Pamflet (mini) Salon: The Well of Loneliness

At the Pamflet (mini)salon this week we discussed the seminal lesbian novel, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. From the start we were at a slight disadvantage, not counting a lesbian among us to comment on the relevance/resonance of the story to them personally and so we missed that pertinent perspective, and the general consensus was that we all universally loathed the book. Oh dear. That did raise the question though of the definition of a ‘classic’ – is this book a classic because of its groundbreaking subject matter and how controversial it was at the time, rather than because of the quality of the writing and the story?

The novel follows the life of a girl named Stephen (which among the less mature members of the book club, oh ok all of us, triggered memories of Adam & Joe’s “Stephen!”) who discovers as she grows up that she is ‘different’. She likes to wear boys clothes, ride horses and fence. She hates dresses, having long hair and the thought of being kissed by a man. Her father (who wanted a boy) suspects that she is an ‘invert’ (their word, not ours!) but never tells her. Then he’s killed by a tree. The rest of the book follows Stephen’s (“Stephen!”) torturous trajectory as she tries to find a kind of acceptance within herself and with the world.

The general consensus of the group was that a) the book wasn’t terribly well written – faaaar too long for starters and poor characterisation and b) we couldn’t care less what happened to any of the characters. In the way she treats the young, vulnerable Mary who becomes her lover, Stephen (“Ste…!), seems to be replicating the dominant, patronising, controlling attitude that you might expect from a man at that time. This led on to a discussion of the complex gender and sexual relationships that surround women who consider themselves to be transgender and therefore a straight man trapped in a woman’s body, rather than a lesbian.

One more intriguing aspect of the book was the way it touched on the marginalised women of society at that time (the early 20th century) – both lesbian and straight, the world was a harsh place to survive as a woman if you didn’t fit neatly and obediently into the niche expected of you – marriage and children. Those who want to live together, quietly, free from ridicule. Those who wanted to serve their country in the armed forces, or live a life of study in academia – all nearly impossible. I pointed out that Agatha Christie deals with these women very compassionately in her books, depicting the fear and exhaustion of having to earn a living in order to survive in a world that doesn’t want you to work. This is the position several of the characters in the Well of Loneliness – Angela Crosby, Mary and Puddle – find themselves in, and the indignity and vulnerability of their situations is well rendered. So there is an insight into the situation for women at the time, and that is a good thing. There’s a beautiful passage that describes how women like this came alive in the war:

“They rallied to the call of their country superbly, and may it not be forgotten by England… They were part of the universal convulsion and were being accepted as such, on their merits. And although their Sam Browne belts remained swordless, their hats and their caps without regimental badges, a battalion was formed in those terrible years that would never again be completely disbanded. War and death had given them a right to life, and life tasted sweet, very sweet to their palates. Later on would come bitterness, disillusion, but never again would such women submit to being driven back to their holes and corners. They had found themselves – thus the whirligig of war brings in its abrupt revenges.”

 

There’s an excellent article written about the significance of the novel on AfterEllen which adds great insight to the dicussion and also supplies some very helpful cultural context for the book. This is clearly an incredibly important book in the development of lesbian identity – it caused such a storm on its publication that Radclyffe Hall was put on trial for obscenity and the likes of Virginia Woolf and EM Forster spoke in her defence (yay go EM!), and it was banned in the UK for decades. And we could easily imagine this book being the equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye to a girl struggling to come to terms with her own sexual identity (as Stephen says to herself, “What am I?”) Neatly, in one of our other book club reads – Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home – the graphic novel about a girl coming to terms with her own sexuality while growing up in a funeral home, she reads The Well of Loneliness! But there’s no escaping the fact that she left us cold. She was independently wealthy, so technically able to live her life in any way she chose – either plunging into the gay scene in Paris, or living in blissful isolation with her lover by the Med. Although restricted in many ways, she had more freedom than many other women at the time, and I think it’s the character’s selfishness that irritated us most. Although at the end she does make the ultimate sacrifice. But I won’t spoil it for you!

Finally, we thought about how strange it is that lesbianism often isn’t taken as seriously as being gay – people still to this day think Lindsay Lohan was pretending at being a lesbian, or it was just a ‘phase’ she was going through. Conversely, many high-profile women are having lesbian relationships later in life – Mary Portas, Alison Goldfrapp, Susie Orbach – but they might not necessarily define it in that way. Today it seems acceptable to say you’ve fallen in love with an individual, regardless of their gender. Sexuality is far more fluid and subtle than those confining terms ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ would suggest.

This led on to thinking about how in centuries gone by, women were encouraged to develop passionate friendships that bordered on sexual (kissing, sleeping in the same bed, hand-holding) to keep them ‘pure’ until their marriage. (Again this is touched upon in the AfterEllen piece, and also in the brilliant Bachelor Girl by Betsy Israel) Some of the love letters between gal pals from the Victorian era would make you blush – but they wouldn’t have dreamed of defining themselves as lesbian. Probably because they didn’t know such a thing could exist – apparently Queen Victoria refused to countenance such a ridiculous notion, which is why male homosexuality was illegal, but lesbianism wasn’t – cos it couldn’t possibly be true!

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