I Found My Queer Guidebook in “The Well of Loneliness”

Then I realized how problematic Radclyffe Hall’s characters are

Screen shot featuring Radclyffe Hall

I can’t remember how I happened upon my copy of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, which is a shame because it’s a first edition. The story in my mind is that it was sent to me by one of my mother’s friends shortly after I came out, but I’m pretty sure I first read it while I was still in the closet, so that can’t be right. Maybe I invented this story because of its narrative advantages; that a book written by an aristocratic English lesbian might be sent to me from an English aristocrat trying to endorse my lesbianism sounds like the sort of story I’d like to be true. I’m not sure that it happened that way, though, and the English aristocrat in question can’t remember either. She thinks it was The Price of Salt.

Anyway, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Lady Fitz-Waterford sent me The Well of Loneliness as a gift when she heard from my mother that I’d told my husband I was leaving him for a life of Sapphic love. I didn’t actually have a Sapphic lover at that point—I was living in the Connecticut suburbs and raising four children largely on my own, which left me a little short on time—but the principle of the matter was that I was a lesbian and, as such, would probably need a companion guide, an instruction manual to show me how to do it properly. 

Radclyffe Hall had been born to a wealthy, respectable British family and so had I; she grew up in the English countryside and so did I; she was a writer and so was I. Charitably, I’m going to assume that Lady Fitz-Waterford hadn’t actually read the book—or its famously depressing ending—and that her intentions had been supportive, not cautionary.   

I was a lesbian and, as such, would probably need a companion guide, an instruction manual to show me how to do it properly.

It’s not a very good book. At best, the writing is dated. At worst, it’s embarrassingly mediocre. But its place in history is unique. Up until its publication in 1928, the English ruling classes had been pretending that sex between women didn’t happen—in case innocent young girls were corrupted into thinking it might be fun to try—so the book was banned as soon as it came out. Of course, the furor surrounding the censorship only served to broadcast across the country that lesbian sex was very much a thing and paved the way for Djuna Barnes to write the much better (and more sexually explicit) novel Nightwood, which must have annoyed the British establishment immensely since it was entirely counterproductive to their original aim.

But Nightwood was not the book I read multiple times, nor was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which was published shortly afterward, because I wasn’t looking for literary excellence; I was looking for answers, and each time I read The Well of Loneliness I somehow managed to find them.

The first time I read it I wanted confirmation that the sacrifices I needed to make in the pursuit of true love would be worth it. I was idealistic and naive, certain that my internalized homophobia was the only obstacle standing between myself and eternal happiness; I just needed to figure out how to let go of my past—and the wealthy, white, heterosexual world in which I’d been living—so I could find the woman of my dreams. I devoured The Well of Loneliness in one sitting because I thought it was a book about love and loss, and at the time I felt as if I might lose everything.

I devoured The Well of Loneliness in one sitting because I thought it was a book about love and loss.

The novel’s female protagonist—named Stephen in a surprisingly progressive act of gender-fuckery that I decided not to focus on too closely during that first reading—also had to leave the familiarity and comfort of her homeland before she could find true love, since Paris was the only place to be a lesbian in those days. The book was peppered with longing descriptions of the English countryside, the loss of which could only be justified by Stephen’s desire to live openly with her girlfriend Mary. I could totally identify with this. I was living in self-imposed exile in America, and although I was fully prepared to sacrifice the English countryside at the altar of my desire for a lesbian relationship, I wasn’t so single-minded that I couldn’t indulge in a little sentimental nostalgia now and then.

What I couldn’t identify with, however, was Stephen’s ludicrous decision at the end of the book to send Mary back to England in the arms of a man—the slightly unremarkable Martin—to save her from a life of sexual depravity in Paris. This felt not only like an act of betrayal, but also one of gross stupidity. Wasn’t the whole point of the story that true love—specifically perfect, unadulterated lesbian love—should conquer all? Otherwise why would we be making all these sacrifices? But I reassured myself that lesbian romances weren’t permitted to have happy endings until at least the 1950s (hello The Price of Salt), so this was merely a narrative device that had been designed to rescue the book from censorship. In real life lesbian love would conquer all. Obviously. I mean, we are living in the twenty-first century now. We are allowed to love whomever we choose. 

By the second time I read the book, I had grown a little more discerning. I’d divorced my husband, ditched most of my cis-het friends, found my queer community, and was in a complicated relationship with a woman who was sorely testing my faith in the all-conquering power of lesbian love. Yes, I was irrefutably gay, and yes, sex with women was unquestionably better than with men, but there was still something missing. I was looking for something else, something beyond my lesbian relationship, something that felt more like an identity. 

Yes, I was irrefutably gay, and yes, sex with women was unquestionably better than with men, but there was still something missing.

Up until this point I’d presented as femme—due to a second type of internalized phobia that I wasn’t yet willing to look at—but the more comfortable I got with being a lesbian, the more certain I was that my internal dynamic was on the male end of the spectrum. And yet somehow the butch identity didn’t feel right. Memories surfaced of Stephen’s rakishness, her dandyish wardrobe, and I wondered whether there might be a way of being a masculine-presenting lesbian that was a little more foppish, a little less straight-up butch. So I pulled the book back down from my bookshelf. 

I was surprised this time by how much page space was dedicated to Stephen’s masculinity, details that I hadn’t noticed the first time. I was looking for descriptions of the clothes she wore, but what kept jumping off the page at me were the moments when she seemed confused by her own body. These little revelations were hidden among the text like Easter eggs, but now they felt more visceral than the lengthy, angst-ridden passages dedicated to forbidden love. Stephen spoke of her discomfort about her “hard, boyish forearms,” “the strong line of her jaw,” which gradually grew into an anxiety she couldn’t name, a feeling of being lost, “a great sense of incompleteness,” and then, suddenly: “It’s my face,” she announced, “something’s wrong with my face.”

The sentence sent a chill down my spine. She’d put words to my feelings, voiced the thought that surfaced every time I looked in the mirror. From inside my muffled state of denial, I could hear her trying to acknowledge her own deep-rooted fear of her emerging masculinity, her powerlessness over a body that seemed to be trying to turn male against her will.  

I could hear her trying to acknowledge her own deep-rooted fear of her emerging masculinity.

But for the most part, the rest of the book—when it wasn’t indulging in exhausting descriptions of anguished love—concentrated on Stephen’s desire for gender equality, for a position in society, for the respect of the ruling classes. There was something uncomfortable about her mimicry of upperclass, old-school masculinity—I knew men like these from personal experience and I didn’t like them—but I was interested in her friendship with Martin and her desire for male companionship, although the ending still annoyed me. I understood that Stephen had some kind of martyr complex, but the insistence that Martin take her lover was beginning to look less like an act of grandiose self-sacrifice and more like an act of overt misogyny. Why hadn’t Mary been allowed any say in the matter? 

It was around this time that I decided to name myself for the author. I’d just had a story accepted by the New York Times and I didn’t want to write under a name bequeathed to me by either my father or my ex-husband (because patriarchy). Searching in a hurry for something fitting, I’d settled on Radclyffe, not only because she was an English lesbian, but also because she bore an uncanny resemblance to my grandmother, whom I had adored. Naming myself Radclyffe somehow felt like honoring both my grandmother and my lesbianism at the same time, so Radclyffe I became.

By the third time I read the book, I was specifically looking for the things I’d been trying to avoid seeing in the previous readings. I’d addressed my internalized transphobia and accepted my trans-masculinity, and I wanted to find out whether in a moment of uncanny foreshadowing—or perhaps subconscious intention—I had named myself for someone who might also have been trans.  

I was aware that this was a purely theoretical exercise. The difference between butch and trans is one of self-identification—because there isn’t an objectively defined line on either side of which cis and trans people fall—and, given that the term transgender wasn’t coined until 1965, there would be no way to accurately surmise how Radclyffe Hall might identify today. The only label Stephen applied to herself was that of “congenital invert,” which appears to conflate sexual orientation and gender identity, so it’s difficult to extrapolate from the text how much of her anxiety was related to her masculinity, and how much to her gayness. 

She spoke of “the terrible nerves of the invert … running like live wires through her body … causing a constant and ruthless torment,” and how she must “drag this body of hers like a monstrous fetter imposed upon her spirit,” which sounded suspiciously like gender dysphoria to me, but this described how she felt in childhood, before she had control over her own presentation. I wanted to see if I could find evidence of continued discomfort after Stephen’s butch identity had been actualized; a clue that, like me, identifying as a masculine-presenting woman—and therefore still technically female—hadn’t been enough to relieve her gender dysphoria.

But mostly what I found instead were oblique references to her envy of cis-het masculinity, most notably through the eyes of her dog, who is unapologetic about his preference for male company and always somehow manages to make Stephen feel slightly less than, as if he can smell a whiff of the man about her but is really only humoring her because he loves her. And I couldn’t understand how I’d managed to overlook Stephen’s undeniable misogyny for so long: the superiority, the condescension, the control she exerted over the women she claimed to love.

I couldn’t understand how I’d managed to overlook Stephen’s undeniable misogyny for so long.

Radclyffe Hall paints Mary as an ingenue—consistently referring to her as “the girl” or “my child”—enthralled by Stephen’s superior intellect, whose greatest joy is apparently found in mending Stephen’s clothes, cleaning her house, or hovering silently by her side at the Parisian artists’ salons. It was all beginning to feel a little like literary masturbation, as if The Well of Loneliness was an instruction manual written specifically for Hall’s own partner, Lady Una Troubridge, who by all accounts took it to heart and became exactly the kind of “wife” she’d been instructed to be.

I also wasn’t sure whether my new awareness of—and aversion to—these overtly gendered roles was the result of my having worked so hard to purge them from my own life, or a general evolution into a more empathetic, mature human being, or a side effect of early transition. But I was rubber-necking toxic male behavior everywhere now—a precautionary act of vigilance against adopting the same as I became progressively more masculine—so I suspected it was probably a combination of all three.

And yet, I still couldn’t make a clear call on Stephen’s gender until in the final chapters I finally caught a glimpse of something that might speak to a trans identity. Instead of seeing the dismal ending as a betrayal of true love, as I’d done the first time, or as an irritating act of martyrdom as I’d done the second, in this third reading Martin seemed to represent not just the masculine friendship Stephen craved or the male privilege she envied, but the body she wanted to become. At the end of the penultimate chapter, when she decides to bequeath her lover to him, she “found that she was holding his hand.” This strange act of physical contact now made the transaction seem almost supernatural, as if Stephen had sensed that in the absence of gender-affirming surgery, her “incompleteness” could only be resolved by transference into an actual male body, in this case Martin’s.

I decided to do some more reading—of her biographies, letters and lesser known stories—to see if I could bolster this theory. Eventually, I found a short story published a few years later, in which a female protagonist transforms without warning into a prehistoric man while exploring a cave on the English coast. In “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself,” the author finally seems to rid herself of all inhibition, exposing a desire for masculinity so extreme that she actually manifests as a caveman, complete with supplicating, half-naked female. It’s almost impossible to read this glaringly obvious symbolism as anything other than a fundamental desire to transition, particularly since she ends the story by killing off the protagonist’s female body. 

It’s almost impossible to read this glaringly obvious symbolism as anything other than a fundamental desire to transition.

So I finally had an answer, although the research it had taken to get there left me feeling a little queasy, since it looked like Radclyffe Hall had not only been a gay rights activist but also a patriarchal misogynist with consensually-ambiguous domination issues. For a brief moment I wondered how I could reconcile myself with bearing the name of someone whose views were so diametrically opposite to mine, until I remembered that ugliness can coexist with beauty, that good people can do bad things, and that we can’t always judge the actions of someone in the past based on our own standards in the present, particularly if that involves devaluing the impact they’ve had on our future. Because however problematic Hall’s position on women, race, and class might seem today, she was still a radical progressive in her own time, and her determination to break through the constraints of her gender not only helped to build a society in which trans people like me could eventually exist, but also one in which I could move away from my own unprogressive background with far greater ease.

As guidebooks go, The Well of Loneliness was far from perfect, but celebrating its existence feels more important to me now than dissecting the flaws of its author. The path from cis-het-presenting to queer or trans isn’t an easy one—I don’t know anyone who has managed to navigate it without falling into a few holes along the way—and let’s face it, sometimes we need someone with a bit of bullheaded persistence to hack through the undergrowth and clear a trail for us, however clumsily they may do it, however unlikable it might make them. My own history isn’t exactly unblemished, but if we lived in fear of exposing our faults, then we’d never write our stories, and the one thing I’m certain of is that more of our stories need to be heard. And if I can hold some compassion in my heart for Radclyffe Hall, in all her messy, dysfunctional, human complexity, then maybe I can remember to do the same for myself.

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