Friday 16 December 2016

The Well of Loneliness

'The Well of Loneliness' by Radclyffe Hall.
This fascinating Brainpickings article outlines the ins and outs of the obscenity trials, both here and in the US, that made this book and its author cultural icons of the 20th century. I nearly gave up on it during the early chapters as it is deathly dull, as a young child she is just confused and made bereft by the loss of her beloved father, but once Stephen begins to confront rather than hide from the difference she knows marks her out it became more interesting. The book charts the life of a young woman as she comes to understand her sexuality and gender identity, from her childhood crush on a young housemaid, through an intense friendship with a married woman, to an enduring love affair with a young woman she meets during the First World War. Her unease with all things female is evident from a young age and her inability to conform the social expectations weighs heavily on her as the years pass. Born into the wealth she is somewhat protected from the consequences of what would have been a catastrophic ostracising by her social class; her inheritance provides for her and when events takes her to Paris she has the means to establish a new life for herself. I expected the move to Paris to provide her with a bohemian enclave of support and friendship but it is a rather small and sorry little group that she becomes part of, all of them equally on the run from disapproval. She longs wistfully for home and her childhood throughout the book and never confronts her mother over her cruel rejection. She looks at herself and sees only oddness, never learning to relish and celebrate her unconventionality, constantly, it seems, wishing she were more normal and acceptable. 

I think that what I liked about the book is that it is just the story of a woman trying to make her way in the world, trying to make her mark and trying to protect the person she loves. The style is very dated and somewhat repetitive, long descriptions of Stephen's inner thoughts that go over the same subjects time and again. She is a very strong and likeable character, and in fact most of the other people in the story are somewhat shallow and underdeveloped; the book is about Stephen, the other players just people the background of her life. I think the book of course is very much of its time and the gender roles (and social class divides) that it describes are so much more rigid than nowadays. Here are two contrasting quotes on how Stephen relates to women and men:

"There she would stand with her strong arms folded, and her face somewhat strained in an effort of attention. While despising these girls, she yet longed to be like them - yes, indeed, at such moments she longed to be like them. It would suddenly strike her that they seemed very happy, very secure of themselves as they gossiped together. There was something so secure in their feminine conclaves, a secure sense of oneness, of mutual understanding; each in turn understood the other's ambitions. They might have their jealousies, their quarrels even, but always she discerned underneath, that sense of oneness." (p.74)

"Could Stephen have met men on equal terms, she would always have chosen them as her companions; she preferred them because of their blunt, one outlook, and with men she had much in common - sport for instance. But men found her too clever if she ventured to expand, and too dull if she suddenly subsided into shyness. In addition to this there was something about her that antagonised slightly, an unconscious presumption. shy though she might be, they sensed this presumption; it annoyed them, it made them feel on the defensive. she was handsome but much too large and unyielding both in body and mind, and they liked clinging women. They were oak-trees, preferring the feminine ivy. It might cling rather close, it might finally strangle, it frequently did, and yet they preferred it, and this being so, they resented Stephen, suspecting something of an acorn about her." (p.74-5)

It is very much a cry for tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality and gender fluidity, and the thing that the book does well is to allow the reader to feel the depth of her sorrow and vulnerability over being shunned by society. I am not sure I would recommend it other than for its curiosity value, but it began a conversation that continues to this day and the story has an enduring relevance simply because there is still so far to go towards the tolerance she yearned for.

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