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Emma Stonex on Women's Roles in the Lighthouse Service

Posted on 22nd February 2021 by Mark Skinner

In her phenomenal first literary novel The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex tells the disquieting story of the disappearance of a group of lighthouse keepers off the coast of 1970s Cornwall. This exclusive piece discusses the roles played by the wives of these mysterious figures and how they came to dominate the story's narrative.   

Before I began The Lamplighters, I had it in mind that I would write a story about men. It’s the mystery of their vanishing, after all. But the more I learned about lighthouse life, the more fascinated I became by the women’s experiences. Without them, the men’s lost currency. It was tough being a lighthouse keeper’s wife – life for women in the service could be limiting and oppressive. But, as I came to learn, it could also be liberating. As is so often the case between women and history, those stories don’t get nearly enough light.

Early on in the novel, Helen, the Principal Keeper’s wife, put me on the spot (quite of her own volition). She asks the (male) author interviewing her: ‘Women are important to each other. More important than the men, and that isn’t what you’ll want to hear, because this book is about the men, isn’t it? Men are interested in men.’ She challenged my assumption that the keepers alone would hold the key to the disappearance – when, in fact, their wives had information to impart. So started the ebb and flow between these marriages, fractured by physical but also emotional distance. Themes of broken connections, longing and abandonment could only take root if each voice was as valuable as the next. Such is the hope for much else in the world.

I’m not sure I could have been a lighthouse keeper’s wife. It isn’t even the being apart – like Helen in The Lamplighters, I’m all right on my own – but more the imagined feeling, creeping towards resentment, of having devoted my life to my husband’s career. Then there was the matter of raising children alone. My own daughters are five and three, and I remember well the sleepless agony of those early months. In the 1970s, solo parenting still fell to the majority of mothers, regardless of whether they were involved with lighthouses – but to be able to see my husband’s tower out at sea, so close and yet so far, with no way of communicating with him, would have been difficult. Jenny, Bill’s wife, describes it like this: ‘During those nights, she would weep with anger. She didn’t know which was worse – that Bill was tending the flame and as awake as she was, or that he was sleeping. She could have murdered him if she thought about him sleeping.’ Feelings of acute loneliness and isolation weren’t just reserved for the keepers: their wives felt them, too. Of course, I’m observing this from a twenty-first-century perspective, and feelings around women’s lives and choices are different now to fifty years ago.

On the other side of the coin, a lighthouse keeper’s wife arguably had greater autonomy than many of her peers. The service provided accommodation, known as keepers’ cottages, for enlisted families: at land lighthouses (situated on the mainland), this meant everyone could live together; but on the towers (the ones sticking straight up out of the sea), a husband and father would be away for two months at a stretch, then home for one, then back to the tower for two, then home for one, and so on. During those long absences, his wife held the fort. She was boss of her own household and an authority figure to her children. This made for an interesting power tussle when her husband returned. How did he slot back into the rhythms and rules of a house that, in many ways, wasn’t his? As Helen says: ‘You’ve had things your way for eight weeks and then a man comes into your home and suddenly you have to play second fiddle. It could be very unsettling. It’s not a conventional marriage. Ours certainly wasn’t.'

My grandmother wasn’t a lighthouse keeper’s wife, but she was married to a captain in the Merchant Navy, who was away at sea for much of the year. She had a house on the Isle of Wight, overlooking the Solent, and as a child I spent hours gazing at the sea view from her staircase window. How easy it would have been to grow to loathe that indifferent water, to accuse it of spiriting a loved one away. What struck me through my research for The Lamplighters was how a lighthouse, too, could become anthropomorphised. These monuments took on personalities of their own, from the dominant to the needing to the vengeful. Interestingly, keepers’ wives sometimes referred to the tower lights as ‘she’ and ‘her’ – a common enough gendering in the nautical tradition, but in the context of a husband escaping his home in pursuit of a more independent, arguably more selfish, life, it had a gleam of malice about it.

For some women, the tower became a mistress of sorts. It was understandable. Here was a place on which she had never set foot (landing the keepers themselves by boat and harness was risky enough): it was his secret place, away from her. It summoned him away and haunted him at home. It cast him under a spell, promising solitude and calm, the friendship of the sea. In comparison, land life – life with her – grew baffling and disorientating. Helen recounts: ‘There had been another woman. A love she couldn’t come close to or hope to match up against . . . whom Arthur thought about when they were together and longed for whenever they touched.’

Ultimately, in The Lamplighters, I’ve aimed to prove Helen’s initial point that women are important to each other, and, indeed, ‘more important than the men.’ These wives were stationed together at keepers’ cottages, thrown into close proximity from all walks of life, and bonded only by the shared, strange absence of their men. What drives The Lamplighters is the recovery of this sisterhood, and the ways in which these sea widows were pioneers of their time.

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