My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

At the beginning of the month, I wittered on about not known which Willa Cather book I should read from the rather imposing pile of books by her that I own. I received lots of lovely comments and suggestions, but as the month rolled on and its end became closer, I was getting no nearer to reading one. So I have to confess that the choice was eventually made in a terrible fashion – I went for the book that was slimmest…. :s

“My Mortal Enemy” was first published in 1926, and if I’m honest at 122 pages of biggish type it really should be classed as a novella. The book is narrated by the wonderfully named Nellie Birdseye, and she tells us the story of Myra Driscoll, later Henshawe, whom she meets at pivotal points in her life.

Their first encounter is when Myra makes a return visit to the (fictional) small town of Parthia. Myra grew up here, friends with Nellie’s aunt Lydia, and has become something of a scandalous figure since her elopement with Oswald Henshawe. Brought up by her great-uncle, Myra always has a wild streak and unfortunately her uncle disapproved violently of her beau. So Myra marries for love and by doing so loses the chance of a decent inheritance from her relative.

Nellie is fascinated by the idea of Myra and her dramatic love affair, and somewhat dazzled by the older, glamorous woman. She and her aunt Lydia are invited to New York to spend Christmas with the Henshawes, and the setting is still rather glittering and exciting to the provincial girl. However, Nellie becomes aware of cracks below the surface; Myra is a jealous woman, money is an issue, and Oswald seems to attract admiring women…

We (and Nellie) finally encounter Myra and Oswald some years later on the Californian coast. Nellie, now grown up (and possibly married?) is teaching and Myra is now a bedridden invalid. Tormented by noisy upstairs neighbours and looking for comfort in a return to her religion, Myra nevertheless still exerts a fascination on those around her. Oswald cares for her faithfully, despite still managing to attract the friendship of younger women, but Myra is a woman wracked with regrets – for having given in to love, cursing herself is a shallow person who should have instead stayed with the money she loved and needed. As her life comes to an end, she looks for fulfilment elsewhere and seems to find a kind of inner peace.

So I may have chosen my shortest Cather but it certainly isn’t a thin read! There are big themes here – whether love or money is most important; whether complete honesty is crucial to a marriage; whether what we receive in this world or the next is most important. I understand that Cather returned to her own religion too, and the comfort Myra draws from this at the end of her life is perhaps taken from her own life.

As to the mortal enemy of the title and to whom this refers, I actually felt that was rather nebulous. Some have taken it to mean her husband; some Myra herself; and some the whole process of love, what we’ll do for it and the havoc it can cause in our lives. Certainly, Myra has suffered for the decision she made, regretting the fact that she left behind a comfortable life with plenty of money; but she has always been victim to her passions and in many ways paid the price.

I sat down beside her, and we watched the sun dropping toward his final plunge into the Pacific. “I’d love to see this place at dawn,” Myra said suddenly. “That is always such a forgiving time. When that first cold, bright streak comes over the water, it’s as if all our sins were pardoned; as if the sky leaned over the earth and gave it absolution.

Cather’s writing is lovely throughout, and in such a short book she manages to paint nuanced portraits of all the characters. In particular, the relationship between the Henshawes is subtly rendered, and Cather captures brilliantly the delicate balancing act they go through to keep the marriage on track.

So my Willa Cather read for this month turned out to be a good choice in the end. “My Mortal Enemy”, despite its short length, is a thought-provoking and enjoyable read and if it’s any indication of the quality of Cather’s work, I’m definitely up for more! πŸ™‚

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