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Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel about love between women is almost a curiosity today, little read and even less understood. Her sixth novel, following Adam’s Breed, for which she had won the Prix Femina and the James Tait Black Prize, it made her known, not just as a novelist, but as a lesbian novelist, which is how she has been remembered, when she is remembered at all, ever since.
This was the niche in which she lived for me until in 2018 I saw a piece of musical theatre, a co-production by Opera North and West Yorkshire Playhouse, called Not Such Quiet Girls. It was about the young British women who volunteered as nurses and ambulance drivers in the First World War and was based in part, according to the programme, on Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. The play made me want to read the book, to see whether that too was not about lesbian love, but love, and so it turned out to be when I read it a few weeks later.
The central character, Stephen, is a woman who from her earliest years felt that she should have been a boy. Her father had wanted a boy and was going to call him Stephen. When he turned out to be a girl, he told his wife that she should be called Stephen anyway. Radclyffe Hall follows Stephen through all the phases of her growing up, from her privileged upbringing as the only child of Sir Philip and Lady Anna Gordon in Morton Hall, through various episodes of self-discovery, including as an ambulance driver in the First World War, to the demi-monde of Paris in the years after the war and a final fierce pleading to God for acceptance, by Him and the world, as who and what she was.
The story is told in immaculate prose, with passages of exquisite description, especially of the Malvern countryside, and profound reflections on love and friendship and being different. The quality of the writing and its range can be illustrated simply by quoting the first and last paragraphs.
Not very far from Upton-on-Severn – between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills – stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramley; well timbered, well cottaged, well fenced and well watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.
The house itself is of Georgian red brick, with charming circular windows near the roof. It has dignity and pride without ostentation, self-assurance without arrogance, repose without inertia; and a gentle aloofness that, to those who know its spirit, but adds to its value as a home. It is indeed like certain lovely women who, now old, belong to a bygone generation – women who in youth were passionate but seemly; difficult to win but when won, all-fulfilling. They are passing away, but their homesteads remain, and such an homestead is Morton.
And now there was only one voice, one demand, her own voice into which those millions had entered. A voice like the awful, deep waters. A terrifying voice that made her ears throb, that made her brain throb, that shook her very entrails, until she must stagger and all but fall beneath this appalling burden of sound that strangled her in its will to be uttered.
‘God,’ she gasped, ‘we believe; we have told You we believe… We have not denied You; then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, O God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’
We could be in the Marabar caves, E.M.Forster’s description of which bears comparison.
An entrance was necessary, so mankind made one. But elsewhere, deeper in the granite, are there certain chambers that have no entrances? Chambers never unsealed since the arrival of the gods? Local report declares that these exceed in number those that can be visited, as the dead exceed the living – four hundred of them, four thousand or million. Nothing is inside them, they were sealed up before the creation of pestilence or treasure; if mankind grew curious and excavated, nothing, nothing would be added to the sum of good or evil.
Forster’s final paragraph, however, is very different from hers.
“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.” But the horses didn’t want it— they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”
They were contemporaries and they were homosexual. The difference was that she did not try to hide her sexuality, but he did and when he wrote about it, as in his posthumously published Maurice, it came out all wrong, lame and weak and stilted. But that came later and by then there was no danger of his being consigned to a literary niche. He was and remains just a novelist, not a gay novelist.
When The Well of Loneliness was first published, it was well received. One reviewer wrote, “One cannot say what effect this book will have on the public attitude of silence or derision, but every reader will agree with Mr. Havelock Ellis in the preface, that ‘the poignant situations are set forth with a complete absence of offence.'”
James Douglas however, editor of the Sunday Express, took a different view, writing, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Douglas’s campaign to have the book banned was supported by the Home Secretary, who warned the publisher, Cape, that if they did not withdraw the book, they would find themselves in court. Cape ceased publication, but quietly sold the rights to an English language publisher in France, Pegasus Press, who ensured its continued availability to British readers.
Sadly, they also ensured its enduring reputation as the first lesbian novel, read and argued about almost exclusively by other lesbians. Stephen’s prayer has been answered – is being answered – in other ways. It is time now for The Well of Loneliness to be read simply as a love story and for Radclyffe Hall to be called simply a novelist.