The well of loneliness: ‘The most corrosive book in history’

Suppression would be the creation of both the novel and its author’s reputation, and yet, in the decades since, this supposed sapphic survival guide has continued to attract much criticism from various quarters. In the 1970s, for example, she became the focus of a backlash from second-wave feminist critics for her patriarchal worldview. And by 2017, Winterson still hadn’t warmed to it, though she chose it as the book that helped her come out, arguing that “a book can be bad and still have a place in history.” Writing this time in The Guardian, he stated: “The Well reads like a memoir of misery long before it was invented. It is the fictional story of Stephen Gordon and his struggle with the fact that he thinks, acts, loves and wants to be. a man. Radclyffe Hall had no idea that sexuality is a spectrum, not a binary.”

Hall’s beliefs definitely complicate the book’s legacy. Contrary to what might be expected of a pioneering lesbian author, her politics were reactionary at best. As an expatriate living in Italy in the run up to World War II, she not only supported Mussolini’s fascist government, but she also supported book censorship. And if Victorian femininity was not for her, she fully supported it for others, believing that a woman’s place was in her home.

For Professor Doan, a lot has changed in terms of how the novel is discussed. “When you read him today, you feel like there’s a lot about him that makes you feel quite ashamed,” he says, noting that, for example, there was hardly any talk about his racism, even a couple of decades ago.

These days, he prefers to direct anyone interested in learning more about Hall to Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself, a short story written in 1926 in preparation for The Well. This story holds the key to the novel’s real meaning, Doan believes. “To me, that story is about a human being who is trapped in the wrong body, has been designated as a woman and doesn’t feel like a woman and has a fantasy of becoming a man. There’s no desire, love or romance in that.” story, and it made me realize that The Well of Loneliness isn’t about love between women either.”

Doan says that she was never really convinced that The Well was a lesbian novel. As she explains, “It would be a better text to think about in the context of trans history. Publishers would be missing a business opportunity right now if they didn’t try to push its cultural significance to the trans community. If they want to identify a text that is at the beginning of awareness in the culture of the possibility of a trans existence, it has to be The Well of Loneliness.”

So should we use a different set of pronouns for Hall and Stephen? Some academics, including Jana Funke, Associate Professor of English and Sexuality Studies at the University of Exeter and editor of Radclyffe Hall’s The World and Other Unpublished Works, now use gender-neutral pronouns for both author and protagonist.

Maureen Duffy takes a different view, seeing Stephen’s gender nonconformity as a function of Hall’s discomfort with her own lesbianism. Writing in his introduction to the most recent edition of Penguin Modern Classics, Duffy uses a pivotal scene from the novel to make her point: defending himself to her mother, Stephen justifies her sexual intimacy with Angela Crossby explaining that she ” never felt like a woman.” It’s an argument Hall insists on, Duffy suggests, “to justify her own very active homosexuality, which she embraced despite her adherence to Roman Catholicism.”

It is worth noting that even for readers for whom Hall clearly had a desire, however latent, to make a transition, The Well of Loneliness is by no means a straightforward text. Oliver Radclyffe, the trans author of a forthcoming monograph, Adult Human Male, changed his last name in tribute to Hall. He has written on the website Electric Literature about how her feelings for the book changed as she embarked on her own journey from English woman raising four children in suburban Connecticut, to lesbian femme and trans man. As he puts it, “it appeared that Radclyffe Hall had not only been a gay rights activist, but also a patriarchal misogynist with consensually ambiguous dominance issues.”

Ultimately, it’s not possible to know whether or not Hall would have identified as transgender, a term that wasn’t coined until much later, and labeling this long-dead queer person as such is innately problematic. What is certain is that more than 90 years after its ban, this decidedly flawed piece of literature continues to make readers think again. As Doan says, “We’re up against the complexity of it, and that can only be a good thing.”

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