The Spinster Problem: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Lost Girl”

By the middle of July, there is no question that I’m haggard. Try staying up and reading D. H. Lawrence till 2 a.m.  Wait till morning to slather on cold cream and rejuvenate yourself with cucumber slices.  In films women apply cucumber slices to their eyes,  but I find them more refreshing in a salad. 

I am reading Lawrence’s The Lost Girl (1920),  a mesmerizing, if uneven, novel about a woman with a paucity of sexual choices. It seems inevitable that Alvina Houghton, a maternity nurse whose inheritance was devoured by her once rich father’s debts, will run off to Italy with Ciccio (pronounced Cheecho), a traveling performer in a pseudo-American Indian dance troupe.  Alvina has had bad sex with him once, but she is afraid she will find no one better.

And she has reason to worry.  Lawrence informed us portentously on page 2 that in Woodhouse, Alvina’s hometown,  “there was a terrible crop of old maids among the ‘nobs,’ the tradespeople and the clergy.”  Her governess, Miss Frost, was an old maid, as was her father’s manager of a sewing workshop, Miss Pinnegar, both of whom lived with the family in Woodhouse. Miss Frost ran the household and essentially supported the family by giving music lessons.  After a while, Alvina gave piano lessons, too. Alvina’s mother, her only married role model, was an invalid. 

Alvina has few prospects. She has experience as a piano teacher, but it is not her vocation. And she is repulsed by the few eligible men in Woodhouse. In particular, an Australian teacher working on an Oxford degree who lives entirely in his head – and seems to have no heart – is confident that they are “walking out” together.” He will not take a hint:  he stalks her, and believes she likes him, until she bluntly tells him she is not interested.

 And later, Alvina desperately feels it’s better to run away with a young, attractive, impecunious, stupid, masculine Italian than to marry the smart, fiftysomething doctor WHO IS IN LOVE WITH HER, HAS A BEAUTIFUL HOUSE, MONEY, AND WILL GIVE HER ANYTHING SHE WANTS!  Oh, dear, I doubt her choice will bring much joy.  But she did not want to marry the doctor, and that is that.

But really, Ciccio? He’s so stupid!  Out of curiosity, I looked ahead at the next chapter, and as I suspected, she ran off with dreary Ciccio. Such a disappointing arrangement.

Lawrence is both brilliant and stupid about male-female relationships. As you can imagine, there is little communication between Alvina and Ciccio. Here is Lawrence’s take on them in Italy.  He writes,

Curious, he was somewhat afraid of her, he half venerated her, and half despised her. When she tried to make him discuss, in the masculine way, he shut obstinately against her, something like a child, and the slow, fine smile of dislike came on his face. Instinctively he shut off all masculine communication from her, particularly politics and religion. He would discuss both, violently, with other men. In politics he was something of a Socialist, in religion a freethinker. But all this had nothing to do with Alvina. He would not enter on a discussion in English.

Somewhere in her soul, she knew the finality of his refusal to hold discussion with a woman. So, though at times her heart hardened with indignant anger, she let herself remain outside. The more so, as she felt that in matters intellectual he was rather stupid. Let him go to the piazza or to the wine-shop, and talk.

Yes, yes, “somewhere in her soul.”  Very Lawrencian.  

This novel is kind of a mess, but it is fascinating and often gorgeously written.  A pity Alvina has so few choices – but after all she was born and raised in a town of old maids! And now I must read the last 30 pages.