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Radclyffe Hall - The Well of Loneliness
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Marita



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PostPosted: Wed Nov 30, 2011 11:19 pm    Post subject: Radclyffe Hall - The Well of Loneliness  Reply with quote

Where to start a discussion on The Well of Loneliness? It is a strange story. According to the introduction it was considered to be the ‘Lesbian Bible’ for the twentieth century. Is it still that important? Does it really explain how women love women? Is it any different from men loving women or men loving men?  It is of course of its time. Stephen can not marry her lover and give her the protection or social life a man could. Today same sex marriages are allowed and the barren life of Stephen is an option, not a given.

Another thing I didn’t quite get was the difference between women like Stephen and Jamie who had a masculinity about them and women like their partners Mary and Barbara, both feminine looking. Hall talks about ‘inverts’. As far as I understood this she means people who have aspects of the opposite sex: the masculinity of Stephen and the feminine ways of Brockett. But what about Mary and Barbara? They don’t seem to be ‘inverts’. Mary even says: “But for you, I could have loved Martin Hallam.” Does this mean that Mary is bi-sexual?  Or did she just respond to the maleness of Stephen linked to the first kindness she had ever experienced? And Stephen’s first lover? Again she doesn’t strike me as being ‘invert’. She likes men and has an affair with a man while still seeing Stephen. She comes across as a very selfish person. I presume her affair with Stephen was just an opportunity, a little adventure to spice up her boring life and then on to the next one.

I’m not sure that Hall’s attempt to explain people like Stephen did this novel any favours. As the story of a woman’s struggle to come to terms with her sexuality it is interesting. That she lives in a society that doesn’t allow equality for women and limits her ability to make of her life what she wants adds to the tragedy of the story. As the ‘Lesbian bible’ I think its days are over.

Did I like it? Yes, I think I did. Stephen’s youth was well written. Her feelings of being different, an outcast, were described well, especially when Hall writes that Stephen felt people watched her and laughed at the way she dressed and acted – more like a boy than a girl. Her friendship with Martin Hallam shows how Stephen feels his equal. As Martin says himself later: ”We were like brothers.”
I couldn’t quite understand Stephen’s repugnance when Martin proposes to her. Shock, confusion, sadness that he still saw her as a girl and not an equal; al these I would have understood but not repugnance. I even tried to imagine what I would feel if my best friend would suddenly declare she loved me. I’m sure I wouldn’t feel repugnance.

All this is about the story but I also liked the writing. Hall often writes with great detail as in this passage after the dead of Raftery, Stephen’s horse (Chapter 29/4):

Quote:

Before she left Morton that same afternoon, she went once more into the large, bare stables. The stables were now completely empty, for Anna had moved her carriage horses to new quarters nearer the coachman’s cottage.
    Over one loose-box was a warped oak board bearing Collins’ studbook title, ‘Marcus’, in red and blue letters; but the paint was dulled to a ghostly grey by encroaching mildew, while a spider had spun a large, purposeful web across one side of Collins’ manger. A cracked, sticky wine bottle lay on the floor; no doubt used at some time for drenching Collins who had died in a fir of violent colic a few months after Stephen herself had left Morton. On the window-sill of the farthest loose-box stood a curry comb and a couple of brushes; the comb was being eaten by rust, the brushes had lost several clumps of bristles. A jam-pot of hoof-polish, now hard as stone, clung tenaciously to a short stick of firewood which time had petrified into the polish. But Raftery’s loose-box smelt fresh and pleasant with the curious dry, clean smell of new straw. A deep depression towards the middle showed where his body had lain in sleep and seeing this Stephen stooped down and touched it for a moment. Then she whispered: ‘Sleep peacefully, Raftery.’


Another passage I liked was this about the end of the war and the different reactions of the members of Stephen’s unit.  (Chapter 37/1).
Quote:

    A morning came when a handful of the members were together in the coffee-room, huddled round a fire that was principally composed of damp brushwood. At one moment the guns could be heard distinctly, the next, something almost unnatural had happened – there was silence, as though dead had turned on himself, smiting his own power of destruction. No one spoke, they just sat and stared at each other with faces entirely devoid of emotion; their faces looked blank, like so many masks from which had been sponged every trace of expression – and they waited – listening to that silence.
    The door opened and in walked an untidy Poilu; his manner was casual, his voice apathetic: ‘Eh bien, mesdames, c’est l’Armistice.’ But his shining brown eyes were not at all apathetic. ‘Oui, c’est l’Armistice,’ he repeated coolly; then he shrugged, as a man might do who would say: ‘What’s all this to me?’ After which he grinned broadly in spite of himself, he was still very young, and turning on his heel he departed.
    Stephen said: ‘So it’s over,’ and she looked at Mary, who had jumped up, and was looking in her turn at Stephen.
    Mary said: ‘This means …’ but she stopped abruptly.
    Bless said: ‘Got a match, anyone? Oh, thanks!’ And she groped for a white-metal cigarette case.
    Howard said: ‘Well, the first thing I’m going to do is to get my hair properly shampooed in Paris.’
    Thurloe laughed shrilly, then she started to whistle, kicking the recalcitrant fire as she did so.
    But funny, old, monosyllabic Blakeney with her curly white hair cropped as close as an Uhlan’s – Blakeney who had long ago done with emotions – quite suddenly laid her arms on the table and her head on her arms, and she wept, and she wept.


That is it from me. This was an interesting read but I think I prefer ‘The Unlit Lamp’ where Hall doesn’t try to explain why or how the main character became a lesbian.


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 01, 2011 12:02 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks very much for this, Marita. I will post some of my own thoughts (if I can remember them... Fortunately I made notes) soon, but please excuse me if I don't post a great deal immediately - I'm in London for almost all of Thursday and Saturday and won't be near a computer, and have various other things going on that are demanding my time. But I do have some things to say and I'm looking forward to the discussion!


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Evie
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 02, 2011 7:54 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks, Marita, interesting comments!  As you say, it is of its time, but although things have moved on, I felt it still rang true enough at times to give me insight even for people today.  It seems to me that gay and lesbian people still struggle with their own sexuality at times, and certainly there is still prejudice and ridicule (and worse) within society, even if same sex relationships are officially recognised.

That question of 'inverts', of those who, like Stephen, are very masculine women, while other lesbians are very feminine, is I think the most interesting part of the book for me, and again something I think about today.  You do often see in lesbian partnerships that one partner is quite masculine while the other is feminine, and for me it does point to the complexity of sexuality - it's so easy for outsiders to stereotype, yet people are always individuals, and sexuality is a deep and very personal aspect of our lives.

For these reasons, I think the book *is* still important, because it explores so blatantly the development of Stephen and her relationship with different women as well as with men.  I think the repugnance towards Martin is because she was so shocked - she hadn't thought about him sexually at all, they were very close friends but his falling in love with her completely undermined that.

I liked the book more as it went on, and as Stephen reached adulthood, and particularly once she went to Paris.  I didn't like Stephen - she was self-absorbed, selfish, thoughtless, though I understand why she was all those things.  There was a hardness to her - again, understandable.  Nevertheless, she does make that huge sacrifice at the end (prompted by others, but she makes it nevertheless), though I found the ending unsatisfactory.  Hall no doubt wanted to express her own feelings about the way lesbians were treated, but a strong, defiant ending would have made it a better novel, for me.

What I didn't like about the book, unlike you, Marita, was the writing, which I thought was pretty awful.  The use of repetition, which can create a rhythm and be something poetic and impressive, was weak and simply boring, in a book that needed the strong hand of a good editor throughout.  The style surprised me - I was expecting something more muscular for 1928, more Modernist perhaps, certainly not the flowery Edwardian style we got, with its awkward phrasings (too many sentences starting with verbs - 'Came a day when..' etc, which again can be very effective, but not when overused, and used in such clumsy ways).  Yoda may have read this book - 'Idle she was...', 'A whole counter there was...', etc.  The word 'anent' kept cropping up, and seemed again stilted rather than interesting - I know AS Byatt says the reason she writes historical fiction is in part so that she can use words that are now out of fashion - but even for a word that was presumably more in fashion when Hall was writing, it seemed very odd in the ways she used it.  And when I got to the sentence, 'Somewhere in the garden a dog barked', I laughed out loud, though I appreciate that is because of decades of hindsight!

I hoped for something weightier in style - not denser, just more literary and skilful.  Nevertheless, I am sure it was a very important book for Hall to write,and by the end I was certainly engrossed enough to want to keep reading - something I really struggled with at the beginning.

One other thing I wanted to mention is Stephen's relationship with her father.  He was wonderful, of course - and so sad when he wanted to tell her what he had realised about her, but also wanted to protect her, and his pain was expressed well, I thought.  There did, though, seem to be a rather mystical connection between his wanting a son and calling his daughter Stephen because she wasn't a boy, and her sexual orientation - I found this a bit odd, and the book as a whole is melodramatic in a rather immature way.

I am sure there is lots more to say, especially about Angela and Mary, but I need breakfast!  Hope you have time to post something soon, Gareth, and I may post more comments soon.  I did struggle with the book for a long time, as I hated the style (to the end), but I am so glad I finally read it.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 03, 2011 8:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Another character I meant to mention is 'Puddle'.  She is important as someone who understands and encourages Stephen, but is also a lesbian herself, but chooses to remain unfulfilled, and to channel her own feelings into Stephen.  She is described as 'a grey woman' at one point, and that is partly literal - she dresses in grey - but also gives a sense that she is not someone that anyone pays much attention to - at least in terms of her sexuality.  She is seen as asexual, as a result of her celibacy and keeping her feelings completely private.  Even Stephen does not seem to understand fully the level of support Puddle gives her.

Puddle also stands, to me, for all those women of that era and earlier who felt they had to hide their sexuality.  Hall implies that there are many women who have to act this way - and it gives a new understanding, perhaps, to all the spinster governesses and other single female characters in Victorian literature; not that they are unacknowledged lesbians in terms of how the authors saw them, but I think Hall is showing how women who felt unable to express their sexuality survived.

In terms of Stephen, two aspects of this struck me.  One is that for all the prejudice and ultimately exile that she endures, there is always someone near her who understands and is supportive - her father, Puddle, and then her friends in Paris, especially Brockett and Valerie.

The other is that Stephen does not lack lovers - Mary's sexuality may or may not be either compromised or of a dual nature, but whether her feelings for Martin are to do with her desire for a conventional life or because she genuinely falls in love with him, she clearly loves Stephen.  Although it is an uneven relationship from the start - Stephen is very much the dominant partner.  But my main point is that Hall again seems to be implying that lesbianism was not a rare and abnormal thing, but something much more common than society was prepared to acknowledge.

The one thing I still keep thinking about is the relationship between Stephen's sexuality and her gender; at one point, in chapter 27, Hall writes that 'Stephen found her manhood', and it does seem as though Stephen essentially wants to be a man - is that fair?  Maybe not. From the time she rides astride rather than sidesaddle as a child, she seems to enjoy expressing her masculine side.  This goes back to the point Marita made about masculine and feminine lesbian characters - and again to the issue of the complexity of sexuality.  It is this that for me raises the book a few notches - the writing, I think, is quite bad, but the ideas are complex and sophisticated.


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Marita



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PostPosted: Sat Dec 03, 2011 11:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Evie wrote:
Thanks, Marita, interesting comments!  As you say, it is of its time, but although things have moved on, I felt it still rang true enough at times to give me insight even for people today.  It seems to me that gay and lesbian people still struggle with their own sexuality at times, and certainly there is still prejudice and ridicule (and worse) within society, even if same sex relationships are officially recognised.


When I said it is of its time, I was referring to the term ‘inverts’. Now we talk about lesbians, homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals … But I’m sure it’s still just as difficult to come to terms with being different and ‘different’ will unfortunately always be a target for prejudice. In spite of the civilisation we’re so proud of, people haven’t changed much in essence.

Evie wrote:
What I didn't like about the book, unlike you, Marita, was the writing, which I thought was pretty awful.  The use of repetition, which can create a rhythm and be something poetic and impressive, was weak and simply boring, in a book that needed the strong hand of a good editor throughout.  The style surprised me - I was expecting something more muscular for 1928, more Modernist perhaps, certainly not the flowery Edwardian style we got, with its awkward phrasings (too many sentences starting with verbs - 'Came a day when..' etc, which again can be very effective, but not when overused, and used in such clumsy ways).  Yoda may have read this book - 'Idle she was...', 'A whole counter there was...', etc.  The word 'anent' kept cropping up, and seemed again stilted rather than interesting - I know AS Byatt says the reason she writes historical fiction is in part so that she can use words that are now out of fashion - but even for a word that was presumably more in fashion when Hall was writing, it seemed very odd in the ways she used it.  And when I got to the sentence, 'Somewhere in the garden a dog barked', I laughed out loud, though I appreciate that is because of decades of hindsight!


I must admit that the Yoda style writing completely escaped me, possibly because I read this faster than the previous books. More likely because I just don’t see bad writing.
The repetition of certain sentences did jar a bit at times. I presumed Hall wanted to make a point about something with these, but I can’t say I discovered what.
The parts I liked, such as the two I quoted, suddenly jumped out at me. Mostly they were descriptions of places (like the empty stable) or events (the end of the war) that really came to life in my mind.
As for ‘anent’: according to the notes in my version of ‘The Well of Loneliness’ it was a favourite word of Radclyffe Hall.


Evie wrote:

Hall again seems to be implying that lesbianism was not a rare and abnormal thing, but something much more common than society was prepared to acknowledge.

I think you are right, Evie. And I think Hall was right about this. It seems unlikely that there weren’t about as many then as now. You mention the spinster governesses and single females in Victorian Literature. But how many of the married women hated their marriage and their husband but chose the more conventional road because they didn’t feel strong enough to deal with the loneliness of these women? Women like Valerie, Puddle and even Stephen, who endure and keep following their chosen road, can only be admired. No wonder some of them, like Wanda (and probably Mary) can’t cope with being a social outcast.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Sun Dec 04, 2011 3:17 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yes, I am probably being too critical of the writing - it's not to my taste, rather than 'bad' writing, though I still feel a good editor might have improved it a bit - wary as I am of editors having too much power over the individual's creativity!  And certainly there are parts, such as the ones you mention, where the writing is very effective.  I think it just took me by surprise, it wasn't at all what I was expecting, I thought it would be sharper, more Modernist, as I know I've already said.

And yes, your last point about women choosing an easier path is what makes it such a moving book, I think; Stephen refused to compromise at any level, even if it meant having to lose her beloved home and not see her mother, but she is presented as singleminded and strong, while Mary and Angela and others are less ready to give up more conventional routes to a comfortable life.  I am sure the ending is meant to reinforce this, though I feel Hall could have done herself and her desire to see lesbian relationships accepted as healthy and normal by having a more defiant ending, one that showed Stephen achieving personal happiness.  But perhaps the ending she has given us did make me think about things more!

Looking forward to hearing Gareth's thoughts too.


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Marita



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PostPosted: Sun Dec 04, 2011 11:33 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Stephen had personal happiness, but only for a short time. Even Valerie who seems to be a rock of certainty, the person Stephen turns to if she wants to talk, hasn’t got a happy relationship – mainly because she got tired of her partner. Barbara and Jamie are a tragic duo. They miss their old village but can never go back, successful or not. Together they can handle this longing but poverty and illness destroy them.
Lack of social acceptance pushes these people into the underbelly of Paris, where drink and drugs bring forgetfulness to those that can’t cope. It’s from this destructive ‘help’ that Stephen saves Mary by pushing her into Martin’s arms. Not a happy ending for Stephen but surely a sign of true love, ready to sacrifice itself for the loved one. This is a love that is as real and glorious as any love between a man and a woman.
Perhaps that is what Hall wanted to show with this book. In the end it’s a plea for acceptance. In Stephen’s words ‘Give us also the right to our existence.’

Looking forward to Gareth’s thoughts as well.


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Sun Dec 04, 2011 12:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sorry, this is probably going to be a bit of a rant. I hope it won't offend people's sensibilities...

The gay rights movement has certainly accomplished a lot since The Well of Loneliness was written, hasn't it, but I think the book still has things in it that are relevant to gay struggles today, just about. There was one moment in particular that struck a chord with me, the episode where Barbara dies and Jamie is unable to mourn her in public. Hopefully this sort of thing is on the way out with the advent of civil partnerships, but one still occasionally hears of similar situations where the family of the dead party cut the bereaved partner out of their lives entirely, ban them from the funeral, etc. Horrible.

I wish I could say I liked the book more, but among its flaws, I think Radclyffe Hall's writing and the book's length are the greatest. It drags on and on, and unlike E/V I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by the scenes in Paris, perhaps mainly because I was thinking, in the back of my mind, Surely this should have finished by now? It badly needed an editor to cut it down to 300 pages max. Is that unfair of me?

Maybe I just couldn't cope with 450 pages of her writing. Take the death of Barbara - it should be moving, but it's told at such a pitch of hysteria that it's hard to take entirely seriously. Human beings *are* hysterical, of course, but I think a writer with more taste (sorry, I'm being catty, aren't I) would have related it with more restraint and less melodrama. The whole setup of this scene is exactly like Act 4 of La Bohème - four friends in a Parisian garret, one consumptively ill and about to die - only Puccini gets away with it because it's opera, and because he's a genius (pace, E/V!). I think I may be so resistant to this kind of thing because it's just not me. I don't really do overwrought. I'm afraid I felt the same about the ending - irritating because it was so passionately expressed as to feel overdone ('Rockets of pain, burning rockets of pain--their pain, her pain, all welded together into one great consuming agony. Rockets of pain that shot up and burst, dropping scorching tears of fire on the spirit--her pain, their pain...'), not guttingly emotional as it was presumably meant to be.

Here's a passage from the opening:

Sir Philip was a tall man and exceedingly well-favoured, but his charm
lay less in feature than in a certain wide expression, a tolerant
expression that might almost be called noble, and in something sad yet
gallant in his deep-set hazel eyes. His chin, which was firm, was very
slightly cleft, his forehead intellectual, his hair tinged with auburn.
His wide-nostrilled nose was indicative of temper, but his lips were
well-modelled and sensitive and ardent--they revealed him as a dreamer
and a lover.

Twenty-nine when they had married, he had sown no few wild oats,
yet Anna's true instinct made her trust him completely: Her guardian had
disliked him, opposing the engagement, but in the end she had had her own
way. And as things turned out her choice had been happy, for seldom had
two people loved more than they did; they loved with an ardour
undiminished by time; as they ripened, so their love ripened with them.

What's her model - Hardy? If only she had his subtlety. I don't think it's this florid and overwritten throughout, but I did find it a bit much to take at times.

Mad, it was madness! They were such faithful lovers, and their love it
was that had fashioned their child. They knew that it was madness and yet
they persisted, while their anger dug out for itself a deep channel, so
that future angers might more easily follow. They could not forgive and
they could not sleep, for neither could sleep without the other's
forgiveness, and the hatred that leapt out at moments between them would
be drowned in the tears that their hearts were shedding.

(Incidentally, does Mills and Boon have a lesbian imprint?)

On one of her post-Acorn Antiques TV specials some years ago Victoria Wood did a spoof soap opera set in a shopping mall, which frequently used the following cliché to end scenes:

A: Oh, and Mrs Bamstead?
B: Yes?
A: Thanks.

I wish I hadn't found myself thinking of this quite so often while I was reading the book.

All the business of Stephen resenting her father because he hasn't told her she's a lesbian's a bit odd, isn't it? Dear old Puddle won't tell her either. This lack of self-knowledge is surprising. Nowadays, when a girl's a lesbian she's the first to know. Is it credible? Maybe things were different then...

And yet in spite of my apparently many objections I can't dislike the book. I thought the Army/wartime scenes were particularly good. Violet and Roger Antrim are among the more detestable characters in the book, and I'd been rather looking forward to his grisly death, but of course it feels absolutely right that he should die a hero. I was glad to have my expectations confounded.

For all that it depicts a lesbian life as an inevitably unfulfilled one, it's not a book without hope for some kind of acceptance in the future, and it does at least depict lesbianism as natural (in fact, it labours that point). Did you read the Virago edition with the introduction by Alison Hennegan? She makes some good points, not least about the importance of the character of Valérie Seymour, a well-adjusted 'invert' who encourages Stephen, a voice of hope for the future. The protagonists do talk occasionally of the possibility of acceptance within society - did that feel inevitable, however distant, at the time?

What happens to Stephen after the novel ends, do you think? Is it too stultifying an existence for her to return to Morton and start breeding dogs? Maybe when her mother dies she and Puddle can move into a single room.

I will write more later, but I don't like to give the impression that I hated the book. Far from it - I really enjoyed it, for the first half at least, despite not liking the writing - and I'm very grateful to Marita for having chosen it, as it gave me the push I needed to read it, which I had been intending to do since my teens.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Sun Dec 04, 2011 12:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

No, I have to say I do agree with most of what you say, Chibiabos.  I found myself increasingly moved by the ideas, but I never grew to love the writing, and frequently found myself thinking (and saying to others) that it was not far off Mills and Boon.  I agree that the melodrama and hysteria were hard to take - that's what I meant by bad writing, really - endless repetition (to no literary or emotional effect), overwrought descriptions, and yes, way too long.

I did feel moved by Barbara's death - well, not by her death, but by Jamie's response - but as you say, that was because of the truth contained within it, not by the way it was told.  Sorry, I have been holding back on my views of the writing, though I think I admitted to hating it, but that was one thing that continued to be a barrier to the end.

I think you said, Gareth, that it has been called an important book but not a good one - I'd agree with that!


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Marita



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PostPosted: Mon Dec 05, 2011 11:23 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I must have been reading this book while sleeping.  Seeing your examples of the writing you are both correct – it is not particularly good. I think this is due to the way I read. The first time I read a novel I only see the basic story. I need to read it a second time to see more. I did this with ‘Madame Verona’ and ‘Farewell, my Lovely’ but with ‘The Well of Loneliness’ I had to set myself targets in order to finish it in time, let alone read it twice. What I remembered of the writing were the things (like those quoted) that I liked.



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