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 problem of censorship by hosting events and by creating displays of challenged works. It’s all about creating awareness.
Recently, I did my 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 what I think is the book’s remarkable history. There is little in English about this book and its author, so my introduction breaks ground. More importantly, it gives voice once more 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 is 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 the only means of survival available to her.
In 1907, the English writer Hall Caine described this 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.”
If its story sounds even a little familiar, it may be 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 the one and only Louise Brooks.
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.”
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. The second film, which starred Louise Brooks, has only come down in a heavily censored form.
As its 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 various key scenes. Each found the overall work to be demoralizing.
By 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, 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. My illustrated reprint, also with Brooks on the cover and with some 40 pages of introductory and related material, appeared in 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 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 it is a worthwhile work of literature - one with a still relevant message.
For me, it’s about creating awareness. The 2010 Banned Books Week takes place September 25th through October 2nd.