The Lamp in the Desert by Ethel M. Dell (1919)

I spoke too soon! This really is our FINAL Dell review (probably).

Review by Daniel Grieve, an English and History student who joined us for a work placement and is now a regular member of the reading group (he wants to read more Dells!)

I am afraid that, having never read anything of melodramatic fiction, when choosing this book I had to adhere to the cliché of ‘judging a book by its cover’ and The Lamp in the Desert by Ethel M. Dell had a rather nice depiction of an Indian scene etched on the front. It proved to pay off, as the story was an enjoyable, although in parts very confusing, read.

Dell opens the novel with the lines “A great roar of British voices pierced the jewelled curtain of the Indian night” (Page 6) immediately setting the story within the Indian provinces of the British Empire. The main protagonist Everard, a captain in the British Army, is introduced as a reserved man whom has no close friends with the exception of Tommy Denvers. Tommy adores Everard, and everything he does, to the extreme and at times even borders on homoerotic with his descriptions and love of Everard. It appears however this ‘love’ is not reciprocated for Everard is desperately in love with Tommy’s sister Stella. It is within this detail that the novel finds its plot for Stella is set to marry Ralph Dacre who is only ever described as a rotter. Thus, Everard is determined to stop the marriage and take Stella for his own wife. However, he fails in doing this and the marriage goes forth. Immediately after Stella realises she has made a mistake as she feels like she has “cheated her way to paradise” in marrying someone she does not love.

Luckily for Stella, and Everard, he finds out Dacre was already married and thus his marriage to Stella was illegitimate! This is perfect for Everard who takes this as his chance to get Stella back. However, rather than simply tell her of the events he instead creates an elaborate lie which made the plotline very confusing and I found myself having to re-read passages to grasp what was going on. This lie sees him get excused from the army to apparently go back to England but instead he disguises himself as a beggar and travels to where Stella and Dacre are staying. Here, his behaviour is extremely strange which freaks Stella out and then when alone with Dacre, convinces him to run away without telling his new wife. Everard, still disguised as the beggar that Stella never manages to see through, tells her Dacre fell of a cliff to his death.

So eventually Stella returns to the army base, starts courting Everard, who returned to the base under a different disguise and they get married. This is after his constant badgering of her and an incident of sexual assault, which after reading a number of other reviews about Dell seems to be a recurring factor in her novels. It appears that the characters in this novel are always forced into love, not taking into account actual feelings of affection towards their partner. They proceed to have a baby together and all seems well but, of course being the genre of melodramatic fiction, it could not end there and thus Everard’s brother shows up with the news that Dacre’s first wife had actually died making his marriage to Stella legitimate which subsequently made Everard’s marriage to her illegitimate! Everard decides to keep this as yet another secret from Stella and with Dacre supposedly dead and out of the picture events conspire to make their marriage seem legitimate and thus after a series of numerous disguises, sexual assaults, illegitimate marriages and a very confusing web if lies the novel concludes with Everard in a very happy position married to the woman to whom he has been desperately in love with.

I can honestly say this book was a very enjoyable read and I liked the story much more than I thought I would, I would even go so far as to say this has been my favourite book from the collection that I have read so far. I thought Dell’s description of the Indian scenes where he story was predominantly set were extremely eloquent and the language she used to describe the ‘extreme heat’ of the desert and the beauty of the numerous sunsets was beautiful. The pace of the novel was very fast and there was not a point at which I felt the storyline dragging as there was always some new twist or turn in the plot which kept its momentum. The storyline itself was confusing to keep track of with the large web of lies it constructed but as a whole it was an intriguing one.

I was surprised by the amount of religious symbolism within the novel itself as constant references were made to God and the worship of him. The title of the books itself was a religious reference as we learn in the novel The Lamp in the Desert is the sun in the sky to whom people look up to as God. This reference is constantly referred to within the story and the motif of ‘The Lamp’ is constantly apparent. My favourite passage in which I thought Dell articulated this so strikingly was towards the end of the novel when Everard’s brother is talking to him and says “You know very well that if you only push on you won’t be left to die in the wilderness. Have you ever thought to yourself that on a particularly dark spell that there has always been a speck of light somewhere – never total darkness for any length of time? That’s the lamp in the desert, old chap. And – whether you realise it or not – God put it there.” (Page 259).

Overall, having plunged into my first reading of melodramatic fiction with Dell I would say I would definitely enjoy reading more of her work and certainly look to branch out further to other melodramatic fiction writers to see what they have to offer. I would most definitely recommend The Lamp in the Desert to other readers.

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