The Memory of Slowly Reading: Returning to The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

by Andrea Macalino

▶︎ It’s been a little more than seven months since I last wrote about Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, and to be honest, the memory of the book is now more sentimental and distant, if more complete than detailed.

Since that last entry, I’ve finished other books. At the same time, the feeling of being harried and having to slow down to enjoy written language has, for the most part, also faded. It’s a necessary outcome, I think, of being relieved for the moment of day-to-day tasks, and being allowed to schedule the day as I please.

But now I realize that the reason I love(d) The Well of Loneliness so much is because it is starkly different in thought and crafted world than the one I am used to. It’s not merely that this is an early work that explores the dimensions of lesbianism, the kind that also acknowledges the complexity of dressing after one’s own flair (not to mention one’s own innate, non-binary sexuality), but that its editorialized narration touches, I realize now, on a historical context broader than previously imagined.

What Stephen Means

There comes in every narrative a complete change of events. Especially in a novel, it sometimes seems insufficient to call this a turning point. In terms of character, particularly in the case of Hall’s Stephen Gordon, the death of a beloved, occurring in a place like Morton, a place that is so dear so as to seem alive in itself, the change becomes palpable because so much of it has to do with its impact on Stephen’s psyche.

But of course, we are tempted to think, obviously Stephen’s character cannot be pinned down, cannot be simplified by the death of another character, since she herself sticks out like a sore thumb in her textual world. Rightly so: named after the boy she was thought to be in the womb, loved by her father and allowed, for the most part, to ride like a man, dress like a man, and learn as much as she can as any son would, her pains are also uniquely multi-dimensional. Her desire for human interaction, coupled with her fear that she is being jeered at behind her back, the crippling awkwardness that haunts her in social gatherings, becomes identifiable and relatable because it transcends the concept of sexuality but is distinctly brought about by it; simultaneously, however, it is something which, presumably, readers have experienced in their own lives.

But it is betrayal and distance that endears Stephen to us.

A Mother’s Discourse

Literature has always managed, in one form or another, to express failure, and to express it as pain. If one is realistic enough about Stephen’s story (unlike, I admit, me), then one can perhaps foresee where the narrative road was inevitably going to bend for her. However, Stephen’s painful relationships with two women are preceded by the one great failure to launch a steady, loving relationship with her mother.

Still, the pain comes because this failure has not come about for lack of trying. This is what makes Anna Gordon such a fraught character to behold. We want her–of course!–to be the loving, perfect mother, and so does she. Together, we want her to embody the ideal mother who would consider sexuality as only another aspect of her child to love without further worry. Yet at the crucial moment that Stephen’s love for Angela Crossby is revealed, the revelation itself being a betrayal, Anna proves ruthless. One becomes certain, at that point, that her intolerance of Stephen is borne not so much because she would spare her child the cruelty of society, but because she herself cannot bear its shame, and further because her daughter’s existence defies all her personal beliefs.

What do we gain, then, from a story which never held much hope for the mother-daughter relationship in the first place? Perhaps nothing? Thematically speaking, the cooling relationship between mother and daughter substantiate the coming of age of Stephen. This is not just because she and Anna are left to deal with each other after her father’s death, but because their failure to communicate with one another signifies the change of relationship between Stephen and Morton, which, for most of the story (despite its increased absence during the rest of the novel) remains the ideal safehouse, the loveliest of childhood homes for our protagonist. With Phillip Gordon’s passing, Morton becomes a distant memory, an unlikely refuge because it is now the threshold of Anna, who cannot stomach the thought of what Stephen has become.

Stephen’s relationship with Angela, on the other hand, is a little more stereotypical than I would have preferred, but, becomes of interest when considered with Stephen’s relationship with her father.

Forms of Departure and Betrayal

It is the mark of a great work, I would think, to court hope at the same time that it can hint at impending tragedy. Early on in the novel, it is clear that Phillip understands his daughter’s predicament; that, although he fears for her, he would at least negotiate a possible existence for her which would allow her to earn income, live comfortably, and prove her worth to the world through talent and learning if not by conventional sexuality. Again and again he does for his daughter the parental duties that Anna cannot fulfill not merely because she is a woman but because, the reader suspects, she is not eager to shoulder such a responsibility for a daughter like Stephen.

But the tragedy of Phillip is that his actions are ultimately incomplete. For, in all the moments he could have spoken for Stephen, could have said the words that no one else dared speak about her, he remains silent, until eternal quietude claims him, and leaves his daughter alone. The harsher pain, of course, comes only later, when Stephen discovers that her father knew about her all along–knew too well the deeper reason behind her manly clothes, her awkward demeanor, her excellent hunting skills.

On the other hand, Angela Crossby’s betrayal is one of words rather than silence. To be honest, I could not read the novel without developing an initial preference for Angela, and any realization after finishing the novel that there is something distasteful in her character is an afterthought. I love her character because it stands for Stephen’s first foray into loving another woman, but I cringe at the thought of her because her relationship with Stephen, though perhaps necessary, feels to me like the common trope of a doomed first love, especially since theirs is none other than an affair.

When Angela’s husband writes to Anna about Stephen, there can only be relief that her relationship with Angela is over, although the reader, at the time of reading about the confrontation between mother and daughter, can only fear it.

But see, this is why Stephen’s experience cuts across so well: because in her is realized the pain that is substantiated by personal betrayal both romantic and filial, where at one point it becomes impossible to distinguish from where the most hurt comes.

The Potential World

It’s easy enough to believe that Stephen’s world is not one that we’d like to live in. I don’t know if there’s something about classics, though (and I haven’t read enough of them, honestly, for this to merit any kind of considerable weight, since I am basing this on the few I’ve read), that makes me believe that maybe, just maybe, I can live in that kind of world, if only I can momentarily forget the hygienic risks. It is a beautiful world, after all.

And that, I think, is part of what endears this work to me, too.

The Villa del Ciprés was a low stone house that had once been tinted a lemon yellow. Its shutters were greener than those on the hill, for every ten years or so they were painted. All its principal windows looked over the sea that lay at the foot of the little headland. There were large, dim rooms with rough mosaic floors and walls that were covered by ancient frescoes…however, they were all so badly defaced…the furniture, although very good of its kind, was sombre, and more over it was terribly scanty…But one glory the old house did certainly possess; its garden, a veritable Eden of a garden, obsessed by a kind of primitive urge towards all manner of procreation, It was hot with sunshine and the flowing of sap, so that even its shade  held a warmth in its greenness, while the virile growth of its flowers and its trees fave off a strangely disturbing fragrance. (Hall 362-363)

Of course the wonder of such a world only becomes clear because Stephen and her newfound love Mary Llellwyn have survived the war; because Stephen’s new raison d’être has become a personal mission to protect Mary and give her every happiness possible. This is what differentiates her love for Mary from that for Angela; whereas the latter involved secrecy and self-destruction, the former, however bright and new, faced Stephen with another impossibility. Refreshing but harsh in its reality, the truth of the matter was that she could not keep Mary forever if she was also to offer her the kind of life that she could enjoy–one that included the company of friends, the welcoming arms of society, the security brought about by a loving community–all impossible in the novel’s context and in Stephen’s love.

The world they lived in was beautiful, true, but only because such beauty, for the likes of Stephen and Mary, could not be fully achieved or realized.

The Why of Sacrifice

Fiction, I’ve been told, is a matter of what happens after a character makes a choice. For all that there was something innocent and therefore seemingly worthy of being preserved in the world as built by Stephan and Mary, the story would have amounted to nothing if Stephen had not made a choice to resist its impasse.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t upset with Stephen’s decision. That I didn’t fret when I realized that at page 507 out of a total 527, something inevitable though vague was about to descend upon them. That I wasn’t angry at Stephen for taking matters into her own hands and deciding everything with an almost demented finality.

Without saying it in so many words, this so-called salvation that Stephen brings about, at the risk of her own self, cannot be celebrated without cheapening the tension that gave birth to the novel in the first place, that stubbornness that is human bigotry. Instead, though the novel be lovely and worth many more slow reads, what occurs in its pages, the heartbreak Stephen undergoes–all these cannot to be celebrated. Instead, they must be deplored. That, perhaps, is where the well of loneliness will always be found.

And thereafter?

What else, but the hope that the world outside the novel can offer, does offer, something better. ***

Andrea Macalino is a graduate student in Comparative Literature. This was published in her blog in July 2015.