Saturday, March 31, 2012

'My Mortal Enemy' - Willa Carther (Bookgazing)

Willa Cartha’s ‘My Mortal Enemy’ is split into two parts. In the first the narrator, Nellie, recalls being introduced to Myra Henshawe, a rebellious, exciting character from the history of Nellie’s hometown Parthia, Illinois. Myra broke with her rich father when she was young and left her wealth behind to marry Oswald Henshawe. Nellie’s aunt Lydia was Myra’s close friend, a guest at her illicit wedding and makes sure that Nellie meets Myra and Oswald when the couple briefly return to Illinois.

Myra is the kind of character who naturally fascinates a fifteen year old ingénue from the country, like Nellie. When they first meet Myra is dressed in velvet, with amethysts at her neck and she radiates a commanding poise, but also a charming lightness. I got the feeling that she wins people’s admiration by fashioning herself into a shape that is deliberately calculated to impress, holding her chin just so and standing still when Nellie enters so that her young visitor must go to meet her. Nellie is quite flustered by her ‘formality’ and verbal prodding, yet she also finds herself desperate for the older woman’s approval. She is dazzled by Myra, but sure she doesn’t have a hope of winning her favour, but instead of despising her for their difference (which seems to one common reaction in literature to feeling inferior to another woman) Nellie very much wants Myra to like her.

Unfortunately, although Nellie likes Myra she can never be quite sure ‘whether she was making fun of me or the thing we were talking about’ and feels that ‘Her sarcasm was so fine, at the point—it was like being touched by a metal so cold one doesn’t know whether one is burned or chilled’. She also describes Myra’s special, hard edged laugh, which is held back for addressing foolishness:

‘ “How good it is,” my mother exclaimed, “to hear Myra laugh again!”

Yes it was good. It was sometimes terrible, too, as I was to find out later. She had an angry laugh for instance, that I still shiver to remember. Any stupidity made Myra laugh for instance, that I still shiver to remember. Any stupidity made Myra laugh—I was destined to hear that one often! Untoward circumstances, accidents, even disasters, provoked her mirth. And it was always mirth, not hysteria; there was a spark of zest and wild humour in it.’

Myra is the kind of woman that many want to befriend, because she gives off an impressive, confident feeling that makes those around her aspire to be worthy of love from such a fabulous, thrilling person. Of course, when friendship is based on the desire of one person to be made worthy by another’s love the desperate fear of rejection is always present in that relationship. Myra appears well aware of the fact that she is free to criticise others and appears to enjoy inspiring the fear of disapproval in those she meets. People want her good opinion, partly because her bad feeling is so hard to endure and partly I suspect, because it is better to be laughed at by Myra than to be part of the dull set away from Myra (the book does not explore this idea, I’m just extrapolating subconscious feelings based on other books I’ve read about fascinating, well dressed women who have a rather harsh streak – literary scholars would strike me down for this I’m sure).

There's no denying though that an enduring and heartfelt attitude to friendship sits alongside this nettling aspect of her nature. When Nellie describes the special way that Myra says her friend’s names her words conveys the feeling that Myra is devoted to the people she cares about:

‘When she but mentioned the name of some one whom she admired, one got an instant impression that the person must be wonderful, her voice invested the name with a sort of grace. When she liked people she always called them by name a great many times in talking to them, and she enunciated the name, no matter how commonplace, in a penetrating way, without hurrying over it or slurring it;…’

If more evidence of Myra’s loving nature is needed then the first time Nellie sees Myra and Oswald together she observes that they seem genuinely interested in each other’s current state, even though they have been apart for perhaps an hour, in fact she notes that they seem to have an unusual amount of active affection for each other, compared with other long married couples. When Nellie and her aunt go to visit the Henshawes in New York for Christmas Myra sends a large Christmas bush to an actress friend who will be spending the season alone, which seems like a generous offering (although Oswald manages to hint that there may be less altruistic motives behind this gift). All of these details suggest that while Myra may partially rule her circle through fear and inequality, she can react with genuine, spontaneous love towards the people she likes.

The novella skilfully plays directs the reader to both like and dislike Myra, just as Nellie constantly changes her opinion of the central character. This direction is not just intended to show Myra as a human character, both flawed and wonderful, but to set up a very clever trick at the end of the novel that revolves around the hidden truth at the heart of the Henshawe’s marriage. So, many episodes which produced a conflicted feeling about Myra and Oswald’s relationship, as well as conflicting portraits of Myra, are included, for example while Nellie and Lydia are visiting at Christmas Oswald asks Lydia to present him with a pair of topaz cufflinks as a Christmas gift. They are from a young woman who admires him, he says and although their friendship is perfectly innocent Myra won’t let them in the house, unless they appear to come from someone more respectable. Lydia agrees, but it is clear to the reader (although perhaps not to Nellie as narrator) that Myra has spotted the trick right away, as she makes an incredible fuss over how lovely the cufflinks are, practically forcing her husband to wear them out, while he is seems suddenly unhappy and unwilling to have them.

This episode can be read as a re-enforcement of the idea that Myra rather controls her husband and that she prefers manipulative laughter and underhanded slights, to more straight forward talk. Perhaps, the reader is led to think, it is Myra’s fault that Oswald strays, or at least keeps gifts from young women, because she is so petty and poisons their marriage by refusing to fly into a rage, or react normally. Perhaps she is too hard on him and people in general. These thoughts may be supported by other evidence for this idea that appeared earlier in the novel, such as the way that Nellie first describes her, the story of her leaving her father and an incident when Nellie first met the couple where Myra exercised extreme control over her husband’s choice of clothes. When Nellie arrives at their apartment one day to find them arguing over a key: Myra assuring him she will go through any door she likes; Oswald with what seems like a rational explanation, she feels sorry for the man and thinks she will never like Myra so well again. As she and Aunt Lydia leave for home Myra throws a last barb at her dear friend, which provokes Lydia to exclaim that ‘ “A man never is justified, but if ever a man was…” '. Perhaps, the reader may think, Lydia is right.

Still, the novel makes it clear that all may not be as simple as it seems. In the second part of the novella Nellie meets the Henshawes again. Ten years have passed and Nellie has moved into a wretched apartment hotel and is looking for work. The Henshawes also have an apartment in the building. They have fallen into financial difficulties and Myra is incapacitated by illness. Oswald cares for his wife and Nellie finds no fault in his behaviour, in fact she still feels sorry for him because Myra appears to treat him worse and worse as her illness progresses. Eventually, in a fit of openness and wandering provoked by the illness she seems to pronounce him her ‘mortal enemy’.

Although Nellie re-interprets this line and comes to believe that Myra is speaking of herself, a woman undone by her own jealousy, pride and controlling nature, there are signs that Oswald may not be as easy to vindicate as Nellie thinks. He takes pleasure in speaking with a young woman, although everything about their relationship seems innocent to Nellie. Myra appears to grow more afraid of him as the days go on, although Nellie attributes this to the illness. Perhaps most significantly Oswald still openly wears his topaz cufflinks, the ones given to him by a young admirer. And when that detail is revealed easily and without apparent concern by Nellie, it is hard for the reader not to think back on the small details that reveal Oswald as a more complicated man than the sweet, saintly carer Nellie sees now. Suddenly, I was reminded of the man who flashes his wife a look containing ‘amusement, incredulity and bitterness’ when she gives away his new shirts.

The final question for the reader, once Myra succumbs to her illness, is whether Myra was at fault in this marriage, or was she a woman trapped by a husband who forced her into bitter and petty reactions? Was Oswald really hiding a Sir Percival Glyde personality, underneath a clever facade? Or is there something even more complicated at the heart of their marriage, something to do with Nellie’s feeling that Oswald’s life ‘had not suited him; that he possessed some kind of courage and force which slept, which in another world might have asserted themselves brilliantly.’ while Myra is clearly such a strong personality, but perhaps one confined to too small sphere. Are there people who should never marry for fear of drowning each other out and bringing out the worst qualities in their partners? When Nellie finally separates from Oswald after Myra’s death, she takes the necklace of amethysts that Myra wore when they first met, but she can never wear them, ‘they are unlucky’ and when she wears them she hears ‘that strange complaint…: “Why must I die alone like this, alone with my mortal enemy!” '. By the end of the novel I think Nellie is unsure who that line refers to and so was I.

‘My Mortal Enemy’ tells a simple story although, but often it’s the simplicity of the way a book lays out a situation, the precise nature of its descriptions and the fluent, uncluttered nature of the way a story is told that makes it strike the heart, rather like Myra’s laugh of ‘cold metal’. Thanks to the Slaves of Golconda and litlove for providing me with an opportunity to read it (litlove actually sent me a photocopy of her own book so I could take part in the readalong). I know there are a lot of themes under the surface of this story that I haven’t dipped into and I’m so looking forward to hearing what everyone else has to say.


Stefanie said...

Great write up Jodie! I didn't get the same impression about Oswald as you did. I think him perfectly innocent and appropriate. But your viewpoint certainly puts an interesting and even wicked spin on the story! I like it and I think it holds up which will make this discussion really interesting :)

Rohan Maitzen said...

Interesting suggestions! I too hadn't found anything sinister in Oswald - beyond his messing around, at least. I was a bit surprised at how devotedly he seemed to be tending to her at the end. I never liked her, but I was always interested in her. Maybe this is another novel that gives us a blandly pleasant narrator to show off how dull nice actually is. Good people don't necessarily make for good stories.

Rohan Maitzen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
litlove said...

Wonderful review, Jodie! I think you discuss the marriage brilliantly here, and your reading of Oswald is so interesting. What I love about Cather is the way she makes every word count, and conveys so much, and yet still there is endless mystery at the heart of her characters' relationships. I really like what you say about her writing being like cold metal - it is so precise and so sharp and it really makes the reader think.