“Eleanor’s House” by Willa Cather • Response Post #WCSSP2023

Eleanor's House by Willa Cather

Two weeks ago, in the reminder post for this month’s story, I speculated about “Eleanor’s House” (1907) being a precursor to Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca (1938). If you’ve had a chance to read this month’s story, what do you think of that idea?

“Eleanor’s House” is about Harold and his second wife Ethel. His first wife, Eleanor, died after ten amazing years of marriage spent jet-setting around the world (before there were jets). They’re independently wealthy. Eleanor had brought out the best in Harold. She was one of those women who “happened to be born tempered and poised.” She died after a sudden three-day illness.

While still in the midst of immediate grief, Harold marries Ethel, who is much younger and apparently has none of Eleanor’s refinement or confidence. It kind of sounds like the setup for Rebecca, doesn’t it? Harold and Ethel have been married for a couple of years but have not returned to the home where Eleanor died. Harold keeps stalling.

Eleanor’s best friend plays a role in the story. Harriet Westfield is very much like her dear dead friend. Wealthy, confident, convent-educated, and a woman of the upper crust. Ethel, on the other hand, comes from a different part of bread’s anatomy. She’s more like the warm soft center of a freshly baked but slightly underdone loaf. Harriet has no patience for her: “She found that she couldn’t help resenting Ethel’s singular inadeptness at keeping herself in hand.” That sentence is also evidence in support of Mildred R. Bennett’s assessment that in “Eleanor’s House,” Cather “bows too humbly at the shrine of Henry James.”

Drawing by F. Walter Taylor” ELEANOR’S HOUSE,” PAGE 630
From the Willa Cather Archive

In the end, though, Ethel is the one who understands her husband. She suspects he has not gone off on a business trip and is instead hanging out at his and Eleanor’s old home, basking in his grief. Ethel was right and both Harold and Harriet are stunned — Harold at getting caught and Harriet at Ethel knowing the truth.

Everyone seemed to think that Harold’s and Ethel’s marriage was a mistake. People thought that,

He married her to talk to her about Eleanor. Eleanor had been the theme of their courtship. The rest of the world went on attending to its own business and shaking him off, and she stopped and sympathized and let him pour himself out.

What nobody counted on was that Ethel didn’t just want to console Harold, she also wanted to try to help him heal. And she does. She helps him “snap out of it” and begin to turn toward life again and not the past.

Harriet says at one point about Harold and Eleanor that, “They had all there is — except children. I suppose they were selfish. As Eleanor once said to me, they needed only eternity and each other.” I don’t think the decision not to have children is selfish. And we don’t know if it was their decision or if they tried and couldn’t get pregnant. No one knows what goes on inside a relationship. And Harriet proves to be more of a surface thinker than someone who goes deep into the emotional realm, so she’s a bit of an unreliable reporter.

Ethel proves to be the deeper thinker with stronger emotional intelligence. Near the end of the story, it is revealed that Ethel is pregnant. She told no one until after the climactic scene that helped Harold have a breakthrough.

In the end, after Harold announces they’re going back to Surrey and then to America after the child is born, Harriet says to her husband, “if only Eleanor had left him children all this wouldn’t have been.” That statement annoyed me when I first read the story. It seems shallow and like magical thinking. It’s also as if Harriet is saying that Ethel’s pregnancy is what caused the shift in Harold and not Ethel’s love and that she fought for her husband. If anything, the pregnancy seems more like a good omen for the future.

Looking back, I suppose this story is more about Harriet than I initially thought. When she last sees Harold, he is calm but Harriet is “worn and troubled.” She’s going to purchase Eleanor’s house and keep it exactly as it is. She says, “It will be pleasant to grow old there in that atmosphere of lovely things past and forgotten.” She’s totally like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca who wanted to preserve Rebecca’s memory, protocols, and presence in the house.

Critics have written about how Cather looked to the past as being more appealing than the present or future. Her stories and essays are full of sentiments that lament the loss of important things from the past and how the present and future are debased in comparison. But in this story, it is the future that looks more appealing. Harriet will entomb herself in the past of Eleanor’s house while Harold, Ethel, and baby sale off to America, the land of fresh starts and opportunity. This surprised me for a story that had a stuffy drawing-room vibe.

What do you think about this story? How about the Rebecca speculation? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we read one Cather short story a month. I remind everyone of what story we’re reading on the second Wednesday of the month and then share a response on the fourth Wednesday of the month. Jump in anytime!

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