A Short Story Steeped in Nostalgia – Willa Cather’s “The Old Beauty”

I’m so far behind in posting about my recent reading. Since reading is generally easier for me than writing, I’ll attribute this to a general laziness on my part. I’ll try to catch up with a few posts this weekend…

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Saturday I read the 46th Short Story of my 2012 reading project. Willa Cather’s “The Old Beauty” seemed to match my ’mood of the day’ quite well. Poignant and nostalgic, I found it to be a great introduction to an author I’d never read before. Sure, I’d heard of Cather from the acclaim of her books “My Antonia” and “O Pioneers!” and the latter of these was even Indianapolis’s “One City, One Book” selection several years ago but, alas, I did not participate.

(Below: Willa Cather immortalized on a postage stamp)

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I enjoyed  the chronological structure of this story, which had the effect of allowing a delicate, deferent approach to the title character of the story, Madame de Courcy. I found this quite appropriate since the character herself was somewhat distant and unapproachable.

The protagonist of story is really Mr. Henry Seabury. After a successful business career in the Orient, he has returned to Europe a few years after World War I to find it a very different place. He selects – as his place to “settle back in” – Aix-les-Bains in Eastern France because he thought it was “a spot that was still more or less as it used to be.” When the story begins, the title character is “in the news” and intrusive reporters are troubling Seabury for comment. The story then steps back a couple months to when he first arrived in Aix-les-Bains. In this episode, he meets some tourists from Devonshire, and, while dining with them, espies “the Old Beauty” Madame de Courcy, who he knew many years before as Gabrielle Longstreet, originally from the island of Martinique. She was “discovered” there by a yachting English nobleman, and carried off to London where she made quite an impact:

“Gabrielle was not socially ambitious, made no effort to please. She was not witty or especially clever, had no accomplishments beyond speaking French as naturally as English. She said nothing memorable in either language. She was beautiful, that was all. And she was fresh. She came into that society of old London like a quiet country dawn.”

Seabury, in yet another leap back in time, then recalls her history and their meeting so many years ago. It is only after this that we return – almost – to the present, and he renews his acquaintance with her.

She is painted as a tragic figure – she had eventually parted from Longstreet and remarried the frenchman, de Courcy, who is later killed in the war. The war has further disturbed her equilibrium as it has left the world she knew greatly changed. Her traveling companion explains to Seabury at one point, “You see she thought, once the war was over, the world would be just as it used to be. Of course it isn’t.”

Just as the world has changed, so has she. She is no longer the young, beautiful exotic she once was. This is another adjustment she found difficult. Cather treats the reader to a couple great quotations. She says of Seabury:

“Plain women, he reflected, when they grow old are – simply plain women. Often they improve. But a beautiful woman may become a ruin.”

Then also notes- on Gabrielle’s not wearing make-up of any kind:

“Cheap counterfeits meant nothing to a woman who had had the real thing for so long.”

I’ll not reveal any “major” spoilers regarding the eventual fate of The Old Beauty and her reunion with her friend. I will say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and that it was a great vehicle by which to contemplate the transience of not just “beauty” but also the world that one grows comfortable in. One final quote below, which I think is representative of the mood and tone of this story:

“Perhaps the few very beautiful women he remembered in the past had been illusions, had benefited by a romantic tradition which played upon them like a kindly light… and by an attitude in men which no longer existed.”

Have you read this story by Willa Cather? What else of hers have you read? Where should I turn next among her works…?

(Below: The beautiful Aix-les-Bains on lake Bourget <picture from Wikipedia>)

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4 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    November 23, 2012 at 10:13 am

    I’ve read My Antonia, Death Comes to the Archbishop, and Shadow on the Rock. All great books. It’s been a while, though. I have a number of her short stories on my 2013 list. Which I will post soon.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      December 3, 2012 at 10:23 pm

      Hi Dale,
      I look forward to reading more by her. I was really impressed with ths one.
      -Jay

      Like

  2. Alex said,

    November 23, 2012 at 10:19 am

    This sound lovely and I really like stories (books or film) that start with an intriguing scene and then a “6 months before”-type of chronology. I’ve actually been to Aix-les-Bains, which makes the story even more interesting.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      December 3, 2012 at 10:22 pm

      Hi Alex,
      I’m sure you’d enjoy this one. I agree with you in that I often enjoy stories where the reader is led in a roundabout way to the “core” of the story. What Cather pulls off here is that I was left thinking that was the only – or maybe just the best – way to tell the story.
      -Jay

      Like


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