The Well of Loneliness

In which I review The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s scandalous and celebrated 1928 novel about a sexual “invert” whose desire for other women condemns her to social isolation.

What it’s about: England, the early 20th century. Stephen Morton, the sole child of Sir Philip and Lady Anna Gordon, is born into a life of privilege, growing up as a tomboy and rejecting conventional female dress and behaviour. She refuses a proposal of marriage from her friend Martin Hallam, and falls unhappily in love with Angela, the American wife of a neighbour. After their affair is stopped by their respective families, Stephen leaves her disgusted mother and resettles in London, finding success as a novelist. She relocates to Paris, becoming friends with lesbian society hostess Valérie Seymour. As WWI breaks out, Stephen enlists as an ambulance officer where she meets and falls in love with the young and naive Mary Llewellyn. Settling in Paris, they visit “the garish and tragic night life” of lesbian bars, where they know they are welcome. Martin arrives in Paris and falls in love with Mary. Stephen agrees to give up their relationship so Mary can marry and have children with Martin. Stephen confronts her life alone, praying to God to “rise up and defend” sexual inverts like her.

Why it’s a classic: Radclyffe Hall (christened Marguerite, though later calling herself John) was already an established writer by the 1920s, earning critical success for her novel Adam’s Breed, which won the James Tait Black Prize. The Well of Loneliness, which drew heavily on her aristocratic childhood and her experiences of lesbian sub-cultures in London and Paris, was a huge gamble. Hall, supported by her lover Una Troubridge, wanted to “smash the conspiracy of silence” about female homosexuality, and bring about “a more tolerant understanding…. spur[ring] all classes of inverts to make good through hard work…and sober and useful living.”

Hall’s fears that the novel would bring “the shipwreck of her whole career” were partially correct. It was published in 1928 with a foreword by Havelock Ellis, the English sexologist whose theory of sexual “inversion” heavily informed Hall’s portrait of Stephen. After initially receiving mixed reviews, the novel became the target of a witch-hunt by Daily Express editor James Douglas, who called it “a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society” which “flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity. Declaring that “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel”, he called for the Home Secretary to intervene if the publishers refused to withdraw it from sale. An obscenity trial followed later that year. Despite support from celebrity authors Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, the novel was declared obscene and withdrawn from publication (though contraband copies were smuggled into England from France). A similar case was heard in the United States the following year, but the novel was judged not obscene and able to be published.

As is often the way in cases of censorship, the publicity generated by the court cases created a surge in the novel’s popularity, and raised public awareness about the then-taboo subject of lesbianism, generating the opposite effect that the trial and ban had hoped to effect. In 1935, an exasperated Home Office memo stated “It is notorious that the prosecution of The Well of Loneliness resulted in infinitely greater publicity about lesbianism than if there had been no prosecution.”

Hall was partially right about the “gamble”. The Well of Loneliness more or less finished her career, and she published just one further novel, but developed a certain social and literary celebrity. Douglas’s article in the Daily Express was published with a photo of Hall, with her trademark cropped hair, tailored Savile Row suit and wearing a monocle, making her – for better or for worse – the public face of “sexual inversion”. Hall’s look was adopted by other lesbians, becoming a visual shorthand to declare their identities to one another. When invited to speak at a luncheon in 1932, Hall was delighted to discover that the audience was filled with women who had imitated her look.

Hall and Troubridge retired to the village of Rye, where they befriended a number of queer artists and writers, including Mapp and Lucia author E F Benson. Hall died in 1943, but her cause was continued by Troubridge who continued to promote her work. The Well of Loneliness was finally published in the UK without legal challenge in 1949, and remained a bestseller in the UK and the US throughout the 1950s and 1960s, earning the moniker “The Lesbian Bible” as one of the few works of bona fide literature to directly address female homosexuality.

The novel has provoked an extraordinarily wide range of critical responses, and continues to be discussed and debated for its depiction of sexuality, gender, class and race. Second-wave feminists including Alison Hennegan identified the novel’s importance for raising awareness and tolerance of lesbianism in UK and US society. In contrast, Jane Rule and Blanche Wiesen Cook critiqued Hall’s depiction of butch/femme stereotypes and for presenting lesbian identity as joyless and riddled with shame and self-hatred. Lesbian novelist Mary Renault, who read the novel in 1938, described laughing at the novel’s “earnest humorlessness” and “impermissible allowance of self-pity”.

More recently, post-colonial scholar Jana Funke has taken issue with Hall’s racist depictions of Jews and people of colour in The Well of Loneliness and other writings, and her appropriation of Blackness to ballast her queer political cause. Scholarship in this area has also focused on Hall’s flirtations with Fascism and eugenics, and her aristocratic beliefs in strict social hierarchy and white racial supremacy.

The rise of queer theory has also seen a repositioning of The Well of Loneliness as a transgender narrative. Critic Jay Prosser argues that past readings of the novel have misidentified Stephen as a butch lesbian, whereas her/their struggle is primarily one of gender identity rather than sexual preference. Noting Stephen’s frequent self-identification as male, Prosser concludes that the character affirms an identity closer to heterosexual masculinity, not lesbianism.

Despite its many detractors, outdated sexual and class politics and sustained air of dreariness, The Well of Loneliness is still, for better or worse, a foundational text for many lesbians and queer people. Its fame has ensured its widespread availability in bookshops and libraries, and it’s regularly cited as one of the most influential LGBTQ texts of the 20th century. Perhaps fortunately, the novel has never been filmed, but stage plays and radio adaptations have popped up from time to time. It’s also thought to have inspired the lesbian pulp fiction industry of the pre-Stonewall period, which may be its most valuable legacy.

Bouquet or Brickbat: Not a bouquet, but a single white feather plucked from the ass of Peter the swan, one of the few likeable creatures at Morton.

I’ve had a copy of The Well of Loneliness sitting on my bookshelves for nearly 30 years, but I’ve put off reading it, largely because I heard it was so joyless and depressing. I was re-inspired by an excellent Bad Gays podcast about Hall, co-hosted by the fabulous Jana Funke, who is editing a forthcoming critical edition of The Well of Loneliness for Oxford University Press. Funke’s discussion of the book’s new lease of life as a transgender text spurred my interest, and, several rather laboured hours of reading and quite a few coffees later, I made it.

Perhaps the best place to start with assessing The Well of Loneliness is American writer and critic Terry Castle, who once quipped “[L]ike many bookish lesbians, I seem to have spent much of my adult life making jokes about it.” I’m with you, Terry. It’s hard not to laugh at The Well of Loneliness and its well-intentioned if po-faced author. The earnestness with which Hall’s wretched protagonist pleads for acceptance, the many patches of purple prose (“There in the shadowy, firelit room, she spoke such words as lovers have spoken ever since the divine, sweet madness of God flung the thought of love into Creation“); the horrific conclusion where a chorus of dead inverts speak to Stephen, like a queer version of The Shining; and perhaps most fatally, Hall’s lack of any sense of humour makes it an unexpectedly funny book. In Hall’s world, the line between melodrama and kitsch is very slim, and I found myself wishing that Carol Burnett or French & Saunders had done a parody sketch I could rewatch on YouTube.

I also couldn’t help but admire The Well of Loneliness, and Hall’s courage in publishing and writing it. While I’m not in love with Hall’s prose, her description of the young Stephen’s rebellion against the conventions of feminine behaviour and dress are acutely observed, and speak to a painfully recognisable part of many a queer child’s upbringing. Nearly all of us have been told at some stage, whether by parents, teachers or other children, what clothes and colours we can and can’t wear and what toys we can play with, and what behaviour is and isn’t appropriate for our gender. Stephen’s upbringing is unusual in that she’s allowed the freedoms of being male and upper-class (including the right to throw things at the servants, without punishment), but as she grows up and enters society, the pressures to conform become more acute and harder to avoid.

Hall is also painfully alive to the hypersensitivity that many queer people develop in relation to social unease about their existence. While Stephen can to some extent hide behind her wealth and privilege, she can’t imagine away her father’s anxiety, her mother’s disapproval or the continual sense of being talked about behind her back, or her neighbours, in whom “they instinctively sensed an outlaw, and theirs was the task of policing nature.” Stephen’s continual alertness to others’ disapproval internalises into anxiety and a brittle defensiveness when around others. Here too is something many queers can recognise – the eternal struggle of how to live authentically when your society not only doesn’t want that from you, but actively reminds you of your own unacceptability. Though Hall makes her points bluntly and awkwardly, her intentions are sound, as is her understanding of the very real pain Stephen experiences.

These days, we’re much more drawn to stories of queer resistance and self-determination, which is why the coming-out narrative, with its promise of authenticity and fulfilment, is still the dominant mode of LGBTQ storytelling. Narratives like The Well of Loneliness, in which Stephen relinquishes her own happiness and resolves to endure life alone, feel closer to the tragic fiction of Henry James or Edith Wharton, and are a much harder sell for a post-capitalist, post-liberationist readership.

Many readers have, understandably, recoiled at Stephen’s feelings of shame and self-hatred, it’s these passages I was most intrigued by. While the real Hall appears to have been more of a bon vivant than Stephen, she understood unhappiness and writes about it with alarming frankness. “The loneliest place in this world is the no-man’s land of sex“, Hall tells us, as Stephen concludes “wherever there is absolute stillness and peace in this world, I shall always stand just outside it“. Hall understands the envy of the perpetual outsider who longs to be part of the group: “There was something so secure in their feminine enclaves, a secure sense of oneness, of mutual understanding“, the young Stephen ponders, as she observes other girls her age. She also describes, with painful effectiveness, the self-loathing of someone trapped in a body they despise: “All her life she must drag this body of hers like a monstrous fetter imposed on her spirit. This strangely ardent yet sterile body that must worship yet never be worshipped in return by the creature of its adoration.”

In some ways, Hall’s lack of humour is rather noble: she wants her readers to plumb the depths of Stephen’s emotional turmoil, and is uninterested in making a bitter pill go down more easily. There’s also something about the blunt strategising in her narrative that starts to feel manipulative, especially for contemporary readers. The Well of Loneliness is expressly and consciously written as a plea for tolerance, addressed to an imagined heterosexual audience, and carefully avoids anything that might interrupt this narrative. Hall’s sexual politics adhere to Ellis’ and Krafft-Ebing’s theories of congenital homosexuality, which Hall overlays with a sickly layer of Catholic doctrine about all God’s creatures being worthy of love.

The “born this way” narrative at play here was a popular theme early LGBTQ literature. It allowed otherwise horrified straight audiences to approach homosexuality with a patronising kind of sympathy, and exempted the gay characters from responsibility for their own “downfall”. While very effective if your sole aim is to plead for acceptance, it feels like Hall can (and occasionally wants to) do better. Occasionally, the narrative will erupt with a secondary character like Jonathan or Valérie, who demand rather than ask for acceptance, and bristle against the need to be tolerated. “You must try to stop being frightened, to stop hiding your head“, Jonathan warns Stephen. “You need life, you need people…. get out and devour them, squeeze them dry!”

Despite these disturbances, Hall sticks cautiously to her almost-straight-and-narrow path, taking pains to construct Stephen as an heroic figure, a decorated war hero and (but for the crime of being a writer) an upstanding member of society who reflects recognisably Christian values. She’s a generous employee and a passionately devoted lover, who dreams of marriage and pines for the children she knows she will never have. Any evidence of her acting on her sexual desires is muted – apart from a few passionate kisses, the raciest Hall says of Stephen and Mary is “that night they were not divided” – and ultimately she sacrifices her own sexual fulfilment in order that Mary might have a “normal” life as a bourgeois wife.

By contrast, Hall saves her scorn for the effeminate Jonathan, whose hands “were as white and soft as a woman’s“, making her feel “a queer little sense of outrage” and the inverts who Stephen observes at in Paris nightclubs: “the battered remnants of men whom their fellow-men had at last stamped under; who, despised of the world, must despite themselves beyond all hope…. Stephen never forgot their eyes, those haunted tormented eyes of the invert.”

1920s readers who knew nothing of post-WWI Paris might have taken Hall at her word, and recoiled along with Stephen at the tragedy of people who have lost their self-respect. Fortunately, we have other books and social histories that describe Jazz-Era Paris as one of the most exciting periods of the 20th century, with nightclubs and jazz and booze and burlesque, the omnisexual glory of dancer Josephine Baker, and celebrity guests like Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Gloria Swanson and the Prince of Wales.

With what we know now, it’s very difficult to read these scenes and share Stephen’s disgust. If anything, we feel sorry for this projection of her self-hatred onto her fellow inverts. One also detects a hint of jealousy in her outrage – the nightclubbers at least know how to enjoy themselves, something the dour Stephen seems constitutionally incapable of doing.

Though it’s the laziest type of literary criticism to say “Why didn’t he/she write this?”, it is tempting to wonder what might have happened if Hall had let her character had just a little more fun. Biographical scholars have pointed out that Hall liked to cut a rug herself, and lived a far more Bohemian life than the grim existence she carves out for Stephen, so it’s within the realm of possibility that she could have imagined a very different ending for her heroine.

This is, I think, where Hall’s class snobbery trumps her progressive sexual beliefs. The preachy tone Hall adopts is entirely consistent with a woman who believed herself morally, socially and intellectually superior to everyone in her sphere. With the exception of her parents, Stephen largely comes into contact with characters whom she views as her inferiors. Her dealings with others, especially the wretched Barbara and Jamie, aren’t much different from the way she treats her servants – kindly, but with condescension and little sense of their own agency, and an overarching assumption that she knows what’s best. While there is something fascinating about the sexual tug-of-war between Martin and Stephen for Mary’s affection, it reads like something from Ivanhoe – the type of courtly romance you could imagine the child Stephen reading, in which other women are simply chattels to be fought over and exchanged. The descriptions of the Black jazz singers are more offensive, and Funke is right to take Hall to task for her racism.

Oddly enough, it’s the strain of religiosity in The Well of Loneliness that dates the novel most badly. It’s difficult to know now how the majority-Protestant audience of 1920s Britain would have read the many references to old-school Catholicism, cultimating in Stephen becoming the patron saint and first martyr of inverts, interceding on their behalf to God to “give us our existence“. Again, it’s part of the squeaky-clean presentation Hall employs to avoid her characters being assigned blame – a sinner who agrees to give up sinning so that others might also be saved will offend no one (and is in line with current Catholic doctrine that encourages gays to be celibate).

This approach embalms Stephen in a respectability that she doesn’t always deserve, and cages her in a moral framework from which it’s very difficult to escape. The angry, arrogant, courageous and singular human being we’ve gotten to know since early childhood becomes transfigured, rather clumsily, into a saint. While this might work for Hall’s messaging, it undoes much of the interesting character analysis that’s gone before. This canonisation also means little for a contemporary and largely godless Western audience, who would largely prefer their hero to stay as an angry hot mess than transform into the second St Stephen.

Despite my many, many objections, I can’t help but recognise the haunting power of The Well of Loneliness – its melancholy, its sentimentality and absurd sense of self-pity, and the ferocity with which Stephen contends with her own nature. While the timidity of its sexual politics may rankle with contemporary LGBTQ readers, who want a bolder and less apologetic narrative,

It’s difficult in our post-Internet age to imagine a time when queer people existed in a world of such invisibility about homosexuality. The Well of Loneliness provides some insight into how queer people dealt with that profound isolation and tried to construct an identity that enabled them to survive.

Quotable Quote: “You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor made; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet – you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but just face yourself calmly and bravely. Have courage: do the best you can with your burden. But above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind.”

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