Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Before Nabokov

Charles Woodington was the author of three books: Hasheesh (Hodder & Stoughton, 1926); His Neighbour’s Wife (Stanley Paul, 1928); and Beauty and the Beasts (Elkin Mathews & Marrot, 1931). Very little else is known of him. To judge from his books, he may have spent some time in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

The title story of his last book is a novella. Set in Alexandria around the time of the Great War, it concerns a beautiful girl of thirteen living with her mother, who is in poverty and owes rent. The landlord, an artist, would like to paint her portrait: at first, simply her head and shoulders. But then he asks if he may do a nude of her. The daughter is distraught at the idea. But, when he persists, a bargain is struck: she will pose, at her mother’s insistence, for a fee that will settle the arrears, and more.

The story handles the girl’s sensitivity at this shabby deal with delicacy. It is the start of a series of attempts by other men to ensnare the girl’s beauty, so that she feels always the object of grubby lust. Even her one real love affair feels to her tainted by the knowledge of the modelling she was compelled to do. When, now a young woman, she hears the picture is to be exhibited, she takes scissors with a view to attacking it: but on the verge of doing so, she is struck by the beauty of the work as art. She walks away proudly, though still under the stare of a couple of lechers. We are to infer that though they won’t change, she at least can preserve her dignity.

The girl’s name is Lolita: the book appeared over twenty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name was published in 1955. Lolita, as Nabokov himself noted, was (when he used it) an obscure Spanish familiar name for Dolores. The Russian author’s book was a major departure from his previous novels, both in theme and character. He explained this, in terms, as a triumph of the imagination, a way of extending his abilities and his reach. The theme caused difficulties in securing publication, and it eventually emerged from The Olympia Press of Paris, notorious then for under-the-counter erotic books. Some of that reputation has clung to the novel ever since, though it is also acclaimed as a major literary work, a 20th century classic.

Could Nabokov have read Woodington’s story and brought it to mind when he composed his own version? Direct evidence of this is unlikely to be found. The publisher of Woodington’s book, Elkin Mathews, was in partnership with John Lane in the Eighteen Nineties and co-published many of the leading, and daring, novels of the period. He still had a reputation for producing exquisite and ornate books, and for taking on the more outre elements of literature: he was an early publisher of poetry volumes by Joyce and Pound. His imprint was precisely the type to appeal to Nabokov, the aesthetical young Russian in Europe in the Thirties.

Mark Valentine


  1. I vaguely remember that there was talk of another book, perhaps by a German author, that described a Lolita-Humbert situation and, it was speculated, might possibly have influenced Nabokov. This book surfaced some 25 years ago when "The Enchanter," a preliminary run-through for "Lolita" was brought out in English. Or so I vaguely recall. But this Woodrington book sounds very appealing. md

    1. Yeah, there's another one, a short story by Heinz von Lichberg:
      It was published in 1916 and was also called "Lolita".