Response to “A Wagner Matinée. The Willa Cather Short Story Project

A reader response to "A Wagner Matinée" by Willa Cather

This story reminded me of A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich. In both stories a woman of culture and talent marries and moves to the Nebraska territory where her life becomes an endless drudge of mind-numbing and back-breaking housework, child rearing, and farm chores. At least that is how it looks from the outside.

Chances are you’ve probably never heard of Bess Streeter Aldrich, but she was one of the most highly paid writers of her day. A Lantern in Her Hand was based on hundreds of hours of research based on the lived experiences of pioneer women. It’s a tribute to the women who helped create the state of Nebraska. Today, if it is read, it’s often considered a YA novel or domestic fiction, which is a shame only in that such categories limit readership. It’s a fine piece of historical fiction.

In the case of Aldrich’s 1928 novel, protagonist Abbie Deal always plans to eventually get back to her artistic outlets. Aunt Georgiana, the center of the narrator’s focus in “A Wagner Matinée,” is presented to us only through her nephew’s eyes. We don’t really know what she thinks or wants. And I don’t think her nephew, Clark, the narrator “gets her” or really even “sees” her. He also doesn’t seem to have much perspective on himself at this point in his life.

A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

While the last sentence of the first paragraph is technically about his uncle not sending the letter promptly, Clark says, “I must have missed my aunt altogether,” which is an odd way of speaking about a future possibility in the past that didn’t happen. This is the full sentence: “He had characteristically delayed writing until, had I been away from home for a day, I must have missed my aunt altogether.” It’s an odd way of putting it and upon a second reading it glared out at me like the big red flag that it is. He has missed her in a variety of ways.

And not only does Clark not really see his aunt beyond surface level indicators (which he might be misreading), when he notices that Aunt Georgie’s fingers seem to be tapping out the piano score as they sit and listen to the music, he actually physically restrains her. Here’s the scene:

“Poor hands! They had been stretched and twisted into mere tentacles to hold and lift and knead with; –on one of them a thin, worn band that had once been a wedding ring.” I was all in with Clark’s version of his aunt until that comment about her band having “once been a wedding ring.” What kind of judgement is that? Now he’s judging the state of her marriage as well? It made me question all the other things I’d accepted in the story prior to this point. I wanted to reread the story before I even finished it!

Clark goes on, “As I pressed and gently quieted one of those groping hands, I remembered with quivering eyelids their services for me in other days.” He actually silences his aunt’s expression. He physically stops her pleasure and instead focuses on what she has done for him in the past. Clark makes Georgiana sit still the way he prefers so he can continue on with the story he’s telling himself about her. Considering that just several paragraphs before he was moved by how this concert, “broke a silence of thirty years” for her, it’s rather remarkable and telling that he then quiets her.

The structure of “A Wagner Matinée,” published in 1904, also reminds me a bit of My Antonia (published in 1918). They both feature a male narrator telling the story of a woman’s life. Making judgements. Making assumptions. Making her life conform to how he wants to see her.

It’s also fascinating that the other woman in the story, Mrs. Springer, the landlady, sees beyond Georgiana’s dirty travel clothes to the deep exhaustion and overwhelm of her tenant’s guest. Clark reveres his aunt, that is abundantly clear — he equates her to heroic adventurers — and says that he “owed to this woman most of the good that ever came” his way, but it’s impossible to see the real person when they’re put on a pedestal or reduced to stereotypes. Clark is a self-centered romantic who can’t be present with his aunt in a personal way. He’s an observer watching a sublime scene unfold before his eyes, a scene that he can’t interpret beyond the storyline that’s already in his mind. What a rich short story this is.

I recently finished rereading The Professor’s House for the Willa Cather Book Club which is a story about a middle-aged man reflecting on his current life circumstances and his past, as well as the past of a young man he loves. It made me wonder how different “A Wagner Matinée” would be if Clark were telling it as a middle-aged man. How would his understanding of his aunt change? Or maybe it wouldn’t. So much fun to ponder.


  1. Isn’t it funny how the classification of literature changes over time? Domestic fiction has seen a resurgence in academic studies and research recently which can only further add to the depth of the discussion.

    • For sure. In academic settings. But I don’t think that classification is helping general readers find such books. We were talking about intersectional feminism back in the early 1990s in grad school and it is only in recent years that the concept is being acknowledged and discussed more widely (on Twitter, anyway). I wish more academics would or could write for popular audiences to get important ideas and concepts into the public sphere, but they’re usually focused on the priority of getting tenure and publishing in the “right” places I suppose. I’m not blaming academics who are doing the work, just the system and these walls that go up around categories.

  2. This is a gem of a short story! On a second reading I felt myself getting really annoyed with Clark. I agree, his reaction to his aunt seems so dismissive of the life she’s led. He really doesn’t know what her life experiences have been during those years, beyond his own memories. Yes, it would be interesting to know if his attitudes and thoughts would have been different as a middle-aged man looking back. The story made me think about the life of my own grandmother. She was a Missouri farm wife in the 1930-50s who cooked three meals a day like Aunt Georgiana, raised and outlived several children, and became a widow at the young age of 42. She would never talk about the past so her life during those years always remained a mystery to me.

    Thank you for mentioning A Lantern in Her Hand. My mom loves historical fiction so I ordered her a copy to read. And then she can pass it on to me!

    • It is a gem! I am always amazed at the depth of feeling and experience Cather can create with so few words.

      Thanks for sharing a bit about your grandmother’s life. What tough women those farms wives were (and probably still are). I can’t image such a life for myself, but I do love reading their stories.

      I can’t wait to hear what your mom and then you think about A Lantern In Her Hand. Aldrich wrote at least a dozen novels, so if you both like this one, there’s more to be had.

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