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“The Old Beauty” Response. The Willa Cather Short Story Project

I read this story over the weekend at our old house, which is for sale. We have a buyer and a closing scheduled for May, knock on wood. I check on the house regularly and now that its getting warmer, I’ve been spending a little extra time there enjoying some solitude.

The back yard is narrow, but long, perfect for walking and reading particularly these days when I don’t want to bump into unmasked strangers in the street.

Reading "The Old Beauty" on chriswolak.com

An interesting parallel, to read a story about loss while enjoying a home and yard that will soon no longer be mine. But what kind of loss is “The Old Beauty” really about? Or is it really about gaining something?

For those of you who haven’t read the story, it is told through the perspective of an American business man in his 50s who has been working in China for thirty years. Mr. Henry Seabury is excited to be back in the West and while in Paris becomes intrigued by two women he sees in the hotel restaurant. The older one turns out to be a past acquaintance, Madame de Couçy, and the other is her companion, a Mrs. Allison.

Madame de Couçy seems to have a deep sense of loss for the old, pre-World War I way of life that a certain class of people enjoyed. In her younger years she was considered a great beauty, but is now much changed. We are told she is one who though the world would be just as it used to be after the war was over but, of course, it would never be the same.

But more than that, when she lost her beauty, she seems to have lost her identity. For others, she represented beauty with a capital B and during her prime was surrounded by old men and younger men. Not men of her own age, which is telling. “She was beautiful, that was all.” Presumably, men of her own age didn’t have time to spend on beauty for beauty’s sake.

For others, particularly for de Couçy’s companion Mrs. Allison, life has continued to be interesting as she ages. She rolls with the changes in the world due to, in part, enjoying her nieces and nephews who joyfully embrace things like romping at the beach naked (that is, showing their arms and legs which de Couçy thinks indecent). To them it is no degradation of the past, it is simply living in the present.

Cather also pegs a certain type of American behavior:

“Yes, I am afraid you must blame us for that. Americans, even those whom you call the decent ones, do ask people to their houses who shouldn’t be there. They are often asked because they are outrageous,—and therefore considered amusing.”

Ring any bells?

The lines are in reference to a successful banker, a man who was useful to the movers and shakers back in the 1890s because he financially supports their causes. Like Madame de Couçy, he had been invited into all the best homes. Yet when the opportunity presents itself, he reveals himself a rapist.

Madame de Couçy places herself on the level of this banker-rapist, as one of the notorious types invited into people’s homes. “A divorcée, known to have more friends among men than among women at home?” She, too, was useful to them as a risqué entertainment. This doesn’t seem the reflection of a woman who is simply lamenting the passing of the good old days.

Her first husband was a wealthy man who traveled the globe on his yacht. Instead of showing her the world, he tried to lock her away in the countryside. He was an adventurer who couldn’t handle being overshadowed by the attention given to his beautiful wife. They divorced. He wasn’t a gentleman and if there was also a rapist back in her glory days, is this story really about longing for the past?

Willa Cather 1890-91
Cather in 1890-91 when she was 16 [source]. Mrs. Allison is a former burlesque performer whose stage name was Cherry Beamish. Much like Cather herself, Allison played the boy parts with Eaton jacket and cropped hair.

At first reading, the contrasts between the old and new are what stick out in this story, but upon reflection there does seem to be more grey. “There are not many shades in your society,” de Couçy says to Seabury about America. But throughout the story, she proves herself to be the one who doesn’t see shades.

The story reveals joyful and unpleasant aspects of both the 1890s and the 1920s. What seems to be the primary emotional driver of this narrative is not nostalgia or longing for the past, per se, but a wish that one could know in their 20s or 30s what one comes to understand in their middle-aged or twilight years. It also seems a warning for beautiful women to have some substance beyond their looks, particularly in their relationships.

Do you think “The Old Beauty” is a lamentation on the loss of beauty for beauty’s sake or art for art’s sake or something deeper? Why do you think Cather chose not to publish this story?

I’d love to hear what you think!

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Categories: Willa Cather

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2 replies

  1. Hi Chris,
    I have been wanting to jump into your short story “club” for most of the year – CoV-2 has give me that time! 🙂

    It is my first reading of The Old Beauty. I find two primary themes – one of a “fall from beauty” and the second, “duel identities.” Certainly, the younger and older selves are present amidst the hiding behind the name changes, but also the life and death context is played out more than once in the story.

    My two favorite lines:
    “Nobody ever recognizes a period until it has gone by…”. (right before part VII)
    “But, Gabrielle, why recall such a disagreeable incident when you have so many agreeable ones to remember?” (in part IX)

    To answer your queries, Willa has nothing but disdain for “beauty” in this story, and I can’t help but think her own ageing has everything to do with the literal transmission of that sentiment. I would think she knew the story would be interpreted as such and decide it wasn’t worth the critique. She also, though, challenges us to question the value of beauty in the social context, and therefore, personally.

    One more comment is that the ending left me unsatisfied, which is rare for a Cather story. I adore her work. Could that be another reason for her holding this one?

    Thanks for the push to read and the opportunity to share my thoughts.
    Jacqie

    • Hi Jacqui,

      I’m so happy you’re reading Cather and appreciate your sharing thoughts here!

      The theme of dual identity is fascinating. I didn’t pick up on that while reading but now can’t “unsee” it. Mrs. Allison/Cherry Beamish (what a name!) fascinates me the most in this regard, perhaps because she’s still a vibrant person in this story.

      One of my favorite things about discussing literature is how people can read the same story and come away with different takes on it. I thought Cather had compassion for beauty. It seemed she was exploring how it changes in the eye of the beholder and over time. In this regard, Cherry or Chetty, as Seabury also calls her, seems to be much more open and flexible. Madame de Couçy, on the other hand, seems to have dried up like the old fashioned notion of beauty that she represented.

      Now I feel the need to re-read the story. Thanks for helping me see it from different angles.

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