Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Here is my presentation on The Well of Loneliness, to be given as part of the English Department's academic discussion series on September 19, 2008. There are pictures to go with the talk, and I'll see if I can post them here. If this post appears more than once, ignore the previous one.

Comments welcome.

The Christian Martyr and the Pagan Witness in The Well of Loneliness

Jean Roberta

The Well of Loneliness
is the canonic lesbian novel that many people think they know; in some sense, it has become a part of queer folk culture. As the tragic story of a female “invert,” in the language of the time, the novel itself has been dramatically persecuted. Attacked in several courtrooms in 1928 and 29 for daring to suggest that gender “inversion” and sexual “perversion” should be tolerated, it has been attacked since 1970 by Second Wave feminist critics for its essentialist and patriarchal world-view.

However, like the works and the persona of the martyred writer Oscar Wilde, The Well of Loneliness and its author, Radclyffe Hall, have had too much influence on an evolving gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered culture for us simply to dismiss it as a relic of the past.

Hall’s central character, Stephen Gordon, has moved generations of young readers who have secretly feared (and hoped) that they too are fundamentally different from everyone else they know and that they are doomed to be rejected and misunderstood by the shallow philistines around them. The judges who feared the influence of this book on the impressionable young were probably onto something, since a reader’s identification with Stephen tends to obscure the textual evidence that her social isolation is not simply a result of human prejudice.

The brief but significant appearance of the “pagan” lesbian character Valerie Seymour serves to show that Stephen is not simply doomed because she loves women but because her masculine, genetically-determined nature, combined with her traditional Christian value system (which is endorsed by the narrator), leaves her no room for the ethical fulfillment of her emotional needs. According to God’s laws as Stephen understands them, wholesome joy in the lives of her“people” can only be an illusion.

Stephen’s life-story, like that of a saint or a hero of legend, seems to be largely predetermined by forces beyond her control. It begins, appropriately enough, with the courtship of her Irish mother and her English father, who recognizes his true mate when he meets the fair Anna, who is “all chastity,” on a visit to Ireland. Sir Philip Gordon brings his bride to his ancestral home, which seems like a structural expression of her personality:

“It is indeed like certain lovely women who . . belong to a bygone generation – women who in youth were passionate but seemly; difficult to win but when won, all-fulfilling. They are passing away, but their homesteads remain, and such an homestead is Morton.”

Sir Philip and Lady Anna seem complementary in every way, and eventually they complete their union by having a child. The unborn baby, whom both parents presume to be a son, is named Stephen. When the baby is born female on Christmas Eve, her father insists on keeping the name he has chosen, that of the first Christian saint.

Stephen’s mother is instinctively repelled by the changeling at her breast: something not recognizable as a daughter, even in infancy. Lady Anna tries to be a good mother, but she must continually wrestle with her anger at something amiss when she notices the growing child’s resemblance to her father. The “lady of Morton,” who reminds the village peasants of the Virgin Mary, can’t understand her own child, who seems both cursed and blessed beyond ordinary parental expectations.

Ironically, Anna has passed a certain “Celtic” sensitivity to Stephen, who is in some sense a half-breed as well as a bundle of contradictions:

“ . . her mother had looked at her curiously, gravely, puzzled by this creature who seemed all contradictions - at one moment so hard, at another so gentle. . . even Anna had been stirred, as her child had been stirred, by the breath of the meadowsweet under the hedges; for in this they were one, the mother and daughter, having each in her veins the warm Celtic blood that takes note of such things.”

Stephen can no more ignore the “Celtic blood” which makes her emotionally receptive to the natural world than she could choose to become feminine. When Stephen, an excellent rider, is given her own horse, the animal and the owner form a feudal bond partly because of their shared Irish “wildness:”

“. . . his eyes were as soft as an Irish morning, and his courage was as bright as an Irish sunrise, and his heart was as young as the wild heart of Ireland, but devoted and loyal and eager for service, and his name was sweet on the tongue as you spoke it - being Raftery, after the poet. Stephen loved Raftery and Raftery loved Stephen.”

The identification of Stephen and her horse with young Irish wildness and poetry suggests both unstoppable creativity and persecution on various levels.

The devotion of Raftery, the good animal servant, is matched by the devotion of the human servants of Morton to their master and mistress. Stephen also shows an instinct for service and self-sacrifice for those she loves, which seems both feudal and Christian. (It also seems to foreshadow the revival of this idealized concept of loyalty in the literature of BDSM, especially the “leatherdyke” variety, but that is another topic.)

As a seven-year-old, Stephen develops a crush on the housemaid, Collins, who complains of pain in the knees. Stephen tells her “gravely:’

“I do wish I’d got it - I wish I’d got your housemaid’s knee, Collins, ‘cause that way I could bear it instead of you. I’d like to be awfully hurt for you, Collins, the way that Jesus was hurt for sinners. Suppose I pray hard, don’t you think I might catch it?”

The child is bitterly disappointed when God seems to ignore her request for an affliction which would unite her with her beloved.

The God to Whom Stephen prays for suffering (and Who eventually answers her prayers) is strangely non-denominational, especially considering the probable religious difference between an English father and an Irish mother. The “God of creation” Whom Stephen later seeks in a church in France, land of her exile, seems to transcend specific details of doctrine and ritual. As a Catholic convert, the author seems to place her hero in a universe for which the traditional, hierarchical doctrines of “the Church universal” serve as a reliable guide. However, this fictional world isn’t seamless enough to prevent radically different world-views from being glimpsed through the comments of minor queer characters, notably the writers Valerie Seymour and Jonathan Brockett.

Much of the narrative, in hagiographic style, recounts Stephen’s struggles to understand God’s inscrutable will. As a young adult, she is betrayed by each of her earthly parents as she feels she has been betrayed from birth by her heavenly Father. Like Adam, Stephen feels abandoned by the loving father who modeled gentlemanly honor in her life, as well as by the mother who drives her into exile for surrendering to erotic temptation.

Stephen’s father reads and rereads a “slim volume” by a German author, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, which explains Stephen’s “nature.” Sir Philip does not want to tell his wife or daughter what he has learned until it is too late. He is killed unexpectedly when a tree falls on him as though to punish him for "the sin of his anxious and pitiful heart." Sir Philip succumbs while pruning a beloved old cedar tree because it is overburdened with snow. Like Stephen's friend and spiritual brother, Martin (who wants to return to the untamed forest in British Columbia), Sir Philip cares about trees as part of God's creation – even though neither of these men is Celtic.

Deprived of her father’s protection and watched anxiously by her lesbian tutor, Puddle, who dares not reveal what she knows, Stephen falls passionately in love with another outsider in the village, Angela Crossby. Like her father before her, Stephen tells her beloved: . . “‘all this beauty and peace is for you, because now you’re a part of Morton.’”

Trapped in a sordid marriage into which she sold herself, Angela encourages Stephen to court her. Like Delilah, however, she is wily and incapable of loyalty. Pressed to make a commitment, Angela taunts her lover: “’Could you marry me, Stephen?’” Tormented by her inability to offer her own and God’s protection in an honorable marriage to the woman she loves, Stephen buys her an expensive ring set with a “pure” pearl, in a kind of parody of her parents’ engagement.

Angela predictably exposes Stephen to the scorn of her enemies after Stephen finds her in flagrante with a bullying male who is Stephen’s oldest rival: an unworthy man who appeals to an unworthy woman. Stephen describes herself as “God’s mistake” in an anguished love letter to Angela, who hands it to her husband to protect herself from the consequences of her infidelity. Angela’s husband completes the betrayal by forwarding Stephen’s letter to Stephen’s mother, who refuses to continue living under the same roof with her. Stephen chooses to leave Morton, taking the loyal Puddle with her, and enters the purgatory of a world in which she feels homeless.

Although she has inherited wealth, Stephen wants to distinguish herself in a respectable profession so as to justify her existence to a hostile world. She becomes a novelist with the intention of eventually writing the story of her life: a novel such as The Well of Loneliness.

Stephen is approached by Brockett, a male novelist whom she finds decadent and unmanly (and who seems to be based on the playwright Noel Coward) and who serves as a Beatrice to her Dante: a guide to the hidden world of fellow "inverts" in Paris, Stephen's home in exile. Brockett introduces her to Valerie Seymour, a noted hostess of the demi-monde. Stephen initially resents Valerie’s interest in her because she assumes it is as “morbid” as Brockett’s:

“. . . she was seeing before her all the outward stigmata of the abnormal - verily the wounds of One nailed to a cross - that was why Valerie sat there approving."

Valerie seems to sense Stephen’s resentment and charms her out of it by talking to her “gravely about her work, about books in general; about life in general.”

By all accounts, Valerie Seymour is based on an actual person, the bilingual American heiress and writer Natalie Barney, whose Friday salons were legendary in early twentieth-century Paris. Partly because the character is drawn from life, she seems out of place among the stock characters of the novel. Valerie is described from Stephen’s viewpoint as giving an impression of feminine grace, yet she shows a degree of iconoclastic independence which seems incompatible with femininity as Stephen conceives of it.

By Stephen’s conservative standards, Valerie’s home and her life are chaotic: “The first thing that struck Stephen about Valerie’s flat was its large and rather splendid disorder.” Stephen comes to learn that Valerie’s large circle of friends is also “disordered” in the sense of being diverse and not highly respectable; several of her other lesbian friends are dissolute by Stephen’s standards, yet their alcoholism and maudlin despair don’t seem to affect Valerie, who does not indulge in alcohol or self-pity.

Valerie’s world-view, as well as her circle of friends, clearly upsets Stephen’s sense of order, and Stephen is at pains to understand Valerie’s apparently effortless success in surviving on her own terms. She attempts to explain this phenomenon to herself as well as to the reader:

“. . . Stephen began to understand better the charm that many had found in this woman; a charm that lay less in physical attraction than in a great courtesy and understanding, a will to please, a great impulse toward beauty in all its forms . . . And as they talked on it dawned upon Stephen that here was no mere libertine in love’s garden, but rather a creature born out of her epoch, a pagan chained to an age that was Christian . . . And she thought that she discerned in those luminous eyes, the pale yet ardent light of the fanatic.”

Valerie’s perceived “fanaticism” seems to be her determination to create, as far as possible, an alternative culture for herself and all those who seem "out of place" in a society which does not accept them. She seems “pagan” in the sense of resembling a Lesbian of old, a follower of the poet Sappho on the island of Lesbos, where Natalie Barney seriously proposed to establish an all female colony as early as 1901. Valerie seems both behind and ahead of her time, as aforerunner of the lesbian-separatists of the 1970s who denounced patriarchal “order,” valued an androgynous combination of qualities, and rediscovered the goddesses of pre-Christian religion.

Valerie recommends an old house to Stephen, which she agrees to buy. Like Valerie’s flat, the house and its neglected garden seem characteristic of her:

A marble fountain long since choked with weeds, stood in the center of what had been a lawn. In the farthest corner of the garden some hand had erected a semi-circular temple.

This is almost certainly a reference to the actual “Temple of Friendship” that still stands in the garden of the seventeenth-century house in Paris where Natalie Barney lived for many years. However, neither the pseudo-pagan ruins of her new home nor Valerie’s feminist and woman centered world-view affect Stephen’s sense of herself as marked by “stigmata” in a Christian universe.

Valerie tactfully offers her friendship to Stephen by saying: “’I’m not going to bother you until you evince.’” Stephen avoids her until she reluctantly joins Valerie’s community of outcasts to relieve the loneliness of the woman for whom Stephen feels responsible. Although Valerie eventually becomes a kind of mother-confessor for Stephen, Valerie can’t change Stephen’s world-view, and wisely refrains from trying.

Earlier in the novel, the outbreak of war caused Stephen to feel morally compelled to serve her country. Rejected for combat, she is forced to settle for being an ambulance-driver in an all female unit, where she meets a young, feminine orphan with whom she falls protectively in love. After the war, Stephen tries to spare her beloved Mary from the degradation of a life with herself.

As her name suggests, Mary is pure-hearted and brave enough to accept a hard fate; her passionate nature seems to arise from her own “Celtic blood” (which in her case is Welsh). Mary asks Stephen: “’Can’t you understand that all that I am belongs to you?’” Stephen accepts the gift of Mary’s virginity, despite her misgivings. Her “bride” has none:

“. . . Mary, because she was perfect woman, would rest without thought, without exultation, without question; finding no need to question since for her there was now only one thing - Stephen.”

Although Mary is the mate for whom Stephen has longed, her acceptance of masculine responsibility for Mary’s “unthinking” feminine nature eventually prompts Stephen to make the ultimate sacrifice by driving Mary into the arms of her old friend Martin, an honorable and “natural” man who can be trusted to take care of her. By this time, Stephen’s inability to protect Mary from isolation and insult has convinced her that “giving” her to Martin is the only morally acceptable course of action left to her.

Stephen, as feudal protector, is devastated when Lady Anna refuses to invite Mary to Morton or to acknowledge her role in Stephen’s life. Stephen is forced to watch helplessly as Mary is ostracized by supposedly “normal” people because of her loyalty to Stephen. Even Mary’s desire to be indispensable to Stephen as a housekeeper and secretary is thwarted because Stephen’s household is run by paid staff.

Mary languishes in isolation while Stephen is hard at work, presumably to justify Mary’s faith in her, on a defense of her life like the novel in which both women appear as characters. Recognizing her lover’s need for other human companionship, Stephen descends with her into the night world that Valerie inhabits, where Stephen and Mary meet other outcasts who resemble damned souls.

Stephen unburdens herself to Valerie, whom Mary begins to resent as a rival. Valerie points out the contradictions in Stephen’s personality:

“’You’re rather a terrible combination: you’ve the nerves of the abnormal. . . you’re appallingly over-sensitive, Stephen - well, and then. . . you’ve all the respectable county instincts of the man who cultivates children and acres . . . one side of your mind is so aggressively tidy . . . supposing you could bring the two sides of your nature into some sort of friendly amalgamation and compel them to serve you and through you your work - well then I really don’t see what’s to stop you.’”

Stephen thanks Valerie for her kindness, apparently without understanding her assessment of the “contradictions” in Stephen which lead her to martyrdom.

To her consternation, Valerie proves most useful to Stephen as a means of driving Mary away. Valerie responds with concern to Stephen’s request:

“’If you want to pretend that you’re my lover, well, my dear . . . I wish it were true. . . All the same. . . Aren’t you being absurdly self-sacrificing?’”

Stephen explains grimly that her strategy is necessary. It succeeds.

Alone in her Calvary, Stephen has a vision of her “children,” the “inverts” of the future who pray for salvation through her, their spokesperson:

“They would turn first to God, and then to the world, and then to her. They would cry out accusing: ‘We have asked for bread; will you give us a stone? You, God, in Whom we, the outcast, believe; you, world, into which we are pitilessly born; you, Stephen, who have drained our cup to the dregs - we have asked for bread; will you give us a stone?’”

The novel concludes, in Biblical-epic style, with Stephen’s anguished prayer:

“’God,’ she gasped, “we believe; we have told You we believe. . . We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’”

Unfortunately, the influence of this cry on generations of readers has almost drowned out Valerie’s gentle admonishment to Stephen: “’. . . even the world’s not as black as it’s painted.’” Or (to flirt further with essentialist notions of race) as white.


LOOSE NOTES (for more accurate footnotes, see the version of this essay which appears in the archives of website “The Shadow Sacrament,” – 2005).

Passages from The Well of Loneliness are from the Permabooks (New York, 1954) edition.

Radclyffe Hall was officially accepted into the Catholic Church on February 5, 1912 (Michael Baker, Our Three Selves: A Life of Radclyffe Hall, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1985, p. 44).

One literary historian provides extensive evidence that Jonathan Brockett is based on the playwright Noel Coward, whom Radclyffe Hall knew fairly well (Terry Castle, Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, pp. 38-55).

Baker refers to Natalie Barney’s seventeenth-century home at No. 20, Rue Jacob, Paris, which included a courtyard “with an enchanting enclosed garden containing a Doric ‘Temple d’Amitie’ [Temple of Friendship] (Baker, p. 142).

Barney’s status as a salon hostess is not only mentioned by Hall’s biographer, Michael Baker (p. 142 in Our Three Selves) but by critic Karla Jay in The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renee Vivien (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988, passim). Baker, Castle, Jay and other critics have followed the lead of Hall’s lover and first biographer, Lady Una Troubridge, who states that the character Valerie Seymour is based on Natalie Barney in The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall, Hammond and Hammond, 1961, pp. 83-4).

Re “leatherdyke” literature - works of erotic fiction and theory on lesbian sadomasochism (or Dominance/submission) are now too numerous to be listed here. The anthology Coming to Power (Alyson Publications, 1982), edited by an early lesbian s/m organization, Samois, was probably the first to have widespread cultural influence.

For a historical account of the feminist movement which was gathering strength from before Hall’s birth in 1880 to the end of the Great War, when British women gained the right to vote in 1918, see Midge Mackenzie, Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1975) and Rose Tremain, The Fight for Freedom for Women (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973).

For an account of the intimate “smashes” among women which flourished without social censure in the era in which The Well of Loneliness was written, see Lilian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Junction Books, 1981).