The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, published in 1928, tells the story of a wealthy British person named Stephen, who participated in two lesbian relationships. The book was not well received by many who thought that the LGBTQIA themes were too immoral to be read.
In spite of these early reviews, the book is not at all lewd. Sex is only obliquely referenced, as the focus is not on carnal pleasures, but on love. In many ways the love that is felt by the main character is reminiscent of earlier Romantic and Victorian era literature, and Hall’s style of writing has you feel how deeply and profoundly Stephen loves.
“On their lips, as in their hearts, would be words such as countless other lovers had spoken, for love is the sweetest monotony that was ever conceived by the Creator.”-Radclyffe Hall
In today’s more nuanced understanding of the differences between gender and sex, as well as increased terminology to help people explain their own identities, we might identify Stephen as AFAB (assigned female at birth), and possibly a trans man and/or genderfluid. Stephen’s entire life is impacted by being, essentially, a man trapped in a woman’s body, who is attracted to other women. While some critics have argued that the book centers too much on self-hatred, I believe these criticisms miss a key theme that resonates throughout the work, which is that the tragedy lies in society’s unwillingness to make allowances for people who exist outside of a simple gender dichotomy and straight sexual orientation.
“Youth has its moments and keen intuition, even normal youth—but the intuition of those who stand midway between the sexes, is so ruthless, so poignant, so accurate, so deadly, as to be in the nature of an added scourge.”-Radclyffe Hall
Stephen is constantly going back to this idea that “she” (the book uses she/her pronouns) was created by God and Nature. While her relationship with God comes to a head in the final chapter of the book, we constantly see that her anger and indeed the overall tension of the book is because of society’s expectation for who and what AFAB people are expected to be and do. There is likewise the continued hope throughout the book that one day there will be a place for people like Stephen—a hope that we are closer to achieving today, but we still have a long way to go. I look at the stories of trans-women (especially Black trans women) being murdered in the U.S. today, and can’t help but read this book with a type of sadness—sadness that the world for which Stephen, and through Stephen the author Radclyffe Hall, wishes still is not here for many.
With these thoughts on my mind, I will say that there are themes in the book that warrant criticism, particularly with issues of socio-economic status and race. I think that Stephen’s status as a wealthy woman who could have opted for a society life is part of the allure of the story, while likewise creating a convenient buffer for the main character. She can afford to live the way she chooses—even when shunned by specific characters—because she has wealth. This puts into sharper relief the other characters, such as her lover Mary, who don’t have the means to live fully. The real discomfort of the relationship between Stephen and Mary boils down to the fact that Mary is wholly dependent upon Stephen. Because Stephen has the money, Mary’s entire existence depends upon Stephen’s decisions, making for an unequal partnership.
Another criticism, though it only comprises a very small section in the narrative, is the concept of race. There is a scene, which barely covers a page, in which two Black men from the US sing at a party. To be honest the scene was uncomfortable, and I can’t help but wonder what Radclyffe Hall’s point was in including the scene. It reminds me a little of the suffragette movement that argued that white women should be allowed to vote by emphasizing racial hierarchies and stereotypes (as Black men were allowed to vote). What makes the scene uncomfortable is an authorial reliance on physiognomy, which is a pseudo-science that claims how a person looks on the outside reflects something on the inside. Fiction authors love playing with physiognomy—George R. R. Martin, for example, loves making giving green eyes to evil characters, while The Picture of Dorian Gray makes the ability to defy physiognomy a supernatural or unnatural experience. Hall is no different, as the characters often have external features that match some internal characteristic (Stephen is manly, a gay male character has effeminate hands, et cetera). The problem is that physiognomy was created and used by people in power to justify horrendous treatment and enslavement of people, particularly BIPOC people. So when Hall uses common racist tropes to describe Black characters as more primitive or animalistic in appearance, there is an underlying tension that is (I think) being revealed, in which white women (in this case, a white, wealthy AFAB character) viewed their oppression in relation to a perceived freedom of Black men.
Because of these scenes in particular, I think it is important to be reminded of intersectionality. Even if this work touches upon LGBTQIA issues that I think resonate today, it is not perfect in that it (ironically perhaps) suppresses other points of view. While I recommend reading this (and do I wish I was assigned this book in school instead of Animal Farm, a book I had to read thrice in high school…..THRICE!) I also recommend keeping in mind that while some voices are being lifted in this story, others are still being oppressed. I likewise think this will be a good book to segue into next month’s choice, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
If you are interested in checking this book out, you can download a free version here: https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20181178