While its literary worth has been called into question, and many of its values have become outmoded, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness remains a beacon for sexual self-discovery, writes Hephzibah Anderson in BBC Culture’s Banned Books series.
When a book is banned due to obscenity, a reader can be forgiven for having certain expectations. Those expectations, in the case of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, are decidedly misleading. This is no Lady Chatterley’s Lover, despite the clasping of hands and flushing of cheeks that fill its nearly 500 pages.
Both were published in 1928 and were later banned, but whereas DH Lawrence described his protagonists’ trysts in language that requires asterisks here, Hall stops at the bedchamber door. Apart from a kiss that is “full on the lips, as a lover,” “that night they were not divided” is as racy as The Well of Loneliness gets.
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Of course, the controversy stemmed not so much from what was being done as it did from who was doing it with whom. If Lady Chatterley caused a stir by demonstrating that lust knows no class boundaries, Hall’s novel was even more shocking because its protagonist, despite being named Stephen Gordon, is a woman, and her ostensibly masculine tendencies extend far beyond her name. She weightlifts and refuses to ride side saddle; she has her clothes made by a tailor rather than a dressmaker; and she has had unusually intense feelings for other women since she was a child.
In early adulthood, those girlish crushes blossom into a passionate affair with Angela Crossby, a bored American housewife. Stephen becomes a writer and travels to Paris, where she is taken under the wing of a lesbian salonnière after his mother, Lady Anna, discovers the truth and exiles her from the family home. Later, during World War One, she joins the ambulance corps and falls in love with fellow servicewoman Mary Llewellyn, from whom Stephen will be “not divided.”
The novel follows her developing understanding of differences she’s noticed in herself for as long as she can remember – differences labeled “queer” behind her back.
The case it dares to make for recognition and tolerance of Stephen’s sexuality, however, sealed its fate when it landed in the dock at Bow Street Magistrates Court mere months after publication. At the novel’s feverish conclusion, hear her plea: “Stand up and defend us. Recognize us before the entire world, oh God. Give us the right to exist as well!” This novel not only attempts to humanize the experience of outcast lesbians, but it also advocates for equality.
The Well of Loneliness became a beacon of hope for generations of women – and men – navigating their own difficult paths to sexual self-discovery.
In 2019, papers discovered in Hall’s archive at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center revealed that thousands of readers had written to her to protest the novel’s ban. “It has made me want to live and go on,” one person wrote. Lesbianism, unlike male homosexuality, was not illegal in the United Kingdom in 1928, though this should not be confused with tolerance. In fact, Stephen’s prayer was destined to become even more radical-seeming in the coming decades, and The Well of Loneliness became a beacon for generations of women – and men – on their own difficult paths to sexual self-discovery.
A reader named Rene Sawyer, who was a teenager when the book was finally republished in 1949, explained its significance in a recording for the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Archive: “It was my bible to me. To me, that book had every aspect of tenderness, love, heartache, anguish, problems – physical and mental problems – it had everything. That was a lifeline for me at the time.”
While the book’s historical and cultural significance cannot be denied, the text inevitably feels dated almost a century later. For starters, there’s Hall’s language. The first edition included a “appreciation” from her friend Havelock Ellis, the sexologist whose theory of “sexual inversion” she supported, and his term “invert,” which had previously been restricted to scientific literature, appears.
The apologetic framing of Stephen’s sexuality, as well as the sheer pessimism surrounding Hall’s depiction of gay life, are also off-putting. As a devout Catholic, she named her protagonist Stephen after the first Christian martyr, and she eventually has Stephen embrace drastic self-sacrifice in her love life.
The novel has also been chastised for its limited depiction of lesbianism as so determinedly butch that it appears to be a form of heterosexuality. It’s also been called biphobic for how it portrays Mary Llewellyn, who has relationships with men as well as Stephen, and misogynistic for how it denies her any say over her own future. Meanwhile, its depictions of gay men read like crude caricatures. There’s also racism and classism, which can be shocking in a text that’s been hailed as so radically progressive in literary history.
There’s also no getting around the fact that this isn’t great literature. The book is lengthy and filled with stilted dialogue. With a few pronouns changed, it resembles pulp romances of the time. Jeanette Winterson declared in The New York Times in 2008 that “The Well of Loneliness is one of the worst books ever written.”
As with other banned books, the novel’s status is inextricably linked to its censorship. According to Professor Laura Doan, co-editor of Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness, BBC Culture, “In a way, The Well of Loneliness’ function is to convince you that lesbianism is important – lesbianism is important enough that the government can ban and silence us, and that works very well to put you on the cultural map.”
However, in recent years, new debate has fueled discussion of the novel. This time, the controversy stems from the extent to which we choose to view it through the lens of twenty-first-century gender identity politics. Could one of the world’s most famous lesbian novels be a trans novel? A woman who dresses like a man, goes by a man’s name, and is described as being “midway between the sexes.” Whatever your conclusion, there’s no denying that this book continues to challenge conventional wisdom and polarize readers, sometimes in ways that even the author could not have predicted. Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, born on August 12, 1880 in Bournemouth, had a difficult childhood. Her wealthy, philandering father abandoned the family when she was a baby, and her mother, an American who’d already been divorced and was prone to violent outbursts, despised her daughter’s boyish ways. She later remarried an Italian singing master, who is said to have abused Hall.
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