Banned on charges of pornography when it was first published (it depicted a lesbian and her relationships), Radclyffe Hall’s epic tale of courage and despair is an invitation to grief, moving as it does from hardship to ostracism and back again.
Born to a loving pair of country gentry, Stephen Gordon is born a girl, instead of the son they expected. It very quickly becomes apparent that she is in no way like other ‘proper little girls’: she prefers to ride astride than sidesaddle, climb trees, and stamp about the manor pretending to be Lord Nelson.
Her mother does not love her (she feels an instinctive revulsion towards Stephen), the other children tease her, and her only friends are her pony (named after a housemaid she developed a crush on, and who was subsequently dismissed from her post), and her Father, who keeps his daughter’s homosexuality hidden from both his wife and daughter herself, and who raises Stephen as though she were a boy, all the while telling her that she is completely normal. I’m not judging his actions here; his character is that of a truly lovely person, who loves his daughter deeply and who becomes her dearest friend, but his denial, until his deathbed, of anything being abnormal about Stephen does not help to prepare her for the world, nor for self-knowledge.
It is a very sad novel, and never has a title been more appropriate. As Stephen matures, she becomes more obviously odd and isolated in the narrow-minded Worcestershire town of her birth. This is no tale of slowly growing acceptance. It is a striking portrait of the harm done to children through social isolation (she is schooled at home by a succession of governesses of varying competence, visiting only occasionally with the neighbours’ bullying brats) and restrictive cultural norms designed to punish a person for simply being oneself.
It is also a striking depiction of the pre-WW1 era, where the wealthy purchased entire lifetimes of servitude from their social and economic inferiors, able to use and discard them without consideration for their well-being, be it mental, emotional or financial. I felt particularly sorry for Puddle, Stephen’s long-time governess and companion, who spends the better years of her life educating and watching over the young woman, at the cost to any personal life of her own.
The Well of Loneliness describes a litany of misfortunes and suffering one would only usually expect to see in a traditional Blues song – Stephen is the cause of her parents relationship horribly failing; her father dies unexpectedly; her mother grows ever more distant and disapproving; the one friend she makes (a young man) eventually falls in love with her and then leaves when she rejects him in horror; she falls in love with a bored married woman who uses her for relief from the ennui of country life, before throwing her under the bus that is her vindictive husband; her mother, discovering her homosexuality, says she would rather have a dead child at her feet than a living “unnatural” daughter and exiles her from her home; her beloved horse goes lame and she has to shoot it, she becomes a hermit in London, World War One starts…and the trauma does not stop.
Finally completing this wrenchingly sad novel was a pyrrhic victory (I had to wade through it first), and I look forward to never reading it again. I do not mean that it is badly written; rather, it is a incredibly beautifully written shout against the injustices of being a queer person trying to live in that era, burdened with that era’s religiosity, heavy stress upon gender roles (which Stephen internalises in her own life, and describes in those of her queer friends’), and ultimate invalidation of any lifestyle fulfilment which doesn’t involve eventually marrying and having children. Hall intended to write the novel this way; deeming it the most important work she would ever complete, she sought to use her existing literary fame to bring the outcast status of sexual and gender minorities into the public view, and to create conversation about it. The character of Stephen portrays a person who, with all her advantages – strength, intelligence, independence, literary success – is hopelessly doomed to fail, tilting her lance as she does up against a windmill of hatred and intolerance from the entire world of “God’s good people.”
Stephen’s sexuality becomes the sole defining influence upon her life, as it must when people are so swift to polarisation and fanaticism about a single characteristic. At the cost of being herself and being an honourable person, she loses her community, her family, her home, and, eventually, the woman she loves.
It was a narrow squeak between finishing The Well of Loneliness and it finishing me – for the love of puppies, don’t read this novel if you are an unhappy person, because it will make you terribly sad.
K.L gives The Well of Loneliness 2 out of 5 tragic Englishwomen-in-exile. Sorry, Well lovers – it is simply too depressing to give a higher score to!
SPOILER ALERT! DANGEROUS WORDS AHEAD!
Some noteworthily awful quotes:
“No woman’s complete until she is married. After all, no woman can really stand alone, she always needs a man to protect her.”
“It is you who are unnatural, not I. And this thing that you are is a sin against creation. Above all is this thing a sin against the father who bred you, the father whom you dare to resemble. You dare to look like your father, and your face is a living insult to his memory, Stephen. I will never be able to look at you now without thinking of the deadly insult of your face and your body to the memory of the man who bred you. I can only thank God that your father died before he was asked to endure this great shame. As for you, I would rather see you dead at my feet than standing before me—this unspeakable outrage that you call love in that letter which you don’t deny having written.”
And finally, as a reward for making it so far, here is a portrait of the striking Radclyffe Hall herself.
Like reading? Like poetry? K.L. has recently published a collection of poems, along with a preview of her upcoming novel, The Fall of Peter Pan. Find it here.