“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
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.