The title might be depressingly appropriate to the current situation, but there’s more to this novel than moping. Before embarking on Virginia Woolf’s novels, I decided to continue in the Sappho vein and picked up a lovely edition, published by Virago (always a good sign), of this so-called lesbian classic, which famously caused such a stir upon publication in 1928.
There’s something Austenian which, being the superfan that I am, drew me into The Well of Loneliness straight away. Following its heiress heroine in her grand house from infancy, with a special insight into her emotional life, this novel revived that flavour of Austen which renders you unable detach yourself from its protagonist and all her happinesses and troubles. Hall certainly dwells more on guilt and misery than Austen and her happy endings would have allowed, but there is much of that female predecessor in the novel’s occasional wit and consistently cutting social commentary. Hall’s polemical indignance, her urgently championing the naturalness of homosexuality, is no match for Austen’s implicit, veiled frustration, but they are both emotively angry at the strictures women find themselves born into in their respective centuries.
Tragic as Stephen Gordon’s life as a fiery, intelligent, female “invert” (the novel and its contemporary science’s term, not mine) might be, I found something soothing in watching this trajectory of a misunderstood and troubled, but noble and beautiful, life. At a time when it’s easy to blow the tragedy of the present period out of proportion, and yet to feel that it will be one of our life’s most memorable moments, there’s a real comfort in what a novel like this does, a consolation to be drawn from its constellation of painful or dramatic events which are yet all overcome. Those important events and experiences which shape a heroine’s character, emotional outlook, and ways of loving have their turbulent and heartfelt significance as they occur in the narrative, but they are woven into a broader tapestry of events, left behind by chapter breaks and book divisions, forming part of a life but never overshadowing its whole or hindering its progression.
This is a novel which speaks out against the oppressive, conspiratorial silence of a world so obsessed with its strict definition of normality and acceptability that it is willing to shut out the most brilliant, tender-hearted, and courageous of its fellow human beings:
Outrageous, Puddle would feel it to be, that wilfully selfish tyranny of silence evolved by a crafty old ostrich of a world for its own well-being and comfort. The world hid its head in the sands of convention
A novel, that is, which speaks in its own undulatingly witty and lyric voice to that ‘crafty old ostrich of a world’ with a frankness which is everywhere emotionally authentic but nowhere sexually explicit, despite the success of a legal case which banned the book’s publication in the UK until 1949.
Well’s flowery language and melodrama swept me along just fine; I like Hall’s style, but it isn’t for everyone, not least the contemporary modernists who defended Hall against censorship but wouldn’t admit much literary merit in her writing. More importantly, though, there remains much debate about the usefulness of Hall’s portrayal of lesbianism. Some champions urge that the portrayal of a homosexual protagonist and the plea for recognition and compassion was enough to start the conversation, but others make just criticisms about the novel’s conflation of gender and sexuality, and privileging of the butch and the masculine, which preserves binaries to the point of biphobia and misogyny.
Whilst it’s absolutely necessary to point out and grapple with these flaws, Hall didn’t have access to the same kind of thinking and vocabularies which the LGBTQ+ rights movement has given us—but she did have the experience of her sexuality (and/or gender identity) in a world which was hostile towards it. It’s that experience of emotional persecution, as well as her insight into how love works when it is deprived of the other conditions of happiness, which energises her novel and, for me, gives it a heart of feeling in spite of (valid) intellectual criticisms.
Fuelling the dated melodrama and lyrical wallowing of Stephen Gordon’s pitiable plight are authentic and important truths about love—love ostracised, unrequited, all-consuming, destructive, protective, stifling, love beyond control—about relationships and friendships as much as isolation and loneliness, about courage and endurance as much as despair. Hall and her heroine know, especially, how it feels to love outside of the conventions and images of perfection which your society has pressed upon you. But they know, too, that that way of loving which gives too much of yourself, which invests in its object beyond rationally explicable bounds, which grows deep despite knowing it will only make an uprooting more painful—like Stephen’s lover who
knew only that she loved, and the young were ardent. She would give all … And through giving all she would be left defenceless
—that kind of love is one which, though especially painful to those shut out from society’s romance narratives, ultimately merges genders, transcends sexualities, and speaks out to posterity.