Review: Radclyffe Hall, The Unlit Lamp (1924)

Radclyffe Hall is mostly known for the lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness; I haven’t read it, but I enjoyed the ambivalent walkthrough on its Wikipedia page. Political art is tough to do without devolving into tedious yelly-sloganeering. For an example, see Men’s Recovery Project’s anti-Reagan song, released half a decade after Reagan left office: “Fuck you / Fuck you / Fuck you / Fuck you / Ronald Reagan! / Your [sic] not my friend / Your [sic] my rear end.” I can see how, if the slogans are the only thing on your side, you’d be willing to overlook some glaring artistic flaws, and also why you wouldn’t feel good about it.

None of which has anything to do with The Unlit Lamp. Predating The Well of Loneliness by a few years, it’s the story of Joan Ogden, the daughter of an overbearing ex-military buffoon and a theatrical hypochondriac, and her developing relationship with Elizabeth Rodney. In the game of Victorian or Modern?, its social realism and depiction of an interlocking community land it squarely on the Victorian side. The good father Ogden was an Indian officer who came back to England for his health. His demanding nature has slowly worn down his wife, a process to which their daughters have been interested but scornful spectators. It seems likely that Joan and her sister Milly will end up stuck in their provincial town, until Elizabeth offers Joan a way out.

The gay subtext (virtually text in places) isn’t problematic anymore. But changing norms haven’t been only kind to The Unlit Lamp. A century after the fact, there’s an entirely different problem with the rela[tionship between Elizabeth and Joan, who, when the two meet, is Elizabeth’s underage pupil.

One day [Elizabeth] closed her book, folded her hands, and said: “Joan! If you love me you couldn’t make me unhappy about you as you do. Joan, don’t you love me?” For answer Joan fled from the room as if pursued by a fiend.

Uh…

 Never again could Elizabeth represent authority in her pupil’s eyes; that aspect of their relationship was lost for ever, and with it a prop, a staff that she had grown to lean on. But in its place there was something else, something infinitely more intimate and interesting. As she helped [Elizabeth] into bed, she was conscious of a curious embarrassment.

[Cough.]

“If it’s devotion you want,” said Joan gruffly, then you’ve got all I’ve got to give.”

There was a little silence, and when Elizabeth spoke it was in her matter-of-fact voice. She said, “I not only want your devotion but I need it, and I want more than that; I want your work, your independence, your success. I want to take them so that I can give them back to you, so that I can look at you and say, ‘I did this thing, I found Joan and I gave her the best I had to give, freedom and–‘” she paused, “‘and happiness.'”

They turned and clasped hands, walking silently home towards Seabourne.

“Hello, To Catch a Predator?”

In the introduction, Zoë Fairbairns argues that Hall didn’t recognize The Unlit Lamp as a story of lesbian love. But because of Joan’s age with respect to Elizabeth, I don’t think anyone would overlook it now. That makes it extremely awkward when Joan begins to explore making her leap away from home – with Elizabeth. Mrs. Ogden’s jealousy over Joan’s new confidant is the primary objection to the relationship; concern that a teacher is shacking up with her pupil hardly registers, and that makes for an uncomfortable read.

The Unlit Lamp neither Made the Shelf nor Sucks; I’m not keeping it, but I enjoyed it. Throughout, Hall is pretty clear-eyed about her characters and the ties that bind. The book’s primary asset is the ending. It’s a masterpiece of restraint, not where I thought it was going, but also obvious all along. I’m electing not to spoil it. It’s one where the destination only resonates if you’ve taken the journey.

The Centennial: July 28, 1914

“I just think an MRI is a little overboard at this point. Not to mention the cost, Dad.”

“We’ll pay for it. Just seems like you should get yourself checked out.”

Eran had thought the past-life regression itself would hit the tripwire. His parents were part of the positivist middle-management class and not fond of showmanship, fuzzy thinking, or glorified fraud. So Eran had merely mentioned that he was having visions of World-War-I-era life, which, “while completely unexplained in origin,” were hopefully a sign that his reading was sinking in and which might even prove helpful with his dissertation. He hadn’t planned to tell them anything, but Ian had just announced his promotion, engagement, and impending fatherhood, and everyone had then turned expectantly to Eran.

Ian was probably still laughing.

So Eran changed into his pajamas, popped in his earplugs, and let the tech slide him into the hoop. It was like entering a Japanese sleeping tube, or – the image came as a bolt – like being muzzle-loaded into a mortar. He hoped the thought heralded a transport. He could spend the thirty-minute scan pondering the new vision instead of the near-terrified looks his parents had exchanged over their salad forks.

The tech, who at her age was probably a fellow displaced worker starting a second career, gave Eran a thumbs-up through the partition. “Remember not to touch the side, unless you want a skin graft,” she said into the microphone, her voice a cigarette-y croak.

Eran returned the gesture, then hastily snapped his arms back to his sides. The hoop began to bang.

What if he did have a tumor, and he had gone to Gwendolyn at the exact moment that the tumor was affecting his perception? If a neurosurgeon removed it, would the visions stop? They weren’t harmful, and they had made July an interesting month.

The banging grew louder. He fired the next shell at the bridge. The explosion left him hearing only a high whine that refused to fade. He could see the projectile hit home, feel the impact echo through his breastbone, but there was no sound.

Eran recognized the Große Kriegsinsel from photographs. A sinking feeling hit him with such force that he almost thought the ship was actually sinking. A naval battle, of all things? In the global conflict renowned for trench warfare? But of course the trenches hadn’t been dug yet.

The turrets went off, their reverberations dropping him to the deck. His tar flap flew up and played about his neck. Eran tugged it away and pulled himself to his feet. His host body was lit up with shifting chemical blooms. Terror, exhaustion – really noise fatigue, it hadn’t been a long campaign – and exhilaration. Finally! Servia getting what was coming to her! Deft fingers, doing their essential job for His Imperial Majesty who had appeared so often in his dreams, had the next shell loaded in a trice. They found the firing mechanism.

“You can get up now.”

While he shook himself back into his clothing, the tech printed off a packet of explanations and aftercare instructions. “But we didn’t have to sedate you, so you don’t need to worry about it.” He could expect the results in…some amount of time that she named for him; really, whenever the hell a radiologist could spare a moment. And then he was off, into the bright sun and the blessedly cool day, with a headache brought on by guns from a hundred years ago.

Eran would never know whose body he had just borrowed, who had shelled the railway bridge in Belgrade on that first true night of the war. He would never find one name among the tens of millions of dead, wounded, and veterans. He would never know what had happened to the man. The historian in him thought he could find a crew list, birth and death records, a marriage certificate, an electoral roster: enough to land on a name and build an obituary. The rest of him would never try.

July 28, 1914: Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia. Just before midnight, the Austro-Hungarian river monitors Bodrog, Temes, and Szamos shell the Belgrade-Zemun railway bridge from the Danube, in the first official engagement of World War I.

It Made the Shelf: Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight

I’ve already written that I’m a Rhys fan; it’s a love that has survived my reading all five of her novels. Good Morning, Midnight is the last, which means there are no more Jean Rhys novels, ever. Which is sad.

But not as sad as a Rhys novel. If your novel is autobiographical and V. S. Naipaul likes it, you’re in trouble. Sasha Jensen does what Rhys heroines do: wanders Paris and London, suffering from other people and her memories. Very little happens in a Rhys novel, but events aren’t really necessary. Imagine Seinfeld and the gang as broke, peripatetic alcoholics, so that every awkward social interaction is emotionally devastating and a potential threat. Rhys was brilliant at making each sentence carry a full load: there’s no fat, no detail without consequence, and no consequence that doesn’t resonate, because none can be forgotten.

Finishing up the set, I had the thought that Rhys managed to write Gothic horror novels without any Gothic horror. The ultraneurotic moods of the Ann Radcliffe classics are transposed onto a world that offers no experience more traumatic than making rent. I haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea in years, so take this with a grain of salt, but I don’t know that anyone other than Rhys could have written it. It’s less because of Rhys and Bertha’s shared Caribbean origins and more that Rhys had the rare ability to pull the supernatural trappings of Jane Eyre back to this side of the veil. I can see her getting Bertha in a way that neither Brontë nor a literary critic could – understanding that things can go all wrong without the hand of God, and that some people have to live in the aftermath.

The Centennial: July 26, 1914

July 23 came and went without a transport. Eran had been sure – absolutely sure – that he’d get to see the famous, unfulfillable ultimatum delivered at the behest of the scheming Berchtold. The moment would be like Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Schloßkirche door – epochal – and he had planned to transcribe it down to the second. Instead, he watched a fritzing rerun of Keeping Up Appearances on tpt.

That weekend Eran was playing host to Mildred, a new fall admit who would be joining the subfield as another of Stefan’s prospective advisees. Stefan had about blown his colon upon announcing Mildred’s acceptance of the admission offer. Mildred was a Stanford grad who had planned to follow her other major to a Silicon Valley startup until the bro-ish culture had driven her back into the arms of the humanities. She took coding contract jobs to pull in extra cash and had the new BMW 4-series to prove it. And she was also considerate.

“Thanks for letting me pay for lunch.” They were seated in the Tea House and she had just ordered an entree plus four boxes of takeout.

“Least I could do, after offering my couch.”

“Heh. Double thanks for that. I could have laid out the money on a hotel room, but I’m glad I could meet someone in the subfield before I started.”

“We may be the only ones in the subfield come fall.”

“Stefan’s that hard to get along with?”

“That hard to take seriously.” Then, disliking the role of insider: “Despite his scholarship. But he does know a lot. I’m glad I get to work with him.”

The dan dan noodles and ma po tofu arrived. Eran chewed smoky pork and listened to Mildred spill the dirt on the Google chief’s new lover. He imagined the entire fall class would be like her: 22, elite, recommended by the AHA’s executive director, pulling down prestigious fellowships they didn’t need, landing outside scholarships, publishing in their first year. While he, 32, indebted, pulled an extra teaching load and temp shifts just to eke out a mediocre dissertation that would land him a full-time, teaching-only position without tenure or retirement.

This time he had forgotten it was coming when it came.

Shady street, long shadows. Light the color of his cigarette’s tip. He leaned against a low wall outside the palace, hoping to interrupt a passerby. It was like Michael Jackson roaming his neighborhood hoping to make a friend on the street. But he had chosen his minute well or poorly, and he was alone.

The head into which Eran had fallen had its own memory on loop: a hand scrawling a signature across an order for mobilization. So much scrap paper, given the size of his country. But they were bound to Servia (Serbia, Eran translated – then stopped himself, confused: it wasn’t as if the man thought in English). The course was set.

The other father-in-law of Europe, scattering his daughters throughout the capitals – the king of an expanding principality, who had long kept an eye on his borders – the man who had dodged assassination by the people he was now helping – laid low by whatever fever gripped the continent this July. So many things seemed in danger.

Or were those Eran’s thoughts, interfering? The transports weren’t as helpful as he had hoped.

The man smoked and his occupant considered what it meant to be a survivor. A hundred years later, thanks to CBS, it meant “winner.” But maybe the word could be attached even to the dead. To be a survivor was to have a survival orientation, to scrape and starve, to understand that  you might not get to live, and to act accordingly – to choose, even embrace, the best of miserable options.

As if, when reaching the precipice, you decided to jump off with the others rather than find yourself abandoned and alone.

“It was like a drunken frat populated entirely by nerds. I’m not sorry I’m gone.” Mildred pulled the last of the noodles from the bowl. “Do you want these?”

“No.”

For the rest of his life, Eran would see that crepuscular cigarette as the point of no return. Once even the tiny mountain kingdom had to join the fray, it must have been too late for the world. He’d never be able to explain it to Mildred, Stefan, or the AHA – those award-winners and fellowship-havers. But they’d never be able to see what he saw.

July 26, 1914: Amid general European preparations for war, Montenegro orders mobilization.

The Centennial: July 18, 1914

Eran had chosen Stefan as his advisor based on the man’s international renown, his digital presence, and his willingness to share article authorship with graduate students. Stefan had agreed via email, indicating that his advising load was light. The reason became apparent when they met. Stefan, despite the spelling of his name, was from a suburb of Cleveland, born to fifth-generation Americans whose forebears voyaged from Bristol. He had been educated at a Big 10 before making the Ivy leap with his PhD program. He cultivated his passing resemblance to BHL with open-necked dress shirts and blowouts of his iron-gray shag.

Eran pitied any grad student who might fall for the man’s charm.

Still, Stefan’s dressing-down for missing the subfield group (“There is nothing more important to your doctoral education” blah blah blah “Read my books”) did distract Eran from the mounting dread. The transports seemed to happen weekly. They were never noticed by others, except when he stuttered upon re-entry. Each covered about ten minutes of 1914 time, but those ten minutes were like a zip file: compressed memory, which when delivered would flash only highlights but contain multitudes. Eran could now recall more detail about the birth of the infamous ultimatum than he had ever hoped for.

That had been eleven days ago. Since then, nothing.

He grabbed a Qdoba burrito and sneaked it up to his coveted carrel in Wilson. Food was probably okay now, what with the in-library coffee shop, but it was also as close as Eran ever came to rebellion. He popped open the Christopher Clark – anything Stefan derided as “pop-history” had to be worthwhile – and folded back the burrito’s

He drew the sleeve of his ceremonial day dress across his neatly trimmed beard. He was looking at an impressive array of battleships, fifty at least, a fleet that hadn’t seen a true battle since Napoleon. They would be up for this new battle whenever it came. “Willy” had wanted the throne of naval supremacy since he realized he could never have it. Eran had no doubt that the fleet would give a sterling account of itself -

No, this body. Eran was the king. He – his true self – felt a wispy exultation at landing in august skin. Then it was horror. Of all the – a ceremonial – the end of the Long Summer, nothing but a display. As if life would go on. Eran recalled crumpled, suction-like faces in photographs of rehabilitation. He heard the lines: “The peacetime navy, which had not had a real war for over one hundred years, and in which men had entered as cadets and retired as admirals without having the opportunity of seeing a shot fired in anger, sang its swan-song in one last review at Spithead in the presence of His Majesty the King.”

Eran tried, desperately, to transmit these messages from his own contemporary Minnesota brain to the distant relic king. A body began to sweat with the effort. But the feeling of satisfaction would not be dispelled. It was like a blood-brain barrier, except between coextensive brains. It was as if that stupid, damnable beard were an impenetrable filter. It was a nightmare.

tinfoil wrapping. The burrito was still warm.

Eran fell back in his chair. His was the sweating body; it was as if he had just galloped up the stairs. He closed his eyes, felt every cell settle. At least he would be free for a while.

July 18, 1914: King George V begins a ceremonial review of the British fleet at Spithead, the last until after the war.

Quotation from Stephen King-Hall’s A North Sea Diary 1914-1918.

The Centennial: July 7, 1914

It was a hostile takeover, and the object didn’t even know he had been conquered.

Eran stepped into the crosswalk and he was in a council meeting. It seemed to be mid-afternoon. A survey of the mustaches and uniforms suggested that he wasn’t in England. Most shocking to Eran – he had not thought of this before – was that the 1910s world was in color. There was actual yellow sunlight. He would not have pegged Baron von Conrad’s tunic as that shade of blue.

His arm lifted robotically because it wasn’t his arm. It was like receiving physical therapy: being told to relax while his limbs were manipulated, taken in fits through their ranges of motion. But it was not like physical therapy. Eran felt a craving for coffee, the same way that he craved water when waking from a dream of deserts at 4 a.m. He wanted it, distantly, but he was divorced from any ability to get it. He watched his arm, the arm, come up toward the lips, his lips, and felt and tasted coffee that had been drunk a hundred years ago.

Words bubbled up in their wake.

Diplomacy does nothing. If talk is all we seek, the world will laugh. Russia will have a free hand. England? The Turks? They’ll have pieces out of us at their leisure.

Eran heard the words as a translation, not verbatim. He hardly marked this. The words drifted into the room like a toxin. He saw heads signaling agreement as if the words were their own prophecy. Only one man, in a brush cut and spectacles, seemed to be immune. Diplomacy, he said. We must ask them for something they can give us.

Eran had paused mid-crosswalk. The blinking hand gave him 23 seconds to make the other side of the street.

Jesus. (He forced his legs to move.) They had no idea. They were so stuck in squabbles and intrigues that they were walking right off the cliff. Tisza was the only skeptic. They would really do it.

Of course they would, Eran reminded himself: they already had. He could have killed himself, but only for marveling at the sunlight instead of listening to the speech.

His phone buzzed. Stefan. He was late. The Modern European History subfield meeting would begin without him.

July 7, 1914: Austria-Hungary’s imperial council meets and decides on issuing the intentionally unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia.

The Centennial: July 5, 1914

See, in a world where only half of PhD students complete their degrees, and only half of those become full-time professors – meaning that at maximum, only a quarter of his doctoral cohort would “make it” – not to mention the likely disadvantages for an American tackling the powder keg of pre-1914 Europe instead of the bands of brothers on D-Day, or the clear disadvantages for anyone seeking a new seam of a strip-mined historical mountain – a hapless, baby-faced first-year needed any advantage he could get.

Which was why Eran had paid for the past-life regression.

“I see, I see,” Gwendolyn had intoned, her brutally chewed fingers tapping a photo of Wilhelm II, “you occupy a position of great power. Yes! In your past life you were” – she read the caption – “the emperor of all Germany.”

“He’s Central Powers. They lost.”

“Wait!” Gwendolyn flipped the page. The visual history of World War I that Eran had picked up at a garage sale was so old that the paper nearly split on contact. “You’re not him. You’re seeing him. You’re demanding that he apologize to you…” She squinted at the caption. “Georges Clemenceau.”

“I can’t be French. I don’t read it.” Eran had D-minused out of his one college course. No studying abroad in Amiens for him.

“It’s still coming into focus.” Gwendolyn turned another page; its corner fell off. “You’re witnessing it – a proud Massachusetts officer” -

“I have to be British, and I have to be enlisted! I need to be in the trenches with a pals battalion!”

“Jesus, dude, work with me.” Gwendolyn laid a hand on his forehead. “Now, I want you to close your eyes…”

Half an hour later, Eran stumbled into the sun, eyes watering from the scent of Gwendolyn’s hand sanitizer, without a single vision in his head. “Sometimes it takes a while,” Gwendolyn said: “That’ll be $49.95.”

That afternoon he had, in front of his summer-session class, disappeared to light the fuse on the powder keg. It had just taken a while.

How much more would there be? In line at Caribou, Eran stepped forward to place his order and found himself in a room at Potsdam, watching a strutting autocrat with a stubby arm and a thrusting mustache shake hands with an Austrian envoy. They exchanged words of alliance in a language he understood because the person whose eyes he was borrowing understood it. Or maybe, improbably, they were speaking English. He wasn’t sure he would know.

“Iced mocha,” he was saying, as if he hadn’t gone anywhere. The barista rattled cubes into a cup.

Eran stumbled into the sun, old patterns repeating, legs wobbling like matchsticks holding up a palace. Damn Gwendolyn for flipping through that book. She hadn’t regressed him to his past life; she had regressed him to everyone’s past life – everyone who had had anything to do with anything in that book – the collective ghost of the Great War.

The last living veteran had died in Eran’s own decade. It could be a long war.

July 5, 1914: Kaiser Wilhelm II meets with the Austrian ambassador László Szőgyény-Marich at Potsdam. Szőgyény-Marich later reports to Vienna that Wilhelm pledged unconditional support in any action against Serbia – the “blank check.”

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers provided context for this post.