Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs010.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 10

Thackeray's Henry Esmond and The Virginians: Literary Prototypes for My Mortal Enemy

My Mortal Enemy has long been considered Willa Cather's most enigmatic work. Cather herself remarked in correspondence soon after the novel's publication that it had been difficult to write and would likely be misunderstood (Cather to Fanny Butcher, 27 October [1926], Newberry, Selected Letters 389). Rather predictably, readers and critics immediately attempted to identify the "mortal enemy." In his 1949 article, "Miss Willa Cather from Nebraska," George Seibel noted that shortly after the publication of My Mortal Enemy Cather confirmed the validity of his view that the "mortal enemy" was Oswald; Cather told him that he had understood what she meant by the title whereas most people had not (207-8). In several other letters she wrote to friends, Cather made her intention quite clear. For example, she told both Elizabeth Vermorcken and Harriet Monroe that the notion that one can be his or her own worst enemy was not the point of the novel (Cather to Vermorcken, Selected Letters 388; Cather to Monroe, Selected Letters 399). In both letters Cather referred to Fanny Butcher's review in the Chicago Tribune, which she said did get the point. There Butcher declared My Mortal Enemy "a tragic masterpiece" that explores "the great subcurrental rhythms of love and hatred" (287).

Two factors in particular have contributed to much of the uncertainty about the book. First, as scholars have long noted, the novel is the primary example of what Cather called the "novel démeublé," or unfurnished novel, in which suggestion takes precedence over statement, and much of the art in the work depends on especially judicious selection of details to be included or omitted. Cather herself referred to My Mortal Enemy as a fictional experiment (Cather to Marion Canby, [ca. 10 May 1926], Beinecke, Stout #828), and Merrill Skaggs called this quite unfurnished novel Cather's "most brilliant—in the sense of technically astonishing—tour de force" (91).

Second, as James Woodress has pointed out, of all of Cather's works My Mortal Enemy has "the most obscure provenance" (379). The real-life prototype for Myra Henshawe has never been identified with certainty. Cather said in 1940 that she had known Myra Henshawe's real-life model very well; she had died about fifteen years before the novel was written (Cather to Pendleton Hogan, Selected Letters 579). Mildred Bennett suggested many years ago that Cather might have had in mind Maria ("Myra") Tyndale, the wife of Troilus Tyndale, brother of Cather's Lincoln friend Dr. Julius Tyndale (19). More recently, Merrill Skaggs pointed to the actress and author Clara Morris as a possible real-life prototype (87), and in his essay on the subject of the Myra-Oswald marriage Charles Johanningsmeier argues that the actual prototypes for Cather's principal characters were S. S. and "Hattie" McClure, with whose relationship and marriage Cather was quite familiar. If this, in fact, was the case, it would have been all the more reason for Cather's greater than usual effort to "cover her tracks" in this book (Woodress 380).

To see Cather's Myra Henshawe as a mere portrait of an actual individual, however, would be to simplify her as a character, to ignore the complexity of her relationship with Oswald, and to underestimate Cather as a creative artist. Cather's Myra Henshawe, indeed, may have several literary as well as actual antecedents. Woodress, Susan Rosowski, and others have pointed to Cather's 1899 review of Kate Chopin's The Awakening as "the shaping idea" behind My Mortal Enemy (Woodress 386; Rosowski 145). There Cather wrote that Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary are "studies in the same feminine type"; both are women who become "the victims of the over-idealization of love." And finally, both, having "staked everything on one hand," lose ("Four Women Writers" 698-99). Given Cather's depiction of the relationship between Myra and Oswald Henshawe, such a literary provenance is certainly possible.

However, several important questions about My Mortal Enemy might also be addressed by examining numerous parallels between Cather's central figure, Myra Henshawe, and another probable literary prototype, William Makepeace Thackeray's Beatrix Esmond, a central figure in Thackeray's novels Henry Esmond and The Virginians. Cather considered Thackeray the greatest master of nineteenth-century English fiction; she placed him and William Shakespeare at the top of her hierarchy of English writers, referring to them as "the two imperial Williams" ("Old Books and New" 359). Cather praised Henry Esmond effusively in the 1890s, evidently read it repeatedly, and kept it as a special volume in her personal library. Moreover, Cather considered The Virginians "almost as delightful reading as Henry Esmond" ("Old Books and New" 360); that novel also was in her personal library.[1]

Cather may well have first encountered Thackeray's fiction before she arrived at the University of Nebraska, but she certainly would have read or reread his work in the English 11 and English 12 courses, "Special Studies in Tennyson and the Great Prosaists," that she took in the fall and spring semesters of her senior year. She notes in her essay "148 Charles Street" that she was thrilled to have been in the same rooms where Thackeray and other literary greats had visited and where Thackeray reportedly had finished writing Henry Esmond (72). (Mark Madigan reminded me that in May 1909, during her second European trip, Cather stayed in the Thackeray Hotel in London, not only, I imagine, because it was recommended in Baedeker's London and Its Environs but also because doing so would have seemed so appropriate, given her love of Thackeray. Later, when she was asked what authors serious readers or aspiring writers should read, Cather more than once urged reading Thackeray and other nineteenth-century "greats" versus contemporary writers, even herself. (See, for example, Cather to Chilson Leonard, 19 March 1936, Phillips Exeter Academy, Stout #1306; Cather to Burges Johnson, n.d. [1939?], Beinecke, Stout #1454.)

Articles that appeared in the Nebraska State Journal in 1896 and in the Home Monthly magazine in 1897 suggest that My Mortal Enemy may well have had early antecedents in Henry Esmond. In the Journal article Cather comments at length on Francis Hodgson Burnett's new novel, A Lady of Quality (also in Cather's library), comparing it quite unfavorably to Henry Esmond. Cather does give Burnett, creator of Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden, credit for "a great attempt," but she declares that Burnett's novel of eighteenth-century life is "a wraith, a shadow" of Thackeray's work, a "mere light opera, mock heroic" ("Mrs. Burnett" 373).

The heroine of Burnett's novel, Clorinda Wildairs, on the one hand represents the author's attempt to present a strong, assertive woman who rebels against the nineteenth-century restrictions imposed upon women by a male-dominated society. "I am a woman," she declares at one point, "who would show other women how to bear themselves" (122). At the same time Clorinda is selfish, imperious, and tyrannical and is known throughout her society for "her temper and her shrewish will" (34). Her personality is perhaps best summed up in her proud and disdainful declaration: "All that I do, all that I do is right—for me. I make it so by doing it. . . . I am my own law—and the law of some others" (117).

The main problem with A Lady of Quality, according to Cather, was that "there never was a more inconsistent book" ("Mrs. Burnett" 373). The Clorinda described above, by novel's end, has married happily, has provided generously for her saintly sister Anne, and has herself achieved a saintly status among all her acquaintances, who marvel at her "deeds of gentleness" and her "sweet and generous" nature (367). "As though a vain and selfish woman would not be vain and selfish still," Cather remarks. "One is one's part; it is a part of one's body and soul; it is ever living in one's blood" ("Mrs. Burnett" 373).

Cather declares that because Burnett chose to place the story of Clorinda Wildairs in the eighteenth century and to tell it in an eighteenth-century style, the novel "fairly clamors for comparison with Henry Esmond" ("Mrs. Burnett" 373). Like Clorinda Wildairs, Beatrix Esmond is a very attractive young woman. The narrator in My Mortal Enemy, Nellie Birdseye, tells us in the opening lines of the novel that she had known Myra Henshawe from early childhood and that Myra likewise "had been the brilliant and attractive figure" to her and her childhood friends (10). According to Nellie, Myra "had everything: dresses and jewels, a fine riding horse, a Steinway piano" (19). Like Clorinda and Beatrix, Myra becomes selfish, imperious, and treacherous; both Beatrix and Myra are characterized by a haughty demeanor, sarcastic wit, and discomforting scorn for those around them.

An important difference between Thackeray's and Cather's heroines is that while Beatrix will marry only for money and social position, Myra marries for love (and perhaps out of spite) and thereby sacrifices a fortune and social position. The two characters, however, are at the same time quite similar, for much of Myra's disappointment is the result of her having realized that she cannot be happy without the advantages that fortune and social position can bring. Both characters end up bitter, having arrived at that point by different routes but ultimately for the same reason. The older Myra's attitudes toward marriage echo those of the older Beatrix.

Henry Esmond is filled with comments about the inevitable disappointment to be experienced in marriage. At one point, for example, Thackeray remarks, "Alas that youthful love and truth should end in bitterness and bankruptcy. To see a young couple loving each other is no wonder, but to see an old couple loving each other is the best sight of all" (134). Speaking of the marriage of Lord and Lady Castlewood, Henry's adoptive parents, Thackeray asserts that the "absurd vision of conjugal felicity" is a short-lived dream. Whatever love and happiness exist at the outset of a relationship, one soon finds that he "has made his bed, and so must lie in it, until that final day when life ends, and they sleep separate" (103).

In Cather's fiction, of course, there are few good marriages. Although the marriage of Myra Driscoll and Oswald Henshawe had all the marks of a great romantic adventure—Myra Driscoll's "runaway marriage" had, in fact, become legendary in her hometown—Nellie is obviously disappointed to learn that the relationship between Myra and Oswald has been far from fulfilling. To Nellie's question as to whether the two have been happy, her aunt Lydia answers, "Happy? Oh, yes! As happy as most people" (25). "That answer was disheartening," Nellie reflects, "the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people" (25).

The reasons for the failure of the Henshawes' marriage are numerous. First, when Myra chose to marry Oswald and thus ignored the wishes of her great-uncle, she dared Fate and lost. "It's better to be a stray dog in this world than a man without money," her uncle had warned her (22). Like Beatrix Esmond, Myra soon realizes that she cannot be happy without those comforts and material possessions that wealth can provide. During one long afternoon with Myra in Central Park, Nellie is struck by Myra's obvious sense of embarrassment upon seeing an acquaintance in a nice carriage while Myra and Nellie are in a hansom cab (52). Nellie notes the "insane ambition" that typifies Myra's actions and attitudes: Oswald hadn't saved anything, "and here Mrs. Myra was wishing for a carriage—with stables and a house and servants, and all that went with a carriage!" (52). (A fine carriage is also the measure and symbol of material and social success for another of Thackeray's heroines, Becky Sharpe of Vanity Fair.)

In Thackeray's novels there are a number of injunctions against marrying without money. In Henry Esmond Lady Castlewood warns Henry, who is infatuated with the beautiful and coquettish Beatrix, "Oh! Henry, she will make no man happy who loves her" (271). "[T]he man who would marry her will not be happy with her, unless he be a great person, and can put her in a great position" (356). Lady Castlewood later warns Henry that Beatrix's mind "is fixed on ambition only, and making a great figure: and, this achieved, she will tire of it as she does of everything. Heaven help her husband, whoever he shall be!" (419). Oswald, apparently, received no such warning. "It's very nasty being poor," Myra laments at one point (53), recalling Marian Forrester's advice to Niel Herbert, that he remember that "[m]oney is a very important thing. Realize that in the beginning; face it, and don't be ridiculous in the end, like so many of us" (Lost Lady 108). Myra later confesses to Nellie that she has always been a "greedy, selfish, worldly woman," who wanted more than anything else "success and a place in the world" (91), neither of which Oswald could provide.

Grasping, exceedingly materialistic, and worldly, Myra thus was doomed never to be satisfied. "It was money I needed," she tells Nellie early in part 2 of the novel (91). Thackeray's Beatrix of Henry Esmond is just such a young woman, and Madame Bernstein of The Virginians, as Beatrix is called in the sequel to Henry Esmond, is a lonely and bitter old woman who has finally realized the futility of her materialistic attitudes, another major theme in many of Thackeray's novels.[2] Vanity Fair ends with the famous declaration, "Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?" (666). My Mortal Enemy, published during the 1920s, when Cather in so many works examined the consequences of materialism, is certainly her most compelling comment on the destructive desire for money. Well aware of her own desire for financial success and delighted at the success she had achieved, Cather at the same time realized the dangers and destructive consequences that material success often brings. She was no doubt pleased that she had been successful and was able to live comfortably but probably was equally glad that she had never desired too much money.

A second reason for the disintegration of the Henshawes' marriage is that, like Lady Castlewood of Henry Esmond and the older Beatrix of The Virginians, Myra Henshawe comes to realize that her husband is her inferior. Thackeray sees the realization of this "silent truth" (Henry Esmond 106) as inevitably destructive of a marriage, for, according to Thackeray, a woman who realizes she is superior to her husband will lose respect for and despise him, and a man who realizes his wife is superior to him may try to please her but often will lose respect for himself and resent her. While Oswald initially seemed to Nellie Birdseye (and perhaps also to Myra) a man whose bearing "suggested personal bravery, magnanimity, and a fine, generous way of doing things" (15), over time he becomes Myra's "mortal enemy." Although he cares for Myra when she is practically helpless, he becomes the object of Myra's scorn and at the same time the source of her occasional self-loathing because of the way she has treated him. It is clear from the outset that Myra craves control and delights in the sense of power she derives from exercising her sarcastic wit and intimidating her acquaintances. Her disdain for Oswald in large part derives from her sense of superiority to him and later from the cruel irony of her physical dependence on a man she considers so inferior in will and strength of character.[3]

Myra's strength is often suggested in references to the goddess Diana, and like the goddess Myra is depicted in terms of power. As Merrill Skaggs has pointed out, in their first meeting during Myra's middle years Nellie feels "quite overpowered" by Myra (12); even ten years later Myra, confined to a wheelchair and physically dependent on Oswald, looks "crippled but powerful in her brilliant wrappings" (80). In My Mortal Enemy the Saint-Gaudens statue of Diana that stands atop Madison Square Garden becomes an important correlative to Myra. One wonders if Cather might have had in mind Thackeray's reference to Diana in his depiction of the young Beatrix Esmond, whom he describes at one point as "a slim and lovely girl, with cheeks mantling with health and roses" but with "a mien and shape haughty and beautiful, such as that of the famous antique statue of the huntress Diana—at one time haughty, rapid, imperious, with eyes and arrows that dart and kill" (Henry Esmond 150).

Considering the obvious negative elements of Myra's personality, one might see only a very bitter and nasty woman. Cather's portrait, however, is more complex. Myra Henshawe is not wholly unsympathetic because she finally is such a lonely and disillusioned woman and because in the face of that loneliness and disillusionment "she has enough desperate courage for a regiment" (92). Likewise, in Henry Esmond Thackeray's narrator asserts that one "could not but respect the indomitable courage and majestic calm" (462) with which the unfortunate Beatrix faces the grief in her life.

As Cather had said in one of her 1890s articles, Myra, like Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary, demanded "more romance out of life than God put into it." Such people, Cather remarked, "pay with their blood for the fine ideals of the poets" ("Four Women Writers" 698). Moreover, Myra Henshawe, like the older Beatrix Esmond (and like Marian Forrester of A Lost Lady), must face the loss of physical attractiveness, which is so central to her, and their, sense of self. There are a number of statements on such loss in Thackeray's novels. The Virginians, in fact, includes a lengthy comment on the consolations of imperfect beauty, which may never know "grandeur" but will never experience "desertion" (259). Nellie Birdseye, meeting Myra many years after her elopement, is shocked to see the once very attractive Myra as a short, plump, middle-aged woman with a double chin, confined to a wheelchair. Similarly, in The Virginians Beatrix, having suffered a stroke, has been left bedridden, with one arm and side paralyzed, her speech slurred, and a mind that often produces incoherent and delusional chatter about her youth. Thackeray tells us, "[S]he appeared as an object, handsome still, and magnificent, but melancholy, and even somewhat terrifying to behold" (259). Both the Baroness and Myra Henshawe, though they desperately maintain a haughty demeanor, are all too aware that life has taken both their physical beauty and their independence from them.

In addition both Thackeray and Cather admit that with time one loses more than mere physical attractiveness: One also loses a fine sense of life itself. "I like my cards still," Madame Bernstein of The Virginians says shortly before her death. "Indeed, life would be a blank without 'em. Almost everything is gone except that. . . . Everything goes away from us in old age" (810). Seeing a changed Myra Henshawe, "twenty-five years older than [she] had always imagined her," young Nellie Birdseye reflects early in Cather's novel, "Was it not better to get out of the world with such pomp and dramatic splendour than to linger on in it?" (27). According to Cather the aged Beatrix Esmond of The Virginians is, at the end of that novel, "old and yellow, but still blazing with jewels, still seeking for the heart that all her life she has never found. Is there anything more pathetic than that miserable old woman in her delirious dreams storming at the lackeys to admit her to the apartment of the Prince who tired of her half a century ago?" ("Old Books and New" 360). Myra laments toward the end of My Mortal Enemy, "I was crying about things I never feel now; I'd been dreaming I was young, and the sorrows of youth had set me crying!" (95).

Myra's bitter disappointment in life is, of course, focused on Oswald. Oswald's personality would never have enabled him to satisfy Myra's desire for material possessions or her need for a man of strength and will, yet she is to some extent her own enemy. In defying her great-uncle and marrying Oswald, she had not only dared Fate but also defied her own nature. Again we find interesting parallels between Thackeray's explanation for Beatrix's disillusionment and Cather's comments on Myra's bitterness. In Henry Esmond Beatrix's "ambitious hopes" to marry well and thus attain the wealth and social position of which she had dreamed are foiled when Duke Hamilton dies in a duel. The narrator suggests that perhaps "a special malignant fate watched and pursued" Beatrix (462). Beatrix refuses to confess that she has chosen vainly in her attempts to gain wealth, and Thackeray suggests that she could not have acted otherwise: "'Tis nature has fashioned some for ambition and dominion, as it has formed others for obedience and gentle submission. The leopard follows his nature as the lamb does, and acts after leopard law; she can neither help her beauty, nor her courage, nor her cruelty; nor a single spot on her shining coat; nor the conquering spirit which impels her; nor the shot that brings her down" (463).

In her 1890s review of A Lady of Quality Cather devoted a large part of the article to a discussion of this point in Henry Esmond. The main artistic problem with Burnett's novel, she said, was that it was inconsistent: the selfish young Clorinda by novel's end becomes a saintly figure. Beatrix, Cather says, "was made for power and conquest. . . . She could have no more gone to live on a tobacco plantation in Virginia than Napoleon could have settled down and raised potatoes in a granite gorge in Corsica, because he loved some Corsican girl. Destiny is stronger than we, and our necessities are so much stronger than our desires" ("Mrs. Burnett" 374). Certainly that deterministic sense of personality is one key to understanding Myra Henshawe, who tells Nellie that she admits she is a grasping, worldly woman, but declares she has little control over these tendencies, for she was made so: "[A]s we grow old we become more and more the stuff our forebears put into us," Myra asserts. "I can feel his [John Driscoll's] savagery strengthen in me. 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 skeleton" (98-99). Although Cather said that Myra Henshawe's "mortal enemy" is her husband, Oswald, if one accepts Myra Driscoll Henshawe's explanation of her personality—that she is the product of an inherited ancestral nature—one can argue that her mortal enemy also is to some extent herself, or at least her nature.

Another of Thackeray's favorite themes is youthful innocence, and in part such innocence is another enemy to Myra Henshawe. "Oh, if youth but knew!" Myra exclaims to Oswald. But Youth, of course, does not know what life will bring. In a chapter in The Virginians titled "The Course of True Love" Thackeray describes a couple that, having reached "the autumn season," now looks back to a time when "that dear old house in Dean Street was an enchanted garden of delights" in which the young woman sat in the window and waved her handkerchief as her lover walked up the street (734). Had their subsequent marriage, Thackeray asks, been "imprudent"? Similarly, Nellie Birdseye imagines that when the young Myra gave garden parties, the Driscoll place must have been "like the Sleeping Beauty's palace" (25). What youth did not know, at least in Myra Driscoll's case, was that love could not conquer all, certainly not her basic nature. Myra's grasping nature, Oswald's weakness, the frailty of romantic dreams, and Time's inevitable toll—all are, in a sense, Myra's enemies.

These thematic parallels between My Mortal Enemy and Thackeray's two novels make for interesting speculation about the extent to which Cather might have had Thackeray's novels in mind when she was writing her own. Combining actual and literary elements in her fiction was a common tendency for Cather. Thackeray's depictions of the young Beatrix Esmond of Henry Esmond and the older Beatrix of The Virginians might have provided Willa Cather with literary counterparts to the actual Nebraska woman who, she claimed, first inspired the portrait of Myra Henshawe or, perhaps, to the McClures, whose relationship must have both fascinated and disturbed Cather.

The portraits of the younger and older Beatrix might have suggested the two-part structure of My Mortal Enemy, and the innocent young Henry Esmond's discovery of the broken relationship between his adoptive parents—what he describes as an "actual tragedy of life" (130)—might have suggested Cather's use of the naïf, Nellie Birdseye, as narrator for her novel. Henry Esmond is twelve when he first comes to know Lord and Lady Castlewood. The grateful and romantic boy whom the Castlewoods adopt initially reveres them. His youth and naiveté are referred to a number of times. For example, at one point in the first section of the novel, talking with Lady Castlewood about the sad state of her marriage, Henry says that he knows little about such problems other than what he has read in books, and he plaintively asks, "What should I know about such matters?" (108). Lady Castlewood, however, knows all too much about such matters. "Who does not know of eyes, lighted by love once, where the flame shines no more!—of lamps extinguished, once properly trimmed and tended?" Thackeray asks (129). Observing the marriage of his parents as, over a period of years, it finally becomes a mere painful coexistence, Henry Esmond gradually begins to understand what had ruined their relationship. In the process he comes to understand both of them, finally to pardon each of them for the faults that had contributed to the ruined relationship, and then to love them both despite those faults. Book 1 of Henry Esmond ends with the death of Lord Castlewood and the departure of the now mature young man, Henry, who leaves to join the army. Henry, Thackeray tells us, "thought of his early time as a noviciate . . . as an initiation before entering into life" (201).

When Nellie first meets the Henshawes, she is fifteen years old. As E. K. Brown says, the young and provincial Nellie is initially "agog at the refinements of Myra's dress, the distinction of her speech, her imperial manner, the devotion of her husband, the charm of her apartment, [and] the interest of her friends" (248). Ten years later Nellie, though still somewhat awed by Myra, is not nearly so innocent and provincial as she previously had been. Like Henry Esmond she has acquired both "insight and sympathy" (Brown 248), qualities that enable her to understand and to accept both Oswald and Myra. Again, Charles Johanningsmeier argues that in observing the McClures' marriage—another "actual tragedy of life"—Cather might have lost her own illusions about the couple whom she had known for more than two decades, and in S. S. McClure's rather sad situation in the mid-1920s Cather may have come to sympathize with and to understand her mentor in a way that would have been impossible earlier.

Moreover, might certain statements in Henry Esmond possibly even have suggested the title for Cather's novel? Of Thackeray's comments on the failure of love and marriage, three seem particularly pertinent to Cather's own depiction of the failure of love in My Mortal Enemy: First, "Then perhaps, the pair [Lord and Lady Castlewood] reached that other stage which is not uncommon in married life, when the woman perceives that the god of the honeymoon is a god no more; only a mortal [my italics] like the rest of us—and so she looks into her heart, and lo! vacuae sedes et inania arcane, i.e., she sees only 'empty seats and hollow mysteries'" (80).

Thackeray continues, "And, now, supposing our lady to have a fine genius and a brilliant wit of her own, and the magic spell and infatuation removed from her which had led her to worship as a god a very ordinary mortal [my italics]—and what follows? They live together, and they dine together, and they say 'my dear' and 'my love' as heretofore; but the man is himself, and the woman is herself; that dream of love is over as everything else is over in life; as flowers and fury, and griefs and pleasures are over" (80).

Finally, another significant comment on the disappointments of married life in Thackeray's novel begins with the following statement: "It [love] has of course, like all mortal [my italics] things—its beginning, progress, and decay. It buds and blooms out into sunshine, and it withers and ends" (130). Cather also uses flower imagery to describe the relationship between Myra and Oswald. At one point in the novel Myra confesses to Nellie that, unlike Oswald, she was never a "sentimentalist, was "never satisfied" (104). "All the same," she adds, "in age, when the flowers are so few, it's a great unkindness to destroy any that are left in a man's heart. . . . People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were. . . . A man and woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other" (105).

Here we might again note Fanny Butcher's review of My Mortal Enemy, the comment that Cather said came closer than any other she had seen to capturing the meaning of the novel: Butcher declares that the novel is the story of many aspects of a married relationship, among them "the disintegration of love" that involves "the steady rhythm of the fundamental hatred of the sexes one for the other and their irresistible attraction one for the other" (287). Cather would echo Butcher's statement ten years later in her essay on Katherine Mansfield, where she acknowledges the "secret and passionate and intense . . . real life" of many relationships. "One realizes," Cather says there, "that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them" ("Katherine Mansfield"136).

Young Willa Cather called Thackeray's Henry Esmond "that ever unassailable masterpiece of English prose" ("Mrs. Burnett" 373), "the greatest of all English novels" ("Old Books and New" 358). The Willa Cather who came to write My Mortal Enemy three decades after she commented on Thackeray in reviews evidently had not forgotten Beatrix Esmond—neither the attractive and disdainful young Beatrix of Henry Esmond nor the still proud and indomitable yet "miserable old woman" of The Virginians. Scholars have long known that Cather often thought about actual people for years before they came to life as fictional characters. Cather's major fictional characters, however, were often the product of a creative process in which the lives or personalities of actual figures came together in artistic combination with characters from literary works Cather had previously read. Beatrix Esmond of Henry Esmond, "young and beautiful, with the world . . . at her feet," and Beatrix Esmond of The Virginians, "old and wrinkled, with her cards, her merciless wit and her hateful memories" (Cather's descriptions; see "Old Books and New" 359), were, it would seem, significant literary prototypes for Myra Henshawe, one of Willa Cather's most disturbing yet most intriguing characters.


 1. There were seven volumes of Thackeray's works in Cather's personal library, among them her copy of Henry Esmond (now in the Red Cloud Opera House), published in New York by the International Book Company, d. Cather considered this one of her "special" books and wrote her name on the inside cover. It is clear that she reread Henry Esmond a number of times, which seems to have been a habit with her favorite books. For example, she wrote to Cyril Clemens on 21 November [1934] that she had probably read Huckleberry Finn twenty times (Selected Letters 491), and she wrote to Alfred Knopf in 1945 that she was reading Flaubert's Salammbô for the thirteenth time (Cather to Knopf, [14 March 1945], Dobkin Foundation). In a 1914 letter Cather urged Elizabeth Sergeant to look at the latest issues of the British periodical Punch, saying, "Have you seen the last six or eight numbers of Punch? Don't miss them. It's like going back to Henry Esmond after reading [John] Galsworthy. You feel that the old rock is still under your feet, the rock that is so different from any other" (Selected Letters 19596). And in a 1933 letter to the librarian at the New York Society Library, which originally had been located only a short distance from her former Bank Street apartment, Cather asked to borrow several books, including "my old friend 'Henry Esmond'" (Cather to Marion King, 10 September 1933, Allegheny College of Maryland). (My thanks to Andy Jewell for acquainting me with this letter.) In the Scholarly Edition of Sapphira and the Slave Girl Ann Romines notes that in doing research for that novel, Cather borrowed a copy of The Virginians in 1937 and suggests that "we may see traces of this voracious old woman [Beatrix] in Sapphira Colbert" (355-56). Unfortunately, while Cather's Society Library "charging cards" from the late 1930s on are available, the Society Library can no longer locate the earlier charging records. (Go back.)
 2. The older Beatrix is not the central character in The Virginians, and her story is only one of several developed in that novel. However, one might speculate that My Mortal Enemy represents an attempt—a very conscious fictional experiment—on Cather's part to tell much the same story that Thackeray tells about Beatrix in well over 1,000 pages in Henry Esmond and The Virginians in a much sparer, unfurnished form. My Mortal Enemy is about twenty thousand words long; the first edition, even with generous margins, a larger type size, and rather elaborate graphic design elements, came to only 122 pages. (Go back.)
 3. James Woodress calls My Mortal Enemy "the most bitter piece of fiction [Cather] ever wrote" (380). In one of her 1890s articles on Thackeray Cather observed, "People call Thackeray bitter because he is so true" ("Mrs. Burnett" 374). (Go back.)


Bennett, Mildred. "Who Was Myra Henshawe?" Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 30 (Summer 1986): 19. Print.
Brown, E. K., with Leon Edel. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1953. Print.
Burnett, Francis Hodgson. A Lady of Quality. London: Frederick Warne, 1896. Print.
Butcher, Fanny. "My Mortal Enemy Is a Masterpiece, by Willa Cather." Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews. Ed. Margaret Ann O'Connor. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. 286-87. Print.
Cather, Willa. "Four Women Writers." The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. 2 vols. Ed. William M. Curtin. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970. 1: 697-99. Print.
———. "Katherine Mansfield." Not Under Forty. By Cather. New York: Knopf, 1936.123-47. Print.
———. Letter to Marion King. 10 September [1933]. Janet Cook Willa Cather Collection. Allegheny College of Maryland.
———. Letter to Alfred A. Knopf. [14 March 1945.] Barbara Dobkin Foundation, New York.
———. A Lost Lady. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Historical essay by Susan J. Rosowski with Kari A. Ronning. Explanatory notes by Kari A. Ronning. Ed. and textual essay by Charles W. Mignon and Frederick M. Link with Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997. Print.
———. "Mrs. Burnett and Thackeray." The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966. 371-74. Janet Cook Willa Cather Collection.
———. My Mortal Enemy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. Print.
———. "Old Books and New." The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. 2 vols. Ed. William M. Curtin. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970. 2: 358-60. Print.
———. "148 Charles Street." Not Under Forty. By Cather. New York: Knopf, 1936. 52-75. Print.
———. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Historical essay and explanatory notes by Ann Romines. Ed. and textual essay by Charles W. Mignon, Kari A. Ronning, and Frederick M. Link. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009. Print.
———. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
Johanningsmeier, Charles. "Unmasking Willa Cather's 'Mortal Enemy.'" Cather Studies 5: Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2003. 237-72. Print.
O'Connor. Margaret Anne. Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
Rosowski, Susan. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986. Print.
Seibel, George. "Miss Willa Cather from Nebraska." Colophon 2, part 7 (September 1949): 195-208. Print.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1963. Print.
Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990. Print.
Stout, Janis P., ed. A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. Harper Modern Classics. New York: Harper, 1950. Print.
———. Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero. Riverside Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963. Print.
———. The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century. London: Thomas Nelson, 1902. Print.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987. Print.