A Night at Greenway Court • Response Post • WCSSP

Cather in Virginia c. 1881 (source); Seal County of Fairfax, VA (source), Lord Fairfax coat of arms (source)

Did you have a chance to read “A Night at Greenway Court” this month? If not, well, you didn’t miss much. As txfen commented on the reminder post, “this story seemed bloodless for me…a cast of cardboard characters and a plot woven with worn yarn.”

Agreed.

“A Night at Greenway Court” is a piece of historical fiction based around Lord Fairfax who lived in the area of/owned northern Virginia where Cather would be born and spend the first nine years of her life a century later. Fairfax died in 1781, Cather was born in 1873. Fairfax County still uses Fairfax’s coat of arms on their official seal.

Structure

In this story Cather uses a structure that she’ll go on to use in future stories — a narrator sharing recollections about someone from their past. The structure follows this pattern: there’s the set up, the story, a gap in time, then the wrap up. Two of her early novels use this structure, Alexander’s Bridge (1912) and My Antonia (1918). Can you think of more?

The structure of the story caught my eye, but the story itself almost made me close my eyes in sleep. I read a bit about Lord Fairfax and apparently one of the reasons he stayed in Virginia was that he’d been jilted by a woman back in England. If you’ve read the story, you can see what Cather did with this idea.

From the Wikipedia page on him, Fairfax’s wealth rested on his enslavement of others. He was also an active slave trader and sex trafficker. An enthusiastic reader could potentially dig into some of the historic details and nationalistic attitudes represented in this story (both 18th and 19th century). That is not me. At least not today.

A Virginian, The Virginian

The final line of this story is, “So my day of royal favor was a short one, nor was I sorry, for I had kept my friend’s secret and shielded a fair lady’s honor, which are the two first duties of a Virginian.”

I thought this Virginian sentiment might be riffing on the popularity of Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian, but I checked the publication date and that novel was published in 1902, seven years after “A Night at Greenway Court” was printed. Wister’s novel, full title: The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, is credited with kicking off the cowboy craze that would make the careers of writers like Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Max Brand, which morphed into hundreds of films and TV shows throughout the 20th century.

The chivalrous note at the end of this story connects American colonists to their European origins and eventually helped create the myth of the chivalrous cowboy, protector of women and children and righter of wrongs.

Can you tell I’m stalling? Alas, I don’t have much to say about “A Night at Greenway Court.”

What do you think?

What do you think of “A Night at Greenway Court”? Share your thoughts about the story in the comments below. If you haven’t yet read the story, you can read it here on the Willa Cather Archive.


New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Jump in anytime!



Categories: Willa Cather

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1 reply

  1. There’s an echo from Thackeray’s Henry Esmond and its sequel The Virginians, but I haven’t read The Virginians yet although it is on my shelves. I also felt a bit of a reminder of Cather’s novel of Old New France, Shadows on the Rock.

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