Saturday, April 2, 2016
Looking For, and Finding, The Lost Girl
I STARTED reading short stories and novels by D H Lawrence in 1989. At the time I was living in Wangaratta. I was browsing books at a newsagent on the main street. I didn’t know many people in the town. I had a lot of time on my hands. I’d read the odd short story during my university days. Probably about six or seven. The Rocking Horse Winner and You Touched Me, among others. Two of his best stories. So there I was in Wangaratta, with plenty of time on my hands and wanting to get back into reading, looking for a good cause to devote my energies to. Perhaps I had even read Sons & Lovers by then. And here it was, a paperback version of the Keith Sagar illustrated biography. I was hooked. His story was powerful, and led me in the following months to devour The Trespasser, Lady Chatterley, The Rainbow, Women In Love, etc, etc. but this wasn’t enough. Soon I found myself buying the hardback CUP editions of his letters, all eight volumes of them. Well, as they say, the rest is history- many first editions of books by him and about him, mostly courtesy of Michael Logie in Adelaide, and eventually visiting houses he once inhabited, in countries like England and Italy.
This past two years I have been wandering around, doing my job, carrying a tacky Penguin embossed aluminium water bottle of The Lost Girl (1920). It has occurred to me, on and off, that this is one of the few novels that has slipped my grasp. I had never read it. If people asked me about, I, the so-called ‘Lawrence expert’ would go totally blank. So I thought I had better do something about.
This past week I have had a couple of days where I found some rare space, some real solitude. I found a copy besides my first edition in the Niddrie library. One of those green ‘Phoenix’ copies. I found myself at the zoo the other day. The kids went off with some other kids and some adults, and I had a 3-4 hour stint alone next door to the carousel. I saw kid, after kid, after kid line up and go off on their $3.95 ride. But most of the time I was engrossed on this bench seat next to the carousel, reading The Lost Girl. By the time I was re-united with everybody, I was just over half way through. And, as everyone knows, the second half of any book is easier and quicker to devour than the first half.
I finished The Lost Girl that night, or the next day, I’m not sure. Reading, to me, and especially reading D H Lawrence, is a great adventure. The next port of call was the CUP volume of letters- Vol III, I think, marking the period leading up to and around 1920. Here, Lawrence was living in Taormina, Sicily, and quickly writing his novel (the novel was initially started, then abandoned, back in 1913 when Lawrence was still in England). So here were all the interesting references to his friends in his letters about the novel he was currently working on in Taormina. Initially it was called The Insurrection of Miss Houghton (!), then I think Mixed Marriage, and finally The Lost Girl (his publisher was apparently concerned that libraries would be scared away from this title- this was not long after the controversy of The Rainbow, you see).
So evidently Lawrence had great fun writing The Lost Girl, and thought it would be a success. The next thing to read was Vol II of the III part CUP biographies. Vol II covers the period around the 1920’s, and here was a great discussion about Lawrence’s intentions and his life at this time. As is typical with Lawrence, the so-called ‘scandalous’ sections raised the most questions. Alvina Houghton is the daughter of a middle class businessman, owner of Manchester House drapery firm, and later joins a travelling theatre group as they play to audiences around England. Here she meets the working class Italian man with green eyes called Ciccio. Twice Alvina and Ciccio make love in the story- Alvina is a virgin until she meets Ciccio, well into her thirties. It is fairly dominant love-making, weighted on the male side, and according to the Lawrence scholar, Mark Kinkead-Weekes, there might be some anal sex in it as well (although I could not really pick that up in reading the sections he alludes to). So as it turns out, there are three variants in the Secker (English) first edition. The second variant, which is the one I have, has tipped in pages based on Lawrence’s apparently controversial intent. The first variant contained the altered text that was used to satisfy the prudishness of the libraries. The third variant (I think) contains Lawrence’s original intentions, not tipped in. all this is in the Lawrence bibliography I own, so I could pore over this with the second variant in my other hand.
Then there was the internet. The Australian scholar, Sandra Jobson-Darroch, has written an article claiming that Lawrence based his heroine, Alvina Houghton, on Katherine Mansfield. Another researcher, someone who completed her doctorate on this link, colludes with Jobson-Darroch, and says, yes, there are strong links suggesting that although Lawrence may have begun to use Notts woman Flossie Cullen as his model for Alvina Houghton, she became Katherine Mansfield when he took the novel up again just before 1920. It is interesting reading all this, yet I don’t get the sense at all, from reading The Lost girl, that there is more than just a passing reference to Katherine Mansfield in his novel (I certainly agree, however, she was the model for Gudrun in Women In Love).
All this is very interesting to me. I weigh up what these writers have written and I dismiss their ideas, but I can see how exciting it must be for them, to think they are on to something new, something the CUP biographers never seemed to think about. But I find their conclusions very non-conclusive, and I think it’s good to have an independent, critical mind as well ( I remember being at university, and the lecturer, Tony French, told me not to heed the ideas by the Cambridge scholar in his introduction to Hardy’s poems. The thought of rejecting the ideas of a Cambridge scholar in my Penguin copy of Hardy’s poems back then seemed to be almost sacrilegious).
What is more interesting than all of this, anyway, is the fact that Lawrence created another interesting and modern heroine in his Alvina Houghton, who paved a path for herself that is courageously completely at odds with her upbringing and those genteel influential folk around her (in this regard Lawrence’s own wife, Frieda, is a much more likely model for Alvina, although Katherine Mansfield forged a completely independent path for herself as well!). Bravo to another of Lawrence’s heroines. Look closely, though, and you will see he is criticized by some well-meaning modern critics who detest Lawrence’s sexual politics and find fault with all of his heroines, and feel somehow that they are too male reliant and are victims of Lawrence’s so-called misogynistic world view.
Having read The Lost Girl I can, now, with greater confidence, saunter around the corridors and fields of my workplace, dangling my Lost Girl water bottle in my right hand, competently answering questions about the identity of this mysterious ‘lost girl’, and discuss the irony of the title- Alvina Houghton, a woman who discovers what she truly desires, and forges a courageous path to achieve it.