The Lamp in the DesertSeptember 15, 2011
I don’t know why I’m still reading books by someone who names her heroes things like ‘Everard,’ but here’s another Ethel M. Dell for you: The Lamp in the Desert. She doesn’t let you forget that title; the lamp motif is everywhere.
The Lamp in the Desert is set in India, and shares one minor character with The Way of an Eagle. I like it when authors do that — just enough crossover between books to let you know that they’re all set in the same universe. Especially if, as with Dell, you have to posit an alternate universe where human behavior bears only a vague resemblance to reality to enjoy her books in the first place. Dell always verges on terrible, but she does it in a very distinctive way. Her romances are almost as convoluted as they are passionate, but she mostly manages to make them appealing, too. It’s just a bit terrifying to think that all of these ridiculous people are supposed to exist simultaneously.
The Lamp in the Desert is maybe even more convoluted than it is passionate. And the hero really is named Everard. He’s a captain in the army, and he’s all intense and reserved and hasn’t really got any friends, except for Tommy Denvers, who he once nursed through malaria. Tommy’s adoration of Everard verges on the homoerotic, which would be more fun if Everard wasn’t desperately in love with Tommy’s sister Stella. People in Dell’s books never just love each other; they’re always desperately in love. In these case, though, there’s a bit of a reason for the desperation: Stella is about to marry Ralph Dacre, who is, as Tommy says, a “rotter.” And while this sucks for Stella, I have little sympathy for Everard, who, instead of trying to win Stella for himself, deliberately avoided her and led her to believe he hated her.
Stella realizes after her marriage that it’s been a terrible mistake, and, while she’s seriously impressed by the scenery at the place where she and Ralph are honeymooning, instead of deriving enjoyment from it she decides that she’s been admitted to paradise under false pretences and is going to be kicked out. Meanwhile, back at the army base, Everard receives a letter from his brother Bernard, a prison chaplain, revealing that Ralph actually already has a wife living, which means that Stella isn’t legally Ralph’s wife. Everard decides he has to fix this situation, which is commendable, but the way in which he goes about it seems calculated to cause the most possible complications later.
First, he lies to his commanding officer about needing to go to England to see his brother. Then, disguised as a beggar, he travels to the place where Stella and Ralph are staying. He acts super creepy and freaks Stella out, and then he asks to speak to Ralph privately, convinces him to clear out, and returns to tell Stella and Ralph’s Indian servant Peter that Ralph has fallen of a cliff. It would be surprising if she didn’t conclude that he’d murdered her husband. And I guess it’s nice that he’s trying to protect her from the knowledge that she wasn’t really married as well as the disgrace, but everyone would have been so much happier if he’d just been honest with her.
As soon as Stella gets back to the regiment (feeling somewhat cursed) Everard starts courting her by alternately insisting that he’s going to give her space and acting really pushy. At one point he attempts to sexually assault her while he’s coming down with malaria and also, as we learn later, high. And so he badgers her into being as desperately in love with him as he is with her. Dell is so weird. She so likes to have her men force her women into loving them in a way that kind of confuses me as to what her definition of love is, since it obviously doesn’t include liking or understanding, much less affection.
They get married and have a baby, and then Everard’s brother Bernard shows up for a visit and reveals to Everard that Ralph’s wife had died by the time he married Stella, which means that Ralph and Stella’s marriage was legal and therefore Everard and Stella’s isn’t. Oh, and the baby is illegitimate. Everard worries himself into a state of ill health, but doesn’t seem to even consider the possibility of telling Stella what’s going on.
Meanwhile, Bernard has also inadvertently revealed to the Colonel that Everard wasn’t in England the previous year when he said he was, and people start thinking about the timing, and Everard’s marriage to Stella, and the creepy Indian guys Everard hangs out with for his secret service missions, and they start to wonder if maybe he killed Ralph Dacre. Stella absolutely believes it, but Everard refuses to even try to disabuse her of the notion — instead he disguises himself so he can stay close to her. Everard wouldn’t be Everard if he wasn’t keeping all of his secrets as close to the vest as possible and dressing up as a deformed elderly person at the drop of a hat.
Eventually circumstances — and Bernard, who sometimes manages to make his brother less of an idiot by mere proximity — conspire to resolve the situation in a way that lets Everard and Stella make their marriage legal, although the baby, being a bastard, has to die. And that’s basically it — the main storyline, anyway. I don’t know if I’m equal to describing Netta Ermsted, her affair with the local rajah, her murder of her daughter’s pet mongoose, etc.
It’s certainly not the worst Ethel M. Dell book I’ve read; large parts of it were actually engaging. Unfortunately, they were mostly the beginning parts, and things that I liked — Stella having a personality, Netta Ermsted and Mary Ralston’s friendship, Everard being attractive — didn’t last very long. At least it was coherent, though. The plot is a bit like a wind-up toy — once you’ve got the false marriage setup and Everard’s predilection for dressing up like a deformed person, everything else just naturally follows, if only in the world of Ethel M. Dell. And the world of Ethel M. Dell is, at least once in a while, a fun place to visit. But you wouldn’t want to live there.