In 1936 Willa Cather published an essay in which she described the Grand-Hôtel d’Aix as “not at all smart, but very comfortable.” Anyone looking for “noise and jazz and dancing” could look to the newer hotels of Aix-les-Bains – Cather preferred “large rooms and large baths and quiet.” She might as well have been suggesting something about how she viewed herself – a woman of a certain age, a woman writer belonging to a literary world then well nigh past.
How do you continue to claim importance as a writer? How do you explain an inexplicable tendency on the part of current critics to relegate you to the minor leagues? How do you continue to want to write when you do not see the readers emerging whom you consider your equal?
Maybe you do what Willa Cather did in “A Chance Meeting.” You recount a meeting with a fellow hotel guest whom you began by subtly dismissing as “an old lady, a Frenchwoman, who usually lunched and dined alone.” You might have avoided conversation with her because your own linguistic talents are meager, and then one day you discovered she speaks English perfectly well. Your exchanges were courteous; her suggestions of things to do and ways to do them, nevertheless, did not always convince you to change your own plans.
The day came in the very hot summer of 1930 when Willa Cather discovered that for several days she had been unwittingly conversing with the niece of monumental French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Cather had actually been familiar with a published collection of Flaubert’s letters to his niece Caroline, and here was Caroline – "Caro" as she used to be addressed regularly by her uncle.
In the conversations that followed between the two hotel guests, the elderly Caroline revealed herself as the same astute reader and commentator on her uncle’s works that she had been in her earlier years. She knew her uncle’s works – really knew them and the characters in them. She maintained her opinions of what had been the successes and what the relative failures in Flaubert’s portraits of the men and women of his day. The towering achievement of Madame Bovary did not make it her favorite work by her uncle.
This close confidante of Gustave Flaubert might not have expected in her later years to find except by accident anyone willing to note her opinions much less agree with them. The authority that normally comes from long acquaintance and intelligence and personal experience did not automatically command respect. Like anyone else older and somewhat infirm in appearance, Caro might be overlooked, passed over, niece though she was. It would take a special reader like Willa Cather herself to admit her own slowness in taking the proper measure of this woman.
It would also take a special reader, Cather might have been suggesting, to take the proper measure of a writer like herself. Is it inevitable that a woman of a certain age, especially a woman writer of a certain age, become more and more invisible? How does she continue to want to write when she does not see the readers emerging whom she considers her equal?
The answer? She writes. She writes for herself. With luck she and what she writes become “not at all smart, but very comfortable.”
A worthy goal for any writer.