Un-review: Why I couldn’t finish reading The Well of Loneliness

Being banned or otherwise surrounded by controversy is a double-edged fate for a book. Of course, no writer wants to be censored – and it can lead, as Salman Rushdie has lamented in the case of The Satanic Verses, to a fine novel being judged and remembered more for the furore surrounding it than for its actual writing. But banned books tend to be big and controversial, generating lots of discussion – and the saying ‘all publicity is good publicity’ can be particularly true when a politically motivated ban makes a book more culturally prominent than it would be on literary merit alone.

Such is the case of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a book which was in the bizarre position of being put on trial for obscenity in 1928 and banned for twenty-one years simply for depicting lesbian characters – or as Sir Archibald Bodkin, the Director of Public Prosecutions, put it at the time “those unfortunate women (as I deem them) who have proclivities towards lesbianism, or those wicked women (as I deem them) who voluntarily indulge in these practices”. In an age when gay sex between men was outright illegal and lesbianism was dubiously legal and barely talked about, The Well of Loneliness had an important role to play in speaking up about lesbians’ forcibly suppressed and often painful experiences.

I was excited to come across a copy of the book in my local library, since it’s a landmark in women’s literature and censored literature, both areas I’m really interested in. But when I read it, I found all that fuss was simply about a terribly written and often actively nasty book. While I wanted to review The Well of Loneliness for this blog, it wouldn’t be fair since I couldn’t read it to the end (and I’m the sort who views it as a moral failing to leave a book unfinished and can nearly always plough through to the end – after all, even a forced march can offer some good sightseeing). So here’s my explanation of why I couldn’t finish reading The Well of Loneliness. Bear in mind that this doesn’t include the last eighty pages, which for all I know could be a masterpiece planted in the wrong book.

First, the prose is just abysmal. It’s full of passages like:

The hills lay folded in swathes of whiteness, and so did the valleys at the foot of the hills, and so did the spacious gardens of Morton – it was all one vast panorama of whiteness. The lakes froze, and the beech trees had crystalline branches, while their luminous carpet of leaves grew brittle so that it crackled now underfoot, the only sound in the frozen stillness of that place that was always infinitely still.

The most entertainment Hall’s writing style offers is playing ‘spot the repetition’. While repeating the same word can be powerful when used carefully, which Hall does occasionally do, it’s more often just clumsy and dull, as in the recycling of ‘whiteness’ and ‘still[ness]’ here. You can spot the repetition in almost every sentence, and while it’s fun and instructive to see whether or not it works(usually it doesn’t), it’s pretty poor compensation for slogging through so much portentousness.

The overblown writing has a symbiotic relationship with the tone of overblown angst. (That was a purposeful repetition of ‘overblown’, I hope.) The heroine, Stephen Gordon (named because her father thought she’d be a boy – and yes, it’s meant to be a subtle clue about her orientation) describes lesbians as “miserable, unwanted people who have no right to love, no right to compassion”, and for all her sympathy, Hall seems to support this attitude. All her characters spend the entire book agonising about how they’re doomed to lifelong misery because their relationships are considered taboo by society. Of course homophobia is a real and serious problem, but the pain is so clunkily, constantly expressed that it becomes very dull, especially since Hall blames this for every problem with all of her characters’ relationships, rather than using them to reflect on the wider and more universal difficulties of love. As Jeanette Winterson has suggested, The Well of Loneliness makes a pretty poor contrast with another novel of 1928, the wonderful Orlando by Virginia Woolf (who was part of a group of writers who planned to write a letter in support of Hall, but declined when Hall insisted that they support her book on artistic as well as anti-censorship grounds). Orlando uses writing as flowing as Hall’s is drippy and the irresistible central metaphor of a character who changes from man to woman to explore the fluidity of gender and sexuality.

But for Hall these aren’t fluid, but fixed and immobile, and the way she presents gender takes The Well of Loneliness beyond depressing and poorly written into outright pernicious. As her name suggests, Stephen is as stereotypically masculine as possible – she hunts, fences, pursues learning and takes the ‘manly’ role of protector and provider towards her lovers – emulating, but never fully equalling, her beloved aristocratic father, and disappointing her mother, who is:

lovely as only an Irish woman can be, having that in her bearing that betokened great longing, having that in her body that betokened happy promise – the archetype of the very perfect woman, whom creating God had found good.

The description of Stephen’s mother establishes a heavy pattern of Irish stereotyping, which extends even to Stephen’s horse Raftery, and has little to do with the main narrative. Hall’s positive but patronising descriptions of the Irish begin to lead to even more uncomfortable racial attitudes when Stephen, working as an ambulance driver in the First World War, comes across “three dead gunners – horrible death, the men’s faces had been black like the faces of negroes.” I hadn’t realised before that the worst horror of the Western Front was that death made some white soldiers look like black men. Still, the price you have to pay with reading many novels of the period is that otherwise great writers use language around race that’s clumsy and uncomfortable to the modern reader, so I was prepared to turn a blind eye to it.

However, because it’s more important to the plot and themes, it’s harder to ignore the hierarchy of gender and sexuality that Hall establishes, which is nothing more than an idealisation of conventional masculinity. At the top are the powerful and admirable straight men; then lesbians, who are all really women who want to be men (perhaps Stephen’s character should be better understood as a mislabelled trans man), try nobly but always fall short; then the weak, but at least nurturing and natural, straight women (whom Stephen is doomed to fall in unrequited love with); then gay men, who are contemptuously stereotyped as effeminate and unnatural, as shown in this description of a gay playwright:

But Stephen was never able to decide whether Jonathan Brockett attracted or repelled her. Brilliant he could be at certain times, yet curiously foolish and puerile at others; and his hands were as white and soft as a woman’s – she would feel a queer little sense of outrage creeping over her when she looked at his hands.

So there I was, feeling more than a little sense of outrage at The Well of Loneliness’ awful writing, relentless and one-dimensional misery and some nasty and retrograde gender stereotyping, when I came to this sentence describing a black musician:

His eyes had the patient, questioning expression common to the eyes of most animals and to those of all slowly evolving races.

Yeeeeah. As I said, I’d been prepared to turn a blind eye to some potentially racist sentences up to that point, as I’ve done with other books of the period, because Hall might not have understood the implications. But coming across something as shockingly racist as calling black people slowly evolving animals, in the middle of a book that I was hating anyway…

Smack. Thwack. Crash. That’s the sound of The Well of Loneliness being slammed shut, thrown into a wall and falling to the floor, where I will never open it again.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Un-review: Why I couldn’t finish reading The Well of Loneliness

  1. Pingback: Things I learned putting together a writer’s CV | Rosemary Not Roses

  2. Teka Lynn

    In all honesty, you didn’t miss much. Stephen angsts and whines about how she’s corrupting Mary. Mary runs off with Stephen’s straight male friend (?) for no apparent reason. Stephen prays to God in despair. End of book.

    What interests me most are the thinly-disguised portrayals of gay people Radclyffe Hall knew well. Valery Seymour is based on Natalie Barney. Jonathan Brockett is supposed to be based on Noel Coward. Wanda is based on a famous lesbian painter who was not Polish. Given Hall’s snide depictions, I amazed she had any friends left after the book came out.

    There’s a subplot toward the end of the book which seems to come out of nowhere, but is actually quite interesting. Stephen and Mary are friends (in a somewhat patronizing fashion) of a young Scottish lesbian couple, Jaimie and Barbara. Barbara dies of consumption, and Jaimie is forbidden to see her in the hospital because they’re not “family”. The nurse asks if they’re related and Stephen’s just “Ummm…” Surely she could have crossed her fingers and said “Two girls from Scotland living together? They’re totally sisters! Let her in!” Grrr. After Barbara’s death, Jaimie kills herself in despair. This leads to Stephen pushing away Mary, which leads to Mary running off with Martin (in self defense?) and Stephen collapsing in a puddle of religious anguish.

    The Jaimie/Barbara storyline comes from a real life couple Hall knew, although they were aristocratic, middle-aged Englishwomen, rather than working-class, young Scots. One of them had a chronic disability that led to her hospitalization, and of course her partner was banned from seeing her. Hall was rightfully furious, and decided to write a book about unjust visitation rules. I would like to have read that book.

  3. That’s really interesting! I got the feeling it was a roman a clef, but I didn’t know much about Hall’s life, so I wasn’t sure. The story about the struggles LGBQT people faced (and continue to face) in a society where they were massively stigmatised is absolutely interesting and important, it’s just a shame that, in this instance, it’s told by such a poor (and self-pitying) writer.

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