswald Henshawe. The fascination, then, of Myra’s character is that she acts. She does things that other people wouldn’t do, particularly women at a time when passivity and compliance were still feminine ideals. Instead Myra gambles her all on love, taking the only truly rocky adventure open to her kind. So her fate becomes paradigmatic, a glorious triumph or a cautionary tale – at this point the jury’s out. But the idealising and story-hungry eyes of Nellie long for romance to win.
The novella lingers on two separate periods of time spent by Nellie in Myra Henshawe’s company. The first is a Christmas visit, a time when Nellie is seduced by Myra’s overpowering brand of charm, a kind of rich luxuriousness of spirit that is reflected and amplified by the material circumstances she exists within. From the Henshawe’s New York apartment, with its gorgeous furnishings: ‘The long, heavy velvet curtains and the velvet chairs were a wonderful plum-colour, like ripe purple fruit. The curtains were lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs’ to the fountains of Madison Square Gardens whose ‘rhythmical splash was like the voice of the place. It rose and fell like something taking deep, happy breaths; and the sound was musical, seemed to come from the throat of spring’ Nellie is in a kind of sensuous paradise. Myra is of a piece with these surroundings, like the central jewel in a beautiful necklace: ‘My aunt often said that Myra was incorrigibly extravagant; but I saw that her chief extravagance was in caring for so many people and in caring for them so much.’ But into this American Eden come indications of the serpent, the cuff links that Oswald receives from a female admirer and Myra’s fury when she uncovers the deception.
By the time Nellie comes across the Henshawes again, much has changed. The couple are living in horribly reduced circumstances, Myra is fatally ill, and they are clearly unhappy. Nellie has grown up, too, and has had family troubles of her own. She is making a living as a teacher, and is more than able to brush aside Myra’s attempts to direct her fate. Circumstances again correspond to the emotional climate. Myra has ‘exhausted’ her generosity along with their cash, the neighbours don’t call round to sing hauntingly beautiful songs, but torment her with their heavy footfall, and in what looks to be a judgement on her life choices, she laments being left alone to die with her ‘mortal enemy’.
What this novella makes me realise is how close to the spirit of Modernism Cather was, once she’d worked the prairies out of her blood. This book was written in 1925 and it makes me think of other characters who outlive their settled contentment and become either anachronisms or absurdities. For some reason both Woolf’s Mrs Ramsey in To The Lighthouse (1927) and Gregor Samsa, the unfortunate beetle in Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) spring to mind. This was the coming of the anti-hero, when the main protagonist in a novel might be defined by their flaws and their errors, or even simply by the extent to which they did not understand themselves or the things that had happened to them. Modernism crops up whenever grand narratives start to crumble – grand narratives being the all-encompassing ideological stories, like religion or science or the teleological march of history that makes sense of the great sweep of the world from the past through to the future. Characters in grand narratives know their places; they may be mere cogs in the machine, but they have a purpose and significance, if you can only get enough distance to view the particular in relation to the general. But when grand narratives crumble, characters start to move out of the roles they have been assigned, out of the places in which they make sense and they can cause havoc within narrative systems. They are no longer good products of the Enlightenment, people who may be enigmatic but can be solved; they are instead creatures of the gap, irreconcilable to their stories, unresolved in their fates. Myra Henshawe with her chequered life and her undecidable good/bad character seems to be one of these.
Cather’s use of the Birdseye viewpoint here is a fascinating strategic device. On the one hand, it shows us how people are always viewed through the shreds and scraps of other perspectives, the fragments of narrative that are sewn together from rumour, gossip, anecdotes, glimpses and sightings. The social character is a patchwork that we try to take as the whole. But Nellie, as astute and observant witness, is forced to acknowledge the incongruence of the stories she has heard about Myra and the reality she experiences. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she cunningly gives the reader a mixed handful of significant fragments about Myra, without even attempting to stitch them into a coherent whole. Grand narratives rely on the transparency of language to reality, the belief that we can translate what lies ‘out there’ into an accurate representation on the page. Modernism suggests that there are only competing stories, and that reality lies elusively beyond our grasp. In My Mortal Enemy the shortness of the novella is belied by the multiplicity of possible and implied stories it spawns. We can read the Henshawe marriage as a disaster, or as a survival of loyalty in spite of desperate circumstances, we can see Myra as a splendid diva or a horrible harpy, Oswald as a womaniser or a man of saintly tolerance, we can even see Nellie as a dull and insipid hanger-on or a wise and compassionate friend.
I was going to say the same about the ‘mortal enemy’ of the title. How it comes to assume many guises. But for my own reading of this story, I’ve come to understand that enemy as the overpowering passion of Myra, the part of her that hurtles her into reckless and excessive actions, and the negativity that makes her howl with rage and regret. They are the two sides of the one coin that can be termed the ‘demonic’, which the Greeks defined as the vital wellspring of energetic force that could be used for good or for evil. Energy is the quick route to understanding Cather’s characters and here Oswald describes how Myra ‘can’t endure, but she has enough desperate courage for a regiment.’ For me, it’s that desperate courage that Myra never knows whether she’s fighting with or against; it is a paradox in and of itself.