The Well of Loneliness
The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s groundbreaking lesbian novel first published in 1928, has always been in my sights as a classic I probably should have under my belt, but as it hasn’t had a reputation as a particularly good read, I always felt a bit faint-hearted at the prospect of picking it up.
Having taken the plunge, I did not regret it. To be sure there, there is an awful lot of purple prose: ‘The night with its large summer stars and its silence was pregnant with a new and mysterious purpose, so that lying at the mercy of that age-old purpose, Stephen would feel little shivers of pleasure creeping out of the night and into her body.’ But if you can stick with it, there are rewards to be had.
Stephen is the only child of Sir Philip and Lady Anna Gordon, and from the very start chafes against her female identity. (It clearly goes deeper than Sir Philip having given her a boy’s name.) At the age of seven, she develops a passionate crush on the housemaid, and, given the current anxiety about children and sexuality, this part of the book seems to tread far more dangerous ground than the later passages of imagistically expressed desire.
During her childhood and adolescence Stephen is protected from the world by her father, who understands only too well what his daughter is – an ‘invert’ in the parlance of the time – yet cannot bring himself to explain it to her. But following his death and the scandal of her affair with the capricious wife of a local businessman, she finds herself cast out by her cold and intransigent mother: ‘This thing that you are is a sin against creation.’
Luckily for Stephen, she is immensely wealthy and can afford to walk away from her stately pile and set herself up in a house in Chelsea, and then in Paris.
For the modern reader, perhaps the most successful part of the book is when Stephen volunteers for an all-female ambulance corps serving in World War I in northern France. There is not only historical interest, but Hall must abandon her prolix style to convey the immediacy of working at great personal risk so near the front line to rescue men with appalling injuries. It is in the ambulance corps that Stephen meets the love of her life, Mary, a young Welsh girl.
At the end of the war, there follows a brief period of bliss when they return to Paris, but even in such a forgiving city, the pressure of being social outcasts weighs on them. Their hopes are raised when they meet the rather grand but obtuse Lady Massey, who takes to them both and invites them to her Christmas country house party. Stephen and Mary are overwhelmed by expectation and excitement, only to be crushed when Lady Massey rescinds her invitation days before they are due to travel, writing ‘. . . I must consider my position in the county . . . rumours have reached me about you and Mary . . . I must ask you not to come.’
From this point on, they feel themselves thrown into outer darkness, and Hall displays a remarkable degree of loathing, and even self-loathing (since the book parallels her own experience fairly closely) in describing those whom Stephen and Mary must accept are ‘their kind’: ‘There they sat, closely herded together at the tables, creatures shabby yet tawdry, timid yet defiant – and their eyes, Stephen never forgot their eyes, those haunted, tormented eyes of the invert.’
The Penguin Modern Classic edition of the book has an invaluable introduction by Maureen Duffy, who places it in its historical context, with fascinating information on the obscenity trial arising from its original publication, and the support for it from literary London. Absorbing in its exploration of family and social relationships, harrowing, and often even funny, the book stands as a reminder in these dark days that there has been irreversible progress in some areas.