[On Literary Censorship 2023]: “The end is only the beginning”, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness
A cry for queer recognition
It’s my favorite time of year once again, where I make time, one book a week for the entire month of September, to spotlight banned books and consider what made them so dangerous at their time of publication — and what makes them so important now. What began as a sort of shot-in-the-dark spite project to prove the value of older literature has, increasingly, shaped itself into a themed interrogation of what shifting times and cultures have considered to be “too much” of one thing or another. Naturally, this year seemed like the perfect time to specifically center queer women authors and their work.
Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness is the only work on this year’s plan I had not previously read, but it's persistent hailing as one of the most important works of lesbian literature ever written has kept it fairly near the top of my list of prospective subjects. What better way to kick off a month of discussion about queer art than with one of its most important pieces?
Never before so far in the series have I encountered a work whose interpretations have so immediately or rapidly shifted as Hall’s novel of one Stephen Gordon. Banned for obscenity just four months after publication in 1928, The Well of Loneliness follows the life of a woman who finds herself fairly early on in life not just attracted to other women, but so uncomfortable in her own skin she can’t quite place its truth. Stephen — so named by her father because he desperately wanted a son but believed in the unisex power of the name — grows up well off economically but a wild card socially, thanks in no small part to her tomboyish interests. Everyone looks at her just slightly askance, unable to reconcile her ways with their perception of an acceptable path for young girls.
As the novel progresses, one might imagine Stephen coming more to terms with her identity and living out a life of success and fulfillment. But Radclyffe Hall was not interested in fantasy fulfillment here. Rather, in the author’s eyes Well of Loneliness was a desperate call for recognition of the queer community that existed in her time. The novel’s closing lines are a literal cry for help from the highest power Stephen and Hall can imagine:
“‘God’, she gasped, ‘we believe; we have told You we believe…we have not denied You; then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, O God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’”
- Well of Loneliness, Wordsworth Classics Edition, pg 399
The novel is, in fact, steeped in Christian and Catholic ideas. Stephen frequently aligns herself with Jesus and Cain, and is named for Saint Stephen. The first recognized martyr of Christianity, Saint Stephen is first mentioned in the Bible as one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to the poorer members of the community in the early church. Given the nature of Stephen Gordon’s penultimate relationship, her naming may be perceived as a bit on the nose, but more on that later. In short, Hall’s conversion to Catholicism as a result of one of her relationships has a heavy hand not just in this novel, but in several of her other works as well. So why, then, was it so viciously and quickly attacked by the public? If you’ve been here before, you might have learned by now that it is almost never total public outrage that sends a work of literature to the depths of banning and destruction. Rather, there is usually a very loud, very angry, often nonsensical voice calling for an end to the life of a book they consider to be dangerous.
The loudest and most disturbing voice I was able to find belonged to one James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express who, in part of his call against Hall and her novel (pictured above), stated, “I would rather give a healthy boy or girl a vial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Douglas got his way and the magistrate of the time decided Well was obscene and ordered it destroyed. Hall’s publisher was a wily one, though, and though it was successfully banned in the UK, printing continued in France and the novel continued to be imported into the country. Thus, the book’s voice was not quite successfully smothered. Instead, demand for it was amplified and soon it ran into its third printing. Well of Loneliness has, in fact, never gone out of print.
Radclyffe’s novel is far from perfect. It seems, rather, to constantly find new audiences who approach it from new angles and, as time moves on and our understanding of gender and sexuality shift, Well has had a kind of metamorphosis. Once hailed as the “lesbian bible” and singular touchstone for readers to understand and conceptualize for themselves what love between women might look like, Stephen’s straining against herself so dramatically has often more recently leant the novel a lens that, while still queer, may not be exclusively lesbian. Instead, Stephen’s dwelling on her masculine qualities and the eventual moment of discomfort when she realizes “there’s something wrong with my face” has more often led modern readers to interpret Well as at least potentially a work of trans literature. Difficult perhaps to say whether Stephen identifies as non-binary or as a trans man but, at any rate, it seems safe to say that she does not ever feel comfortable describing herself as feminine. She is attracted to feminine women, but is not much of one herself.
No harm in this dichotomy, even today. Where we start running into issue is upon closer inspection of Stephen’s relationships with the two main interests of the novel. She has a childhood crush on the housemaid, during which she dresses as the male character from her favorite novel and aligns herself with Jesus for the first time by mirroring the housemaid’s injury so that she might take on the pain and suffering for her. This seems to set the tone for all future relationships, because Stephen finds herself first with a married woman named Angela Crossby who has to keep their meetings secret, then with a younger woman, Mary, whom Stephen frequently describes as being chained to her through love. When she is cast out from her home after her mother discovers her affair with Angela, she aligns herself with Cain. Overall, we get the impression that something about the experience of attraction to women is less a thing of happiness and pleasure and more a plight to be suffered. More specifically for Stephen it seems, a plight to be suffered because she cannot provide the same fulfilment, socially in the world, that a man can.
Stephen’s relationship with Mary in particular seems primed to drive the point of her saintly namesake home. Mary is almost immediately and always indebted to Stephen. She is younger, yes, but also not as well off. Stephen brings her to live together in Paris, at which point Mary throws herself into doing all of Stephen’s housework while she writes her novels. While she does frequently and ardently profess her love for Mary, she never forgets for long that she has chained Mary to herself. So when her final act of release is to hand Mary away to her only true male friend, it is a crushing act of martyrdom indeed. Yet no one seems to have considered what Mary wanted in any of this.
Whether you choose to take Stephen’s long suffering tone of love and pain as the result of not feeling aligned with her outward presented body or of a society that, while not specifically outlawing female homosexuality, would prefer to keep all semblances of queerness as quiet as possible is up to you, and is one of the book’s frequent spaces of debate. Is she angry at society for smothering people like her? Or is there a deeper battle insider herself? Wherever it lands, Hall was making the case that people like herself — upon whom Stephen is based — deserved to be recognized as a regular part of society rather than a spectacle to be shoved into the shadows and watched from the corners of eyes when she wrote Well of Loneliness, and she wasn’t shy about making that point at the trial (you can read her statements in the newspaper excerpt above).
Well of Loneliness is rife with debate from all sides. At one point it brought all of the UK to its knees. As time went on it became a landmark work of literature for people trying to understand their identities the world over. Now, more often than not, when the novel is not being remarked upon for its writing style, Radclyffe Hall’s main character is being reevaluated on many grounds, just as the author’s ideals are brought under examination. She was a revolutionary for her time, and at the same time held some rather reductive beliefs. Wrote a powerful queer story, and inserted into it structures and ideas that isolate out as many people as they let in.
Whatever we make of it now, the fact remains threefold: one only need look at the variety of covers available across editions to see how many interpretations of the story can be made, people are still finding and seeing something in Well of Loneliness, and whatever kind of equality Stephen is longing for, the queer community is still echoing that same call at the end: give us the right to our existence.
For more on the Banned Books series from past years: