A warning: The Nymph and the Lamp is one of my favorite books of all time so if you're not in the mood for gushing, raving and other forms of over-the-top appreciation, best to stop right here.
The Nymph and the Lamp is, on the surface, an epic love story. Matthew Carney is a wireless operator on the windswept and desolate island of Marina (modeled after Sable Island), just off the coast of Nova Scotia. Matthew meets Isabel Jardine when on leave in Halifax, they marry out of practicality and he takes her back with him to Marina. At first, Isabel is unnerved and depressed by the solitary Marina life and her rather reticent husband but what develops between Isabel and Matthew is an intensely powerful and sacred love that will satisfy even the most die-hard romantics (in fact, the plot bears some resemblance to that of Jane Eyre's).
What attracts me to The Nymph and the Lamp now, though, is its intoxicating descriptions of the Atlantic coast and also its close attention to place's influence upon self. Isabel's sense of self is sorely tested by her new life on Marina. It is a place of extreme contrasts - life there is both relentlessly dull but also constantly in flux (Marina is a place of shifting sands, raging storms and attitudes/personalities geared for survival, not normality). The disorder of Marina echoes the chaos within Isabel that she has suppressed:
On windless nights the lagoon like a sheet of black glass reflected the glitter of all this wealth, so that there were two skies, one overhead and one at her feet...At such times he prolonged stargazing gave her a dizzy sensation of suspension between two worlds, to neither of which she belonged.Isolation forces Isabel's relationships under the microscope and makes her inability to connect with Matthew that much more unbearable. She escapes in order to step back and fully understand the emotions Marina (and Matthew) have forced upon her.
I could never live full-time in a place as remote as Marina but I wholeheartedly believe that we should all have an outpost that allows for deeper reflection. Without distractions, Isabel is forced to dig down and confront her own emotional needs, as she says she felt to be "a primitive creature in a lost corner of the world, the prey of phantoms, a prisoner of the weather and the sea - and of the dark." Terrifying yes, but I don't feel that home needs to be a perfect model of comfy-cozy constancy. As love can be painfully eye-opening and a safe harbour, so too can home be the root of awakening, not just a place to lay one's head. As Isabel reports near the end of the novel:
The North Atlantic was in one of its tranquil moods. Under the weeping veils of rain its mild swell rose and sank with a majestic regularity, the breast of a stormy woman gone to sleep...All that was evil and cruel about her, all that was bright and beautiful, lay concealed now beneath that enormous breathing skin. There was no sky and no horizon.Isabel is no longer suspended between worlds, she and Marina's seascape are now one. As I discussed in my post about The Perfection of the Morning, true home is a place that knows you, is you. And it might just know when it's time for you to be more than you thought you could be.
The Nymph and the Lamp / Thomas H. Raddall / McClelland and Stewart or Nimbus Publishing / PB, 1950 (first edition)
Author Bio: Author Thomas H. Raddall (1903-1994) lived most of his life in Nova Scotia, my home province. He was a noted historian and won the Governor General's award for three of his works. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1971. In the first part of his life he worked as a wireless operator on ships and remote outposts and this served as inspiration for his 1950 novel, The Nymph and the Lamp.
With notes from Wikipedia and Studies in Canadian Literature
Home and Sharon Butala's The Perfection of the Morning
Bright Star (the film) and the Holiness of the Heart's Affections