The 1920s were not an easy time to be an out lesbian. Perhaps that’s why Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928, gives off Gothic vibes, despite it just being about navigating life as a lesbian one hundred years ago. Look, the lengthy descriptions of mundane activities – a part of what makes it Gothic to me – means the book is hard to get through. However, I like how the arduous act of reading the book reflects how grueling lesbian life was for the author.
This book speaks to me in ways contemporary lesbian fiction fails to do. The story is about a butch lesbian named Stephen who struggles to navigate life as a lesbian in the 1920s. The silver lining, for me, is that she refuses to conform at all costs. She’d rather be miserable due to being ostracised for having integrity than miserable but accepted for conforming.
The lesbian issues The Well of Loneliness presents, like society equating us with men, internalized homophobia/lesbophobia, lesbian censorship, strenuous relationships with overly feminine mothers – and how this all can affect our relationships – are not alien to me. In fact, I think these issues are just as grim today.
Lesbian drama is not a new phenomenon. In 1907, at the age of 27, Radclyffe Hall met Mabel Batten, 51, at the Bad Homburg spa in Germany. Batten was a well-known singer and was married with a daughter and grandchildren, but the women fell in love. After Batten’s husband died, Hall and Batten lived together. Batten called Hall “John” after discovering Hall’s resemblance to one of her male ancestors of that name. Hall used the nickname for the rest of her life.
In 1915, Hall fell in love with Batten’s cousin Una Troubridge. Troubridge was a sculptor, was married to Vice-Admiral Ernest Troubridge, and they had a daughter together. Troubridge and Hall were known to be a couple in art and literary circles. They remained a couple until Hall’s death, despite the many affairs Hall had with other women.
Radclyffe Hall was Catholic and was unphazed by the Church’s view on homosexuality. When Batten died in 1916, Hall had her corpse embalmed and blessed by the pope. After The Well of Loneliness was cancelled, Hall’s short hair and rejection of feminine expectations became a publicly-known symbol of lesbianism.
When it was published, The Well of Loneliness was unsurprisingly discredited as immoral and corrupting. Editor of the Sunday Express, James Douglas, wrote “I would rather give a healthy boy or healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul,” despite the only sexual reference in the novel being a kiss. While a number of writers supported Hall as a stand against censorship, the book was ruled “obscene” at the Bow Street Magistrates Court. No evidence was called.
1928 British society ironically claimed Hall’s account of homophobia was melodramatic while proving its truthfulness by forbidding the book both legally and socially. It didn’t stop in the 1920s, either. Critics have since mocked the overarching theme of suffering in The Well of Loneliness, labelling Radclyffe Hall “self-hating” for not writing a more perky story. Catharine Stimpson went as far as to say that stories like The Well of Loneliness “gives the homosexual, particularly the lesbian, riddling images of pity, self-pity, and of terror–in greater measure than it consoles.”
Honestly, what do Stimpson and the broader lesbian community expect from Hall? She wrote this novel as a plea for society to humanize lesbians. The book was banned when it was barely sexual or romantic in nature, so how was Hall supposed to write a bubbly romantic comedy? What would scolding lesbians for how they tell their story achieve, especially in much more homophobic times? People who suffer in the way Hall did don’t necessarily want to write about their fantasy life. Sometimes writers going through such a hard time want to expose the cause of it and speak truthfully about their reality.
I’m all for happy endings in lesbian fiction, don’t get me wrong, but pretending that homophobia doesn’t exist, even in 2021 — let alone 1928 — is factually false. The reality is that Hall couldn’t get the acceptance she needed to write a happy story.
The Well of Loneliness is hated by some contemporary lesbians for being “out of step with the discourse of gay pride.” During the 1970s, when the bizarre idea that any woman could ‘choose’ lesbianism as a feminist act came to fruition, the novel was attacked for “equating lesbianism with masculine identification…its mannish [sic] heroine, its derogation of femininity, and its glorification of normative heterosexuality were anathema.” Butch lesbians are not less woman for their lack of conformity to feminine expectations and it is anti-feminist to suggest so.
Women aren’t inherently feminine and labelling Stephen ‘mannish’ for not succumbing to the gendered expectations enforced on women is not progressive. It seems that the only way people can comprehend Stephen’s character today is if they interpret her as man-identified. Very ironic. She was called a man by the ultra-homophobic 1920s British society for not being the pinnacle of femininity, so to label her as a man today is equally as homophobic. But is 2021 all that different? Or are the anti-lesbian societal attitudes just masqueraded as progressive now?