Wednesday, September 19, 2012
THE LOST GIRL by DH Lawrence, classic book review by Su Zi
The war on women has been going on for quite awhile, with new battles at the forefront of each generation, it seems. The arts have also been participatory in the war, with certain victories from previous generations buried in public amnesia (The Dinner Party, for example). Yet within previous generations there lies useful wisdom. Coming up now on the centennial of its publication, DH Lawrence’s The Lost Girl has much to offer those for whom thought is not anathema.
Although Lawrence’s reputation is smeared with the superficial slur of being all smut, though actually of The Lost Girl is quite the contrary. Lawrence’s text concerns itself with the compassionate rendering of the female protagonist, Alvina Houghton, with the bulk of the novel’s attention going to seven years of Alvina’s life as she experiences what it is to be age thirty. Although Lawrence’s England of a hundred years ago is quite of the time with its generous awareness of such prosaic concerns as gas-lamps, the expectation of women to ally themselves in a domestic partnership of some sort has not really changed. Lawrence’s text has numerous examples of “old-maids” as secondary characters, and their fate of being “on a shelf” denotes a social position as being expendable.
Lawrence has too true an eye to lump these unmarried women into one character type, and while their social position is symbolic, each character has an individuality that nonetheless makes her recognizable. Additionally, each of these women serves to paint Alvina in deeper chiaroscuro; for example, toward the last third of the novel, Effie Tuke goes into labor and her speeches state Lawrence’s thesis of the paradox that confounds modern women then and now:
“ ‘ Oh, but so many things happen outside one’s imagination. That’s where your body has you. I can’t imagine that I’m going to have a child ---[…] Oh, but there isn’t one bit of me wants it, not one bit. My flesh doesn’t want it. And my mind doesn’t—yet there it is![…] You don’t understand! I want to be myself. And I’m not myself. I’m just torn to pieces by Forces. It’s horrible---[…] But I hate life. It’s nothing but a mass of forces. I am intelligent. Life isn’t intelligent. Look at it this moment. Do you call this intelligent? Oh—Oh! It’s horrible! Oh --! ( 287-297)”
Ironically, by this time in the novel and in her life, Alvina has made friendships “with the few women who formed the toney intellectual elite of this northern town” (287), which Lawrence calls:
“that curious female freemasonry which can form a law unto itself even among most conventional women. They talked as they would never talk before men, or before feminine outsiders. They threw aside the whole vestment of convention. They discussed plainly the things they thought about—even the most secret—and they were quite calm about the things they did—even the most impossible” (287).
Lawrence posits here an alternative to the dire circumstances facing unallied and unmarried women in the possibility of community, or a sub-society created of like-mindedness. Although Lawrence does not openly acknowledge the atavistic archetype of a female collective, the communication between the female characters in the novel functions as the transmission of this wisdom.
Lawrence’s protagonist, Alvina, encounters a number of men, most of whom are given social sanction; nonetheless, though Alvina’s eyes we see these men as symbolic characters, each recognizable to the modern eye, and each justifiably repellant. If Lawrence’s work is to suffer further castigation, it ought to be for these portraits, for the male characters have their camouflage removed and they exist not only as physical beings, but as individually offensive people. Alvina’s suitors are paraded through the novel, each a self-satisfied rooster, with the awful climax assuming the form of Dr Mitchell who:
“had a large practice among the poor, and was an energetic man […]fifty-four years old, tall, largely-built […] he laughed and talked rather mouthingly […]he was rather mouthy and overbearing”(264), but who has a solid social status , a large house, and an attitude of “ imperious condescension”(269).
Alvina eventually cannot hide her feelings of revulsion, and in the form of another female character passes down the observation “You never know what men will do till you’ve known them. And then you need be surprised at nothing, nothing […]”(282). Albeit the quality of this testimony positing men as erratic, unstable personalities, the joke is in the turn-about, for the long-held misogynist cliché of women as reliable only in their temperamental behavior.
Lawrence’s text deserves further attention. In his canon, it is the honesty and physicality of men that is most worthy of female alliance, not their social trappings; a lesson well worth modern thought, especially in a culture of global consumerism. Lawrence’s women are drawn with compassion, even those he unabashedly finds socially and intellectually repugnant—a feat not seen often enough any where. Lawrence arms his women with their own power, and this needed lesson is worth remembering.