My Mortal Enemy

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.


13 thoughts on “My Mortal Enemy

  1. I’m really looking forward to my first Willa Cather.
    I was wondering while reading your post why it is so often the case with characters who break free that the author lets them pay for it. I’m just finishing The Voyage Out and here as well… Why did it have to end like this?

    • Caroline, I hadn’t thought of that but you are quite right. There is a sort of underlying conservatism, implied at least, that to go against convention is to brave disaster. It’s interesting too, to see romance and convention at such odds. I read The Voyage Out when I was sixteen and far too young for it, really! I should go back and try it again. And I’d love to know what you think of Willa Cather – it’s obvious that I really like her!

  2. I’ve never read anything by Willa Cather, although I think I have read other things by you about her. It comes as a surprise to find that she was a part-signatory to Modernism. I find your analysis fascinating and the way you move us on from the text to the bigger picture in the succinct account of this aspect of Modernism which follows. I used to be a big fan of the Modernists, especially the poets, with their temporary reconstructions from the fragments of their world, as with ‘The Waste Land’. I also liked how they often dwelt on the masks people construct and project, and the reasons for their doing this. I wondered if the different parts of the central character’s personality, as presented in chunky fragments by Nellie, could be read in this way. My interest in Modernism persists, but I need more time (don’t we all). I suspect that Ali Smith knows quite a lot of this and has read quite a few of these authors too, but that’s another story!

    • Bookboxed, you are sharp! Yes, Willa Cather is one of Ali’s favourite authors too, and we’ve discussed her together before. If you fancy trying Willa Cather, I recommend either A Lost Lady or The Professor’s House. Although I’ve read the more famous prairie novels, I feel Cather comes into her own in these slightly later works. I also think that you really could read Myra Henshawe’s slick sociability as a mask, over something darker and more troubling that she knows she should not let out but cannot always restrain. I’m a Modernism fan too – Kafka and Woolf and Proust are right up there in my personal pantheon, although I confess I’ve read hardly any Eliot (only The Wasteland, and I didn’t know what I was looking at so it mostly went over my head). Modernism was such a paradigm shift for art of all kinds, though – quite fascinating.

  3. It’s worth telling new readers that Cather is justly famous for My Antonia, among others. If she “comes into her own in these slightly later works” then they must be very good. And, indeed, Death Comes for the Archbishop is wonderful in its own right (being one of these slightly later novels, but the only one I’ve read).

    However, I’d like to suggest that the prairie novels are not against the spirit of Modernism. That Cather was in league with that spirit may, as you suggest, be more obvious in the later novels, but it’s discernible in the prairie books, too.

    Anyway, thanks for reminding me yet again that I need to read deeper into Cather.

  4. A novella by Cather! I have to read this. I love the novella form and Cather is so intriguing. I wish I’d had it during my travels, but more will be coming up. This sounds perfect for it.

  5. This sounds fascinating litlove, and entirely different to what I imagined Cather’s work to be. It made me think of Wharton’s House of Mirth, although LIly Bart is in some ways so different she shares Myra’s fate, perhaps Myra is Cather’s sort of riff on her? I’m echoing Caroline really (and I know it’s childish but every time I read The Voyage Out I get cross with Woolf at the end – why did you make that happen?!).

    I thought what you wrote about modernism really interesting, especially ‘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’ – an intriguing point, and one I’d not considered before. I’m still wrestling (very sporadically) with a definition of modernism.

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  7. I was trying to decide who Myra meant by her mortal enemy–whether it was Oswald or herself (and I was leaning towards how she felt about herself). I want to reread this as it is such a slim book it is deceptively simple, but there is a lot to it, isn’t there? I love the way she uses an outside narrator like she sis in My Antonia. I was just reading the intro to a book by Frank O’Connor about short stories and he talks about characterization and your post made me think of it–I will have to go back and read it again (lest I misquote) but he talks about modernism and how characters in short stories are different than in longer narratives–how they do different things and I wonder if it is the same here since this book is almost a long short story. Anyway–your post is really wonderful and I’m glad you pointed it out–both it and Willa Cather should be read! 🙂

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  9. Interesting review of Cather’s very spare novella although you are perhaps setting up a bit of a straw man when it comes to the predecessors and antecedents of modernism. I do not think the characters in Great Expectation or Little Dorritt are beholden to a grand narrative, they too like Myra Henshawe are resisting and subverting the iron rules of the scientific world, and the same could be said abut the characters in Dostoevsky. Modernism was often far less original than its privileged and coddled exponents imagined the movement to be; the popular fiction they professed to detest as vulgar had long been addressing such concerns in formally as well as philosophically interesting ways. Take the death of Mr Carker in Dombey and Son for genuine formal experimentation, but executed honestly and without the painful self consciousness and petty snobbery of so many interwar ‘modernist’ authors. To puff the merits of modernism excessively is to fall into your own trap of believing in a grand narrative of inevitable progress, that the new is always the better.

    • Thank you for your comment; I think because I’ve put the dates of the books I talk about in my post, this has misled you to believe I’m saying that Modernism begins and ends around Cather’s time. I’m not saying that as it patently isn’t true. There is a period in the early 20th century when Modernism becomes a noticeable and significant trend in literary novels, but scholars have identified it in much earlier works too. I didn’t think I was puffing the merits of Modernism either – just identifying some of its traits in a novella that intrigued me.

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