Such a bargain on my Kindle!
Way back at the beginning of this year when I was writing my dissertation (in which I looked at the aesthetics and self-authorship of gay identity) Amazon began sneakily recommending a lot of gay fiction to me. Of course I am a sucker for those blinking little adverts, especially when they are for astonishingly cheap e-books. Thus, I bought The Well of Loneliness on my kindle where it has languished up until this past week. Published in 1928 this novel was seen as controversial due to its depiction of relationships between women, despite there being no explicitly sexual scenes (the most risqué mentions are those of kissing) it does specify that the bonds between the women are those of lovers.
The protagonist Stephen Gordon is christened Stephen because her parents were expecting a boy, and thus decided to stick with their already-chosen name. Almost as if this defines her growing up Stephen proves to be a child more interested in masculine physical pursuits such as riding and fencing, setting her apart from other girls who mimic their mothers in dress and play with dolls. She develops a crush on the housemaid – Collins, and her devotion to her borders on disturbing; Stephen kneels for hours on end in the hope that by damaging her own knees she might absolve some of the pain from Collins’ bad knee. This girlish crush is destroyed when Stephen finds Collins kissing a footman.
Her devastation over Collins, Stephen knows is somehow unspeakable – as many of her feelings are. However her father seems to understand her, he is close to her and supportive throughout her life. As she reaches her teenage years Radclyffe Hall portrays him as reading literature to do with homosexuality, or ‘inverts’ as they are called in the text. It is hinted that he suspects the nature of Stephen’s feelings however he never reveals this to her. Upon his death Stephen is left alone aged eighteen, with her mother whom she has never been close to.
Stephen’s first adult love affair is with a neighbour’s wife – Angela Crossby. We suspect this is more from boredom on Angela’s part however it is wholly devotional love that Stephen once again offers. When Stephen discovers Angela is having an affair with a man, Angela panics that her husband will also discover her infidelities and shows him letters that Stephen has sent her – claiming it is all lovesickness on Stephens part. These letters are then sent to Stephen’s mother who is furious with Stephen. Feeling increasingly alienated in her childhood home of Morton Stephen leaves and travels to London where she becomes a writer, producing a brilliantly received first novel. She then struggles with a second one, and it is suggested to her by an acquaintance that this is because she is denying herself of her true feelings – and that the only way to write good novels is through experiencing these feelings which will then translate to great writing. Thus emboldened she moves to Paris, and begins to experience the ‘invert’ culture.
I’ll leave the ending out of this recap, suffice to say that Stephen does find love but it does not end happily. I found this an interesting read for many reasons; firstly the depiction of Stephen – she is determinedly masculine, oft expressing her wish to be a man throughout her childhood and in later years adopts male dress, indulging in expensive tailoring instead of dresses. She struggles throughout with her identity, and it was intriguing to see how the war affected and enabled her. For the first time many women were able to take up male jobs and Stephen is one of these – she drives an ambulance and indeed finds herself working amidst the actual fighting. Historically this development was a landmark for women’s rights, but I had never considered its importance to the lesbian or transgender woman before.
Loved the photographs of the author, even on Kindle they still looked great.
Written a long time ago I think that this is still an incredibly relevant book; Stephen worries throughout the time spent with her partner about how society is going to react to them, how this will affect their relationship and how powerless she is to provide her partner with the children, home and family that she deserves. I think that this is reflected particularly in the ending of the book, as it is quite distressing and you really get a sense of how helpless Stephen feels. As a reader you feel helpless too – I personally had a deep sense of the injustice done to Stephen in that she wasn’t able to live openly with her feelings, and this sentiment was all the more real as I’m aware that homosexuality is still not tolerated globally.
Have any of you read this book? I think some might be put off by when it was published, and admittedly there are points that seem dated within the narrative – however overall the message is just as relevant today.