John C Adams Reviews 'The Well of Loneliness'

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

(Jonathan Cape, 1928)

The path to acceptance and equality for the LGBT community is a long and hard one, and it's still being navigated by many facing dangerous situations, both here in the UK and around the world. Earlier generations didn't have it much easier either, in terms of social hostility and ostracism, as this classic novel of lesbian love makes plain.

Radclyffe Hall studied at King's College, London before going on to write a number of novels dealing with the theme of sexual and romantic relationships between women. She won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 'Adam's Breed', although 'The Unlit Lamp' and 'The Well of Loneliness' are better known today, having both been republished by the Virago Modern Classics series.

Stephen Gordon's parents long for a son, but when Sir Philip and Lady Anna have a girl they call her Stephen anyway and her father proceeds to raise Stephen as if she were a boy. That suits Stephen, but it creates much tension in her relationship with Anna and baffles Sir Philip until he starts doing some research into same-sex relationships. In the conservative rural society of middle England in the late Victorian period he worries for Stephen's future. It is inconceivable that she would find acceptance and validation in the county set they go hunting with and marry into.

Stephen's childhood is a troubled one, partly due to her struggles with gender identity and partly because of the hostility she receives from almost everyone she meets, children and adults alike. An early romance proves abortive and she falls back on education, sport and going to live in London to take her away from the toxic environment. Later, with literary success established, she moves to Paris.

'The Well of Loneliness' isn't a particularly optimistic novel, although I enjoyed it and thought it was a compelling portrait of the difficulties faced by members of the LGBT community in the past. Those struggles continue today, with hostility and violence a feature of many lives. It's important to remember that when suggesting, as some do, that 'The Well of Loneliness' is now outdated for its painful portrayal of the alienation and longing to belong felt by a lesbian woman over a hundred years ago. On the other hand, it is possible to be honest in fiction about challenges and problems without the whole novel descending into gloominess. Hall tries to strike a balance, and in many ways succeeds. For lesbians of the time and for many since 'The Well of Loneliness' marks a pathway to a fulfilling life, albeit one that previously meant living in secret with the ever-present threat of exposure and condemnation hanging over them when it was published. Many people still have no alternative but to live this way. There is something 'glass half full' about Stephen Gordon's life, even as I admired her physical courage, her determined personality and her intelligence. This is partly remedied by a subplot involving two women whose financial circumstances are less robust than Stephen's. There is also a steady stream of understanding and supportive characters, such as Stephen's two governesses, although the extent to which these single women can understand her sexual orientation is hinted at rather than fully brought out.

In some ways 'The Well of Loneliness' is a confusing jumble of religious tone jostling alongside a realistic tale of romance and social mores in the Victorian age and beyond the First World War into the Twenties. Hall became a devout Catholic and the importance of faith in her life is never far from this work, which at times provides an uplifting feel but also runs the risk (not always averted) of falling into the trap of suggesting that Stephen is unavoidably destined to remain unhappy.

I really enjoyed this book's early sections for its vivid portrayal of country life in the Victorian period, the touching love that Stephen feels for her horse and her ancestral home, Moreton, which she will inherit after her mother dies. 'The Well of Loneliness' remains an intensely sad novel, however, despite Stephen's literary success and brave attempts to find happiness in romance. Stephen was a resilient and sincere character who I liked a great deal and whose struggles would be relatable to many members of the LGBT community and beyond today.

The comments section is open!

Many thanks to Jordan McDonald, VT and Magda V for providing the cover images for this blogpost via Unsplash.

See you on Friday for a 'Fantasy Friday' review.

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