Boy that was depressing. Hard read. Not the best written book ever but profoundly moving.
What I found most interesting about this book was how to read the main character’s gender and sexual expression from the context of 2014. The Well of Loneliness is a lesbian novel as everyone knows, but Hall used the term ‘invert’ to describe herself and the main character loosely based on her. Invert was a term used by Havelock Ellis and the like to describe innate homosexual tendencies in the early days of quantifying and pathologising minority sexualities. Yet it means more than lesbian. The main character describes herself as wanting to be a boy, feeling like a boy, never identifying with other girls or women around her growing up. This is before she takes women for lovers. Her struggle to express herself within strict gender dichotomy makes up for the large first part of the book, detailing her childhood and adolescence. So is she what we would now call transgender? Obviously there are no answers to that, Hall used the language of her day and language defines concepts so that their translation will never be perfect. She certainly is queer, that we can certainly say.
What I also found interesting to read in the context of 2014 is the very idea that she was considered “unnatural” to her gender, so much so that she internalised a genuine disavowal of her assigned gender, based on things we now considered very normal for a woman to do. In a way the book can’t help but be feminist (although it’d a minefield to straight up call it that without examining how much it reinforces as it undermines) because, in being a scream for queer women to express themselves and live their lives as they see fit, it asks for it for all women. It seems ridiculous that a woman should be considered to be not a real woman at all if she drives a car, wears trousers and is athletic. Or if she goes to war, or rides a horse, or learns mathematics. Is Hall/Steven rejecting her gender identity or rejecting the strictures and limitations put upon women?
There is a line in Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin (I can’t quite remember how it goes) where he tries to describe the feeling of being transported over the colour line in 1950s segregated America, about how it’s not about the bathroom you use or the fountain you drink from but the idea that your children will be cropped, limited and made less than they are or can be by something totally arbitrary and meaningless. That it is the limiting and the lessening of you as a human being. That’s what The Well of Loneliness made me think of and feel; how Steven is a war hero, a champion rider and fencer, an accomplished author, and widely known to be honourable, charitable and noble. And a woman, so all else means nothing. To be all those things just mentioned and to love Mary, her life would be seen as a sweeping success and her relationship respected and protected. But she is a woman, so all is else is nought, or less than nought – a shame.
It really is the kind of book that the more you read, the more miserable you get, the more you think “FUCK GENDER” and want to heave the whole fucking thing at the wall just for something to smash. You could greet that anybody ever did or ever has or does have to live like this, afraid and ashamed and alone. Thank fuck for the gay rights movement, for Radclyffe Hall and people like her who were brave enough to try and do something, so that people like me could not even have to think most days about their sexuality, but just be, in safety, in security, in acceptance. Thank fuck for this book, with all its misery and its faults, for its powerful message to tolerance and understanding.