The Well of Loneliness is the story of Stephen Gordon, an aristocratic woman who prefers to dress in a masculine fashion, and who loves women. It is perhaps the first coming out story published (let me know of others, if I’m wrong), and sets down the pattern for that particularly kind of Bildungsroman that many other coming out stories would follow, charting Stephen’s life from childhood to adulthood, as she negotiates her way around her particular sexuality and gender identity.
I read The Well of Loneliness as part of my research for the 1920s novel I’m currently working on. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever. Sadly, it turned out to be a bit of a chore, and while it definitely does provide valuable historical insight into how sexuality was viewed at the time (1928), it’s not a book I would recommend reading for entertainment. So, a rare negative review from me, but Radcliffe Hall isn’t still around to care. Expect scare quotes.
It’s an iconic book, thrust into the limelight by an obscenity trial at the time of publishing. The book received support from writers at the time on point of principle (including E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf), but when Hall asked them to support the book for its literary merit, they refused.
I found it a tricky read because it’s just not very well written: the style is old fashioned and stodgy for the time, considering who her literary peers were. It’s also painfully sentimental, which again seems very old fashioned for the period. I read the Wordsworth Classics edition (pictured, with lovely Tamara Lempicka cover), which has a helpful introduction by Dr Esther Saxey, placing the book in its historical and cultural context. Saxey suggests that it’s impossible to separate The Well of Loneliness from the development of lesbian identities, as it was so influential.
The book is interesting from the point of view that it captures a time when conceptions of sexuality and gender identity were in a state of flux, with conflicting theories being presented by psychologists and sexologists. Hall favours the idea of the “congenital invert” put forward by Havelock Ellis, a sexologist at the time. Previous sexologists had considered this condition to be degenerative, but Ellis saw it as natural and not harmful, and he even wrote an introduction to the novel for Hall. It’s impossible to really draw comparisons between this historical conception and our moderns concepts of identity, as the idea of the “invert” ties gender and sexuality together, and considers same sex love to be a feature of either masculine or feminine biology. Stephen is extremely masculine in appearance, and likes to do traditionally male activities, and this masculinity is seen as inherently tied to her love of women. The love of women is borne out of her gender identity, effectively. So in that regard, she falls somewhere in between a butch lesbian and a straight transgender man, and the story reads as much like the history of one as the other, in terms of modern labels. Hall saw Ellis’s ideas as liberating in comparison to previous notions of physical degeneracy or mental illness, but it’s not always completely clear in the novel that Hall has left those notions behind. Hall also draws on her Catholic beliefs, sometimes presenting Stephen as a martyr.
As a story, it’s a pretty miserable read. Hall hoped to write the book as an apology for the “invert”, so that people might accept them. But pity is the main emotion called for. “Inverts” are shown to be unusually sensitive, not because of any social stigma, but apparently because of their biology. Stephen spends a lot of time in periods of dark depression, and even when she finds love, seems largely to loathe herself and feel guilty for warping the life of her lover. Hall defined herself as a “congenital invert”, and it doesn’t read as a story written by someone who is at all at peace with their own sense of self.
So, read Well of Loneliness if you’re really interested in the history of queer identities, but don’t expect a wildly entertaining ride.