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.
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.
“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.