Places: A Lost Lady

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1923

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSweet Water

Sweet Lost Lady, AWater. Small Nebraska town in which the story is set. In describing Sweet Water, Willa Cather drew upon memories of her own youth in Red Cloud, Nebraska; however, it should be noted that Nebraska once had a town called “Sweetwater” several counties to the north that may have provided a literal source, if not the inspiration, for Cather’s name for her fictional town. The historical Sweetwater, Nebraska, shared the decline of a host of similar small towns in the region. Like the town of the novel, but unlike Cather’s Red Cloud, it was on a railroad route leading to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the destination of some of Captain Forrester’s road-building.

Whatever Cather’s precise geographical inspirations, her understanding of her home region was precise, almost scientific. A Lost Lady provides her with an occasion to describe the physical and social character of rural Nebraska in a relatively early phase of European American settlement. Nevertheless, Cather’s description of the town and its physical surroundings is secondary to her portraits of Sweet Water’s inhabitants. For example, Niel Herbert, whose point of view is foremost in the novel, is a local boy whose widowed father is obliged to work in Denver after the collapse of the local family farm. Niel no longer lives in his “frail egg-shell house” but instead in a room behind his uncle’s law office. He has a special affinity for Captain Forrester’s home, with its aura of both social authority and feminine grace. His eventual departure from Sweet Water to study architecture reflects the formative role of the civilized spaces of the Forrester home and his desire to escape the lawyer’s career that seems ordained for him.

By leaving for Boston to study architecture, Niel sets himself apart from his near-contemporary, Ivy Peters, who as Mrs. Forrester’s tenant plows her meadows to plant wheat and who as her lawyer invests her money in Wyoming land schemes. Marian Forrester advises Niel that Peters gets splendid land from Indians for next to nothing, but not to tell his uncle, as she suspects his schemes are crooked. By the novel’s end, the author’s endorsement of Niel’s love of the western prairie becomes paired with her scorn for Peters’s cynical materialism.

Forrester home

Forrester home. Sweet Water home of Marian Forrester (the “lost lady” of the title) and her husband, Daniel Forrester, known in the region as “Captain” Forrester for his earlier work as an important builder of railroad lines. Their home is a legacy of the captain’s early years on the prairies after the Civil War, when he was taken with the location while it was still intermittently an Indian encampment. Forrester’s relation to the land predates the railroad-building era that is the source of his prosperity. His initial claim to the land consisted simply of a willow stake that he drove into the ground on a low hill. On his return years later, he finds that the stake has sprouted roots and become a tree. There, Forrester himself takes root by building a warm, though not lavish, home in which he can offer hospitality to prominent friends passing through on the railroad line between Omaha, Nebraska, and Denver, Colorado.

The house is surrounded by groves of poplar trees and marshy meadows along a meandering creek that separates the Forresters’ land from the nearby town. Captain Forrester has a garden and he plants rows of stately Lombardy poplars on each side of the lane approaching the house; however, he refuses to plow his rich meadows to plant wheat. Having directly participated in the introduction of industrial culture into a region that he first knew as a grass sea six hundred miles wide, he possesses a sense of the proper balance between the amenities of civilization and the spiritual comforts of nature.

Although Mrs. Forrester treasures her modest but celebrated home, under the surface she is restless for the refined life of the city. Her experience is an instance of Cather’s concern with the contrasting values of the country and the city, with the notable variation that she is not from the East–the captain brought her to Nebraska from California some years earlier as a bride twenty-five years his junior.


*California. Pacific state from which Marian Forrester comes. The novel descries her earlier life in California only indirectly, through brief stories told later in the novel, but Cather depicts California as colorful and alluring to her middle-aged heroine. Several years after her husband’s death, Marian returns to California to try to live the life that she has imagined as she lived on the Nebraska prairie.

BibliographyDollar, J. Gerard. “Community and Connectedness in A Lost Lady.” In Willa Cather: Family, Community and History, edited by John J. Murphy et al. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Humanities Publications Center, 1990. Sees A Lost Lady in relation to Cather’s statement that 1922 was the year “the world broke in two.” Claims the novel is about connectedness and disconnectedness, with the latter as predominant.Harris, Richard C. “First Loves: Willa Cather’s Niel Herbert and Ivan Turgenev’s Vladimir Petrovich.” Studies in American Fiction 17 (Spring, 1989): 81-91. Relates how Cather received the idea to write A Lost Lady from knowing Mrs. Lyra Garber. Finds similarities between Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love” and Cather’s novel.Helmick, Evelyn Thomas. “The Broken World: Medievalism in A Lost Lady.” Renascence 28 (Autumn, 1975): 39-46. When Cather visited France, she made a remark that she wanted to live in the Middle Ages. Claims Captain Forrester is symbolic of a medieval king, and the railroad builders are symbolic of knights. Marks the transition of the age of heroes to lesser people.Murphy, John J. “Euripides’ Hippolytus and Cather’s A Lost Lady.” American Literature 53 (March, 1981): 72-86. Emphasizes Cather’s classical education. Compares Hippolytus with Niel Herbert, in that they had the same temperament, and Phaedra, Hippolytus’ wife, with Marian Forrester.Rosowski, Susan J. “Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady: The Paradoxes of Change.” Novel 11, no. 1 (Fall, 1977): 51-62. Cather’s later novels are the opposite of the earlier ones: The first ones emphasize the pioneer spirit and are positive; the latter ones show the decline of the pioneer spirit and a negative outlook on life.
Categories: Places