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review 2018-02-28 15:11
The Love That Dare Shout Its Name (and Boy, Does It Ever)
The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall

 

Stephen Gordon grows up in the Malvern Hills of rural Worcestershire, the child of a rich local landowner and an Irish mother, from early on learns to hunt, fence, and engage in a plethora of other outdoor occupations, experiences first amorous stirrings for a plump and pretty housemaid, upon reaching (young) adulthood and after an ill-advised, socially disastrous calf love affair with a married woman leaves home and moves first to London and then to Paris, serves as an ambulance driver on the French front in WWI and becomes a celebrated novelist, but plunges into despair (not for the first time) upon losing out to an erstwhile friend -- a Canadian -- in affairs of the heart.

 

What's so special about this tale, you're wondering?  Well, for one thing, Stephen is not a man but a woman, having been given a male first name by a father who had decided upon his heir's name long before the long-awaited child's eventual birth and not deterred by puny details such as that child's actual sex.  More importantly, however, Stephen is a lesbian; or, as she herself calls it (taking a term from early 20th century sexologist Havelock Ellis), an "invert". 

 

It's never entirely clear whether and to what extent the author, a lesbian herself, actually sought to portray her heroine's first name and upbringing, with its emphasis on (or at the very least, permissive attitude towards) Stephen's pronounced preference for masculine occupations and attitudes -- one prominently explored example being the fact that of course she does not ride side saddle but astride, which is what allows her to become such a superb hunter even before she has reached her teens to begin with; another equally prominent example being Stephen's insistence on wearing male clothes -- as a direct or indirect cause of her sexual leanings, or merely as a collateral effect: Hall does express unambiguously that Stephen is the way she is because God made her thus (i.e., a person's sexuality is a matter of nature, not nurture), which, though now the widely-accepted view, decidedly put her at odds with the beliefs and attitudes of her own time (of which more anon).  Yet, the suggestion remains.

 


Radclyffe Hall, ca. 1930

However, perhaps Hall was merely reflecting her own experience in that regard (or expressing a wish for the sort of tolerant and empowering childhood she would have wanted to have, but didn't actually enjoy herself) -- for unquestionably, she was speaking from her own experience: She, too, preferred male over female dress, dropped her female first name (Margaret) and adopted instead the male nickname (John) that one of her lovers had given to her, and like her heroine, she came to move in the Paris expat scene, including the salon of Natalie Barney (who inspired this novel's character of Valérie Seymour), and she, too, had visited the Canary Islands with her first llover, as does the novel's Stephen with her great love Mary.  (Noël Coward, incidentally, is given quite an extensive cameo in the novel as well.)

 

Radclyffe Hall stated that her intentions in writing this novel were:

* "To encourage inverts to face up to a hostile world in their true colours and this with dignity and courage",

* "To spur all classes of inverts to make good through hard work, faithful and loyal attachments and sober and useful living", and

* "To bring normal men and women of good will to a fuller and more tolerant understanding of the inverted."

A staunch Catholic and conservative in her politics, Hall was in no way prepared for her novel's reception in England, even though in hindsight at the very least, it can hardly be called surprising that, only a few decades after Oscar Wilde's infamous obscenity trial, a book explicitly describing its heroine to have "kissed [another woman] on the mouth, like a lover" and (though never sexually explicit) detailing at great length a woman's emotional trials, tribulations, and pinings for the various female objects of her desire, would have swiftly engendered the same response.  (In Paris and Brittany, on the other hand, the publisher Jonathan Cape, who had shifted printing to France, and Sylvia Beach -- owner of Shakespeare & Co. -- could hardly keep up with demands for copies of the novel produced on French soil.)  While Virginia Woolf's Orlando (published the same year), her own "love letter" to Vita Sackville-West, flitted through centuries and even underwent a mid-novel sex change with nary a critic's batted eyelash, and Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (published a few years later) was saved from censorship by T.S. Eliot's editorial hands, Radclyffe Hall and Stephen Gordon walked straight into early 20th century England's bigoted attitude; obscenity trial, public vilification and virtually every other form of state-sponsored discrimination included.  And this, mind you, over a book that is leagues from the brilliant writing of an Oscar Wilde, a Virginia Woolf, or a T.S. Eliot: Diana Souhami, in her introduction of the novel's Virago Press edition, rightly describes it as "unsensational" in both language and content and goes on to state:

"Radclyffe Hall was no stylist. Her prose is lofty and lacking in irony. She distrusted innovation in literature or art, and shunned what she saw as the modern heresies of Edith Sitwell, Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle or Gertrude Stein.  In her writing she invokes the Lord with discomfiting frequency and uses words like 'betoken' and 'hath.'  [...]

The Well of Loneliness has aspects of a pathological case history, religious parable, propaganda tract and Mills & Boon romance."

Decidedly more blunt, Virginia Woolf even found the novel unreadably dull: "[O]ne simply can't keep one's eye on the page," she wrote to a friend, suggesting that the book's very dullness as such was apt to successfully mask any indecency actually lurking in its pages.  And while I wouldn't go quite so far as Woolf, I do agree with both her and Souhami on the nature of the writing -- oscillating between plain vanilla blandness on the one hand and excessively overwrought emotions on the other hand -- and on the elements identified by Souhami (equal parts pathological case history, religious parable, propaganda tract and Mills & Boon romance).  If this book hadn't set out to do what, in 1920s and 1930s England was a complete and utter "no-no" -- to not only topicalize homosexuality but to boldly put it forth as equally worthy and deserving of acceptance and respect as heterosexual love --, this book would be long forgotten.  As in so many similar cases, it is not this novel's literary merit that has bestowed on it its lasting impact, but its topic and, at least as much (or even more so), society's reaction to that topic.  For those reasons alone, it is still a worthwhile read all these centuries later.

 

I read this for the "H" square of the Women Writers Bingo / Challenge.

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review 2014-11-14 02:15
The Well of Loneliness
The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall

‘God,’ she gasped, we believe; we have told You we believe . . . We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’

 

First things first, the cover on this edition is absurdly unrepresentative of the book. 

 

Second, I liked the book. I would even recommend the book - it's just that it should come with a few notes:

 

1. It is endlessly long. And detailed. For no purpose. Whatsoever. If the length of the book was sustained by beautifully formed expressions it might not feel so long but....

 

2. I should not have read this so soon after reading the works of some master wordsmiths. Hall's famous work is not as clunky as and slightly less preachy than The Unlit Lamp but it just isn't one of the books that would have been remembered for its evocative or imaginative writing.

 

3. The book was written with a purpose - a plea, if you like, that is expressed very openly in the closing chapters. As an example of cultural history or changes in society and attitudes, it is a fantastic read because it contains a lot of information about (and more detailed description of) British upper-middle class society of the early 20th century. So, if you read the book with a purpose of finding out more about these attitudes, this is a great read. 

 

4. The character of Stephen seems to be based - at least to some extent - on Radclyffe Hall herself. As a result, the perspective taken by the main character and the book as a whole is limited to the experience of only one individual - which I guess is the point, but it doesn't make for a complex reading experience. In short, there does not seem to be an attempt to investigate other points of view, or experiment with angles of perception, or layers. There are other characters but few of them are given a real voice.

 

5. I could not help but smirk at the hint of hypocrisy in the books attempt to strive for acceptance of a minority when at the same time there is underlying attitude of snobbishness and chauvinism towards other minorities. 

 

And yet, for all I criticise, there is an also an honesty to the story and Radclyffe Hall's forthright writing style that impresses me and this is worth the hard work of reading it:

 

The Well of Loneliness was published at the same time as Woolf's Orlando - touching on similar themes of identity - but where Orlando shrouded the issue in mysticism, Radclyffe Hall dared to write openly about sexual identity. 

 

The book was banned under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The ban was not lifted until 1959 when the Act was amended. Originally, the test for obscenity was "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall". In 1959 the Act was amended to differentiate controversial works of art and literature with social merit. 

 

The Well of Loneliness was not only book with a lesbian theme to be published in Britain in 1928, but it was the only one banned - because of its forthrightness and its explicitness  - though hardly what would pass as such in today's terms. 

Arguably, it is the book's fate, the notoriety it gained by being banned, that helped The Well of Loneliness to remain in print today.

 

"You will see unfaithfulness, lies and deceit among those whom the world views with approbation. You will find that many have grown hard of heart, have grown greedy, selfish, cruel and lustful; and then you will turn to me and will say: “You and I are more worthy of respect than these people. Why does the world persecute us, Stephen?” And I shall answer: “Because in this world there is only toleration for the so-called normal.” And when you come to me for protection, I shall say: “I cannot protect you, Mary, the world has deprived me of my right to protect; I am utterly helpless, I can only love you”.’

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review 2014-11-09 14:42
The Unlit Lamp
The Unlit Lamp - Radclyffe Hall

‘Joan! I don’t know you awfully well , and of course you’re only a kid as yet, but Elizabeth says you’re clever— and don’t you let yourself be bottled.’

‘Bottled?’ she queried.

‘Don’t you get all cramped up and fuggy, like one does when one sits over a fire all day. I know what I mean, it sounds all rot, only it isn’t rot. You look out! I have a presentiment that they mean to bottle you.’

 

I figured I would The Unlit Lamp before attempting Radclyffe Hall's more famous (or infamous) work The Well of Loneliness - simply because I wanted to see where her writing was coming without having any expectations. 

 

Radclyffe Hall doesn't quite manage to impress with her writing - there is a lot of telling rather than showing going on and a lot of repetition - but, to my surprise, I really liked The Unlit Lamp for being such an anti-hero of a book.

It is as depressing as any Hardy novel I have read, and even when read as a kind of cautionary tale about wasted lives, selfishness, responsibility, and infuriating parental manipulation, the story kept its pace until the very last.

 

Now I am still not sure who I want to slap more - Elizabeth or her mother.

 

 

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review 2011-08-06 00:00
The Well of Loneliness
The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall,Alison Hennegan Historical importance doesn't always make for much of a novel. Stephen comes across very much as a sort of Mary Sue for Hall herself whose ideas about gender roles, class, race, and religion reveal her own degree of privilege. Rather than loving women, I felt as if she held them in contempt.
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review 2010-06-07 00:00
The Well of Loneliness
The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall So, Stephen.. She's born sometime in the late 18-somethings to well off parents, they call her Stephen because her parents have wanted and somewhat expected a boy child for about 10 years, and her father wants to stick with the name they chose. As it turns out, they did pretty much get a boy. As a child stephen likes to pretend she's Nelson, fancies herself in love with the housemaid, throws her dolls away, wears trousers and rides astride her horse like a boy.
Her father is very supportive, and while he's alive she's somewhat protected by him from other peoples opinions and morals. On the other hand, her mother thinks she's very strange and is afraid to be close to her.
Anyway, Stephen grows up, falls in love, suffers tragedies, etce etce. I'll stay away from anything close to a spoiler.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected from this book, but it didn't quite play out like I thought it would.

Firstly, I wasn't even sure after a while that it really was about a lesbian, I mean, Stephen is almost a transexual, when she's young she's thinks she's a boy, and wants to be a boy, and when she's older she's constantly comparing herself with men, in regards to her behaviour, her desires and her social standing. Maybe this is about feminism and women's rights, but I'm not so sure.
The book does seem to give a strange view of lesbianism, of Stephen, and others like her, what I'd call the butch ones, as sort of the only real kind of lesbians. And then the girls that fall in love with them, who seem to be feminine, and swing both ways, they're attracted to men, and to people like stephen. It's a bit of a cliche, and I never really thought of lesbianism that way myself, is this the book that started the cliche of lesbians being all manly? It's kind of odd.

I don't know why Stephen has the view that she can't give a woman a proper relationship, it's probably partly because I can't put myself into the mindset of that era's values and morals, etc. But for some reason she's such a self imposed martyr, she thinks she's wrong, thats the problem, she thinks she's unatural. She begs for the right to live as she is, but she is still ashamed of what she is.

Somehow, I think I was expecting a happily ever after, you know, one woman's triumph against society to live as a lesbian and be happy. But then again, if it was like that, it probably wouldn't have had the impact it did, as a depressive wail against society and 'normal' values.

On the whole, a good book, none the less important for my failing to agree with the character's ideas and values.
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