Most readers, and I am no exception, come to Radclyffe Hall's work via The Well of Loneliness, and that's where they probably stop - with a bookmark permanently lodged near the middle in a number of cases, no doubt. I've just re-read The Well for DPhil purposes, after a gap of about twenty years. While I remain impressed with her bravery in writing the book, I still find the prose almost unbearable: Hall uses repetitive devices, borrowed from the literature of myths, legends, and the Bible, to leave us in no doubt of Stephen Gordon's heroic, martyred status. I was therefore delighted - not to say astonished - to open The Unlit Lamp and find a well-structured novel written in engaging prose with even the occasional joke. In a subversive way, however, The Unlit Lamp is as radical a novel of lesbian life as its more famous successor.
Hall's heroine is Joan Ogden, twelve when the novel opens, the daughter of a retired Colonel who has served in India to the detriment of his health, and his snobbish wife who makes much of her distant, aristocratic relatives. The family live in Seabourne, a rather dull coastal resort that is particularly rigid in its gentility. It is around 1890; the scholarly Joan has the good fortune to acquire a Cambridge-educated governess, Elizabeth Rodney. Elizabeth recognises Joan's talent, as does a local friend, Richard Benson. Joan will hope to emulate Richard by becoming a doctor. Her sister Milly is not academic but very musical, and determined to study the violin in London. Their father's old-fashioned objections to these aims (he thinks it "indecent" for a woman to become a doctor) are challenged when an aunt leaves the girls a small amount of money, enough to keep them while they train for some profession. Milly does manage to get to a music school, but Joan finds her efforts to leave are continually thwarted. Money, family illness and social propriety all conspire against her; most of all, Mrs Ogden's calculated vulnerabilities constantly undermine Joan's determination to get away. Elizabeth recognises the situation and offers Joan a home with her in London, and to support her while she trains, setting herself in plain opposition to Joan's mother. The book's drama is contained within the battle between these two older women for Joan's love and attention.
The structure and pacing of the book are excellent; Hall builds to a series of climaxes in which it seems that Joan might be going to follow her dream, then drops into anticlimax when Joan returns to familial duty. The book is divided into key episodes from Joan's life, often with long gaps between them, so the Bildungsroman element is not overly detailed. Mrs Ogden is no cardboard ogre, and the reasons for her selfishness are worked into the narrative; Elizabeth, similarly, is imperfect and it is this realism that makes Joan's endless dithering over her future understandable and tolerable. Hall decided to write this novel to expose the ways in which adult unmarried daughters were exploited and thwarted by their mothers, and some polemical argument emerges, both in the narrative tone and in the mouths of a couple of the characters. While the novel endorses the notion that women should have the chance of a life of their own, the stories of Milly and Elizabeth show the hazards inherent in venturing out into the world, and draw some ambiguity into the political force of the text. The love between Joan and Elizabeth allows Hall to contemplate the difficulty of establishing a relationship between women, both economically and socially. Joan comes to realise that she is afraid of acknowledging her desire: "... she had not the courage to say straight out that she intended leaving her mother's home for that of another woman ... it was unusual, and because it was unusual she had been embarrassed." Hall's greater frankness about lesbian desire in The Well of Loneliness contributed to its prosecution for obscenity; this novel expresses the sexual desire between Joan and Elizabeth only in metaphor and allusion, but is candid about their commitment to each other, their desire to live together, and the relationship of this desire to traditional notions of marriage. There are interesting connections between this novel and Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street, published in the same year, particularly in the context of the panic about 'surplus women' of the early 1920s.
The Unlit Lamp seems to be out of print, but the Virago edition is to be had for a penny on Amazon; it's well worth the penny and the postage charge.