Willa Cather’s meeting with Madame Grout at Aix-lesBains in August 1930 is familiar to most Cather readers, as is the way it helped shape both her 1933 essay “A Chance Meeting” and her 1936 story “The Old Beauty.” I shall return to these two works shortly but will begin with another meeting in southern France, one about which we have only recently learned, and one which also left its mark on Cather’s writing.
Recently acquired archives at Drew University reveal that just prior to Cather’s meeting in Aix with Flaubert’s niece, she and Edith Lewis visited their friends Earl and Achsah Brewster at their home near the Côte d’Azur. Achsah Barlow and Earl Brewster had met around 1904 in New York, where both were studying art; they married in 1910 and at once sailed for Europe, where their daughter, Harwood, was born in 1912. Cather met them through Lewis, who had roomed with Achsah at Smith College, and Cather’s subsequent friendship with them stretched from her early New York years to the end of her life. Cather and Lewis spent several days with the Brewsters in Naples in 1920; Cather herself saw them in Paris for extended periods in 1923; and she and Lewis visited them at their home in St-Cyr-sur-Mer in the late summer of 1930.
In her unpublished 1942 memoir, “The Child,” Achsah Brewster comments on the close ties that developed between Cather and their daughter Harwood during this 1930 stay: “The visits on the terraces of Château Brun, St. Cyr, were precious revelations of the depth and sincerity of [Cather’s] nature, which was the reason that Harwood and she understood each other so well. It has seemed to me that some fragrance of the Child, Harwood, exhales from the child, Cécile, in ‘Shadows on the Rock’” (318). Achsah’s association of Harwood with Cécile is touching, and it flows naturally from her delight in this novel, of which Cather sent the Brewsters a copy shortly after it appeared in 1931. Cather later wrote that in Shadows she focused her attention on the activities of an “orderly little French household that went on trying to live decently” (Willa Cather on Writing 16). Given Cather’s habit of drawing on her memories of people she had encountered, one cannot doubt that the Brewster family she spent time with in Paris in 1923 made its contribution to this novel, especially since that family lived a life infused by strong religious faith, as do the Auclairs in Shadows, and included a young woman who at that time was eleven—close to the age of Cécile in the body of the novel.
That said, the specific link that Achsah suggests between the Harwood whom Cather came to know in 1930 and the Cécile of Shadows is more problematic. For one thing, by the time Cather saw the Brewsters in 1930, the novel was nearly finished. Cather began writing Shadows in the summer of 1928 and worked on it throughout 1929 and into the early part of 1930; the only portion of its creation that followed her 1930 visit with the Brewsters falls between her return in early October and the completion of the novel on 27 December, and it appears that this period was devoted primarily to writing the last parts of the novel; to put it differently, by the time Cather visited the Brewsters in the summer of 1930, she had already largely shaped the character of the young Cécile. In addition, the Harwood with whom Cather spent time in 1930 was very different from the Harwood she had known in 1923—and from the Cécile we come to know in Shadows.To begin with, Harwood was in 1930 approaching eighteen, considerably older than the Cécile we meet in Shadows. To judge by materials in the Brewster archive, Harwood was also, again in sharp contrast to Cécile, decidedly in the throes of adolescence—headstrong, independent, at times even rebellious. She had just completed her first year at the progressive Dartington Hall in Devonshire, England, from which she was home for the summer when Cather saw her in 1930; in 1931 she would finish her work at Dartington and apply for entry to university, again in England.
Harwood’s enrollment at Dartington had for the first time given her a measure of independence (which she exerted, during her second year, in her decision to play field hockey despite her parents’ opposition!). Letters to the Brewsters from their close friend D. H. Lawrence make clear that he thought this break was overdue. In June 1929, a year before Cather’s visit, Lawrence had urged the Brewsters to send Harwood off to school: “For God’s sake do something about it—another year has gone by, she’s going to be seventeen, and the muddle only deepens” (Letters 316). In early September he wrote: “As for the child, . . . she’s not a child any more, . . . so it’ll be quite a vocation being a woman: God help us all” (463). Three weeks later he wrote Harwood herself, now at Dartington: “I hope you’ll get a footing in the world among other people, and independent of your father and mother. Thank goodness it is not too late” (495).
Achsah’s reluctance to surrender to her daughter’s coming of age is implicit in the title she gave years later to her memoir of Harwood, “The Child,” and it was to Achsah and Harwood that Lawrence addressed his pointed reminder: “As for the child, . . . she’s not a child any more.” It was this same mind-set, I believe, that led Achsah in that memoir to associate the nearly eighteen-year old Harwood with the preadolescent Cécile of Shadows. In fact, however, the Harwood whom Cather came to know in 1930 was far more like another young Cather heroine of the same period, the Vickie of “Old Mrs. Harris.” Vickie at fifteen is closer to Harwood in age than is Cécile, and she shows similar adolescent impatience and willfulness. Just as Harwood had achieved independence by heading off to Dartington, so Vickie’s focus is on getting away to the university, a goal she pursues on her own—and that sets her at odds with her parents. In the story, her mother describes her daughter’s efforts to win a scholarship as “overdoing it,” as an instance of Vickie’s tendency to “run to extremes” (Obscure Destinies 124). And when Mrs. Rosen reminds Vickie’s father that his daughter has finished school and “should be getting training of some sort; she is growing up,” both her words and his response recall the dynamics, and even the language, of the debate over Harwood and Dartington: “Oh, don’t remind me, Mrs. Rosen!” he says. “I just pretend to myself she isn’t. I want to keep my little daughter as long as I can” (92). Finally, to suggest that Cather’s coming to know Harwood in 1930 fed into her creation not of Cécile but of Vickie fits the chronology far better: Shadows on the Rocks was largely completed by the time Cather returned home in fall 1930, while the writing of “Old Mrs. Harris” dates from the summer of 1931.
We know that Vickie is in large part Cather’s portrait of her teenage self, and it is but a short further step to suggest that Cather found in Harwood Brewster a young woman who reminded her of this earlier self—independent, ambitious, university-bound—and that this meeting helped catalyze and shape her subsequent portrait of Vickie. That Harwood had been seventeen when she left for Dartington in 1929 makes the connection even more likely: Cather was seventeen when she left Red Cloud for the University of Nebraska in 1890, and in The Song of the Lark she makes Thea—another alter ego—“barely seventeen” when she heads for Chicago to pursue advanced music study (Song 151). There is also a clear continuity among the three motherdaughter pairs. A picture taken in the late 1920s shows Harwood as stocky, plainly dressed, and with hair severely parted in the middle; and Harwood herself, describing an occasion when the Lawrences tried to buy her a dress, describes herself as “very awkward, ungracious and unappreciative” (Picard, “D.H.L.” 15). Vickie has a “sturdy build” and wears her hair in “a single braid down her back”; she is not unattractive, but she is also not “pretty” (Obscure Destinies 91). Cather as an adolescent was sturdy in build, eschewed traditional feminine dress, and cropped her hair short. In contrast, all three mothers—Achsah Brewster, Victoria Templeton, Virginia Cather—are svelte, dress elegantly, and carry themselves with style.
If I am correct that in Harwood Brewster Cather found herself face-to-face with her own teenage self—and wrote what she saw into Vickie—it was a turning point of some significance. Strongwilled, full-blooded young women of Vickie’s sort are common in Cather’s early fiction—most obviously Thea, but also Clara Vavrika in “The Bohemian Girl,” Alexandra and Marie in O Pioneers!, and the title character of My Ántonia—but the type is largely absent in her fiction of the late 1920s. There are hints of it in the glimpses we get of a younger Myra Henshawe in My Mortal Enemy, but it is virtually absent from Death Comes for the Archbishop and appears in Shadows on the Rock mainly in Jeanne Le Ber—who, significantly, chooses to stifle this side of herself by choosing a life of chastity, obedience, and seclusion. In contrast, in “Old Mrs. Harris” Cather places a figure of this ilk front and center, and in interaction with other women—her mother, her grandmother, Mrs. Rosen. It is huge step toward the central role that young women will play in Cather’s last two novels, especially toward the complex dynamics that obtain among the women, both young and old, in Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
Another Cather book of the 1930s fits into this same trajectory, her 1936 collection Not Under Forty. It is a book easy to overlook within Cather’s oeuvre, and one that seems to stand apart from her fiction. However, Not Under Forty shares a great deal with Cather’s fiction of the 1930s: like “Old Mrs. Harris,” Lucy Gayheart, and Sapphira, its cast is dominated by women—Madame Grout, Annie Fields, Sarah Orne Jewett, Katherine Mansfield. Like the women of these late stories, beginning with the remarkable trio of “Old Mrs. Harris” and ending with the extraordinary female cast of Sapphira (including Cather herself as a child), the women of Not Under Forty span the full gamut of female life and experience: its first essay begins with the aging Madame Grout, its last with the young Katherine Mansfield. Not least, the accounts Cather gives of these women are fictionalized at many points, as Cather suggests by calling these essays “sketches”—the very word she uses in “Miss Jewett” to describe Jewett’s fictionalized portraits in The Country of the Pointed Firs (Not Under Forty 78, 89).
Not Under Forty also brings us back to Cather’s 1930 trip to France, and to another significant encounter. If Cather’s meeting with Harwood Brewster influenced her portrait of Vickie, her subsequent meeting with Madame Grout may well have helped shape that of Mrs. Harris herself. Our first—and I think most lasting—impression of Madame Grout is of her combination of distinction and courage with age and disability: In the dining-room I often noticed, at a table not far from mine, an old lady, a Frenchwoman, who usually lunched and dined alone. She seemed very old indeed, well over eighty, and somewhat infirm, though not at all withered or shrunken. . . . As I watched her entering and leaving the dining-room I observed that she was slightly lame, and that she utterly disregarded it—walked with a quick, short step and great impatience, holding her shoulders well back. One saw that she was contemptuously intolerant of the limitations of old age. (4–5) Mrs. Harris displays this same mix of strength and weakness, and Cather’s descriptions of the two women strengthen the ties: “The thing one especially noticed,” she writes of Madame Grout, “was her fine head, so well set upon her shoulders and beautiful in shape, recalling some of the portrait busts of Roman ladies” (4). And here is Mrs. Harris: “There was the kind of nobility about her head that there is about an old lion’s: an absence of self-consciousness, vanity, preoccupation—something absolute” (Obscure Destinies 70).
Although Cather was immediately drawn to Madame Grout because of her close ties to Flaubert, she was also fascinated by the woman herself, a fact apparent from the frequency with which Cather returned to her in subsequent years. In 1933, three years after their encounter in Aix-les-Bains, Cather published “A Chance Meeting” in the Atlantic, where Achsah Brewster read it with pleasure and noted that this encounter had followed Cather’s visit with them in St. Cyr (Achsah to Harwood, 15 October 1933). Three years later Cather returned again to Madame Grout, using the meeting with her as a starting point for “The Old Beauty,” in which Cather dropped the title character’s literary connections but otherwise portrayed her much as she had Madame Grout, including her combination of age and disability with élan and a still proud bearing. In this same year—1936— Cather made “A Chance Meeting” the lead “sketch” in Not Under Forty, giving Madame Grout pride of place in a collection that includes Annie Fields, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Katherine Mansfield. Behind this placement, I believe, was Cather’s wish to make Madame Grout the archetype, as it were, for qualities she highlighted in the other women of the collection; as she reminds us, these are “sketches” that she can shape with the same freedom Jewett brought to what Cather pointedly calls “the Pointed Fir sketches.”
Madame Grout immediately impresses Cather in “A Chance Meeting.” The women of the other sketches do the same. When Cather first meets Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett over tea, she is so awestruck that she forgets the conversation and has no interest in the rich treasures of 148 Charles Street. In the next sketch, she notes Jewett’s “‘distinguished outward stamp’—it was that one felt immediately upon meeting Miss Jewett” (84– 85). And even as a young girl, Katherine Mansfield has a similar impact on Mr. J——: “She struck him as intensely alert, with a deep curiosity altogether different from the flighty, excited curiosity usual in children. She turned things over in her head and asked him questions which surprised him” (131).
Other similarities run deeper. Like Madame Grout, the other women of Not Under Forty are strong-minded, artistically ambitious, and proud of who they are and what they have achieved. Like her, they know what they think and what they want, and they do not hesitate to speak their minds. And like her, they all are courageous in the face of adversity and disability. Here is Mrs. Fields: “Although [she] was past seventy when I was first conducted into the long drawing-room, she did not seem old to me. Frail, diminished in force, yes; but, emphatically not old” (57). And Jewett: “After the carriage accident she was not strong enough to go out into the world a great deal” (85). Nonetheless, “Even after her long illness she was at home to a few visitors almost every afternoon; friends from England and France were always coming and going” (86). The final portion of Cather’s Mansfield sketch reminds us of her “long struggle with illness” but adds that her Journal, “painful though it is to read, is not the story of utter defeat. She had not, as she said, the physical strength to write what she now knew were, to her, the most important things in life. But she had found them, she possessed them, her mind fed on them” (138, 144–45).
Underpinning Madame Grout’s courage is an imperiousness that can be feisty, a quality that comes out when she tries to prevent Cather from departing a concert early—and that evokes a like response from Cather: “‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘that is not necessary. You can have your tea here at the Maison des Fleurs quite well, and still have time to go back for the last group.’ I thanked her and went across the garden, but I did not mean to see the concert through. Seeing things through was evidently a habit with this old lady” (11). Cather writes something of this spirit into the other women of the collection as well. There is Mansfield’s “fine attitude, youthful and fiery: out of all the difficulties of life and art we will snatch something” (140). Of Annie Fields she writes, “[Her] short laugh could positively do police duty! It could put an end to a conversation that had taken an unfortunate turn, absolutely dismiss and silence impertinence or presumption” (58). And here is Jewett’s reaction to a story about a mule written by a young man who was himself a muledriver: “Poor lad! But his mule could have done better! A mule, by God’s grace, is a mule, with the mettle of his kind. Besides, the mule would be grammatical” (88–89).
With the exception of the description of Annie Fields, the passages I have quoted are from sections Cather added when in 1936 she reshaped earlier essays for inclusion in Not Under Forty: to put it differently, the ways these women resemble Madame Grout are part of Cather’s design for the book. Moreover, the traits Cather writes into all four women fit one other woman who plays a major role in Not Under Forty—and who does so especially in those sections Cather added in 1936: Willa Cather herself. She too, in 1936, was a woman of “distinguished outward stamp,” one who made an immediate impression. She too was strong-minded and artistically ambitious, proud of what she had accomplished, clear as to what she thought and what she wanted, not hesitant to speak her mind. She too persevered courageously in the face of hurdles posed by age and disability— not least at this very time. Hand injuries had forced her to stop writing for several months in 1934, and she had faced a possible appendectomy in 1935, but she saw Lucy Gayheart to publication in 1935, revised her essays for Not Under Forty in 1936, and began work on Sapphira in 1937. What she writes about Mansfield near the end of Not Under Forty aptly describes herself in the late 1930s: “No one was ever less afraid of the nettle; she was defrauded unfairly of the physical vigour which seems the natural accompaniment of a high and daring spirit” (140). If the other qualities associated with these women seem to suggest Cather too, their feistiness seals the connection. Not only did Cather throughout her career win the reputation for being prickly, but that quality is rarely more apparent than in Not Under Forty. Indeed, her brief prefatory note, with its announcement that this book “will have little interest for people under forty years of age” and that “It is for the backward, and by one of their number, that these sketches were written,” so riled readers and critics that when she reissued the book in 1938 she omitted this note and renamed the book “Literary Encounters.” In turn, Cather’s similarities to the women of Not Under Forty take us back to Madame Grout, who in the first essay of the collection so embodies these characteristics—and who, when Cather met her in 1930, so caught Cather’s attention. She did so, we can now see, not only because in Flaubert’s niece Cather met a woman closely associated with one of her literary idols, but even more because in Madame Grout Willa Cather again met herself: if earlier that same month she had recognized her adolescent self in Harwood Brewster, her meeting with the aging Madame Grout encouraged a perhaps even more important recognition, that of her own aging self.
There is one more step in the story. The qualities Cather identified in Madame Grout, and that color the portraits she draws of the other women in Not Under Forty, are even more apparent in one other major Cather character: “the stamp of distinction”; strength of mind and heart and will; courage, even defiance, in the face of diminishment or disability; a feistiness that underpins them all. Whom better does this set of traits describe than Sapphira Colbert, whose story Cather began to write the year after she published Not Under Forty? Not only is Sapphira the fullest embodiment of the qualities Cather had recognized in Madame Grout, but she is also perhaps Cather’s most probing exploration of qualities that she had, with the help of her 1930 chance meeting in Aix, come to see in herself. Sapphira—both the novel and the character—also embodies the courage that Cather saw in Madame Grout and found as well in Annie Fields, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Katherine Mansfield. For in Madame Grout, Cather in 1930 not only recognized much that reminded her of her aging fifty-seven-year old self; she also saw what further diminishment lay ahead. The novel Cather publishes ten years later revolves around a woman who, like herself, is aging, ill, and disabled, and who will soon die—as Sapphira does at the end of the novel, and as Madame Grout does at the end of “A Chance Meeting.” The profound honesty of Sapphira and the Slave Girl and its unsparing self-knowledge are testimony to the feisty courage with which this proud, ambitious, at times arrogant and self-willed woman confronted age, disease, and the certainty of death by writing them into this last novel.
If what I have suggested is correct, Cather’s successive meetings in 1930 with the adolescent Harwood Brewster in St-Cyr and the aging Madame Grout in Aix not only contributed to two of the three central figures of “Old Mrs. Harris” but also helped catalyze a decade-long exploration of female interrelationships that culminates in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, itself built around the interplay of a young woman seeking her own life and an old woman holding onto hers. I conclude with a third instance of what Cather took from her 1930 sojourn in southern France, one that goes less deep but weaves together Cather’s time with the Brewsters and her subsequent trip to Aix. It involves Cather’s 1936 story “The Old Beauty,” her second set of variations on her encounter with Madame Grout. Like “A Chance Meeting,” the story is set in Aix-les-Bains and begins with an encounter with an elderly woman, this time not between Cather and Madame Grout but between her male lead, a Mr. Seabury, and an older woman who attracts his curiosity at dinner and who looks vaguely familiar. The story’s climactic episode is a drive from Aix into the neighboring mountains to visit a Carthusian monastery. The story describes the road winding “higher and higher toward the heights” (Old Beauty 62); and, most memorably, the arrival at the monastery itself: “At last, beyond a sharp turn in the road, the monastery came into view; acres of slate roof, of many heights and pitches, turrets and steep slopes. The terrifying white mountain crags overhung it from behind. . . . The monastery, superb and solitary among the lonely mountains, was after all a destination” (63); and the accident that the party experiences on the return trip near “one of those sharp curves, with a steep wall on their right and an open gulf on the left” (65), an accident that precipitates the heroine’s death the next morning.
In an unpublished 1949 memoir, Earl Brewster recalls a day trip the family took while Cather and Lewis were visiting them in 1930: To give Edith and Willa a view of the surrounding country, we attempted a drive to the virgin forest of beech wood in which is the grotto of Ste. Baume, where, according to tradition, Mary Magdalen retired to end her days. But the narrow ledges of the great heights over which the road ascended made Willa fearful, and perhaps the view was too grandiose for her enjoyment. I imagine that, like myself, she preferred the gentler regions, graced by man’s habitation, but not such as are marred by the monstrous outcroppings characteristic of the shores of the Riviera. So we retreated, to drive through the farming regions and forests of the lower country, to the sylvan embedded Carthusian monastery of Montrieux-le-Jeune. (2–3) This perhaps too memorable outing clearly played a role in the genesis of “The Old Beauty.” Artist that she was, Cather transposed this episode from the French Riviera to the area near Aixles-Bains and changed various details, but the coincidence of key motifs—the drive into the mountains, the awe and terror the road trip inspires, the Carthusian monastery as ultimate destination—is unmistakable. This episode from Cather’s Brewster visit thus becomes the climax of a plot inspired by the next leg of her 1930 trip, her meeting in Aix with Madame Grout: the joining of the two represents but one more of those “chance meetings” so characteristic of Cather’s imagination, and it seems significant that in this one story she melds these two episodes that individually and in concert would contribute so much to the works of her final ten years.