Willa Cather, A Wagner matinée

Willa Cather's childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska

Willa Cather's childhood home, Nebraska (Public Domain, By Ammodramus, via Wikipedia)

Willa Cather‘s short story, “A Wagner matinée”, was Library of America’s “Story of the Week” back in May. However, I was busy then, but I like Cather, so I put it aside to read later. And later has finally come!

I’ve reviewed another Cather short story here, “The sentimentality of William Tavener”, which was published in 1900. “A Wagner matinée” was first published a little later, in 1904. Like the previous story, and the novels of hers that I’ve read, this short story deals with her favourite preoccupation, the tough life of the pioneer. It is not, though, set in the midwest, but in Boston. The plot is slight, and can be summarised in a couple of sentences. The first person narrator’s aunt comes to visit him in Boston from Nebraska to which she’d eloped, against her family’s wishes, some three decades previously. Our narrator, Clark, has “a reverential affection” for this aunt who’d provided him with “most of the good that ever came my way in my boyhood” and so he decides to treat her, an ex-music teacher, to an afternoon concert of Wagnerian music. The story chronicles the emotions aroused by this visit.

As usual, the Library of America’s brief introductory notes are illuminating. Apparently Cather attracted a degree of wrath after its publication, from Nebraskans and from her family. A Nebraskan editor slammed her depiction of prairie life suggesting that fiction writers who portray Nebraska should “look up now and then and not keep their eyes in the cattle yards”. If they did “they might be more agreeable company”. Take that, Willa!

Her family was upset because they felt she’d based the story’s Aunt Georgiana on her Aunt Franc who, like Georgiana, had lived in Boston and studied music before marrying and moving to Nebraska. Cather was apparently hurt by this as she’d maintained an affectionate correspondence with her aunt. Nonetheless, the notes say, when she revised and shortened the story for her 1920 collection, “she altered the portrait of Georgiana out of consideration for her Nebraskan family”. Hmmm … I should do my research and find the original as I believe the version provided by the Library of America is this 1920 one. In it, Georgiana seems a fairly sad case so I’d love to see what she’d written first. Regardless, it reminds me yet again of that fine line between fact and fiction that novelists who draw from life must tread.

Anyhow, the story. Aunt Georgiana arrives in a somewhat “battered” state, partly due to the arduous journey and partly, Clark implies, due to the hardness of her life. “For thirty years my aunt had not been farther than fifty miles from the homestead” which she had established side-by-side with her husband. Clark describes the time he’d spent out west with his aunt and the support and encouragement she’d given him. He also remembers her telling him once when he was “doggedly” practising a piano piece:

Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.

What was taken from her? Her music? Her old life? Was it taken or did she, willingly at the time, give it up? Her pain made clear, nothing more is said on this point. And I like the writing for it. The rest of the story describes the matinée and how he and his aunt react. The language is clear and strong, as you can see from this excerpt roughly half-way through the story. It describes the first piece in the concert, the Tannhaüser overture, which is particularly meaningful for me as Tannhaüser was my first opera:

… When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim’s chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realised that for her this broke a silence of thirty years. With the battle between the two motives, with the frenzy of the Venusberg theme and its ripping of strings, there came to me an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat; and I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress …

Pretty stark stuff … and it becomes more stark as he describes his aunt’s physical reactions to the music and draws his own conclusions from it. Here she is reacting to “The prize song”:

Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her cheeks … It never really died, then – the soul which can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only; like that strange moss which can lie on a dusty shelf half a century and yet, if placed in water, grows green again.

Why Wagner, I wondered when I saw this story? It would be anachronistic to invoke our era’s discomfort with the man and, in fact, LOA tells us that Cather was passionate about Wagner. His is powerful, emotional music: this seems to be its relevance here. It is music which can stir the soul – and Georgiana’s soul has been stirred. She is no longer “semi-somnambulant” as she was when she arrived. Clark leaves us contrasting his emotional aunt with the “black pond” and “unpainted house” of home. However, because the story is told through Clark’s – albeit loving and sympathetic – eyes we cannot know what this all means for her. Instead, we are left to think about the sacrifices that attend the decisions we make and whether or not we can live with them. A thoughtful, moving story.

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The pioneers


Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8, by May Moore (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) is probably not as well-known in Australia, let alone internationally, as she should be. She was born in Fiji, but grew up in Tasmania and Melbourne, travelled overseas and in other parts of Australia, before settling in Western Australia in 1919. She was a founding member of the Australian Communist Party (1920) and also of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Politics and literature, then, were the twin passions of her life. Her most famous novel and the only one I’d read until now, Coonardoo (1929), was remarkable in its time for its exploration of the relationship between white men and black women.

I don’t usually commence a review with a biography, but it felt appropriate in this case – partly because she is so little known despite her significance and partly because her politics were an intrinsic part of her literature. In the foreword to my new edition of the book, her granddaughter describes Prichard’s values as:

a huge love of and respect for the bush; the importance of living your life with integrity; of caring and fighting for the underdog; of holding strong principles and remaining true to them; and of embracing life with passion.

These values are evident in The pioneers, her first novel which won the Hodder and Stoughton All Empire Literature Prize for Australasia in 1915. She went on to write over thirty works, including novels, plays, short stories and poetry. But, perhaps that’s enough prelude for now – on with the book.

It’s a simple tale really, plot-wise. It starts with a couple, Donald and Mary Cameron, arriving by wagon in an unsettled area of Gippsland (in eastern Victoria) in the early-mid nineteenth century. They clear the land, build a home and establish a successful farm. Very early in the story, while Donald is away getting supplies, Mary is “visited” by two desperate men, Dan Farrell and Steve. A tricky situation for a woman on her own but she manages to win them over and they leave her, unharmed. The novel tells the story of these people – and the others who move into the district – over the next two decades or so, as they work to make lives for themselves, some honestly and some not so.  There are archetypal characters here – the hard-working, tough, taciturn farmer; the loving, but wise and stoical wife; the loyal but unappreciated-by-his-father son; and more. There are escaped convicts, cattle rustlers, and a thoroughly bad man.

This may all make it sound rather typical and a bit melodramatic. And, in fact, it does have its melodrama. But the book is more than this. Its overriding style, or approach, is social realism, as Prichard explores the hopes and wishes of a new country struggling to come to terms with its origins and forge a more positive future. Her style is not particularly innovative and, while the combination of social realism and melodrama is appropriate for a novel set in the nineteenth century, the melodrama was a little discordant to my modern ears.  Take this, for example:

It was as if that encounter in the valley of shadows had brushed all misunderstandings from the love that was like the sun between them. Deirdre had wrestled with death for possession of him.

A contemporary review suggested that the romance – which drives most of the melodrama – was included primarily to attract readers who may not be interested in the history. This could very well be so.

Despite not being particularly innovative, Prichard’s writing is sure and shows that while this was her first novel she’d been honing her craft for some time. I particularly loved her language. It is gorgeously descriptive. She perfectly captures the paradox of a place that is both beautiful and harsh – and effectively conveys the physical and emotional impact of the landscape:

The bright hours were rent by the momentary screeching and chatter of parroquets, as they flew, spreading the red, green and yellow of their breasts against the blue sky. At sunset and dawn there were merry melodious flutings, long, sweet, mating-calls, carollings and bursts of husky, gnomish laughter. Yet the silence remained, hovering and swallowing insatiably every sound.

The plot, as I’ve suggested, is a little melodramatic and fairly predictable but it’s a well-told tale, nonetheless, of good forces fighting bad, of compromises that are sometimes made, and of bad judgement calls that come back to bite you. The characters, while tending to archetype, are nonetheless real so that you believe them and their various plights. There is, I think, something reminiscent of Dickens here.

The themes reflect very much the values identified by her granddaughter in the foreword. The main characters are imbued with a strong sense of principles that they try to live by. When Mary meets the convicts early in the novel, she says:

But if you will believe the truth it is this: My heart is with you and all like you.

In her twenties, Prichard apparently met the Austrian sociologist, Rudolph Broda, who introduced her to the ideas of socialism and suggested that, as a new country, Australia was leading the world in social legislation. This idea is reflected in the novel. Early on, Mary says to Donald:

It’s a new country and a new people we’re making, they said at home, and I’m realising what they meant now.

Little did she know, then, what this “making” would really involve but defining “a new country” is clearly the goal Prichard set for herself. The novel concludes by suggesting that the new generation will

be a pioneer of paths that will make the world a better, happier place for everyone to live in.

Corny? Or aspirational? Take your pick … but whichever way you see it, this novel makes a significant contribution to the development of the Australian psyche, to our transition from colonial convict-fearing past to an independent self-realised future. I am glad it has been re-released and hope that more people read it.

Katharine Susannah Prichard
The pioneers
Singapore: Monsoon Books, 2010 [first ed. 1915]
ISBN: 9789810848804

NOTE: An ebook version of the novel is available at Project Gutenberg.