The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Stephen is an ideal child of aristocratic parents—a fencer, a horse rider and a keen scholar. Stephen grows to be a war hero, a bestselling writer and a loyal, protective lover. But Stephen is a woman, and her lovers are women. As her ambitions drive her, and society confines her, Stephen is forced into desperate actions.
In the early twentieth century, an aristocratic couple is expecting a child. Father is convinced the baby will be male, so decides upon the name Stephen. Baby arrives; surprise! It’s a girl. Do we christen her with a female name? Hell no, we chose Stephen, so Stephen she shall be. Just how fitting that name would be was unknown to them at the time, but oh the implications of it keep us wondering. What a gorgeous little gem this book is.
The story spans Stephen’s life from birth into her thirties. Often regarded as a strange (queer) child, she mystifies and confuses her peers and neighbours. She has an innate hatred for feminine clothing and hobbies, preferring instead to wear trousers (mostly due to the handy pockets, ”Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden—at least really adequate pockets.” - still a frustration), practice fencing, and go hunting with her father.
When Stephen, as a pre-teen, develops strong feelings for one of the maids, quite who Stephen is becomes a bit clearer to us as readers, but not necessarily to Stephen. She knows she’s not like other people, but can’t understand why. What follows is a gorgeous account of coming to terms to oneself, learning the trials involved in love, and overcoming a world which doesn’t seem to want to accept you.
This book was classed as obscene, and banned in 1928. It felt strange to be reading words written in the same classic style I’m used to, and yet having these words depict issues which feel a lot more modern. Very few classic novels deal with these types of themes, and it was a truly incredible experience reading of them. I think it’s easy to forget our LGBT brothers and sisters of times gone by, and it’s difficult to imagine the added stress and oppression that came with a stiff upper lipped society. Hall writes candidly of loving openly, and being persecuted for it, of wanting the same rights as others, but being denied them, of being the same, and yet treated so differently. It’s a heartbreaking account of LGBT lives in the 1920s, and an important one to learn.
Despite Stephen’s masculine name, mannerisms, and clothing, she was and remained, female. Had she been born a man, she could have had everything she wanted with little to no obstacle. Simply due to her birth gender, and attraction to women, she was denied almost everything her heart truly needed, and this is the biggest heartbreak.
I’m so glad I picked this up. Hall’s commentary is so raw, it’s utterly glorious, and she should be respected for what she was - an LGBT trailblazer in an age of scandal, shock, and narrow-mindedness.