Conversation About Well of Loneliness

As you may recall, Cass from Bonjour, Cass challenged me to read The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, that old depressing lesbian classic. I accepted the challenge. What we also did, though, is discuss/rant about the book together. We had two conversations about it. I’ll be posting excerpts of the first one (when I didn’t have notes) and Cass will be excerpting from the second one (when I did have notes and we were both a little more organized). Here are the highlights, with spoilers marked. I’m sorry to say that we started at the end, so the beginning is a little spoiler heavy. Spoilers are up for interpretation, though, so I hid plot points but showed who the major romantic lead is and general things like that.

Danika: […] Okay, so, to get started… overall impressions? I liked Stephen as a character right up until the end, where she started doing stupid, manipulative, controlling things. I thought she was really sympathetic until maybe the last tenth of the book, when I lost a huge amount of respect for her.

Cass: Stephen’s a bit of a jerk. [highlight to read spoilers] Who’s she to decide Mary wants to marry a man even Stephen didn’t want to marry? I appreciate Hall’s argument for tolerance and acknowledgement (“Give us also the right to our existance!”), but the ending is frustratingly …something. Paternalistic, maybe. [end of spoilers]

[…]

D: That’s exactly what I thought! In the end, I realized that Stephen is pretty sexist. She had that whole “I know what’s best for you better than you do” attitude. I wasn’t impressed. [spoilers] But what’s-his-name (see, this is why I took notes), the romantic competition, was just as bad. I was furious at both of them.

C: Martin! Martin is a big dumb jerk, too.

D: Ah, yes, Martin. I looooved Martin when he first came on the scene. (I live in BC, so I was like “Yes! Trees!”) Then, like Stephen, he took this nose dive as a character in the end. Sigh.

C: Stephen’s whole “Mary would be so much happier with a man” plan (without, you know, consulting Mary) [end of spoilers] really examplifies the problem with the Inversion theory.

D: Inversion theory?

C: Inversion as opposed to lesbianism. Like, an invert is a masculine woman or a feminine man. And they are doomed to forever fall in love with people they can never be with. Since of course they can’t be with one another.

D: Oh, yes. That really is pushed in WoL, huh? Because Mary is feminine and (by our current labels) bisexual, or even straight-with-an-exception, because you can’t be exclusively attracted to women if you’re feminine.

C: Oh, I don’t know about that. I think we put Mary in a lesbian bar circa-1955, she’d be all over the butches.

D: Probably. But I think that’s how Stephen sees her. I guess I think Stephen doesn’t really know her all that well at all, or at least doesn’t respect her. Because I think Stephen thought that without her influence, Mary would be “normal”.

C: Yes. Oh, inversion. How I shake my fist at you.

D: Definitely. So, again coming at it with 2010 labels, do you think WoL first more under a trans umbrella or a lesbian one? I think they can be read from both perspectives, but do you think it fits more into one than the other?

C: I really don’t think it’s fair to push our labels onto a book from 1928. Trans- identities are, by definition, personal and self-definied/understood, that I think it’s impossible to decide whether or not Stephen Gordon is a trans character. We’d have to ask her. But if I had to make a decision, I’d say it’s a lesbian novel. And even though I’d love to, I’ll still resist calling Stephen a butch, for the same reasons.  But I know you think of it as more of a trans novel. Care to rebut?

D: A very good point. Not that Stephen would be able to tell us, because she didn’t have the language. It’s odd, though, because the first half of the novel I was very, very sure that Stephen’s gender was more of an issue for her than her sexuality. I mean, by… what was it, 7 or 9? Something like that. As a kid, at least, she got a crush on a woman, so her sexuality did come up early, but her gender seemed to be an issue even earlier. I mean, even before she was born her parents were sure she was a son (not that that was unusual for the time). She was named Stephen. She hated anything feminine, any feminine clothing, her long hair, etc. She spent a long period in her childhood dressing up like a boy. There’s a great quote somewhere (I have it in my notes) where she asks her father if she could be a boy/man if she really tried hard, or if she prayed hard enough. She looks exactly like her father. I mean, it’s hard to tell if she really is “butch” (again, I know it’s silly to apply 2010 labels to 1928, but for the sake of argument) rather than trans. And, who wouldn’t want to be a man in 1928? It was a better life. So I’m divided, but I think there’s a good argument for it being a trans novel.

After she cuts off her hair and buys her own clothes, though, those issues seem to fade to the background and her sexuality becomes the big issue. There is one passage where she looks in the mirror and hates her body, but hating your body is a genderless problem, so again, hard to say.

[…]

C: The term ‘homosexuality,’ while in use in 1928, didn’t yet have its modern definition or its now understood division from gender. Inversion, on the other hand, completly tied sexual orientation to one’s gender and gender expression. A person labelled female at birth could not, by defition, be an invert without displaying masculine traits and masculine leanings. Therefore, in order to be a novel ABOUT inversion, Stephen has to be masculine. If we are using our modern lens here, then we can agree that, despite her masculinity, Stephen is not automatically male. The fact that her parents gave her a traditionally male name is out of her control. Lots of girls who continue to identify as women like to dress in pants rather than dresses because they are easier to walk and play in. Looking “like a man” or being masculine doesn’t make a person a man.

The conversation with her father is trickier, but if she has a crush on a girl, and thinks that only men and women can have relationships together, it’s logical that she would want to be a man in order to be happily in love with a woman.

D: True, but coming from a modern perspective, that assumes that you are by default the gender you were assigned at birth and only the opposite if there is overwhelming evidence. We don’t have overwhelming evidence that Stephen would identify as a man, but we have a lot less evidence than there is for Stephen identifying as a woman. She can’t stand to even be around women, except the ones she falls in love with.

That makes sense, but it isn’t just around having a partner that Stephen is frustrated at being labelled a girl. In fact, as some point she said “Being a girl ruins everything” (not an exact quote)

C: […] [H]er gender and gender expression can be on the trans-masculine spectrum without her necessarily being trans. In 1928(ish), being a girl DID ruin everything!

I think you are the gender you understand yourself to be, but sadly I can’t ask Stephen. 😉

D: Oh, and I meant to say in that first paragraph that of course she doesn’t hypothetically have to identify with either or just one. If I’m assigning modern labels, Stephen is probably more butch or genderqueer than transman, but you’re right in that it’s so very much a personal definition that it’s pointless to guess at that.

[…] I definitely think think Stephen would be in the trans-masculine spectrum, but isn’t that under the trans umbrella? Of course, it depends on how wide we’re making the umbrella, because under a lot of definitions Stephen would be included there by default because of her refusal to conform to gender norms in dress, hair, attitude, etc.

That’s a big part of the problem in trying to assess Stephen’s discomfort with her gender. Is it because she feels more trans, or is it just a natural reaction to the restrictive nature of being a woman at the time?

[…]

D: Okay, did you notice that animals can practically talk in WoL?

C: Why do animals always die in gay books? Why? And what is with LESBIANS and HORSES. Excuse me. INVERTS. Inverts and horses.

[…]

D: I thought that one of the ongoing themes in WoL is that aging is a tragedy. Everybody gets old and it is terrible.

[…]

C: Do you think TWOL is still important reading?

Hall hates the feminine ladies. Poor Mary. Do you think Lady Una gave Hall a good talking to after she read TWOL?

D: Yeah, I got definitely get a whiff of misogyny from WoL.

I think so. I mean, like I was saying in my post, it’s amazing/depressing the things that are still relevant. Stephen actually makes a pretty good case for same sex marriage, letting queer people serve in the army, and letting gay people adopt. It’s a sympathetic plea, partly because Stephen is so traditional other than her “inversion”.

I hope so. I wonder what Hall’s other books are like, if they all have this feminine = weak theme

C: I will be honest. I just hate BEING GAY IS SO HARD books. I know it CAN be hard and there are problems, but these books make it sound like we’re the most miserable bunch ever.

D: Ugh, I know. And the unhappily ever after queer books. When you’re already dealing with a tough time coming out or something, you don’t want to read about “DON’T BE GAY OR YOU’LL DIE/GO INSANE”. Of course, being gay in 1928 would be pretty awful.

C: Granted, 1928, not such a good year for the ole inverts.

[…]

C: What’s your favorite happy ending lesbian book?

Rules: 1) No one can die. 2) No horses 3) No rape.

Okay, commence. […] ( I can’t think of any.) […] Are you stumped because I am stumped.

[…]

D: THOUGH, and this is one of my issues in the book, Stephen could have had it so easy! You’re freaking rich, Stephen! You can lavishly support your hot young girlfriend! You can go on vacations and hold big lesbian parties! Why so sad?

And that was about it for our first conversation! I cut out the slightly off-topic meanderings (talking about the WoL covers, other lesbian books covers, and some other lesbian books), but if anyone’s interested in reading our random babbling, I can post that, too.

Check out more of Cass and I talking and complaining (I kid, I like it despite some of its issues) at Bonjour, Cass!

And hey, if anyone wants to do something like this with me again, just let me know! I’d probably be up for it. You don’t even need to be a book blogger. In fact, feel free to email me about lesbian books anytime (my email is in the About Me) section. It is my favourite topic! You can also ask me questions (even anonymously) on my Formspring.

Lesbrary Review: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Whew. I finally finished reading The Well of Loneliness. This isn’t the first time I read it, but when Cass of Bonjour, Cass! suggested we read it for pride (finished a little late), I was all for tackling this classic lesbian tome. Once again, I must reiterate: don’t let this be the first lesbian book you read! It’s way too depressing for someone first coming out. Read a nice HEA book first.

This was also the first book I’ve read that I took extensive notes through, so you’ll be hearing a lot about it. Cass and I are also going to discuss it at some point and post the conversation on both our blogs.

The Well of Loneliness (WoL from now on) takes on the majority of Stephen Gordon’s life. One of the ongoing questions I had while re-reading WoL was weather this was a story about a lesbian, as it has been traditionally interpreted, or a transgender story. This was published in 1928, so there wasn’t really the language to describe it that way at the time. I’m not entirely sure how it should be classified (or whether it’s appropriate to apply 2010 terms to a 1928 story at all), so I’d love to hear your interpretations.

Okay, time to go through my notes. My very first note is how much I dislike the first sentence: “Not very far from Upton-on-Severn–between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills–stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramberly; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.”

I hate scenery descriptions in books, so that’s just a personal preference, but man is that a sprawling, overwrought sentence. It’s no wonder it’s so hard to pick up this book; that sentence would turn anyone away. Luckily, the whole book isn’t written like that.

Actually, the clunkiness of that first sentence aside, I think Hall’s writing is quite good. She invokes imagery really well, like in this part: “[…] and his weariness had flown to her bosom as a spent bird will fly to its nest–as indeed such a bird had once flown to her, she told him, taking refuge from the perils of a storm” (pg 11). Hall goes on to describe Stephen’s parents by saying “as they ripened, so their love ripened with them” (pg 12). I think that beautiful. I also liked the description of Stephen’s birth:

“But: ‘Man proposes–God disposes,’ and so it happened that on Christmas Even, Anna Gordon was delivered of a daughter; a narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby, that yelled and yelled for three hours without ceasing, as though outraged to find itself ejected into life.” (pg 13)

Part of the evidence for WoL being a trans novel is that both Stephen’s parents desperately wanted a son (not unusual for the time) and while Anna was pregnant with Stephen, she was convinced Stephen was a boy. They started calling the unborn son Stephen and kept the name even when Stephen turned out to be female. Stephen is also constantly described as looking exactly like her (using the pronouns used in the book) father.

This is not a happy novel. We’re only a couple pages in when we realize that Stephen’s mom resents her (as an infant onwards) for some reason, possibly because Stephen gets too much attention from her father. WoL is never a chipper book, not even in title, so it shouldn’t be too surprising, but still.

This is the part of WoL that’s depressing: it’s still relevant. 82 years later, Hall still addresses issues we’re facing today. In fact, WoL takes a firm “born that way” stance; Stephen is only seven when she starts crushing on one of the female servants.

On the trans side of things, Stephen dresses up as a boy constantly, taking on the persona of Nelson. She also says “I must be a boy, ’cause I feel exactly like one” (pg 20). A little later on that same page, Stephen is described as loathing dresses and any feminine clothing, and “she was conscious of feeling all wrong, because she so long to be someone quite real, instead of just Stephen pretending to be Nelson.” A couple pages later, she asks her father “Do you think I could be a man, supposing I tried very hard–or prayed, Father?” (pg 26) She also complains later that “being a girl spoil[s] everything” (pg 37).

Of course, on the other hand, who wouldn’t want to be a man at this point? Being a woman in the time period Stephen was living through was entirely restrictive, especially if you’re the independent sort. It wouldn’t be a stretch for Stephen to just be  a butch lesbian who envies men their freedom. I love this little passage from Stephen as a kid, because I think it so aptly describes that knight-in-shining-armor lesbian (in fact, my girlfriend is one):

“I’m going to learn fencing so as I can kill your brother-in-law who’s a beast to your sister, I’m going to fight duels for wives in distress, like men do in Paris, and I’m going to learn how to lift pianos on my stomach by expanding something–the diapan muscles–and I’m going to cut my hair off!” (pg 58)

I don’t know how you can’t be completely charmed by Stephen at this age. Actually, at this point her life isn’t so bad, because she’s got all her hobbies and her supportive father, and at this point she doesn’t really notice her mother’s disdain for her. Later, though, Stephen does some very stupid thing. I feel like she doesn’t have enough respect for women. She doesn’t let her lover make her own decisions and handles things in a very paternalistic, “I know what’s best for you” way. She ends up sabotaging herself and her relationships through pride a lot.

WoL has many small themes running through it. Her lesbianism/transgender issues, sure, but also her deep love for Morton (where she grew up), her worship of her parents’ relationship, writing, the tragedy of aging, and religion. There are small peculiarities that run through WoL, like the animals (and the occasional tree and sometimes houses) having real, articulate thoughts that they are just unable to communicate to humans. Also, looking bad, the amount of times the word “queer” comes up is entertaining.

The Well of Loneliness is not that long a book; it’s only about 450 pages, but it feels long. It feels like an autobiography of Stephen’s entire life, partly because you can’t help but think Stephen is based heavily on Radclyffe (I mean, Stephen is even a writer). It all seems so deeply personal: all of the emotions are intense and immediate.

One small thing: something I hate about reading books written way back is the surprise racism. Everything’s going along fine, and… surprise racism. WoL has it. Including “work like veritable n*ggers” (pg 288) and “His eyes had the patient, questioning expression common to the eye of most animals and to those of all slowly evolving races” (pg 362). Luckily, it’s only one scene, but that is ridiculously cringe-worthy.

To finish up, I wanted to reiterate how many of the issues we’re still discussing today are covered in this book. It’s been eight decades and we’re still trying to tackle the same old problems. DADT? Stephen wants to help in the war effort and is afraid of being turned away. Her and other “inverts” join and drive ambulances, an extremely difficult and dangerous job. She discusses how this is one of the few arenas that “inverts” can feel like participants in their own country, can crawl out of the darkness and live with the rest of the world. And the US is still not letting gay people serve openly. One of the central concerns in WoL is Stephen’s desperate want to provide for her lover a marriage and children, the respect that is inherent in that relationship, and the powerlessness of not being able to give that protection. And we’re still having that discussion, 82 years later.

Have you read Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall? What did you think of it? Do you think WoL is more of a lesbian or trans novel, or is there a problem inherent in the question?

General Recommendations

If you’re not sure where to start with Lesbrary (queer women) reading, here are some of my favourites.

The Classics

1) Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownRubfruit Jungle

This 1970s novel is not only a lesbian/queer women classic, it also entertaining and challenges social norms even to this day. I still remember the day I realized I needed to read more queer women books. It was when my mother found out I had not read Rubyfruit Jungle and said “And you call yourself a lesbian.” I’m glad she shamed me into picking it up. Lesbian author.

2) Patience and Sarah (or A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller

Written in 1969, but set in the early 19th century, this queer classic also manages to tell a romance between two women without being depressing. It also influenced my very author’s work: Sarah Waters.

3) Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Do not let this be the first Lesbrary book you read. If I was doing this list by order of which is most classic, I would start with this one, but it violated my cardinal rule: don’t be depressing. Once upon a time, any books that had queer content had to demonstrate that they were not actually advocating for queerness, so they had to either go straight, die, or go crazy. Often a combination of these three. I recommend Well of Loneliness because it’s a classic (published in 1928), because it was actually surprisingly not very difficult to read, and because it was judged as obscene although the hot lesbian love scene consisted entirely of “And that night they were not divided”, but it’s not a pick-me-up book. In fact, if it wasn’t such a classic, I never would have read it at all; I refuse to read books that punish characters for being queer. I also got the suspicion while reading it that the protagonist was transgendered, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.

Teen

Aaah, what is more lesbian than the coming-out story…

Hello, Groin1) Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie

I found this book after my teens, but I still loved it. Hello, Groin deals with the protagonist’s attraction to women as well as censorship at her school. A book theme inside a lesbian book? I’m in love. It also is well-written and optimistic. I highly recommend this one.

2) Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

The classic lesbian teen book. I read this a while ago, so all I really remember is that I thought they fell in love awfully fast, but I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a must-read for the well-read lesbrarian.

General Fiction

1) Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This is my very favourite book, queer or not. Sarah Waters has a writing style that I can just sink into, and despite the fact that I rarely seek out historical fiction, I fell in love with Tipping the Velvet. The ending is such a perfect representation of the odd, complicated nature of love. Plus, this is a coming-out story, that classic trope. Fingersmith is a very close second, which also has lesbians, but includes an absolutely killer, twisting plot. If you’re not shocked by the direction this takes, you are much more clever than I am. Lesbian author.

2) Pages for You by Sylvia BrownriggPages for You

This is an odd book for me. In the beginning, I thought, “this is sort of clumsily written”, but by the end I was blown away. I’m not sure what it is, but I really loved this book.

3) Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This isn’t my favourite of Winterson’s books, but it is, again, a classic. Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful, dream-like way of writing, and I plan to read all of her books eventually, though she is quite prolific. This one is rumoured to be semi-autobiographical, and it’s definitely worth reading. Lesbian author.

4) Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I have a soft spot for fairy tale re-tellings, so it wasn’t surprising that a lesbian fairy tale re-telling made the list. What is surprising, though, is not only Donoghue’s readable writing style, but her ability to weave each story into the next, creating a whole tapestry connecting some of your favourite fairy tales. Lesbian author.

Memoirs/Biographies

1) anything by Ivan E. Coyote

Coyote is not exactly woman-identified, but ze’s not man-identified either, so that’s good enough for me to make the list. I love Coyote’s style, and the stories including in any of the collections (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, Loose End, The Slow Fix) are short, to-the-point, and always affecting. Queer author.

Fun Home2) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is the creator of the famous lesbian comics Dykes to Watch Out For. In her graphic autobiography, she illustrates her childhood, constantly drawing comparisons to her father. It may violate my “don’t be depressing” rule, but the comics alone are worth reading it for, and perhaps the uneasy feeling you’ll get afterward. Lesbian author.

3) Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943 by Erica Fischer

I actually read about half of this thinking it was a really elaborate fictional story, so that should tell you how well it was written. Plus, a lesbian love story in Berlin, 1943? You know it’s going to be interesting at the very least.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I hope to get some real reviews up soon! Feel free to start sending in reviews (more lengthy than these general recommendations, hopefully). Just click on Guest Lesbrarians at the top.

Thanks for reading!