Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Diary of a Lost Girl: A brief history of a banned book

Every year since 1982, the American reading public observes Banned Books Week. This year, as in the past, hundreds of libraries and bookstores draw attention to the ongoing problem of censorship by hosting events and by creating displays of challenged works. It’s all about creating awareness.

In 2010, the Louise Brooks Society did it's part by helping bring a once censored work back into print. The book is The Diary of a Lost Girl. It's by a turn of the last century German writer few today have heard of, Margarete Böhme. Her book, a once-controversial bestseller, had been out of print in the United States for more than 100 years.

Though little known today, The Diary of a Lost Girl was a literary phenomenon in the early 20th century. It is considered by scholars of German literature to be one of the best-selling books of its time.

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.” In 1907, the English writer Hall Caine described it 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 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 the only means of survival available to her. If its story sounds familiar, it likely because the book was the basis for the 1929 German movie of the same name. That silent film, still shown in theaters around the world, stars Louise Brooks.

The Diary of a Lost Girl, editions then and now

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.

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, 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.’”

Back in Germany, the same sorts of groups which objected to the book also objected to the two films made from it. The first, from 1918, is considered lost, but we know from articles of the time that it was withdrawn from circulation because of its controversial story. The second film, which starred Louise Brooks, has come down in censored form.

As records from 1929 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 various key scenes. Each found the work to be demoralizing.

At the end of the Twenties, The Diary of a Lost Girl was still in print and was still being reissued in countries 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, however, 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 was published in Germany. It was followed in 1995 by a small paperback which featured Louise Brooks on the cover. The recent "Louise Brooks edition" reprint of the original English language translation, also with Brooks on the cover and with some 40 pages of introductory and related material, appeared in 2010.

The impetus behind publishing a new edition of The Diary of a Lost Girl was about creating awareness. More importantly, it gives voice to a story which critics had long tried to silence. For additional background, check out these articles on Deutsche Welle and RTV Slovenia.

The 2012 Banned Books Week runs through October 6. The Diary of a Lost Girl is available through Indiebound and Amazon.com and other select bookstores and libraries.

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