I finished reading this book back at the end of April. It has taken me quite sometime to finish the book. It has also taken me quite sometime to put my thoughts about this book in order too.
I started reading it as “a training it home” read from University. But as I have only been attending sporadically for meetings it was, at times, picked up quite briefly and then put down again for considerable periods of time. However, despite finding the book tough going I finally got through the last few chapters away from the train in the cosy confines of Costa doing my Sunday morning church run stint.
The Unlit Lamp was Radclyffe Hall’s first book, however it stands in the shadow of The Well of Loneliness, her most well known novel. The book is the story of Joan Ogden who aspires to a university education to become a doctor, and to set up home with her governess and subsequent friend, Elizabeth. However Joan’s dreams and aspirations are thwarted, first by her father who feels it unseemly and unfeminine for a girl to pursue a medical career, and then by her mother whose continual “touch of the vapours” command all of Joan’s time, attention and energy until she has nothing left of herself.
It is one depressing book, and the ending was without doubt not unexpected. Ok, yes I looked ahead, I always do, half the fun of reading is seeing how the journey pans out from a known beginning to a known end point anyway. But this ending was always on the cards, whether I had checked out the last chapter or not, in fact I read the last chapter precisely to see if my prediction would be thwarted. Joan was always going to do the dutiful daughter thing and stay with her mother despite Elizabeth willing and wanting Joan to come live with her and pursue a fulfilling life as a doctor. And, also despite Richard, a mutual friend of both Joan and Elizabeth, desperately wanting Joan to marry him and follow him into the medical profession. Clearly, although not spelt out, the character of Joan clearly reads as a lesbian so she was never going to marry Richard. Apparently Radclyffe Hall did not think that Elizabeth and Joan were a lesbian couple. But they read like that, or if not a couple then certainly as lesbians. Or, at least Joan does as Hall paints a clear picture of Joan’s short cropped hair, masculine tailored clothes and ties.
However, it did seem, albeit briefly, that just, very possibly, Joan would leave and pursue her dreams with Elizabeth. But that was not to be the case. Joan remained with her mother, forgoing a university education and the possibility of a career and the future financial security this path would bring. Instead Elizabeth moves on and tries to forget Joan, marrying Richard’s brother and moving abroad. Whilst Joan spends her life taking care of her mother when in reality the mother could have looked after herself quite well. In the end when her mother dies, a middle-aged Joan is left to find a way to make her own way in the world without the skills and training that she might have had to assist her and so has to look to low paid, caregiving work.
The crux of the book is in the battle between Joan’s mother on the one hand and Elizabeth on the other for Joan’s love and attention. As the story unfolds key episodes from Joan’s life form the cloth with which the women cross swords for Joan’s future. Each little battlefield bringing with it the possibility that Joan will make a move towards the bright future she longs for, but time and again each drama plays out onto the side of family duty and obligation.
Clearly, through-out the book Joan is marked out as different, with her manner of dress, the career aspirations of her youth and so on. However there is more there, a lesbian undercurrent that Hall articulates much more clearly in the later The Well of Loneliness, which is apparent in the difficulties that Joan has in her fruitless attempts to leave home in order to live with another woman – why is this such a difficult thing to do if done in all innocence?
Overall I found the book maddeningly frustrating. The ending was predictable, however the agonising, the miserable lesbian angst just prolonged the agony.