“The Garden Lodge” is the second story we’re reading in the Willa Cather Short Story Project.
Last month’s story, “Flavia and Her Artists,” was about a woman of means who collects artists but has no artistic talent of her own and even resorts to parroting other’s opinions about art.
“The Garden Lodge” is in a similar vein. Caroline Noble is a woman of means who has hosted a world-renowned opera singer for a month as he prepares for the new season. But unlike Flavia, Caroline does have artistic talent. She accompanies the opera singer on piano and has created a beautiful garden, but these are both somewhat practical in her mind. And whereas Flavia seems to be rather clueless about what people think of her, Caroline is well aware that people think of her as a practical person who gets things done. I think that’s where the similarities end.
A noticeable difference is that Flavia’s husband doesn’t want to see his wife change, whereas Caroline’s husband had hoped that she would surprise him and make an uncharacteristically sentimental decision about the garden lodge. But it was not to be. After Caroline’s night of unbridled passion with herself in the garden lodge, she decides it has to go.
What is Cather saying about artists and art in these two stories?
In both stories, artists are non-desirables. They don’t take care of themselves or their responsibilities. The artists in “Flavia” are parasites. The “best” artist in that story eventually speaks his mind, but he does so in a cowardly fashion by submitting his opinion in a newspaper piece and leaving before his target has a chance to read and respond.
In “The Garden Lodge” Caroline’s artist father and brother have a certain level of talent but are unable to harness it, either from delusions of grandeur or slothfulness. Caroline’s mother is an art lover and dies as a result of her heartbreak over her son’s suicide coming as it does after years of financial hardship. Art is a dangerous thing. It leads to poverty, addiction, and death. It’s understandable why Caroline would react against such an existence and steel her will to get out of poverty. But then she seems to go to the opposite extreme with her practicality and reason.
Was anyone else hoping Caroline’s “awakening” in the garden lodge would help her embrace artistic expression and passion for herself? That maybe she’d see it doesn’t have to be one extreme or the other?
Or is Cather commenting more on a certain type of woman, the Flavias and Carolines of the world? Those who are wealthy enough to have the luxury of making fools of themselves or those who are too frightened to let themselves be swept along by art and so create controlled gardens or only play supporting roles? Class, as well as gender issues, are also interestingly entwined in these stories.
I’m so curious to hear what you think of “The Garden Lodge,” especially after just reading “Flavia and Her Artists.” Let’s talk in the comments below.