7 FEBRUARY 1981, Page 21

Three women

Stephen Brook

The Unlit Lamp Radclyffe Hall (Virago £2.95) The Vet's Daughter Barbara Comyns (Virago £2.50) Radclyffe Hall is best known for The Well of Loneliness, a Lesbian novel banned for obscenity in 1928. Unlike Joyce and Lawrence, her reputation gained no lustre from the prosecution and she remains a dim figure, excluded from literary. recognition. That this obscurity is undeserved is established by this re-issue of her first novel, The Unlit Lamp (1924). It concerns the struggle for Joan Ogden, born into a shabby, genteel army family, waged by her mother and her governess, later friend, Elizabeth Rodney.

Elizabeth is a bluestocking, austere but devoted to her gifted pupil. Mrs Ogden, on the other hand, is weak and self-pitying, and uses her vulnerability to manipulate her daughter Joan and Elizabeth make repeated plans to leave the dreary seaside town where they live and set up house together in London to pursue a medical career. Each time the plans are thwarted, either by financial difficulties or by Mrs Ogden's psychological warfare. The mother is no ogre, which is why the portrait is so brilliant. Her manipulations are only half conscious: 'Her mother's very devotion was a weapon turned ruthlessly against her daughter, capable of robbing her of all peace of mind.'

When, after countless frustrations. Joan is packed and ready to leave for London, her mother offers no protest; but by making her own sacrifice subtly manifest, she persuades Joan at the last minute to stay. Elizabeth, who has waited years for Joan to join her, finally abandons her, and Joan is left to sink into old maidhood.

Lesbianism is, of course, the subtext. There is no sex, not even implied, but there is no disguising the erotic passion beneath the surface. Even as a child of 12, Joan's relationship with her pathetic mother is described as follows: 'Joan's strong, young arms would comfort and soothe, and her firm lips grope until they found her mother's; and Mrs Ogden would feel mean and ashamed but guiltily happy, as if a lover held her.'

Her father, Colonel Ogden, is a semiinvalid petty tyrant. He is perhaps excessively caricatured, but, more importantly. he represents a conventional masculinity against which Joan understandably revolts. In a striking passage, Mrs Ogden, seeking to deter Joan from accepting a marriage proposal, tells of her own wretched marriage: 'Something of her mother's sense of outrage entered into her as she listened, filling her with resentment and pity for this handicapped and utterly Self-centred creature, for whom the natural laws had worked so unpropitiously. She thought bitterly of her father, breathing heavily on his pillows upstairs, of his lack of imagination, his legally sanctified self-indulgence, his masterful yet stupid mind.' Bitter writing, but complex too; for the achievement of The (Mit Lamp is that no one is let off lightly.

Joan is no heroine: rather a victim of her mother's manipulations, of circumstance. and of her own timidity. The marriage proposal she rejected is renewed 20 years later, when she is a grey stick of 43, but, as she herself realises, it is too late. With chilling third-person self-analysis she ex plains why to her suitor: she remembers what she used to be like, she tries to forget it, because she's afraid; long ago she was a coward and she's remained one to this day.. only now she's a tamer coward and gives in without a struggle.'

Perhaps the vision is too desolate. but there's no denying the passionof the writing, and the subtlety of feeling. It is not just sexual convention that defeats Joan and long-suffering Elizabeth, but small-town snobbery, misplaced loyalty, and financial hardship. The Well of Loneliness may be polemic. but the less sensational The Unlit Lamp is a powerful and detailed portrayal not just of Lesbian love, but of how the emotional needs of three flawed women are finally irreconcilable. After Elizabeth leaves, Joan does not pine; trapped, she accepts her own inability to secure her happiness and lingers on, atrophied, with her ageing mother. Even Mrs Ogden's death, 20 years later, brings no release and Joan continues her life of serving others. What gives added power to this story of waste is that Joan has acquiesced in her fate.

Colonel Ogden is a model of refinement compared to Euan Rowlands, the vet of The Vet's Daughter (originally published in 1959). He shamelessly neglects his dying wife and his wretched daughter, punctuating that neglect with occasional abuse and beatings. He quite simply hates them. As his daughter Alice, the book's narrator, observes: 'He couldn't bear feeling that he was responsible for one he disliked and despised.'

Alice herself is retiring and submissive. In the blankest prose she describes her miserable life: the sordid animal-infested house, an attempted rape, her loneliness, and the few kind people who make her life bearable. The bleak simplicity of her narrative is supposed to reflect her own innocence, steeling itself against the buffetings of a harsh world – but it doesn't come off. The barely ruffled simplicity of her account is repeatedly broken by patches of sophistication that ring false, as in the sentence quoted above or in her description of the beauties of winter: 'Even the birds' winter cries seemed to be sharp and intensified.'

The style makes it hard to put one's disbelief into abeyance, and the difficulty is compounded as Alice becomes aware of her powers of levitation. This improbable knack is exploited by her father with fatal results. Since the narrator dies at the end of the book, it is a mystery how the book came to be written, Occult powers are all very well, but posthumous autobiography is a hard trick to bring off. Such mysteries can be presented with felicitous results, but that isn't the case here. As the novel progresses, Alice, who begins by touching us with a pathos tempered by resilience, becomes increasingly remote, and the book drifts rather than drives to its unhappy conclusion.