D.H. Lawrence’s novel The Lost Girl
(1920) tells the story of a young girl breaking free from her family and her encounters with an alluring man. While critics do not believe it is Lawrence’s finest work, it is well recognized for its treatment of inner struggles and what it means to be lost. The Lost Girl
won the 1920 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Lawrence is the author of numerous novels, short stories, poems and personal letters. Critics regard him as an important figure in modernist literature.
Alvina Houghton, the daughter of a well-off businessman, lives in Woodhouse, a fictional English town famous for its mining and merchants—and numerous unmarried women. The narrator comments, in a comical way, how there aren’t enough men to go around, and it’s turning into a town of “old maids.” Alvina, and girls like her, dread becoming one of these unmarried women.
We first meet Alvina when she’s born—she’s entrusted to a governess because Mrs. Houghton suffers declining health. Mr. Houghton is obsessed with finding ways to better his fortunes and make more money, so he has little time for his daughter. Alvina and the governess, Miss Frost, form a close bond, and Alvina feels that she can confide in her.
Miss Frost takes control of the household, so to speak, and takes responsibility for keeping Alvina and Mrs. Houghton safe from Mr. Houghton’s fanciful ideas and outbursts. She foster’s Alvina’s musical talents, hoping this will make the girl more marriageable, particularly as the family fortune keeps declining.
Alvina, however, has other ideas; she grows into a willful young woman. Alvina, having a cloistered upbringing, looks for ways to rebel. She loathes how she’s always been trapped in the house and never even went to school. She pretends to be demure and passive, but the town boys don’t like her. It’s not until she’s twenty-three that she meets Alexander, an Australian. The family doesn’t like him, but she doesn’t care. She believes she loves him until he moves back to Australia and she stops missing him. When he asks her to go over there, she refuses.
Alvina, still wanting to escape the confines of the house, decides to become a maternity nurse. She finds a school that trains nurses and tells everyone she’s going there. The family is horrified, especially because they suspect she doesn’t really want to be a nurse. They concede and eventually, she goes to school in Islington, where she meets friends and thinks she’s happy.
But, she still feels something’s missing—when school finishes, she’s angry to return home without a husband or a prospect. She passes many long months back in Woodhouse, and her prospects don’t improve. When Miss Frost passes away from pneumonia, she knows she must do something to change her own fortunes. At the same time, the family fortunes dwindle even more, and they look for ways to stay afloat.
Alvina finally meets a young man studying at Oxford who might make a suitable husband. Everyone thinks he’ll be a perfect match for Alvina, but after a brief courtship, she grows bored with him. She doesn’t want a safe option—she wants excitement and danger. In a way, she doesn’t want to end up like Miss Frost and her mother—women who were shut away and didn’t live their lives fully.
Meanwhile, Mr. Houghton is still looking for ways to make money. He realizes he can’t keep the shop going any longer because it’s not profitable. The coal mine he also owns isn’t doing well enough to support his grand ideas and ventures. He toys with the idea of opening a hotel, but this doesn’t go anywhere. He then plans on running a music hall or theatre, and Alvina seizes her opportunity.
Alvina declares she can play the piano. Mr. Houghton is happy enough with this if it keeps her occupied. She’s never shown any inclination for music, as far as he knows, but Miss Frost trained her well. The music hall attracts actors and singers, including a young man called Ciccio. Ciccio captures Alvina’s attention. Eventually, she runs away with him to Naples and begins an affair, to the horror of her family.
Alvina marries Ciccio and becomes pregnant with his child. Life in Naples is much harder than in England, and she never really fits into his world—he is a farmer with a quiet, rural life. Alvina, indeed, never settles well. However, he gets drafted to fight in the War, and Alvina must decide what she wants for her unborn child and her own future. We never learn the choice she makes, but there’s a sense that no one other than Alvina knows what’s right for her, and maybe she’s never been lost at all.