Recently, I did my small part by helping bring a once censored work back into print. The book is called The Diary of a Lost Girl. It's by a turn of the last century German writer few today have heard of. Her name is Margarete Böhme. Her book, a once controversial bestseller, had been out of print in the United States for more than 100 years.
What I did was to publish a reprint of the original English-language translation. I also wrote a long introduction detailing the book’s remarkable history. As there is little in English about this book and its author, my introduction breaks ground. More importantly, it gives voice once again to a story which critics had long tried to silence.
Though little known today, The Diary of a Lost Girl was nothing less than a literary phenomenon in the early 20th century. It's considered by scholars of German literature to be one of the best-selling books of its time.
The book tells the story of Thymian, a young woman forced by circumstance into a life of prostitution. Her story goes something like this. Seduced by her Father’s business associate, the teenage Thymian conceives a child which she is forced to give up; she is then cast out of her home, scorned by society, and ends up in a reform school – from which she escapes and by twists of fate hesitantly turns to life as a high-class escort. Prostitution is her only means of survival.
In 1907, the English writer Hall Caine described the book as the "poignant story of a great-hearted girl who kept her soul alive amidst all the mire that surrounded her poor body." Many years later, a contemporary scholar called it “Perhaps the most notorious and certainly the commercially most successful autobiographical narrative of the early twentieth century.”
The author of The Diary of a Lost Girl, Margarete Böhme (1867-1939), was a progressive minded writer who meant to expose the hypocrisy of society and the very un-Christian behavior of some of its leading members. She also meant to show-up the double standards by which women of all ages suffer. Böhme’s frank treatment of sexuality (by the standards of the day) only added fuel to the fire of outrage which greeted the book in some quarters.
The Diary of a Lost Girl is an unlikely work of social protest. It’s also a tragedy – in 1909, a newspaper in New Zealand called it “the saddest of modern books.”
First published in Germany in 1905 as Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, Böhme’s book proved an enduring work – at least for a while and despite attacks by critics and social groups. The book was translated into 14 languages, and was reviewed and discussed across Europe. It inspired a popular sequel brought about by a flood of letters to the author, a controversial stage play banned in some German cities, a parody, lawsuits (Böhme herself was accused of being a prostitute – how else could a woman have written such a book?), two silent films - each of which were in turn censored, and a score of imitators.
The book confronts readers with the story of a likeable young women forced into a life of degradation. The complicity of her family – and by extension society – in her downward turn is provocative. However, Thymian – a truly endearing character and a heroine till the end, refuses to be coarsened by her experiences. She also refuses to let others define her - she defines herself. At the time, Böhme’s book helped open a dialogue on issues around the treatment of women.
In 1907, when the book was translated into English, its British publisher placed an advertisement in newspapers. The ads proclaimed Böhme’s work “The Book that Has Stirred the Hearts of the German People,” but somewhat defensively added “It is outspoken to a degree, but the great moral lesson it conveys is the publishers’ apology for venturing to reproduce this human document.”
In response to a review of the book in the Manchester Guardian, the Rev. J.K. Maconachie of the Manchester Association Against State Regulation of Vice wrote a surprising letter to the editor. He stated, “The appearance in Germany of this remarkable book, together with the stir it has made there and the fact that its author is a woman, betoken the uprising which has taken place in recent years amongst German women against the evils and injustice which the book reveals. . . . It may be hoped that discriminating circulation of The Diary of a Lost One will help many here to realize, in the forceful words of your reviewer, ‘the horror of setting aside one section of human beings for the use of another.’”
As the second film's 1929 censorship records show, various groups including a German morality association, a national organization for young women, a national organization of Protestant girl’s boarding schools, and even the governor in Lower Silesia all voiced their objections to aspects of the film. As with the book, these groups objected to key scenes. Each found the overall work to be demoralizing.
By the end of the Twenties when G.W. Pabst released his version, The Diary of a Lost Girl was still in print and was still being reissued across Europe. It had by then sold more than 1,200,000 copies – ranking it among the 15 bestselling books of the era. Twenty five years after it was first published, Böhme's “terribly impressive book, full of accusations against society” was still considered a provocation. That’s why, just a very few years later at the beginning of the Nazi era, conservative groups still unsettled by its damning indictment of society deliberately drove it out-of-print.
In 1988, after decades of obscurity, a facsimile of the special 1907 edition (picture above) was published in Germany. It was followed in 1995 by a small paperback which featured Louise Brooks as Thymian on the cover. My illustrated reprint (picture above), also with Brooks on the cover and with some 40 pages of introductory and related material, appeared in late July.
Why did I do it? I was motivated, initially, by the remarkable history of the book. (Not discussed here is the lingering controversy behind its authorship. The book was first published as the actual diary of a real girl – and Böhme claimed only to be its editor.) Also, I feel now more than ever that The Diary of a Lost Girl is a worthwhile work of literature - one with a still relevant message. For me, it’s about creating awareness.