The book that ‘could corrupt a nation’

Suppression would be the making of both the novel and its author’s reputation and yet in the decades since, this supposed Sapphic survival guide has continued to attract plenty of criticism from diverse quarters. In the 1970s, for instance, it became the focus of a backlash from Second Wave feminist critics for its patriarchal worldview. And by 2017, Winterson still hadn’t warmed to it – although she chose it as the book that helped her come out, and argued that “A book can be bad and still have a place in history”. Writing this time in The Guardian, she asserted: “The Well reads like a misery memoir long before they were invented. It’s the fictional story of Stephen Gordon and her struggles with the fact that she thinks like, acts like, loves like and wants to be a man. Radclyffe Hall had no idea that sexuality is a spectrum, not a binary”.

Hall’s beliefs definitely complicate the book’s legacy. Contrary to what might be expected of a pioneering lesbian author, her politics were reactionary at best. As an expat living in Italy in the lead-up to World War Two, she not only supported Mussolini’s Fascist government, she also supported its censorship – of books. And if Victorian womanhood wasn’t for her, she fully supported it for others, believing that a woman’s place was in the home.

For Professor Doan, much has changed in terms of how the novel is discussed. “When you read it today you do feel that there’s a lot in it that makes you feel pretty embarrassed by it,” she says, noting that its racism, for instance, was scarcely talked about even a couple of decades ago.

These days, she prefers to direct anyone interested in learning more about Hall to Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself, a short story written in 1926 in preparation for The Well. This story holds the key to the novel’s real meaning, Doan believes. “To me, that story is about a human who is trapped in the wrong body, has been designated as a female and doesn’t feel like a female and has a fantasy of becoming a male. There’s no desire or love or romance in that story, and it made me realise that The Well of Loneliness isn’t about love between women either.”

Doan says she was never really convinced that The Well was a lesbian novel. As she explains, “It would be a better text to think of in the context of trans history. The publishers would be missing a commercial opportunity right now if they didn’t try to push its cultural meaning to the trans community. If they want to identify a text that is at the start of the awareness in culture of the possibility of a trans existence, it’s got to be The Well of Loneliness.”

So should we be using a different set of pronouns for Hall and Stephen? Some scholars, including Jana Funke, associate professor of English and Sexuality Studies at the University of Exeter and editor of The World and Other Unpublished Works by Radclyffe Hall, now use gender-neutral pronouns for both author and protagonist.

Maureen Duffy takes a different view, seeing Stephen’s gender nonconformity as a function of Hall’s discomfort with her own lesbianism. Writing in her introduction to the most recent Penguin Modern Classics edition, Duffy uses a pivotal scene from the novel to make her point: defending herself to her mother, Stephen justifies her sexual intimacy with Angela Crossby by explaining that she’s “never felt like a woman”. It’s an argument Hall insists upon, Duffy suggests, “in order to justify her own very active homosexuality, which she embraced in spite of her espousal of Roman Catholicism”.

It’s worth noting that even readers for whom Hall clearly had a desire, however latent, to transition, The Well of Loneliness is by no means a straightforward text. Oliver Radclyffe, the trans author of a forthcoming monograph, Adult Human Male, changed his surname in homage to Hall. He’s written on the website Electric Literature about how his feelings for the book changed as he undertook his own journey from Englishwoman raising four children in the Connecticut suburbs, to femme lesbian, to trans man. As he puts it, “it looked like Radclyffe Hall had not only been a gay rights activist but also a patriarchal misogynist with consensually-ambiguous domination issues”.

Ultimately, it isn’t possible to know whether or not Hall would have identified as transgender – a term not coined until much later – and labelling this long-dead queer person as such is innately problematic. What is certain is that more than 90 years after it was banned, this decidedly flawed piece of literature continues to make readers think anew. As Doan says, “We’re confronting its complexity, and that can only be a good thing.”

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