Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Unlit Lamp, Radclyffe Hall’s first novel, was her second to be published, enjoying good sales. In the Bildungsroman tradition, it chronologically recounts the life of protagonist Joan Ogden, detailing her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, while compressing later years. Hall styles her characteristically conventional, naturalistic prose to good effect in The Unlit Lamp, only sometimes lapsing into floridity.

The novel’s working title, Octopi, suggests Hall’s interpretation of the plot and the antagonist, Joan’s mother. Joan detested her dictatorial father but was dedicated to maintaining family harmony. In her caretaking role, she shielded her sister from paternal hostility, and she gave her mother the affection that her father did not provide. Taking advantage of Joan’s extreme sensitivity, Mary gained excessive control over her eldest daughter; this control resembles the crushing grip of an octopus. Although she is monstrously selfish regarding Joan’s love, Mary Ogden is ultimately depicted as a pitiable woman whose incompetence makes her utterly dependent on Joan.

The Ogdens’ life in provincial Seabourne poignantly portrays fading English manners during the fin-de-siècle, when women began earnest agitation for suffrage, employment, and education. Joan’s character is designed to reflect the ambiguous dynamics of social change. As a child, she is naturally disinclined to the more patriarchal, arbitrary aspects of her femininity. When Elizabeth enters the Ogden household to tutor Joan and Milly, she personifies the educated, independent “modern” woman; she amplifies those “unfeminine,” “antisocial” traits Joan already possesses. Because she encourages Joan personally and intellectually, Elizabeth soon has Joan’s...

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The Unlit Lamp Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Radclyffe Hall evidently did not consider The Unlit Lamp to be “a lesbian novel”; instead, she construed it as a cautionary tale about the dangers that domineering Victorian mothers presented to overcompliant daughters. In this light, the work’s quick success with “progressive,” post-Edwardian readers makes perfect sense. The modern reader’s hindsight, however, cannot overlook the crucial interplays between this first novel and Hall’s classic lesbian saga The Well of Loneliness (1928). If Joan struggled in a personal darkness, her successor Stephen Gordon strove knowingly against a social gloom no less destructive in its effects.

Clearly, The Unlit Lamp made a vital step in Hall’s developing career as a novelist, although it has not achieved lasting popularity. In retrospect, it forges a significant link between the limiting domestic purview of late nineteenth century women—the milieu of Hall’s youth—and the relatively liberated realm of women in the early twentieth century. The modernizing influence of World War I had a tremendous impact on English society, and women in the postwar era emerged from the restricted family environment Joan suffered to demand their rights to education, political participation, and a public life. Elizabeth previews the “New Woman” of the 1920’s, a type personified by minor female characters sporting short hair and mannish dress near the novel’s conclusion. Joan reacts...

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The Unlit Lamp Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Baker, Michael. Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall. New York: William Morrow, 1985. This highly readable biography focuses on Hall’s life without minimizing or sensationalizing her lesbianism. It provides useful insights into her writings, including The Unlit Lamp.

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Benstock’s voluminous work addresses Radclyffe Hall and her work only incidentally but details Hall’s modernist milieu and literary acquaintances.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1981. The preeminent lesbian historian, Faderman discusses the historical context that marks The Unlit Lamp as a novel of proto-lesbian friendship and explains Hall’s role in early lesbian social psychology.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. Sexchanges. Vol. 2 in No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. These distinguished feminist critics undertake the monumental task of articulating modern women’s literature as a textual and sociohistorical phenomenon, referring to Hall and her work as significant examples of “sexchanges.”

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. First published in 1928 and banned in England, Hall’s fifth and best-known novel fulfills the lesbian implications of The Unlit Lamp; the protagonist, the sexual invert Stephen Gordon, accomplishes what the earlier Joan Ogden could not dare.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975. In this classic literary history, Hall stands at the forefront. The discussion focuses on her lesbian groundbreaker The Well of Loneliness.