Form and Content
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...
(The entire section is 744 words.)