First published in 1928 – The Well of Loneliness was immediately banned when it appeared and was subject to a famous trial. Once thought of as the archetypal ‘lesbian novel’ it is now quite often criticised for being dated, the prose rather overwritten. Though I understand these criticisms I don’t agree with them, yes there are aspects of this novel that now seem rather dated, however it is still I think a superb novel. The prose, a little flowery perhaps is quite glorious in its way, Hall’s descriptions of the Malvern countryside particularly lovely. When Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness she was riding on a crest of a wave of success, she knew full well what publishing such a book would do to her career, but feeling it to be a story that had to be told went ahead anyway. The novel is now I believe still studied for its themes of sexuality and gender, and as such it is an interesting social document, aside from being a really excellent and still hugely readable novel.
*(I’ve tried not to put spoilers into this review – apologies if some slip in, I did want to discuss it as fully as I can)*
“The world hid its head in the sands of convention, so that seeing nothing it might avoid Truth. It said to itself: ‘If seeing’s believing, then I don’t want to see — if silence is golden, it is also, in this case, very expedient.”
Stephen Gordon is born into an aristocratic Worcestershire family toward the end of the Victorian era. Her parents have been married for ten years; the longed for child is expected and assumed by both to be a boy, and Sir Philip chooses the name Stephen for his first born. When the child arrives it’s a girl, a girl baby who instantly does look a little different a “narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby”. Sir Philip decides to stick with the name Stephen anyway. As Stephen grows up, she is not quite like other little girls of the time, she doesn’t like fussy dresses, or genteel pursuits, she loves her horses, hunting and the Malvern Hills. At seven Stephen develops a debilitating crush on a housemaid and is utterly devastated when she spies her kissing a footman. During her childhood years Stephen’s relationship with her beautiful mother Anna, is a distant one, Anna is the love of Sir Philip’s life, she I suppose pretty typical of a type of Victorian upper-class woman, pretty, fragile, protected and innocent. Anna Gordon has no idea that there might be anything about her daughter that might be different, or that might cause her difficulties. Sir Philip however is very much aware; he adores his awkward daughter they have a very special bond, often riding out together with the hunt. At around the time Stephen develops her infatuation for Collins the housemaid, Sir Philip has already consulted a book by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and so starts his understanding of his daughter’s true nature, the truth of which he chooses to conceal from his wife, and also from his confused daughter, when later she asks him, whether there is something wrong with her.
As Stephen grows up she finds local society more and more difficult, aware that she is sometimes the subject of gossip and sly smiles. One of her most important and touching relationships is with her horse Rafferty (tears alert!) – Hall understands perfectly the relationship people have with the animals in their lives. Her other staunch ally and companion is her governess Puddle, who in her grey quiet way also understands Stephen, far more than Stephen realises. With the passage of time, experience, and finding a certain book in her father’s study, Steven comes to identify herself as an ‘invert’.
“You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet–you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely. Have courage; do the best you can with your burden. But above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind. Let your life go to prove this–it would be a really great life-work, Stephen.”
In time scandal and family discord forces Stephen to leave her beloved home of Morton in Worcestershire. At twenty one she is a very wealthy young woman, and so with her faithful Puddle she sets up home in London, Rafferty stabled nearby. With an ageing Puddle running her home and looking after Stephen just as she ever did, Stephen begins to write her first novel. A novel, that when it is published is an extraordinary success. Just before the outbreak of war Stephen meets Jonathan Brockett, a fellow ‘invert’ who urges her to go to Paris for the sake of her art. When the First World War comes Stephen finds occupation with the ambulance service, eventually joining a unit on the front line. Here she meets Mary Llewellyn, with whom she sets up home in Paris after the war.
I think some of the criticism that has been levelled against this novel, is that it is particularly negative. Stephen’s life and the lives of many of the people she associates with during her time in Paris are unhappy, lost, cast out from the places and the people they loved; they exist in a shadowy world, thrown together by necessity.
“Since this is a hard and sad truth for the telling; those whom nature has sacrificed to her ends–her mysterious ends that often lie hidden–are sometimes endowed with a vast will to loving, with an endless capacity for suffering also, which must go hand in hand with their love.”
One of the most fascinating things about this novel (and I agree many of the ideas, are dated and would seem at best inaccurate to us today as well dreadfully stereotypical) is that with this novel Hall is saying that women like herself were very much born – their ‘inversion’ god given and natural. This was not an idea that would have been understood at this time, and though Hall is crying out for homosexual people to be allowed rights of existence, her portrayal of their existence is often strangely negative. Nevertheless I loved the novel, it is one that will continue to cause debate, that is one of the things I loved.