Deletion would be the fabrication of both the novel and its author’s reputation and yet, in the decades since, this supposed Sapphic survival guide has continued to attract widespread criticism from a variety of backgrounds. In the 1970s, for example, he became the center of a backlash from second-wave feminist critics for his patriarchal worldview. And in 2017, Winterson still hadn’t warmed to it – although she singled it out as the book that helped her get out, and argued that “a book can be bad and still have a place in the story”. Writing this time in The Guardianshe claimed: “The Well reads like a memoir about misery long before they were invented. It’s the fictionalized story of Stephen Gordon and his struggles with thinking like, acting 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 one might expect of a pioneering lesbian author, her politics were reactionary at best. As an expat living in Italy on the eve of World War II, she not only supported Mussolini’s fascist government, but also his censorship – of books. And if Victorian womanhood was not for her, she was fully supportive of it for others, believing that a woman’s place was in the home.
For Professor Doan, a lot has changed in the way the novel is discussed. “When you read it today, you feel there are a lot of things that embarrass you,” she says, noting that her racism, for example, was barely mentioned until a few 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 true meaning of the novel, Doan believes. “To me, this story is about a human who is trapped in the wrong body, has been cast as a woman and doesn’t feel like a woman, and has a fantasy of becoming a man. There is neither lust, no love, no romance in that story, and it made me realize that The Well of Loneliness isn’t a love story 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 about in the context of trans history. Publishers would be missing a business opportunity right now if they didn’t try to push its cultural significance to the trans community. S ‘they want to identify a text that is at the beginning of the awareness in the culture of the possibility of a trans existence, it has to be The Well of Loneliness.
So should we use 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 Radclyffe Hall’s The World and Other Unpublished Works, now use neutral pronouns for 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 his introduction to the latest edition of Penguin Modern Classics, Duffy uses a pivotal scene from the novel to make his point: Defending himself with his mother, Stephen justifies his sexual intimacy with Angela Crossby by explaining that she “doesn’t never felt like a woman”. It’s an argument Hall insists on, Duffy suggests, “in order to justify her own very active homosexuality, which she embraced despite her adherence to Roman Catholicism.”
It should be noted that even for readers for whom Hall clearly had a desire, however latent, for transition, The Well of Loneliness is by no means a simple text. Oliver Radclyffe, the trans author of a forthcoming monograph, Adult Human Male, has changed his last name in tribute to Hall. He wrote on the Electric Literature website about how his feelings for the book changed as he embarked on his own journey from Englishwoman raising four children in suburban Connecticut, to lesbian woman, to trans man. As he puts it, “it seemed like Radclyffe Hall had not only been a gay rights activist, but also a patriarchal misogynist with consensual and ambiguous dominance issues.”
Ultimately, it’s not possible to know whether or not Hall would have identified as transgender — a term that wasn’t coined until much later — and labeling this long-dead queer person as such is inherently problematic. What is certain is that more than 90 years after it was banned, this decidedly flawed literature continues to make readers think. As Doan puts it, “We’re dealing with its complexity, and that can only be a good thing.”
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