Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Both Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” and “The Wagner Matinee” tell the story of a poor person with an artistic soul, and the way poverty denies that person’s sensibility the nutrients it needs to bloom. “The Garden Lodge” would seem to tell a far different tale, one about a practical woman of affluent means. But we are not long into the story before we find that the same theme is represented here as well.
Caroline Noble, the story’s protagonist, lives with her wealthy husband Howard in a lovely home by the sea. But she has not always been wealthy; on the contrary, we learn that she grew up the daughter of a impoverished and impractical composer, whose works were never performed because they were completely incomprehensible to the average music-lover. Caroline’s brother Heinrich, an illustrator with much the same disposition as his father, committed suicide as a young man because he was “too indolent and vacillating to set himself seriously to his art, too irascible and poignantly self-conscious to make a living, too much addicted to lying late in bed, to the incontinent reading of poetry, and to the use of chloral to be anything very positive except painful.” Caroline’s mother died shortly thereafter from shock, and Caroline seized the household in her practical, competent hands. She supported herself and her father by giving piano lessons; for the first time in the family’s existence, the bills were paid on time, and Caroline began to get ahead in the world. When the opportunity arose to marry a very successful older man, Caroline jumped at it. She was determined never to be poor again.
But one summer, her husband invited a young musician to stay in their guest house before travelling to Europe, and Caroline becomes immersed in the atmosphere of her childhood: the magic of music, rather than the materialism of it. She accompanies Raymond d’Esquerre on the piano as he sings, and the music transports her into another realm. After Raymond leaves for Europe, she continues to visit the empty guest house, in part to recapture the feelings she shared with him there.
The story’s crisis is precipitated when Caroline’s husband Howard innocently mentions he’s thinking of tearing down the guest house and putting up a larger building where she could serve tea to her guests in the summer. An unexpected pang strikes Caroline’s heart, and she says she’s not sure. Howard teases her: “Are you going to be sentimental about it? Why, I’d sacrifice the whole place to see that come to pass. But I don’t believe you could do it for an hour together.”
That night, she goes down to the guest house in the moonlight, lost in reverie. She remembers Raymond, yes, but she remembers something more: the awakening of the passion for music she felt there, that seemed to possess her whole body and soul. Playing the last piece she and Raymond practiced there, she “felt that she ought to go; that it was wrong to stay; that the hour and the place were as treacherous as her own reflections.” She eventually bursts into tears at the keyboard, just as a storm lets loose in the garden outside.
Caroline falls asleep on the couch in the garden lodge, and wakes up mysteriously disarrayed, her nightgown open, her feet bare and cold. She has had the distinct impression that something which was very present in her dreams has been ripped from her in the cold morning light. It is something she cannot bear to allow to re-enter her life. When, at breakfast, her husband asks her again whether he ought to tear down the garden lodge, she tells him to go ahead. As strongly as she feels the seductive pull of music, it is too closely identified in her mind with poverty—and if she has to sacrifice one or the other, there is no question in her mind which one it will have to be.
This story can be found in the collection The Troll Garden.
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