“…we’re all part of nature. Someday the world will recognise this…”
Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness
Recently the universe conspired that I would be reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness while preparing to give a lecture on Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble revolutionized gender theory when it was published in 1990. Hall’s novel caused a quasi-revolution of its own upon publication in 1928, albeit for different if not entirely dissimilar reasons. Hall’s frank depiction of lesbian desire had the British chattering classes foaming at the mouth with indignation and the book was subsequently banned.
By today’s standards The Well of Loneliness is a terribly tame affair, far from the obscene and corruptive force early 20th century moral guardians considered it to be. Although Hall’s writing can be sentimental (she does like to ponder, at tedious length, on the wonders of the natural world and religion) there is no denying the bravery in her depiction of protagonist Stephen Gordon and her plight, which cut close to the bone of Hall’s personal experiences.
Throughout The Well of Loneliness, Hall explains Stephen’s predicament – a biological female but manly in appearance, who desires other women – as that of an ‘invert’, a now discarded term coined by sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to describe a man ‘trapped’ in a woman’s body or vice versa. The reader sees Stephen struggle to find acceptance and purpose in a society which shuns her. Even her own mother, the delicately feminine Anna, ultimately rejects her daughter to whit Stephen replies, ‘…I forgive you, though whatever it is, it is you and my father who made this body – but what I will never forgive is your daring to try to make me ashamed of my love. I’m not ashamed of it, there’s no shame in me.’
Today, thanks to the work of gender theorists like Butler and countless campaigners and activists who refused to accept heteronormativity’s stranglehold, more and more people are waking up to the realisation that gender is not the neat little binary we are socialised to believe it to be.
Butler’s assertions that biological sex is constructed via gender, that gender is a phenomenon, not a fact, which creates what it names and requires constant repetition to maintain its illusion of authority and naturalness, strike at the heart of Stephen’s predicament. Through her, Hall draws our attention to the subtle yet effective ways gender reinforces itself in our lives, regulating and policing our behaviour right under our noses. As Stephen observes while still a child, forced to play with a little girl she despises, ‘Violet was already full of feminine poses; she loved dolls, but not quite so much as she pretended. People said: ‘Look at Violet, she’s like a little mother; it’s so touching to see that instinct in a child!’ Then Violet would become still more touching.’
Stephen’s incredible wealth allows her to relocate to Paris and it is there that she finds true freedom and love. Unfortunately, back in the real world, the types of resources and let’s face it, privilege which allowed Stephen to be her true self were afforded to very few. For example, her governess, the long-serving, long-suffering Puddle, has hidden her own Sapphic desires in order to survive, a fact that makes her hugely sympathetic to Stephen’s struggle perhaps at cost to her own. If The Well of Loneliness reminds us of anything in the present day, it is that while great strides have been made to loosen gender’s grip, for many those strides came much too late and for others across the world, they have yet to come at all.