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The Ideal Husband

The Lost Girl

by D.H. Lawrence, with an introduction by Lee Siegel and notes by Keith Cushman
Modern Library, 368 pp., $13.95 (paper)

1.

D.H. Lawrence is often thought of as a novelist of sex when really his great subject was marriage. We tend to forget that Lady Chatterley’s lover was also her second-husband-to-be. Yet marriage was Lawrence’s religion as sex was merely his sacrament. “There’s very little else, on earth, but marriage,” said Tom Brangwen in The Rainbow, drunk at his daughter’s wedding. Lawrence was intoxicated for most of his life with a similar apprehension. Marriage unites two people; it also proves that no such thing is possible. And so marriage was for Lawrence not so much the symbol as the very type of his thought and experience: he insisted with an indivisible passion on both the inviolability of human individuality and one’s need for others. And having pledged himself as a young man to this contradiction, he lived with it until he died.

Lawrence was a sexual rebel in his explicitness about fucking (ultimately his preferred term). But he believed that marriage was the rightful place for sex and love, and that marriage should be monogamous. His wife, Frieda, disagreed and sometimes acted accordingly. Across three continents and in half-a-dozen countries, the couple were as durable as they were quarrelsome. Lawrence’s “life work,” he discovered in 1913—the first full year of his marriage and the year in which he began and then set aside The Lost Girl—would be “sticking up for the love between man and woman…. I shall always be a priest of love.” But the liturgy would change. Committed to the theme of matrimonial love, Lawrence was also, being a novelist, a kind of serial monogamist: every few years he came up with a new solution to “the problem of today, the establishment of a new relation, or the re-adjustment of the old one, between men and women.”

The Modern Library has recently reissued The Lost Girl, the novel with which Lawrence followed the amazing sequence of Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), and Women in Love (1920). Allegedly comic, truly harrowing, and finally exultant, The Lost Girl is a remarkable if uneven book; it deserves to be restored to us. It is also, for Lawrence, an unusually straightforward novel of courtship. Cheekily he places most of the action in a Midlands mining town called Woodhouse, the same as the heroine’s surname in Jane Austen’s Emma. The animating questions of The Lost Girl are those of any Austen novel: Who will our heroine marry? Should we give the couple our blessing? Behind these questions lies one Lawrence asked throughout his life: What is marriage for? The interest of The Lost Girl has to do with Lawrence’s combination of a dark, almost savage answer with—as in Jane Austen—a happy ending.

2.

Alvina Houghton when we meet her is nothing so much as the illustration of a problem for sociologists, the preponderance of “unmarried, unmarriageable women, called old maids,” among the Edwardian middle class:

Do the middle-classes…give birth to more girls than boys? Or do the lower middle-class men assiduously climb up or down, in marriage, thus leaving their true partners stranded? Or are middle-class women very squeamish in their choice of husbands?

However it be, it is a tragedy. Or perhaps it is not.

Whether Alvina’s particular fate should be seen as a tragedy emerges only at the end. Her squeamishness, however, is soon accounted for.

Alvina is no romantic. Her widowed father is the one given to infatuations. The victim of “a romantic-commercial nature,” James Houghton has expended his life and capital on a series of failed money-making ventures: a clothing factory, a private colliery, a variety theater. The renewal of his commercial hopes is as reliable, year after year, as their disappointment. Not only do Mr. Houghton’s entrepreneurial follies leave Alvina without a dowry, they reinforce her native skepticism and aloofness: “Even as a small girl she had that odd ironic tilt of the eyelids…as if she were hanging back in mockery.”

Alvina’s impertinent disposition—in a novel that pays much attention to eyes, her gaze is frequently called “sardonic”—makes her a much pickier woman than she is in any position to be. Lawrence is maliciously eloquent on Alvina’s very few reasonable prospects. One of them, a doctor with plenty of money, is a “great, red-faced bachelor of fifty-three, with his bald spot and his stomach as weak as a baby’s, and his mouthing imperiousness and his good heart which was as selfish as it could be.” Another suitor has gone to Oxford, speaks well, and is coming up in the world. He is, however, “tall and thin and brittle, with a pale, rather dry, flattish face, and with curious pale eyes. His impression was one of uncanny flatness, something like a lemon sole.” Alvina imagines she could almost stand to bear his “half cold-blooded children, like little fishes of her own.” But she finds him “curious and dishuman.”

It seems a person is dishuman, in Lawrence’s term, when he or she is not enough an animal, not sufficiently compelled by appetite and instinct. Alvina’s humanity consists of her frustrated animality. There may be perfectly sound reasons why she should accept one or another man—the threat of poverty chief among them—but no man has so far appealed to her on a creaturely basis. Of course Alvina does not think of herself as an animal for whom a respectable marriage would provide no suitable habitat. She merely regards her neighbors sardonically and bides her time.

Before long Alvina, unmarried and increasingly unmarriageable, has reached thirty years. She performs as the accompanist on the piano for her father’s variety theater and has become the constant companion of Mr. May, the garrulous, effeminate, rather asexual theater manager, to whom she is “a pure sister who really hadn’t any body.” Then a young Italian named Ciccio Califano arrives in Woodhouse as part of a troupe of Continental actors collectively portraying an American Indian tribe. (As Lee Siegel comments in his introduction, “The Natcha-Kee-Tawara are Lawrence’s delightful satire on his own exaltation of the American Indian’s primal powers, as well as his stubborn insistence on the American Indian’s primal powers.”1 ) As so often, Lawrence excels at the flushed confusion of a first sexual response: Ciccio’s “yellow, dusky-set eyes rested on her good-naturedly, without seeing her, his lip curled in a self-conscious, contemptuous sort of smile.”

Alvina has been unable to decide whom to marry because she can’t accept marriage as an object of rational decision. Now the crucial verb “to decide” takes her as its object:

She had a moment of sheer panic. Was he just stupid and bestial? The thought went clean through her. His yellow eyes watched her sardonically. It was the clean modelling of his dark, other-world face that decided her—for it sent the deep spasm across her.

The result of this spasm is no more than for her to spontaneously invite the stranger to dinner. But Alvina will marry him with as little forethought, submitting to “a nonchalance deep as sleep, a passivity and indifference so dark and sweet she felt it must be evil.” So it is that Alvina (with little money and less Italian) and Ciccio (who has quit the theater company and speaks English stiffly and with reluctance) elope together and book passage to the Continent. She has been struck by his kindness and swayed by his male beauty, and has hardly talked with him at all. “What was your mother’s name?” husband asks wife, applying for her visa at the Italian consulate.

3.

There is an astonishing recklessness to the marriages in story after story and novel after novel by Lawrence, and in his own life. Frieda paraphrased Lawrence’s offer to her like this: “Either you make your mind to leave [your husband] and everything you have been accustomed to and give him the right and freedom to divorce you, and marry me, or you will never see me again.” The courtships in the fiction are equally impulsive. They are flashes of a bodily intelligence, a helpless intuitive decisiveness that Lawrence believed might someday characterize our relationship to life as a whole—a transformation he wanted not only for himself but for the English people, at least until he gave up on them. In Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence called the agent of this human renovation by the name “IT”:

We are not the marvellous choosers and deciders we think we are. IT chooses for us…. If we are living people, in touch with the source, IT drives us and decides us. We are free only so long as we obey.

Love and marriage were the last preserve of IT (in German the word is id), and sexual love the way to a renewed experience of the self, society, and the birds, beasts, and flowers.

Lawrence puts so much faith in the infallibility of instinct that he tends to write as if there were no such thing as divorce—almost as if his wife had never been married to anyone else and never would be. Of course this wasn’t the case: Frieda Weekley, née von Richthofen, left her first husband in order to elope with Lawrence, and before he died, in 1930, she had started sleeping with the man whom she would take as her third husband. Yet in The Lost Girl Lawrence treats marriage with his customary absoluteness; Alvina’s fate is, throughout, a synonym for her “husband.” And as everyone knows you don’t get more than one fate—not unless you are a fictional character moving from one draft to the next.

For here is the curious fact about The Lost Girl, which Lawrence began and dropped in 1913 and only resumed and completed in 1920: the outline of the story remained the same over seven years, while the husband Lawrence selected for his heroine changed entirely. The 1913 draft, called “The Insurrection of Miss Houghton,” has been lost. All that survives is Lawrence’s correspondence on the subject and a fragment of twenty pages.2 These are enough, however, to reveal that the girl he wrote about before the war was substantially the same as the Alvina Houghton of The Lost Girl, her father an ingenious ne’er-do-well, her lack of any fortune pressing her to marry above her sinking station. And in 1913 as in 1920 Alvina defected from her class and married “beneath” her. The difference lies in the bridegroom: in 1913 a blue-eyed English workingman whose humorous insolence toward his shabby genteel parents amused her, in 1920 the feral and taciturn, if good-natured, Italian we have met.

Alvina’s marriage is thus in a sense a remarriage. And the changes in her husband’s nationality and coloring are not only that: a glance at Lawrence’s life and work between 1913 and 1920 suggests that these traits have become symbolic, indicating the substitution of one conception of matrimony for another. Indeed the change, across drafts, from one fictional husband to the next is bound up in Lawrence’s repudiation of romantic idealism, of England, of the importance of conversation in love, and finally of love itself—all the while that he affirms the necessity of marriage.

  1. 1

    In spite of some valuable observations such as this, Siegel’s introduction is not a reliable guide to The Lost Girl. He refers to this fifth novel of Lawrence’s, written after The Rainbow and Women in Love, as “Lawrence’s third novel,…written between The Rainbow and Women in Love.” Moreover, Siegel’s main contention is that the novel illustrates Lawrence’s “belief in the power of imagination to change a person’s life.” In fact it is Alvina’s father—”Perhaps he had too much imagination,” Lawrence writes—who is the imaginative one. What changes Alvina’s life is marriage of a kind she has never imagined, to a man of a kind she has never imagined.

  2. 2

    The fragment is published in The Lost Girl, edited by John Worthen (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

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