Radclyffe Hall’s “The Unlit Lamp”–Anatomy of a Failure

I am imagining to myself as I begin this post that it will probably be one of the shortest I will write or have written, because I can think of very little to say about this book.  I didn’t enjoy reading it, but read it as a follow-up investigation of a book called The End of the Novel of Love, which was reviewed in a very interesting, informative, and vital post by Caroline on her site.  The theme of this novel is the living through of frustration and angst caused by the failure to achieve freedom of chosen lifestyle, and because it is the living through that is illustrated copiously, I call it an anatomy of a failure.  Once again, as occasionally happens, I feel the need to compare this book to Andy Warhol’s eight-hour movie on sleep, which is simply a movie of a person sleeping.  This book has no really strong climaxes or surprises, it’s simply a book about a woman’s failure to leave her mother and home and achieve a fresh life of her own, either with a man who wants to support her career and marry her, or another woman, who also wants to do much the same.  Instead, Joan Ogden (the main character) is too weak and indecisive to insist that her hypochondriacal mother release her to a life of independence, and the book instead traces every step of her failure to achieve a free life, and the consequences.

As Zoë Fairbairns says in her 1980 introduction to the Dial Press edition of the book, “It pre-dates by four years The Well of Loneliness, the lesbian love story for which [Radclyffe Hall] is best known and which was banned as obscene in 1928, but it is much better written:  both novels suffer, in their accounts of women’s love for each other, from purple passages, moments of overstatement, pedantry and authorial intrusion; but The Unlit Lamp is more powerful because more controlled.  It is also remarkable as a first novel for its management of three main characters as well as a number of important minor ones, only a few of whom degenerate into mouthpieces and devices.”  Frankly, the novel is so bad that a few more “purple passages” might even have made it more interesting; the “moments of overstatement” are ones about which the reader senses the writer nearly pulling her hair out in frustration with her own characters because there’s nothing else to be done with them, they simply won’t move and breathe on the page with any independence from the main theme; the “pedantry” is all of a piece with the turgidity and constipation of the prose; and the “authorial intrusion” isn’t nearly as obnoxious as the fact that the same message is being given over and over again, without variety or change.  It’s like being beaten over the head with a stick until one is dull and senseless.  In order to make it through the book, one has to remind oneself that the book was a new and different thing for its time, and thus the value in terms of which one is reading is that of pure historical interest in a form, a solely cerebral function which leaves the emotional catharsis of the reader unsatisfied with the torture the character goes through from beginning to end.

I guess I’m saying that it takes a certain amount of masochism on the reader’s part to get through this book, at least the kind of masochism which recites the mantra in the back of the reader’s head:  “My education won’t be complete unless I finish this book; my education won’t be complete unless I finish this book…” etc.  The best of authors sometimes torture their characters to make a point to the reader, and not every book can be a sunlit fantasy world of birds, trees, dappled clouds, and flowers, nor am I asking it to be.  But this book is like an unpleasant grimace or rictus on the author’s face as it is fronting the reader, and I have only limited patience for staring at a gargoyle.

Finally, this book is not an art work which flows as freely as song, hitting high notes, low notes, and some in-between:  rather it is like a long-drawn-out screech without variety, or a prolonged unpleasant discordant chord which won’t go away.  By all means, read it if you’re curious about Radclyffe Hall’s works or her first novel, if you’re interested in what used to be called “Boston marriages” between two women, if you are a psychologist in need of a case study of repression, manipulation, and misery:  but don’t say I didn’t warn you.


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10 responses to “Radclyffe Hall’s “The Unlit Lamp”–Anatomy of a Failure

  1. D. James Fortescue

    Such emphatic dislike makes it a wonder you made it through the whole story. It sounds similar to an adult rewatching their favourite cartoons from when they were kids; you wonder how you ever found it interesting and/or funny, but realise that its ‘newness’ at the time (and a healthy dose of hype machine) likely helped drew attention to it.

    I hope your next read is a more enjoyable one =)


    • Actually, the book wasn’t so much hyped as it was included in “The End of the Novel of Love” as illustration in a chapter about “ruthless intimacies” as put forth by literature. When people write critical books intended to illustrate the shape or development of an idea or theme or structure or etc., they often have to search for some part of their idea to be fulfilled by a minor work. I suppose it’s pure laziness or hostility toward the novel itself that makes me want to make use of what I learned, the laziness part because it’s time to do another post and I’ve no other reading prepared, the hostility because I can’t believe I actually finished a book that was so boring, painful, and frustrating to read, and I want someone to tell me it’s okay to hate a book. Those are strong words, actually, but I did decide today not to pursue further “The Well of Loneliness,” another book I’d originally planned to read by the same author, because I don’t like what I know of her writing, plain and simple. That’s all really. I guess I have my literary likes and dislikes like anyone else!


  2. I don’t think I could cope with this, I commend your patience though, reading it and not skimming and skipping the more dull passages. Booms like this beg the question where was the editor.


  3. It actually is a morose, depressing, sadistically-unrelieved-by-any-lightness trial of a book. Maybe robots in the year 2080 will find it amusing, I don’t know.


  4. I’m so sorry, I didn’t see this post but now I’m running out of time.
    I’ll come back later. I’m evrey interested to read more. I downloaded it after having read The End of the Novel ….
    I also received The Age of Grief meanwhile and have a feeling I’ll like it.


    • It’s a very depressing work, and though many works are, this one just bashes you over the head with the issues involved. It begins to seem like a sort of brutality practiced by the author on the reader-character alliance, if that makes any sense at all.


  5. I’m back. This sounds soooo bad. And I was looking foward to this.
    I seem to remember that Gornick praised this while she slagged off Kate Chopin and Jane Smiley. How very peculiar. I must say my hopes for The Age of Grief are even higher now.
    I admire your stamina.


    • Gornick may have an axe to grind which makes this work seem special to her, I don’t know. But in my opinion, Kate Chopin and Jane Smiley are much better. I’m in the process of reading a very interesting book by Smiley now called “Private Life.” I may write a post on it when I finish, I don’t know. And you know, my stamina is not so wonderful when you realize that I gave up on reading any more Radclyffe Hall! The issues addressed are vital and important ones, but other people have written about them more proficiently, is all I’m saying.


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