The Unlit Lamp, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Fifteen

After all, the novelty of the situation wore off very quickly. In a few weeks’ time the children had got quite accustomed to the thought of a future hundred and fifty a year; it did not appear to make any difference to their everyday lives. To be sure an unknown man arrived from London one day and remained closeted with Colonel Ogden for several hours. The children understood that he had come from the solicitors in order to discuss the details of their inheritance, but what took place at that interview was never divulged, and they soon ceased to speculate about it.

Could they but have known it the colonel had raged at considerable length over what he considered the gross insult that his sister had put upon him. It had been revealed to him as he read the will that a direct slight had been intended, that Henrietta had not scrupled to let him know, with as much eloquence as the legal phraseology permitted, that she was sorry for her nieces, and that she knew a trick worth two of making them dependent on their father for future benefits. The lawyer from London did not appear to see any way out of the difficulty; he had been politely sympathetic, but had in the main contented himself with pointing out the excellence of the late Mrs. Peabody’s investments. The estate could be settled up very quickly.


Joan was conscious that she had changed somehow, and was working with a new zest. She realized that whereas before her aunt’s death she had worked as an antidote to her own unhappiness, she was now working for a much more invigorating purpose, working with a well-defined hope for the future. The examination for which she had slaved so long now loomed very near, but she was curiously free from apprehension, filled with a quiet confidence. Her brain was clearing; she slept better, ate better and thought of Mrs. Ogden less. She felt quite certain that she would pass, and the nearer the examination came the less she worked; it was as though some instinct of self-preservation in her had asserted itself at last. Elizabeth encouraged her new-found idleness to the full; it was a lovely autumn, warm and fine, and together they spent the best part of their days on the cliffs. Milly rejoiced in the general slackness; it gave her the time she needed for practising her violin. Sometimes she would go with them, but more often now Elizabeth let her off the detested walks, wanting to be alone with Joan.

Joan was surprised to find that she was gradually worrying less about her mother, that it seemed less important, less tragic when Mrs. Ogden complained of a headache. With this new-found normality her affection did not lessen; on the contrary, she ceased to doubt it, but together with other things it had begun to change in quality. It seemed to her as though she had acquired an invisible pair of scales, on to which she very gently lifted Mrs. Ogden’s words and actions.

Sometimes, according to her ideas, Mrs. Ogden would be found wanting, but this neither shocked nor estranged her, for at other times her mother would give good measure and overflowing. But this weighing process was not romantic; it killed with one blow a vast deal of sentimentality. Joan began to realize that Mrs. Ogden’s cough did not necessarily point to delicate lungs, that her headaches were largely the outcome of a worrying disposition, and occasionally a comfortable way out of a difficult situation; in fact, that Mrs. Ogden was no more tragic and no more interesting, and at the same time no less interesting, than many other people.


A new factor entered into Joan’s life at this period, and may have been responsible for partially detaching her interest from her mother. Joan had begun to mature — she was growing up. It was impossible to study as she had done without gradually realizing that life offered many aspects which she did not understand. It would have been unlike her to dismiss a problem once she had become conscious of it. This new problem filled her with no shyness and no excitement, but she realized that certain emotional experiences played an immensely important part in the universal scheme. She had been considering this for some time, gradually realizing more and more clearly that there must be a key to the riddle, which she did not possess. It was not only her books that had begun to puzzle her — there were people — their lives — their emotions — above all their unguarded words, dropped here and there and hastily covered up with such grotesque clumsiness. She felt irritated and restless, and wanted to know things exactly as they stood in their true proportion one to the other. She shrank from questioning her mother; something told her that this ought not to be the case, but she could not bring herself to take the plunge. However, she meant to know the truth about certain things, and having dismissed the thought of questioning Mrs. Ogden she decided that Elizabeth should be her informant.

There was no lack of opportunity; the long warm afternoons of idleness on the cliffs encouraged introspections and confidences. Joan chose one of these occasions to confront Elizabeth with a series of direct questions. Elizabeth would have preferred to shirk the task that her pupil thrust upon her. Not that the facts of life had ever struck her as repulsive or indecent; on the contrary, she had always taken them as a matter of course, and had never been able to understand why free discussion of them should be forbidden. With any other pupil, she told herself, she would have felt completely at her ease, and she realized that her embarrassment was owing to the fact that it was Joan who asked. She fenced clumsily.

‘I can’t see that these things enter into your life at all, at the present moment’, she said. ‘I can’t see the necessity for discussing them.’

But Joan was obdurate. ‘I see it’, she replied, ‘and I’d like to hear the truth from you, Elizabeth.’

Elizabeth knew that she must make up her mind quickly; she must either refuse to discuss these things with Joan, or lie to her, or tell her the truth, which was after all very simple, and she chose the latter course. She watched the effect of her words on her pupil, a little apprehensively, but Joan did not seem disturbed, showing very little surprise and no emotion.


That long and intimate talk on the cliffs had not left Joan unmoved, however; underneath the morbidity and exaggerated sensitiveness of her nature flowed a strong stream of courage and common sense. The knowledge that Elizabeth had imparted acted as a stimulant and sedative in one; Joan felt herself to be in possession of the truth and thus endowed with a new dignity and new responsibility towards life. She began to put everyday things to the touchstone of her new knowledge, to try to the best of her ability to see them and people in their true proportion, and then to realize herself. Material lay near her hand for this entrancing study; there was Elizabeth, for instance, and her mother. Shyly at first, but with ever growing courage, she began to analyse Mrs. Ogden from this fresh aspect, to select a niche for her and then to put her in it, to decide the true relativity which her mother bore to life in general. Joan, although she could not have put it into words, had begun to realize cause and effect. Mrs. Ogden did not suffer by this analysis, but she stood revealed in her true importance and her true insignificance, it deprived her for ever of the power of imposing upon her daughter. If she lost in this respect she gained in another, for Joan’s feelings for her now became more stable and, if anything, more protective. She saw her divested of much romance, it is true, but not divested of her claim to pity. She saw her as the creature of circumstances, as the victim of those natural laws which, while being admirably adapted for the multitude, occasionally destroyed the individual. She realized as she had never been able to realize before the place that she herself held in her mother’s life; it was borne slowly in upon her that she represented a substitute for all that Mrs. Ogden had been defrauded of.

A few months ago such a realization would have tormented her, would have led to endless self-analysis, to innumerable doubts and fears lest she in return could not give enough, but Joan’s mind was now too fully occupied for morbidity, it was busy with the realization of her own personality. She knew herself as an individual capable of hacking out a path in life, capable, perhaps, of leading a useful existence; and this knowledge filled her with a sense of importance and endeavour. She found herself able to face calmly the fact that her mother could never mean to her what she meant to her mother; to her mother she was a substitute, but she, Joan, was not conscious of needing a substitute. She did not formulate very clearly what she needed, did not know if she really needed anything at all except work, but one thing she did know and that was that her mental vision stretched far beyond Seabourne and away into the vistas of the great Untried.

Things were as they were, people were as they were, she was as she was and her mother was as she was. And Elizabeth? Elizabeth she supposed was as she was and that was the end of it. You could not change or alter the laws that governed individual existence, but she meant to make a success of life, if she could; her efforts might be futile, they probably would be; nevertheless they were worth making. She concluded that individual effort occasionally did succeed, though the odds were certainly against it; it had failed in Mrs. Ogden’s case, and she began to realize that hitherto it had failed in Elizabeth’s; but would Elizabeth always fail? She saw her now as a creature capable of seizing hold of life and using it to the full. Elizabeth, so quiet, so painfully orderly, so immaculately neat, and in her own way so interesting, suddenly became poignantly human to Joan; she speculated about her.

And meanwhile the examination drew nearer. Now it was Elizabeth who grew nervous and restless, and Joan who supported her; it was extraordinary how nervous Elizabeth did grow, she could neither control nor conceal it, at all events from her observant pupil. Joan began to understand how much it meant to Elizabeth that she should do well, and she was touched. But she herself could not feel any apprehension; she seemed at this time to have risen above all her doubts and fears. It is possible, however, that Elizabeth’s perturbation might in time have reacted on her pupil had fate not interposed at the psychological moment.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55