The Lamplighter by Maria S. Cummins, © 1854
Reading Level: 9th Grade
Because I lately reviewed, King Solomon’s Mines which is a very masculine book, I decided that I should review a feminine one. I typically focus on books that cultivate virtue, essentially building Christ-like character. The Lamplighter centers on mentorship and showing kindness to others. The book is a coming-of-age romantic Oliver Twist meets Mansfield Park. Intrigued? Although the book is titled after the elderly lamplighter named Trueman Flint, the main character is a young, neglected, abused orphan named Gertrude. This story speaks to me because young Gertrude struggles with anger and bitterness. Despite the odds, Trueman and another woman, Miss Emily Graham disciple her; they believed she was worthy of investment.
…when I see this little sufferin’ human bein’, I felt as if, all friendless as she seemed, she was more partickerlerly the Lords…I’ve got my hands yet, and a stout heart, and a willin’ mind. With God’s help, I’ll be a father to that child…The Lamplighter
Trueman saw within Gertrude, “something that needed a check, and felt himself unfit to apply it.” Gertrude’s years of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse hardened her temper. She even states to the blind Miss Graham that she is glad Miss Graham is blind because maybe she will then be able to love her. How true this is!! How many of us say it: “you wouldn’t love me if knew what I had done.” But God does! Those years of bad behaviors would not disappear overnight and would require much pruning. Even when Miss Graham witnessed a horrible temper coupled with hateful speech, her resolve was strengthened to aid Gertrude. Miss Graham kneeled before the throne of God and prayed for Gerty’s fearful struggle.
Eventually, Gertrude does experience a wondrous transformation and deep penitence after various trials: specifically Trueman’s death closely followed by distance between her and friend Willie. Gertrude gets adopted into the Graham family as companion to Miss Graham where she experiences God’s comfort in the midst of distress at the loss of her worldly protector Trueman that is until Mr. Graham remarries and a high society step-mother enters the scene.
Chapter 20 is where the real action begins and it becomes increasingly difficult to put the book down. This is where the books transitions Gertrude from adolescence to adulthood. Gertrude keeps her playfulness but is no longer controlled by anger. This isn’t to say that anger never again boils within her. On the contrary, she is rather protective of her loved ones. Gertrude’s inner strength of character and conviction make her appealing in spite of her outward plainness. (I quite prefer a heroine who is described as plain, Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet for instance.)
In order to learn virtue, you must imitate virtue. “You must cultivate your heart.”
While the narrator states that Gertrude belongs to the Lord, her mentors stress that she will go to heaven if she is “good” and shows kindness to others. In context, Gerty was 8 at the beginning of the book when she was told that she needed to be good. She had never been told who God is and didn’t know the purpose of prayer. I would argue that Gertrude’s mentors spoke to her in terms she could understand. Conversely, it must be said that M. Cummins was a member of the Unitarian Church and therefore intended to stress “goodness” over “Christ.”