IS THE WELL OF LONELINESS A CLASSIC OF LESBIAN LITERATURE?
Radcliffe Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness, depicts the girlhood and womanhood of a non-conventional woman, Stephen Gordon, who after assuming her natural inversion during her adolescence, fights to find a place in the world. After fulfilling partially her aspirations by serving in I World War as an ambulance driver, she falls in love with Mary, another ambulance driver, and for a short while they defy the world with their happiness. This feeling, however would not last. The invert’s doom forces Stephen to the last exertion of self-denial and martyrdom when she renounces to her love for Mary and surrenders her to their common friend Martin to take care of her because she, not being a man, would never be able to give her an authentic life.
Nowadays, the novel is considered and sold as a lesbian literature classic throughout the world but for certain public it is not clear whether the characteristics and themes included qualify it as such or it is just a matter of popularity. In its favour it is necessary to consider it as an early precursor of any kind of declared lesbian literature (it was published in 1928). It was one of the first times that lesbian love was depicted extensively by means of a novel and it was an incredibly brave and honest attempt to bring daylight into the darkness of so many people’s life. One of the individual but essential steps lesbians were giving towards social recognition. Society’s response was simply considering its mere existence outrageous so that its publication was banished in the UK for nearly 20 years.
On the other hand, some of the issues the novel raises can not be conceived to be part of a work that made an impression such as The Well of Loneliness is renowned to have made. The author purpose, as she openly recognized, was showing a sympathetic portrait of the “congenital invert,” one that would show the full humanity and suffering of women like herself. This vision draws on her own theories and beliefs on how the invert were, presenting Stephen as an imperfect copy of a man by design of nature never destined to be fulfilled. The inevitable path of the invert is hers: travestying, behaving like a man and impersonating every typical lesbian stereotype.
This interpretation of homosexuality, in this sense, simply supports heterosexual gender roles, suppressing any revolutionary notion around gender or sex. In fact, the kind of invert (lesbian) shown is a traditional high-class, well-educated and conceited person with no other thought than class pride and family in the most old-fashioned way. She would have made a perfect gentleman of her time except for being a woman.
Moreover, catholic religion (including a generous dose of self-mortification) assumes a key factor in the invert’s search for redemption, in a clear bias of her own experience. As a consequence to the abnormality of his doom, the invert will be a lifelong outcast with no love to redeem him and no gentility society to seek refuge in: happiness is not in the invert’s syllabus. Hall’s invert is a condemned neither mar nor woman who would be forever despised and left apart from his own people.
However, perhaps we should not judge too harshly Hall’s beliefs on homosexuality compared to the actual ideology due to the explicit influence of psychological treatises and her religious and cultural beliefs on her ideal invert. According to this it is not a book advisable to be read lightly by any recently-declared lesbian, as some people think. The feelings about homosexuality she promotes are self-destructive (despair, irresistible unhappiness, guilt, unworthiness) and they need to be understood in their context.
Her work, instead, should be regarded more by its importance as a historical document than as a key text in gay identity development. As her public statement, it was a huge step towards public recognition that highlighted the homosexual presence and started a debate . As a literary work, it portraits a specific moment in the history of lesbian ideology and self-knowledge as individuals, prior to the beginnings of the organization. Besides, it reveals a crude insight to the 20’s London morality and high class intercourses related to the social perception of homosexuality.
In conclusion, The Well of Loneliness is a interesting and valuable novel that has been regarded as a classic for the wrong reasons, losing its true key points to the lesbian perspective.