The Well of Loneliness. Radclyffe Hall. 1928. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2015)
First things first, that’s one bleak title. There are, of course, a million and one depressing novels in the world, (you could fill a library with those of Thomas Hardy alone), but their gloom is rarely made so explicit before the cover has even been breached. Put plainly, Well of Loneliness is not a book you can happily read on public transport or in any workplace staff room, without enduring some worried glances and well-meaning enquiries as to your current state of mental wellbeing. It might be an alienating experience, which is entirely fitting.
WoL, in terms of literary quality, is not a classic, despite several publishers branding it as such. Yet it is, at its best, a fantastic character study of just how different, and how difficult, any deviation from the traditional norms was, even in the relatively recent past. The prose is clunky, repetitive and staggeringly unsubtle in its crowbarring into place an infinity of less-than-sly suggestions as to the real cause of Stephen’s differentness (ie. her lesbianism), at every conceivable juncture. But to some extent perhaps, the context of the novel excuses this. Radcyllfe Hall’s inter-war audience, despite the First World War, was not too far removed from the stuffy morality of the Victorian era, and would largely have been shielded from any discussion of homosexuality whatsoever. Stephen’s recourse to her inversion as an explanation for her awkward traits deliberately recalls the work of early theorists of sexuality, and how far even the scientific community was ill-accustomed to considering such issues. The common reader would have had to be led by the hand towards something which, to us, would be in common view. If the resultant text is fatiguing, on the other hand it serves as a stark portrayal of how constant and consistent are the loneliness and self-doubt of those who stand outside the narrow band of social ‘normalcy’ in any era of history.
The book is undoubtedly worthy then. It’s also unavoidably dull. Stephen is a bland heroine, at once lovelorn milksop and bristling with starchy aloofness. Her social reticence means we spend an uncomfortable amount of time alone with her ponderous, narrow and oddly unilluminating thoughts. Nor are the one-dimensional supporting cast able to break the tedium. The parents might seem our best bet of engagement and meaningful exchange, but the monophonic nature of their respective personalities, the father all confused compassion, the mother so detached as to be a non-entity, means that they render many of the would-be pivotal moments of the first half of the novel devoid of impact or consequence simply by their presence. Of the remainder of the characters, only Williams and Rafferty manage to reach the half-way marker retaining any of the reader’s goodwill, and the former is an unashamed caricature and the latter a horse. We can hardly expect them to carry the plot.
Presumably the book was not dull to the eyes of Radclyffe Hall, but then the gap between author’s pen and the mind of the audience is a wide one. Never has it seemed wider than when Stephen begins declaiming on love. Whether it be the contentment she derives from Morton’s cosy interiors and the familiar, bracing countryside which surrounds it, or the ‘passion’ inspired by Angela Crosby, the depth of emotion presumably aimed at is never translated across. For the charms of the Worcestershire environs we are left to rely on bland platitudes, repeated on a semi-regular basis. Pacing is a problem, not just here but throughout (the first half of) the novel, with Stephen regularly repeating verbatim in reminiscence, events which the reader has experienced only 2 minutes previously. In terms of setting the scene, rather than reinforcing Stephen’s connection to nature and her home, this repetition merely deems inescapable the hackneyed nature of her vistas, valleys and brooding hills.
This penchant to recapitulate reaches its nadir in her relationship with Angela. Stephen’s beau is never shown as anything other than a selfish manipulator and we never truly get a handle on what Stephen sees in her, despite our place in her subconscious. Their dalliance has a tangibly rushed quality, which is curious given that it plays out over a fairly extended time frame, but this does not produce a sympathetically whirlwind romance. Given the static nature of Angela as a malignant foil for Stephen, and the paucity of development of the latter’s thoughts, we are left with an unvarying procession of token gestures and reactions, and stripped of any meaningful progression of sentiment we are once again subjected to repetitions which hammer us over the head with that which the narrative has failed to weave. Stephen must expound her heart-rending love for Angela on at least twenty occasions, yet cut free of all consequential context she is merely appears an automaton, and what should be the crux of the first half of the novel feels both perfunctory and manufactured.
It’s hard to embark upon the second half of Well of Loneliness with this in mind. The Angela Crosby affair is surely meant as the truly formative experience in Stephen’s youth, and one which brings both emotional and physical upheaval. The deep flaws inherent in this episode, which affect its very plausibility, can only cast a very large shadow over whatsoever should come after, and it’s hard to continue to place our trust in Stephen as a worthwhile narrator. But it is also very difficult to talk of a book such of this in such terms. Clearly the courage necessary to produce such a tale, let alone live such a life, means Radclyffe Hall’s work to some extent transcends literary critique. As a reminder of the intolerance that humanity is capable of, it remains a powerful exhibit. Yet in the character of Stephen, we are reminded that Hall’s deepest wish was to be judged not as a women, nor as a man, certainly not as an exception, but as Radclyffe Hall. She would neither want us to overplay her strengths nor ignore her weaknesses.
1/2 Way Rating: 4/10 Final Rating: 3/10