Willa Cather is an author I’ve heard a lot about but whose work I’ve never read until now. I should probably have started with her most famous book, My Antonia, but something drew me to this one, The Professor’s House.
The Professor of the title is Godfrey St Peter, a man in his fifties, around the same age as Willa Cather was when she wrote this novel. At the beginning of the book, St Peter and his wife are preparing to move into their new home. At the last minute the Professor decides that he doesn’t want to give up his old house just yet, so that he can continue to work in his old study and spend some time alone with his memories.
Most of the book revolves around St Peter reminiscing about his family and friends and coming to terms with the idea of leaving the past behind and embracing modern life. At the forefront of the Professor’s thoughts is his former student Tom Outland, who had once been engaged to his daughter Rosamond. On his death in the First World War, Outland left everything he had to Rosamond – and this inheritance is causing trouble for the St Peter family.
If you prefer books with a gripping plot and lots of action you’ll want to avoid this one, as it was one of the slowest moving books I’ve ever read. I have to admit there were a few times during the first few chapters that I came close to abandoning it, but I kept reading because it was so well written. I would describe this as a calm, quiet, reflective book; one with such powerful, eloquent writing and beautiful imagery that it doesn’t really matter that not much actually happens.
The book is divided into three sections; the first and third are essentially character studies of the Professor and his family, particular his two daughters Rosamond and Kathleen and their husbands. The middle section is very different in both style and subject, as it tells in a flashback the story of Tom Outland’s life in New Mexico before he met the St Peter family. This story-within-a-story was fascinating but did feel slightly out of place, almost as if it had just been dropped at random into the middle of an entirely different book.
One of the things that stood out about Cather’s writing for me was the use of colour in her descriptions.
The grey sage-brush and the blue-grey rock around me were already in shadow, but high above me the canyon walls were dyed flame-coloured with the sunset, and the Cliff City lay in a gold haze against its dark cavern. In a few minutes, it too was grey and only the rim-rock at the top held the red light. When that was gone, I could still see the copper glow in the piñons along the edge of the top ledges. The arc of sky over the canyon was silvery blue, with its pale yellow moon, and presently stars shivered into it, like crystals dropped into perfectly clear water.
The Professor’s House is possibly a book I would appreciate more if I read it again when I’m older, as I found it difficult to identify with a fifty-two year old man looking back on his life. This was my first experience of Willa Cather and although I don’t think she’s going to be a favourite author, I will probably read more of her work at some point in the future.