My Mortal Enemy: Willa Cather (1926)

“We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeletons.”

Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, a story of an unhappy marriage and the bitterly unhappy woman who gave up a fortune for love, is reminiscent of both Edith Wharton and Henry James. In this instance, our Jamesian narrator is Nellie, a teenage girl when this novella opens, and the story follows Nellie’s observations of an older woman over the course of three meetings that take place during a ten-year period.

Nellie has heard so much about Myra Henshawe, and to Nellie, Myra’s life is swathed in romance. Nellie’s mother and Aunt Lydia were friends with Myra Henshawe (Myra Driscoll as she was known), and they all grew up in the small southern Illinois town of Parthia. Myra lived with her wealthy uncle, and she was his heir, but everything derailed when Myra eloped with Oswald Henshawe against her uncle’s express wishes. Myra married Oswald knowing that she would be completely disinherited

My Mortal enemy

When 15-year-old Nellie first meets Myra, the young impressionable girl already has images of romance in her head, and those ideas evaporate when she meets the flesh-and-blood woman who is now plump, matronly and 45 years old. Myra and her husband live in New York, and while they are affectionate towards each other, there are sinewy troubling undercurrents in their marriage. Nellie who finds Myra “perplexing,” is disturbed by the meeting and her observations, and yet Nellie is too young to process what she sees. Myra has a way of taking control of every situation by making unsettling comments. Nellie notes that “it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one didn’t know whether one is burned or chilled.”

“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–I was destined to hear that one very 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.  

A second meeting with the Henshawes occurs shortly afterwards, and this meeting takes place when Nellie and her Aunt Lydia travel to New York. This visit yields more glimpses into the Henshawes’ marriage. There are tensions, hints of unhappiness, and Myra’s extravagances (which Oswald comments on but can’t curb).

During this visit, Oswald makes a strange request of Aunt Lydia regarding a pair of cufflinks. This is a fascinating section of this short, finely structured novella, for the incident seems to make Myra, at least in Aunt Lydia’s eyes, even more unreasonable, but there very well could be a deeper story about the cufflinks.

The Henshawes’ apartment was the second floor of an old brownstone house on the north side of the Square. I loved it from the moment I entered it; such solidly built, high-ceiled rooms, with snug fire-places and wide doors and deep windows. 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.

I’ve included that quote simply because it is so beautifully evocative.

The final meeting takes place ten years later when Nellie is 25 and Myra is 55. I shan’t say more of the novel as to detail the meeting would give away too much of the plot.

For this reader, My Mortal Enemy encapsulates the mysteries and subtle politics of marriage.  Clearly Myra and Oswald loved each other once, and Myra made a tremendous sacrifice to be with him. Does she regret it? Did she make the right choice? Would she have been any happier if she’d turned away her impoverished suitor and kept the money and the mansion? Are we human beings, flawed as we are, capable of forgiving someone for letting us sacrifice? And then there’s the incident of the cuff links, and Myra’s bits of hidden money.

Aunt Lydia seems hard on Myra and I don’t think that’s totally fair. It’s impossible (unless there’s gross misbehaviour) to untangle the knotty threads of a marriage.

Light and silence: they heal all wounds–all but one, and that is healed by dark and silence. 

TBR stack



Filed under Cather, Willa, Fiction

10 responses to “My Mortal Enemy: Willa Cather (1926)

  1. I can see why you mention Henry James.
    I’d like this one.

  2. Like Emma, I know I’d like it a lot. My surprised about the setting. I thought most of her novels had a provincial setting which might be a reason why I have still not read her.

    • Most of them are, I believe, not that I’ve read many, but she is a wonderful writer IMO. There’s an underlying anger in the character of Myra. You would also love this. My copy has an wonderful intro.

  3. Spoilers

    I’ve read it. It’s very good. Oswald is an odd character, it’s difficult totioned know what he thinks. It reminds me of Washington Square. It’s hard to make up your mind about what’s really going on between the characters.

    About the cufflinks. I think Myra bought them and sent them to Oswald in the name of someone she thinks he was having an affair with. She wanted to test him and see what he’d do with them. That’s why it’s mentioned that she’s the only one to know what suits him for his wardrobe and since she approves of the cufflinks…

    Or he had an affair with Madame Modjeska, she sent the cufflinks and Myra had to let him know she knew about the affair. But I don’t think he was a womanizer who repeatedly cheated on his wife. Nellie liked him and he didn’t seem to be flirty, just friendly.

    What do you think?

    • I thought he had an affair, probably someone in their circle since he wanted to wear them. Hence the lie he asked Aunt Lydia to tell.
      At first I was very anti Myra because of her spending but then after the cufflink incident, I wasn’t so sure.

      • *Spoilers*
        I’m writing my billet and going through the quotes I picked up. I think you’re right. Oswald had an affair with Madame Modjeska who was his grand love story. Why do I think that now?

        In the chapter about the cufflinks, Oswald says:

        “Listen, it’s nothing. It’s some sleeve-buttons, given me by a young woman who means no harm, but doesn’t know the ways of the world very well. She’s from a breezy Western city, where a rich girl can give a present whenever she wants to and nobody questions it. She sent these to my office yesterday. If I send them back to her it will hurt her feelings; she would think I had misunderstood her. She’ll get hard knocks here, of course, but I don’t want to give her any. On the other hand—well, you know Myra; nobody better. She would punish herself and everybody else for this young woman’s questionable taste. So I want you to give them to me, Lydia.”

        The woman who gave the cufflinks comes from a “breezy Western city” and Myra and him end up in San Francisco. There, he still wears the cufflinks. And that’s where we hear about Madame Modjeska’s death.

        What do you think?

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