Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Nymph and the Lamp

A romance, not my usual fare, but so smoothly told and with such a keen command of detail that I could hardly put it down.

It begins in 1920 when Isabel marries a man on the spur of the moment and returns with him to his place of work, an island of sand dunes and wild horses off the coast of Nova Scotia. Her husband Matt, who "thinks in dots and dashes," is in charge of a wireless station there, relaying messages between passing ships and the mainland.

They share a rough building with a twice-torpedoed "moody anchorite" who plays Chopin and hates women ("what a lot of soft, empty, self-seeking creatures they are"). He is pursued by a half-wild seventeen-year-old, who roams the island on horseback armed with a rifle. A love triangle develops and there's a mystery that no one will speak of.

What keeps the book from sinking to the level of trashy romance are the vivid descriptions of Halifax and life on the island, of travelling by steamer and the business of sending and receiving in Morse code. There are also some fine portraits of people themselves, like the lightkeeper's wife whose "fierce green eyes" remind Isabel of "a farm cat gone wild and peering at her from the top rail of a pasture fence."

The woman made an extraordinary appearance, dressed as she was in her best prewar garb, even to a pair of worn high button boots, a whaleboned lace collar and a broad hat trimmed with artificial roses. She sat astride like a man, with her heavy black skirt and cumbrous petticoats tucked above her lean knees. As the pony came half leaping, half sliding down the steep sandbank her long figure rose and sank in the saddle with movements inelegant but utterly assured; and the great hat, secured to her tightly coiled hair with a pair of long jet-headed pins, flapped its brim faithfully at every leap. There, thought Isabel, go I in ten more years.

In his memoir In My Time, Thomas Raddall claimed this as his favourite book because it grew out of his own experiences. He himself was a wireless operator on Sable Island, which is the model for the island in this story.


The book was first published in 1950 but has gone through numerous editions, attesting to its popularity. You can see some of the covers at The Dusty Bookcase. The cover of this edition is lovely but misleading. Isabel is supposed to be a plain 30-year-old, while the eagle is pure artistic licence.

An enthusiastic review at A Certain Bent Appeal.

Similarities with Jane Eyre