Lesbrary Review: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Whew. I finally finished reading The Well of Loneliness. This isn’t the first time I read it, but when Cass of Bonjour, Cass! suggested we read it for pride (finished a little late), I was all for tackling this classic lesbian tome. Once again, I must reiterate: don’t let this be the first lesbian book you read! It’s way too depressing for someone first coming out. Read a nice HEA book first.

This was also the first book I’ve read that I took extensive notes through, so you’ll be hearing a lot about it. Cass and I are also going to discuss it at some point and post the conversation on both our blogs.

The Well of Loneliness (WoL from now on) takes on the majority of Stephen Gordon’s life. One of the ongoing questions I had while re-reading WoL was weather this was a story about a lesbian, as it has been traditionally interpreted, or a transgender story. This was published in 1928, so there wasn’t really the language to describe it that way at the time. I’m not entirely sure how it should be classified (or whether it’s appropriate to apply 2010 terms to a 1928 story at all), so I’d love to hear your interpretations.

Okay, time to go through my notes. My very first note is how much I dislike the first sentence: “Not very far from Upton-on-Severn–between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills–stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramberly; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.”

I hate scenery descriptions in books, so that’s just a personal preference, but man is that a sprawling, overwrought sentence. It’s no wonder it’s so hard to pick up this book; that sentence would turn anyone away. Luckily, the whole book isn’t written like that.

Actually, the clunkiness of that first sentence aside, I think Hall’s writing is quite good. She invokes imagery really well, like in this part: “[…] and his weariness had flown to her bosom as a spent bird will fly to its nest–as indeed such a bird had once flown to her, she told him, taking refuge from the perils of a storm” (pg 11). Hall goes on to describe Stephen’s parents by saying “as they ripened, so their love ripened with them” (pg 12). I think that beautiful. I also liked the description of Stephen’s birth:

“But: ‘Man proposes–God disposes,’ and so it happened that on Christmas Even, Anna Gordon was delivered of a daughter; a narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby, that yelled and yelled for three hours without ceasing, as though outraged to find itself ejected into life.” (pg 13)

Part of the evidence for WoL being a trans novel is that both Stephen’s parents desperately wanted a son (not unusual for the time) and while Anna was pregnant with Stephen, she was convinced Stephen was a boy. They started calling the unborn son Stephen and kept the name even when Stephen turned out to be female. Stephen is also constantly described as looking exactly like her (using the pronouns used in the book) father.

This is not a happy novel. We’re only a couple pages in when we realize that Stephen’s mom resents her (as an infant onwards) for some reason, possibly because Stephen gets too much attention from her father. WoL is never a chipper book, not even in title, so it shouldn’t be too surprising, but still.

This is the part of WoL that’s depressing: it’s still relevant. 82 years later, Hall still addresses issues we’re facing today. In fact, WoL takes a firm “born that way” stance; Stephen is only seven when she starts crushing on one of the female servants.

On the trans side of things, Stephen dresses up as a boy constantly, taking on the persona of Nelson. She also says “I must be a boy, ’cause I feel exactly like one” (pg 20). A little later on that same page, Stephen is described as loathing dresses and any feminine clothing, and “she was conscious of feeling all wrong, because she so long to be someone quite real, instead of just Stephen pretending to be Nelson.” A couple pages later, she asks her father “Do you think I could be a man, supposing I tried very hard–or prayed, Father?” (pg 26) She also complains later that “being a girl spoil[s] everything” (pg 37).

Of course, on the other hand, who wouldn’t want to be a man at this point? Being a woman in the time period Stephen was living through was entirely restrictive, especially if you’re the independent sort. It wouldn’t be a stretch for Stephen to just be  a butch lesbian who envies men their freedom. I love this little passage from Stephen as a kid, because I think it so aptly describes that knight-in-shining-armor lesbian (in fact, my girlfriend is one):

“I’m going to learn fencing so as I can kill your brother-in-law who’s a beast to your sister, I’m going to fight duels for wives in distress, like men do in Paris, and I’m going to learn how to lift pianos on my stomach by expanding something–the diapan muscles–and I’m going to cut my hair off!” (pg 58)

I don’t know how you can’t be completely charmed by Stephen at this age. Actually, at this point her life isn’t so bad, because she’s got all her hobbies and her supportive father, and at this point she doesn’t really notice her mother’s disdain for her. Later, though, Stephen does some very stupid thing. I feel like she doesn’t have enough respect for women. She doesn’t let her lover make her own decisions and handles things in a very paternalistic, “I know what’s best for you” way. She ends up sabotaging herself and her relationships through pride a lot.

WoL has many small themes running through it. Her lesbianism/transgender issues, sure, but also her deep love for Morton (where she grew up), her worship of her parents’ relationship, writing, the tragedy of aging, and religion. There are small peculiarities that run through WoL, like the animals (and the occasional tree and sometimes houses) having real, articulate thoughts that they are just unable to communicate to humans. Also, looking bad, the amount of times the word “queer” comes up is entertaining.

The Well of Loneliness is not that long a book; it’s only about 450 pages, but it feels long. It feels like an autobiography of Stephen’s entire life, partly because you can’t help but think Stephen is based heavily on Radclyffe (I mean, Stephen is even a writer). It all seems so deeply personal: all of the emotions are intense and immediate.

One small thing: something I hate about reading books written way back is the surprise racism. Everything’s going along fine, and… surprise racism. WoL has it. Including “work like veritable n*ggers” (pg 288) and “His eyes had the patient, questioning expression common to the eye of most animals and to those of all slowly evolving races” (pg 362). Luckily, it’s only one scene, but that is ridiculously cringe-worthy.

To finish up, I wanted to reiterate how many of the issues we’re still discussing today are covered in this book. It’s been eight decades and we’re still trying to tackle the same old problems. DADT? Stephen wants to help in the war effort and is afraid of being turned away. Her and other “inverts” join and drive ambulances, an extremely difficult and dangerous job. She discusses how this is one of the few arenas that “inverts” can feel like participants in their own country, can crawl out of the darkness and live with the rest of the world. And the US is still not letting gay people serve openly. One of the central concerns in WoL is Stephen’s desperate want to provide for her lover a marriage and children, the respect that is inherent in that relationship, and the powerlessness of not being able to give that protection. And we’re still having that discussion, 82 years later.

Have you read Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall? What did you think of it? Do you think WoL is more of a lesbian or trans novel, or is there a problem inherent in the question?

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17 thoughts on “Lesbrary Review: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

  1. Pingback: The Lesbrary
  2. I read The Well of Loneliness about 40-45 years ago, while still a teenager. Until then I had believed that lesbians and ‘homo’s (as they were called back then) were ‘un-natural’. The book opened my eyes to the heart-rendering journey that some people have to take to become themselves – whether that is in sexual orientation or escaping horrible childhoods. I found it to be a life changing book.

  3. I also wanted to note that I loved that you illustrated your review with so many covers of the novel – it provided great visual pleasure and was a fascinating history of the ways in which publishers have visualized lesbians over the years.

    I read WoL several years ago and was surprised that I liked it so much and found it a compelling story; I knew it was depressing before reading it, but I still think its an important historical “document” of sorts. I should re-read it to see how its changed for me.

    I agree with you on the racism – it really comes out and slaps the modern reader and its scary to think about how “normal” such language would have been in the 1920s.

    1. I love all the different interpretations people have with different covers, but I notice they all lean towards the feminine, despite Stephen abhoring being feminine.

      I felt the same way! I wasn’t expecting that I would enjoy it, but I did. The ending frustrates me and it’s a little slow to start, but other than that I quite like it.

      It really does. It’s just so casually thrown around.

  4. This was the first lesbian book I found. The year was 1961 or 62 and I found it in the magazine/paperback center of the local grocery store. I flashed it in front of my mother and said Can I buy this? and she said yes. It was the last time she ever saw it. Yes, it was depressing but it was a lesbian novel. And everyone was alive in the end. On the positive side, I looked at my life and decided that it wasn’t as depressing as Stephen’s. I also considered that my life could be better. This was from the optimism of youth. It’s still a classic and while it’s dated, it says how far we have come — and in some ways, how far we have yet to go.

    1. That is true, at least they survived and didn’t get put into an asylum or anything.

      “It’s still a classic and while it’s dated, it says how far we have come — and in some ways, how far we have yet to go.”

      That really concisely describes the appeal of WoL to me.

  5. Ok, I didn’t read this book. But I listened to my gf read the book and make notes. And you know what I got from this book?
    This book is depressing. Straight up. This is why we have happy ending books indeed!

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