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 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.
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.
At first The Lost Girl was meant to follow Sons and Lovers, which in 1913 Lawrence had just seen published. In a letter to his friend Edward Garnett he had described the autobiographical novel as a “tragedy…the tragedy of thousands of young men in England.” Paul Morel’s soul belongs to his mother—his first, spiritual, lover—while his body is sometimes satisfied by a handsome older woman named Clara. Miriam, the other woman vying for his love, longs for a kind of intellectual or spiritual union—“She wants to absorb him,” according to his mother—but is not sexually available. So do Paul Morel and his girlfriends suffer alike from the familiar “split,” as Lawrence called it, between body and soul, between the actual and the ideal.
But if Lawrence was divided in himself, he was hardly conquered. Frieda presented herself to his imagination as a whole woman, both physically and spiritually alive, with whom he might be a whole man. A sort of intellectual, full of half-digested psychoanalytic theories, Frieda was also a robustly sexual creature, willing to have an affair with Lawrence (her first husband’s former student) and then to run away with him. Grateful to have found and won her, Lawrence vowed “to do a novel about Love Triumphant.”
The Lost Girl was conceived as such a book. Traveling with Frieda in Italy before the war, Lawrence read Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns, in which the author wistfully congratulates his heroine for choosing duty over passion and remaining in an unsatisfying marriage. No doubt in part because Frieda had just abandoned her own husband and two young children, this made Lawrence angry—just as angry as Thomas Hardy made him when his heroines chose passion and paid with their ruin. “I hate England and its hopelessness,” Lawrence wrote to A.D. McLeod. “I hate Bennett’s resignation. Tragedy really ought to be a great kick at misery.” Lawrence wanted to write a novel in which a woman gladly swaps comfort and respectability for passion. The tragedy of fallen women (as Frieda might have been described) and lost girls (as Alvina Houghton’s neighbors would have called her) occurred when they consented to see themselves as such. The Lost Girl was Lawrence’s kick at this misery. But, seven years in coming, the kick wasn’t such a swift one.
The novel as planned in 1913 was the story of a piano-playing middle-class woman and her union with a stonemason’s son. Perhaps this appealed to Lawrence as a way to re-stage in happier terms the marriage of his cultured mother and collier father. In any case, he intended to treat his heroine’s sexual passion explicitly. He came to realize, however, that this would make the novel unacceptable to the all-important British book-subscription libraries, and so he stopped writing about Alvina, “next my heart” though she was. He determined instead to have a commercial success with what became The Rainbow: “impeccable—as far as morals go,” so he hoped. In the event, he included a scene of a naked woman dancing in the moonlight, and thereupon got his masterpiece banned, in 1915, as obscene.
The Rainbow (draft title: The Wedding Ring) charts the dissolution of an old provincial world of sexual mores so ingrained they feel like instincts, and the emergence of a new situation where nothing between men and women can be taken for granted. The Rainbow raises the question of the ideal form of modern marriage only to leave it unanswered. The last chapter finds Ursula Brangwen, a woman of Lawrence’s generation, unmarried and quite alone.
Perhaps in the absence of custom, the nature of love could be hashed out in conversation? For when Ursula Brangwen appears next, in Women in Love, she gives herself not to an animal compulsion but to an extraordinarily argumentative and intellectual relationship. Ursula and Rupert Birkin (based on Lawrence himself) like nothing better than to talk. And for all the mute smoldering they also do, Birkin’s notion of love sounds awfully cool and idealized. He tells Ursula he wants “a strange conjunction with you…an equilibrium, a pure balance of two single beings:—as the stars balance each other.” Ursula responds skeptically: “I don’t trust you when you drag in the stars.” Yet she pledges herself to Birkin, and Lawrence, finishing the novel in 1919, seems to have given the talkative couple his blessing. Indeed Women in Love is one of the great novels of conversation, and the headlong symposium between Ursula and Birkin is a rare, fine example of what the mutual, mounting freedom of committed lovers might sound like.
Such talk is hard to keep up. The Rainbow and Women in Love had been conceived when Lawrence and his wife were in their honeymoon period. They had talked about everything, quarreled but without decisive victories, and Lawrence had felt armed against despair by what he considered this first experience of love. Seven years later, in 1920, when he had his half-completed Alvina Houghton manuscript sent to him from Germany, where it had lain in his mother-in-law’s house over the course of the war, his marriage had changed considerably. Biographers agree that the struggle with Frieda had turned in her favor. And physically Lawrence had begun the long, finally tubercular dwindling of his last decade. In compensation, perhaps, he had come to believe in a restoration of the old sexual order: “The women must follow as it were unquestioningly. I can’t help it, I believe this. Frieda doesn’t. Hence our fight.” This is funny stuff—naturally Lawrence chose to outline his theory of female submission in a letter to a woman friend—but he wasn’t joking. Earnest lectures on the relinquishment of the female will mar several of his later stories, notably “The Fox” (where his heroine is informed by the author that she “had to be passive, to acquiesce, and to be submerged under the surface of love”) and “The Woman Who Rode Away”; and reading The Lost Girl you wonder uneasily whether no such lecture occurs only because Lawrence, anxious to produce a best seller, has here dispensed with lectures altogether.
The situation was this: in early 1920, when Lawrence took up The Lost Girl again, British authorities were still suppressing Women in Love as they had The Rainbow, and Lawrence was once more desperate for money.3 Back in Italy, resolving not to write “di cuore“—from the heart—anymore, he banged out The Lost Girl in eight weeks, rewriting it entirely. His haste probably injured the novel. Lawrence handles much of his Woodhouse material with a kind of contemptuous ease, his skill as a portraitist hardly concealing his boredom with his English subjects, whether Alvina’s father (whose “very soul seemed dirty with pennies”), her obtuse suitors, or her kill-joy governess Miss Pinnegar (rhymes with vinegar?). These characters are occasions for wearisome caricature, done with more doggedness than Dickensian gusto.
But F.R. Leavis was only half right when he claimed that “what distinguishes The Lost Girl…is the lightness of Lawrence’s personal engagement in it.” With Alvina and Ciccio, Lawrence is engaged (any reader will feel this), as exclusively interested in them as they are in each other. Indeed the liveliness of the pair turns the drear of Lawrence’s English Midlands into something of a novelistic virtue, Alvina and Ciccio standing out with special homely intensity—“She would have liked to squirt water down his brown, handsome, oblivious neck”—against this dull background.
The novel’s finest chapters, however, are set in Ciccio’s native village, to which he returns with his bride. This is significant. By the end of the war Lawrence’s feelings about England, always somewhat curdled, had turned completely. In addition to banning his books, his government had harassed him and his German-born wife as potential spies, and submitted him to a military physical—he was judged unfit—that stung as a humiliation for several years. And the sacrifice, on allegedly idealistic grounds, of hundreds of thousands of young men had repelled him deeply.
In 1913, when he began writing The Lost Girl, Lawrence had been concerned to heal through love the split or class conflict between the spiritual and the physical. By 1920 he has little patience for anything called spiritual or ideal. War is an affair of bodies. So is marriage. Let no fine words disguise these facts.
The man the lost girl of 1913 was to marry had “the straightest stare in his blue eyes that has ever been seen since the Vikings.” So says the surviving fragment, which tells us very little else about him. One is reminded not only of the famous keen blue of Lawrence’s own eyes but of the strange passage in Studies in Classic American Literature on the blue-eyed Herman Melville: “He was a modern viking. There is something curious about real blue-eyed people. They are never quite human…. Blue-eyed people tend to be too keen and abstract.” In the same essay Lawrence faulted Melville for seeking out “perfect mutual understanding,” for not understanding that the best relationship “is one in which each party leaves great tracts unknown in the other party.” He called Melville—and anyone believing in spiritual or intellectual union—an “idealist,” admitting that he had been one too. But Melville “stuck to his ideal guns. I abandon mine.”
This gives us some idea of what Lawrence meant when he wrote, while finishing The Lost Girl in 1920, “I loathe the ideal with an increasing volume of detestation—all ideal.” He wanted for Alvina a husband who would not make the doomed effort to understand her perfectly or to know her through conversation or to trick out their passion in high-minded justifications. After writing down Alvina’s name as his wife at the Italian consulate, Ciccio looks “up at her with the bright, unfolded eyes of a wild creature”:
What did he see when he looked at her? She did not know, she did not know. And she would never know. For an instant, she swore inside herself that God himself should not take her away from this man. She would commit herself to him through every eternity. And then the vagueness came over her again….
This is very far from the bitter precision with which Lawrence has described Alvina’s neighbors. Italo Calvino once wrote that only in Italian is “vague” a term of praise. Here and elsewhere Lawrence may have created an English equivalent for the Italian connotation. It is a feature of Alvina’s and Ciccio’s happiness that they are “vague,” unknown to one another.
So it is Lawrence’s former notion of love—idealized, romantic, voluble—that we should see Alvina as abandoning when she sets sail for Italy with her inarticulate bridegroom, whose yellow eyes are like those of a wolf. She gazes back and sees cliff-faced England “like a long, ash-grey coffin slowly submerging.” This was Lawrence’s own feeling as well. As he would write in a poem, “England seems full of graves to me,” associating the country he quit in 1919 with “belief in love, and sorrow of such belief.”
Yet if Lawrence had renounced love—in 1921 he would write in a letter, “I here and now, finally and forever leave off loving anything or anyone”—he did not regret his marriage. Life with Frieda had not turned out as he had wished. But Lawrence, with his defective lungs and almost notional physique, had a weakling’s disdain for self-pity. Nor would he permit it of his heroine.
Ciccio and Alvina have left England and arrived in Italy (as in 1920 Lawrence and Frieda had just done). They are also leaving behind a merely interesting novel for, in its final chapters, a great one. Ciccio doesn’t come from the Italy of travel posters and romantic daydreams, but from a tiny, primitive village in the mountains of the Abruzzi, and the newlyweds arrive in winter. We hear how brave this unremarkable Englishwoman has become when she says, “I think it’s fun.” But the peasants are unfriendly, “the house was unspeakable,” husband and wife can barely hold a conversation: “Somewhere in her soul, she knew the finality of his refusal to hold discussion with a woman.”
It is what we might say nowadays to a marriage counselor: We can’t talk to each other. Or else we might accept, with a sigh, that marriage is disillusionment. But for Lawrence disillusionment has become the chief purpose and glory of marriage. Marriage cancels ideals and humbles language. He has come to value it as a deliverance into reality, which is mainly the reality of solitude. Marriage for Lawrence, and so for Alvina, has become an initiation into the separateness of all natural things and intimate persons. Terror you are therefore allowed to feel on her behalf, but not pity. Here is how Lawrence describes Alvina’s untragic fate:
Sometimes she would go gathering acorns, large, fine acorns…. And far off she would hear the sound of Giovanni chopping wood, of Ciccio calling to the oxen or Pancrazio making noises to the ass, or the sound of a peasant’s mattock. Over all the constant speech of the passing river, and the real breathing presence of the upper snows. And a wild, terrible hap-piness would take hold of her, beyond despair, but very like despair. No one would ever find her.
February 24, 2005
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. ↩
The fragment is published in The Lost Girl, edited by John Worthen (Cambridge University Press, 1981). ↩
As it happened, the censors relented later in the year and Women in Love appeared a few months before The Lost Girl. ↩