Friday, 22 January 2016

Book Review: The Diary of a Lost Girl by Margarete Böhme review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

As time progresses, society and with it literature undergo considerable changes. Even books that have once been called daring or even scandalous, easily fall into oblivion when later generations can no longer appreciate their merits for one reason or another. It suffices that plot and language cease to fit in as happened with the best-selling novel The Diary of a Lost Girl by Margarete Böhme, for instance. The timeless topic of the book was clearly at odds with Nazi thinking that idealised German womanhood and virtue because it tells the revealing as well as touching story of a teenage girl who knows nothing of the sexual relations between men and women and who is ruined for life because a business assistant living in the same household takes advantage of her innocence to sexually abuse her. Society looks mercilessly down on the fallen girl and doesn’t give her a chance to resume an honorable existence.

Margarete Böhme was born Wilhelmina Margarete Susanna Feddersen in Husum, Germany, in May 1867. She early knew her vocation and made her literary debut with a short story published at the age of seventeen. From then on the author wrote regularly for different periodicals, mainly in Northern Germany and Austria where she lived. After 1894 until her death, she wrote under her married name Margarete Böhme although she got divorced at the turn of the century. Only in the early 1900s she set out to make her living as a full-time novelist, without great success, though, until The Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen) came out in 1905. The book made her famous over night and encouraged the prolific writer to continue on her way. Until 1924 a great number of highly successful novels followed, most notable among them Dida Ibsens Geschichte (1907; Dida Ibsen’s Story), Die graue Straße (1908; The Grey Street), Rheinzauber (1909; Rhine Magic), The Department Store: A Novel of Today (W.A.G.M.U.S.: 1911), and Christine Immersen (1913). After World War I the author’s fame began to fade, not least because her work didn’t fit into Nazi ideology. Margarete Böhme died in Othmarschen, Germany, in May 1939.

When Thymian begins to write down her story she doesn’t know that her aunt’s poor confirmation gift is doomed to become The Diary of a Lost Girl. It’s a few years before 1900 and she lives happily in a small town of northern Germany where her father owns a pharmacy. Her always-ailing mother died early and with indifference she sees housekeepers come and go again with large bellies because they are so well fed in their house as she believes. Then Elisabeth enters into service and makes friends with Thymian, but the young woman turns increasingly nervous and gloomy until one night she drowns herself in the river. Since nobody else in the house pays attention to Thymian, she turns to her father’s business assistant Meinert for an explanation. He takes advantage of her innocence and begins to abuse her night after night until her father’s new wife, their latest housekeeper, notices that she must be pregnant. To avoid a scandal Thymian is told to marry Meinert, but she refuses and is sent to Hamburg to live with a midwife until delivery. There she makes friends with elegant Konni who expects the child of her lover, a married nobleman. After having given birth to a girl who was taken from her immediately, Thymian isn’t allowed to return home. Instead her father gives her into the care of a pastor and his wife who treat her like a criminal. Tired of being constantly admonished she seizes the first opportunity to run away and see her daughter with the couple who adopted her. Then she joins Konni in Hannover who soon introduces her into the life of a call-girl to make a living. Ever again Thymian tries to make a fresh start as an honourable woman, but society never forgets nor forgives…

First published in 1905, The Diary of a Lost Girl was a scandal because like in Muslim societies today sexuality was a taboo. Girls were supposed to grow up in complete innocence and ignorance about everything (even if only remotely) related to sex, but the innocent often are easy prey for experienced seducers. Like in all fields of life, knowledge is the best protection! However, it was the fate of the fallen young girl that interested the author and that she showed in such authentic style that readers worldwide believed that her book was a real diary, not just pure fiction. Thymian is a sympathetic heroine and the innocence of her soul remains intact until the end despite all that she does and is forced to do because a merciless as well as hypocritical society that includes her family bars her way back into normality and respectability. Margarete Böhme tells her sad story with great sensitivity and an impressive skill for saying things between the lines to avoid explicit sex scenes that her contemporaries would have considered as extremely vulgar, even pornographic. I read the original German version and was so engrossed by it that I finished it within one day.

To be truthfully, I was surprised by the power and quality of The Diary of a Lost Girl by Margarete Böhme because – thanks to the shameful interlude of the Nazi regime preaching the always virtuous German man and woman – it is a forgotten book even in the German-speaking world. Until I came across it by accident I hadn’t even once heard the name of this best-selling author! However, in its time the book was so famous that it was adapted for the screen. Richard Oswald’s silent film from 1918 seems to be lost, but the one from 1929 that was directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starred Louise Brooks is a legendary classic well remembered by enthusiasts. I know only the book and it definitely deserves to be more widely read. After all, even in our days sex workers are ill-famed, often shunned, although there will be few among them who consciously chose the oldest profession of the world.

Nota bene:
Since Margarete Böhme died in 1939 – more than 70 years ago – all original German versions of her writings are in the public domain. A well-made free edition of Tagebuch einer Verlorenen can be downloaded from ngiyaw eBooks.

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