There are many benefits to spending time as a student of English literature. For one, you get to ready incredibly dirty poetry in public free of judgement, and then you get to watch nudity filled period dramas for the purposes of research. At least, you did if you had my lecturers!
But one of the best things about my old course is that it gave me an opportunity to understand a literary history I previously knew nothing about. The stories we are exposed to through our primary and secondary education are often extremely narrow in scope, with a particular focus on the so-called classics, at least in my Scottish education. Shakespeare was our bread and butter and our readings of his work relatively straightforward, as expected for our age group. The limitations in place by the education system also mean that most stories that aren’t written by extremely well known straight white men are squeezed out.
The queer stories and authors I read growing up were ones I discovered on my own in the library when looking for something that would challenge me. I knew they were out there and I sometimes used them in my school work (ask me about the time I read out an oral sex scene from Tipping The Velvet in class. That happened) but the idea that our teachers would sit down with us and discuss Sugar Rush or Maurice was a total impossibility.
This brings me back to my time at university and a course I took on queering fictions that introduced me to the topic of today’s post, Radclyffe Hall, and their most famous novel The Well of Loneliness.
The novel mirrors Hall’s own life in many ways. Unike the novel’s protagonist Stephen (named so despite being born a woman
because her doting father so dearly wanted a son), Hall grew up relatively lonely, with warring parents and a mediocre education. After inheriting a sizeable sum of money, Hall lived for a while in Germany and began a series of relationships with notable women. One of these relationships, and the earliest we know of, was with the German singer Mabel Batten. At the time, Batten was 51, 24 years older than Hall, and married with children and grandchildren. Not that any of that mattered to Batten, who dismissed the constraints of traditional unions. After her husband died, Hall moved in with her and they remained together until Batten’s death in 1916. It was Batten who gave Hall the name “John”, which Hall was said to have preferred throughout their life. Soon after Batten’s death, Hall met and fell for Batten’s cousin Una Troubridge, a sculptor, and the pair stayed together for close to 25 years. At one point, they even lived with a Russian nurse named Evgenia Souline, with whom Hall had begun an affair.
Hall maintained a strident interest in current affairs and the scientific developments of the time, particularly those of turn of the century sexologists like Havelock Ellis. Ellis’s term of ‘congenital inversion’ the descriptor for homosexuals at the time, was one proudly adopted by Hall and his work and that of Austro-German psychiatrist Richard Von Kraft-Ebing are a notable backbone to The Well of Loneliness. In the novel, Stephen, who rejects displays of femininity from an early age and essentially lives the life of the son her father desired, uses contemporary research to explain her inversion and to demand sympathy and understanding from a society that considers her abnormal. Ellis’s work describes sexual inversion as inalterable, not a defect but merely a change from that which is considered ‘normal’. It’s the ‘born this way’ explanation. While modern attitudes towards gender and sexuality are more fluid (and many scholars argue that Stephen is a transman rather than a gay cis woman), this slogan still resonates to this day, with or without Lady Gaga’s help.
Stephen is in many ways an author avatar for Hall. Like the author, Stephen dresses in a masculine fashion, expresses devout religious leanings (Hall was a convert to Catholicism and dedicated to séances and other such displays of spirituality), and turns to science for answers where society has nothing but scorn (the foreword to the novel came courtesy of Ellis). At one point during the novel, she begs God to “give us also our right to existence”. It’s a powerful plea in a novel full of them, one designed as a rallying call for tolerance.
Hall had written several successful stories before turning her pen to “The Well of Loneliness” and knew that, while her increased profile meant that the sympathetic portrayal of an invert’s life would be given more attention, it could still easily kill her career.
Three publishers turned it down and when it finally became available to the public, the reviews were mixed. However, those who hated it truly loathed it. The Daily Express, a British newspaper that to this day remains right wing, launched a campaign to have the book withdrawn, declaring it to be “A Book That Should Be Suppressed”. Claims that the novel was a risk to children were thrown around, as is sadly all too expected in debates on LGBTQ rights even today, and the newspaper’s editor James Douglas even demanded that the Home Secretary take action. Said Home Secretary at the time, the Conservative William Joynson-Hicks, was the kind of man who saw the Roaring Twenties as the introduction of hell on earth, leading crackdowns on nightclubs, drinking and gambling. It didn’t take him long to decide that Hall’s novel was “gravely detrimental to the public interest”, and publishing was halted.
Jonathan Cape, the publisher, had sneakily leased the novel’s rights to a publisher in France, leading to copies flying off the shelves in the wake of shock-horror publicity. The following obscenity trial ended in a verdict that demanded all copies of the story be destroyed, and the trial became the subject of much lampooning. An anonymously written parody, The Sink of Solitude, sided with Hall and Ellis in their description of homosexuality as innate, but was less kind to Hall and Ellis, characterised as a humourless martyr and a “psychopath” respectably. The messiah imagery used horrified Hall, even though Stephen describes herself at one point as “in some queer way she [is] Jesus”.
The Well of Loneliness isn’t exactly a masterpiece. It’s overlong, ploddingly plotted and often very dull. It’s not even the most interesting queer novel of the time (that honour goes to one of my all-time favourite novels, Orlando by Virginia Woolf) but its place in the history of a queer literary tradition cannot be understated. The story of Stephen is often an upsetting one – she never really finds happiness because there’s no room in society for someone like her – but it’s also an often moving plea for understanding. It’s one that places the blame firmly on society. After all, science is on the side of the inverts.
Hall may not have been able to give Stephen what was seen as a realistic happy ending but the stories inspired in the generations that followed could. Sarah Waters’s trilogy of lesbian centred Victorian fiction, beginning with Tipping The Velvet, end with the
inverts finding happiness, as many queer women of the time did. Waters has the luxury of writing in a time where understandings of gender and sexuality are more openly discussed and accepted (although not as much as we’d like to believe, if we’re being honest). She can go back into history and offer a representation of the past that deliberately opposes the heteronormative norm of the history books and most widely read stories of the time. She can pick up the long abandoned threads of queerness and give them their time to shine. Waters’ novel differs from her historical and literary influences, such as The Well of Loneliness, in that her contemporary insights of late 20th century lesbian life allow her to create a narrative that can allow its lesbian protagonist a happy ending. Where Hall’s novel worked to earn the sympathy of an audience with no understanding of homosexuality and the lesbian pulp novels bought into the expectations of popular culture, a conservative society and a largely heterosexual male reader base, Tipping the Velvet does not need to do this. The previous tone of pity and pleas turns to one of acceptance.
This is, admittedly, a relatively simple reading of a long and oft-ignored tradition I only have a limited knowledge of. I focused mainly on Hall, and Waters to a lesser extent, because it felt like coming full circle. The fourteen year old me read Tipping the Velvet, with no real understanding of a homophobic society and saw only a loving and complex relationship that just happened to be a queer one. The twenty one year old me read The Well of Loneliness, older and wiser and fully aware of how little I really knew. What I saw before me was the outlines of a tradition, one that had come to mean a lot to me and gave me a real sense of self. Everyone deserves their own history and culture.