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.
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 …