In response to:
The Ideal Husband from the February 24, 2005 issue
To the Editors:
Benjamin Kunkel [“The Ideal Husband,” NYR, February 24] seems distressed by a mistake he thinks I made in a reference to the chronology of Lawrence’s work. “Siegel’s introduction is not a reliable guide to The Lost Girl,” he frets. He continues in this anxious vein: “[Siegel] 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.'” Come on, Kunkel, cheer up. Lawrence published his first novel, The White Peacock, in 1911; his second novel, The Trespasser, appeared the following year. Right after that, he began an early version of The Lost Girl, which he worked on, in fits and starts, for seven years. Thus The Lost Girl was Lawrence’s third novel; it was his sixth to be completed, and fifth to be published.
Kunkel also writes:
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.
But Lawrence describes Alvina’s father like this:
James Houghton was a dreamer, and something of a poet: commercial, be it understood… He wove one continual fantasy for himself, a fantasy of commerce… We cannot say why James Houghton failed to become the Liberty or the Snelgrove [two famous shops] of his day. Perhaps he had too much imagination.
“Commercial, be it understood.” Alvina’s father is simply too impractical for business—too distracted by extravagant commercial dreams to fulfill them. When Lawrence writes that “perhaps he had too much imagination,” he is being heavily sardonic. He says about Houghton that “his very soul seemed dirty with pennies.” That is not like suffering from a surfeit of imagination. Kunkel himself quotes the phrase about the pennies.
It is Alvina’s imagination that reverses and redeems her father’s daydreaming. Lawrence makes Ciccio (the man Alvina marries and with whom she runs off to Italy) an actor, has Alvina join his troupe of actors, and shows us Ciccio calling Alvina by her character’s name (the company only performed one play) even after the two have left the troupe for Italy—why would Lawrence introduce and develop this theatrical theme if it were not to imply that one needs an artist’s imaginative sympathy to change one’s life? Lawrence is obsessed in The Lost Girl with what he considers the transfiguring capacity of the imagination. Kunkel never alludes to this, the novel’s central theme. And yet the only way to successfully inhabit a situation “of a kind that you have never imagined,” to echo Kunkel’s suspenseful cadences, is through a leap of the imagination.
One final note. Kunkel is in error when he (inelegantly) writes:
Marriage was Lawrence’s religion as sex was merely his sacrament…. [Lawrence] 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.
I suggest that Kunkel take a look at Brenda Maddox’s superb biography, D.H. Lawrence: Portrait of a Marriage. There he will learn that far from practicing monogamy, Lawrence conducted his own extramarital affairs, with women and probably also with men.
New York City
Benjamin Kunkel replies:
I appreciate Lee Siegel’s solicitude over my mood. But I am in perfect good cheer when I remind him that he puts an idiosyncratic construction on the phrase “third novel.” Most people mean by those words the third novel completed or published by an author. According to Siegel, however, a third novel is the third an author works on. All right—but Lawrence didn’t begin to draft what was then called The Insurrection of Miss Houghton until he had already completed three other novels. Therefore, The Lost Girl was, of the novels Lawrence finished, the fourth that he began to write. And as Mark Kinkead-Weekes’s definitive biography of Lawrence between 1912 and 1922 makes clear, The Lost Girl was in no sense written “between The Rainbow and Women in Love.” Lawrence did not have access to his original draft, and did not work on the novel—no fits, no starts—between June of 1913 and February of 1920.
Siegel’s and my more substantial disagreement concerns the meaning of The Lost Girl. For him, “the transfiguring capacity of the imagination” is “the novel’s central theme.” He hangs his interpretation on Ciccio’s work as an actor. But when Alvina sees her future husband “naked to the waist, in warpaint, brandishing a spear,” it seems unlikely that his imagination is chiefly what attracts her.
Ciccio’s and Alvina’s is a physical, not a speculative relationship:
There was no wonderful intimacy of speech, such as she had always imagined, and craved for. No. He loved her—but it was in a dark, mesmeric way, which did not let her be herself…. It extinguished her…. Her thoughts were dim, in the dim back regions of consciousness…. Was it atavism, this sinking into submission under the spell of Ciccio?… Somewhere even she was vastly proud of the dark veiled eternal loneliness she felt….
This passage, and the several others like it, would seem to ratify Susan Sontag’s characterization of the novel’s theme: “the obliteration of the personality from the viewpoint of happiness.” In my review I emphasized what Lawrence here calls “dark veiled eternal loneliness,” his remarkable celebration of the permanent mutual solitude of husband and wife. Whereas Siegel’s “transfiguring capacity of the imagination” is merely a lit-crit bromide.
As for Brenda Maddox, she, like other recent biographers, tends to bear out my description of the Lawrences’ relationship. Marriage was fundamental to Lawrence’s vision. He believed in and mostly practiced monogamy. (The only adultery Maddox can confirm on his part is the short-lived affair with Rosalind Baynes.) Frieda, on the other hand, took numerous lovers during all three of her marriages, and had little use for monogamy as either policy or ideal.