Today Ethel M. Dell is more or less forgotten, but she was an extremely popular author in the early 20th century, and her books allow a glimpse into thoughts and manners and society of England of a century ago. That is, if you want to read from a socio-historical point of view. They also allow reader to wallow in an almost unhealthy amount of passion, if you want your emotional fix. No-one does over-the-top feelings like ms Dell. Yes, her writing is ripe material for parody with all the shivers and suppressed sighs and whatnot, but I don't care. It's still effective.

The Lamp in the Desert is set in colonial India, and the imperial British attitudes are at times so overwhelmingly hard to accept and digest, that at least my immersion in the story was at times replaced by sheer historical-scientific curiosity at what was considered normal and reasonable.

Ethel M. Dell is a romance writer in a true sense of the word; her books don't have any pretensions to anything else. Even the religious allusions (like in the title of this book) are made to serve L-O-V-E and not the other way round. I think her writing process was to first imagine an emotional situation, as difficult and conflicted as possible, and then flesh the story around it. Like 'imagine, if you had acted in a way that you thought was honourable, to save the only woman you have ever loved from a fake marriage to an already-married man, but afterwards found out you were wrong, and you have to pretend you killed that man even if you didn't, and the woman thinks you are a murderer and liar, and you can't even try to defend yourself, because she'd find out she's been... she has... I can't say the word out loud, but it has three letters in it and starts with S and ends with X, she's been doing that without being married, and if she found out, she'd die from shame. So I rather have to destroy myself and her trust in me and make everyone believe I'm a dishonorable person, even though I'm the most upstanding member British corps have ever seen'. Such anguish and such good intentions turned horribly wrong! And then ms Dell makes up a story backwards from that to arrive at this scene, and forwards from that to resolve it happily.

What's striking in this book is that modern reader would like to arrive at a happy end where heroine Stella's Indian bodyguard, ever trustworthy, considerate and attentive Peter would marry Stella, instead of that honour going to Everard who meddles in Stella's affairs and plays weird headgames with her. Everard – who before Stella did not much care for women at all – would end up with Stella's younger brother Tommy, who obviously loves Everard passionately and would do anything to make him happy. But the society being what it was, Peter gets no-one and best what poor Tommy can aspire to is to see the object of his love married to his own sister, thus at least securing some line of contact. I would dearly like to know if Dell intentionally wrote Tommy as a gay character or not. At times her books are surprisingly understanding of various forms of relationships, but then the sanctity of marriage – even a catasthrophic, extremely harmful marriage entered into by accident or under false pretenses – trumps everything, even health, life and sanity.

There is no 'bad guy' or opponent per se, but as in a romance book someone has to act deliciously nasty, we have a side character who is as decadent as anyone in 1919 Britain could imagine. She's a horrible mother, practically abandoning her only child, she enjoys the company of an Indian man (shocking!), and ends up getting her husband killed. And she smokes. She, curiously, does not seem get any other punishment for her crimes, except being addicted to opium cigarettes. She runs away with her rajah, and though it is mentioned as a possible later fate, does not seem to come to a bad end.

There is something about Dell's writing that invokes quite strong emphatetic bodily feelings, she describes constantly how her characters feel in their body (shivering, trembling, throbbing etc.), and even if the curtain of modesty is drawn over anything beyond rather obsessive, passionate kissing, the effect is quite sensual. In The Lamp in the Desert Indian nature is described quite convincingly – at lest to me, who have never been there – by author, who apparently just once visited France briefly and then decided she did not like foreign lands.

I The Lamp in the Desert delivers the typical Dell experience with an added element of getting into heads of people who thought it was their right and duty to conquer and rule another country in the other side of the planet, even at the price of their own lives.