Friday, March 27, 2015

Strong Female Characters, Willa Cather & Edith Lewis



Very few writers can write strong female characters. Of course Willa Cather gave us Ántonia and Alexandra from O! Pioneers. From reading The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout) you get a sense of how much she loved and appreciated women, especially the girls she surrounded herself with growing up.

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis shared an address, first at 5 Bank street (1913 – 1927) and then at 570 Park Ave. in New York City. Edith Lewis was a gifted editor. Surely their’s was a partnership. Many have tried to suss out the exact nature of their relationship. A tomboy growing up and at times a cross-dresser in high school and university, Cather is thought to have been a lesbian. The editors of Cather’s letters looked at the two women’s correspondence. “There aren’t, you know, explicit kind of descriptions of the nature of their relationship in here,” Jewell said. “Instead, what you get is Edith Lewis’ perpetual presence in Cather’s life in many different ways. When Cather sent graduation gifts to her nieces, it would be from Aunt Will and Ms. Lewis.

“So what is there is a sustained sense of a life shared, and to me that’s powerful evidence in understanding their relationship.”

It is clear that, as Cather and Lewis moved forward together into the war years (1915) and beyond, Lewis provided many forms of support (financial, editorial, emotional) crucial to Cather’s emergence as a major creative artist. Edith Lewis’s marks are evident on typeset pages of My Ántonia and on the final proofs for Shadows on the Rock. When Cather died in 1947, Edith Lewis was named executor of her literary estate.

The only other writer I feel who wrote masterfully about women was Flaubert. How could a man Gustave Flaubert write women so well? See “A Simple Heart,” a short story about a French housemaid. His perspective on Emma Bovary would suggest that he’d been born female—it was as if he were inside her, seeing everything from her eyes. He might have been a bit conflicted sexually—though there is no (excuse the pun) hard evidence.

“Emma, on entering, felt herself wrapped round by the warm air, a blending of the perfume of flowers and of the fine linen, of the fumes of the viands, and the odour of the truffles. The silver dish-covers reflected the lighted wax candles in the candelabra, the cut crystal covered with light steam reflected from one to the other pale rays; bouquets were placed in a row the whole length of the table; and in the large-bordered plates each napkin, arranged after the fashion of a bishop's mitre, held between its two gaping folds a small oval-shaped roll. The red claws of lobsters hung over the dishes; rich fruit in open baskets was piled up on moss; there were quails in their plumage; smoke was rising; and in silk stockings, knee-breeches, white cravat, and frilled shirt, the steward, grave as a judge, offering ready-carved dishes between the shoulders of the guests, with a touch of the spoon gave you the piece chosen. On the large stove of porcelain inlaid with copper baguettes the statue of a woman, draped to the chin, gazed motionless on the room full of life.

Madame Bovary noticed that many ladies had not put their gloves in their glasses.

But at the upper end of the table, alone amongst all these women, bent over his full plate, and his napkin tied round his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, letting drops of gravy drip from his mouth. His eyes were bloodshot, and he wore a little queue tied with a black ribbon. He was the Marquis's father-in-law, the old Duke de Laverdiere, once on a time favourite of the Count d'Artois, in the days of the Vaudreuil hunting-parties at the Marquis de Conflans', and had been, it was said, the lover of Queen Marie Antoinette, between Monsieur de Coigny and Monsieur de Lauzun. He had lived a life of noisy debauch, full of duels, bets, elopements; he had squandered his fortune and frightened all his family. A servant behind his chair named aloud to him in his ear the dishes that he pointed to stammering, and constantly Emma's eyes turned involuntarily to this old man with hanging lips, as to something extraordinary. He had lived at court and slept in the bed of queens!

Iced champagne was poured out. Emma shivered all over as she felt it cold in her mouth. She had never seen pomegranates nor tasted pineapples. The powdered sugar even seemed to her whiter and finer than elsewhere. The ladies afterwards went to their rooms to prepare for the ball.” Part 1:Chapter VIII

Right now a new book titled Hausfrau has been described as Madame Bovary meets Anna Karenina meets Fifty Shades of Grey. It was written by my very good friend Jill Essbaum. It begins: Anna was a good wife, mostly. Read an interview with Jill from TIME magazine!!

I’ll be blogging about Hausfrau later on.

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