Copper Penny

Bookcrossing: The Well of Loneliness

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This is the “classic lesbian love story”, by Radclyffe Hall, the cause of a huge scandal in 1928 and a trial for obscenity. It is a book of forbidden love and desire and it took a very brave woman to write it. It is also wall-to-wall talking ponies, cute dogs, puddle-deep psychologising and some of the most maddeningly dire prose I’ve ever read. I’m only half way through and if I hear another pony voice its thoughts I will scream, but I will not be surprised as quite a lot of the plot revolves around the heroine’s love for various ponies and they for her.

I received this book from a friend who is an avid fan of, a system you may have heard about where people leave books on park benches with a reference number pasted in the front. You can then check what your benefactor thought of the book and see if there are any other books in your area waiting to be grabbed. Mine obviously came from a known source so isn’t quite as romantic a story as this but I think I will jump on the bandwagon when I am done with it. Recommendations for political books of this type are particularly useful as they need to come from people who share my politics – I’ve received some interesting reads from work friends (notably “A Life” by Italo Svevo – a sombre tale for another time) but none of them are particularly involved in feminist history, which isn’t surprising as they are all men.

As my friend PussInBooks (great name and amazingly varied reading habits!) notes in her Bookcrossing review, there is “very little shocking content by modern standards, but you can see why it would have been deemed obscene at the time”. I think that even the suggestion of lesbian orientation and that it might be normal and okay, as opposed to violently disgusting and morally wrong, was in counterpoint to how society mostly felt. Most characters in the book, including the protagonist’s mother, veer between prissily pretending not to know that such a perversion could even exist, and outright hostility. PussInBooks also found the representation of women who aren’t “inverted”, i.e. straight women, as status-obsessed bimbos patronising.

Stephen doesn’t really require our pity. She is wealthy, clever and strong both in feeling and body. She has a sympathetic parent in her father who makes her feel loved and who is agonised by, but accepts, her difference from “ordinary” girls. A gay, spinster governess hovers in the background trying to be helpful. Her love of nature and the ever-present ponies establishes her as something pure, wholesome and rather innocent. along with a strong religious subtext stemming from the author’s Catholic faith. It is not Stephen who is particularly troubled by her sexuality and it’s the positive representation of her as a person that makes this an important book.


It’s not a particularly feminist novel: Stephen’s positive qualities are quite evidently supposed to be male, in contrast to her beautiful but distant mother and pretty but feckless first girlfriend (I haven’t gotten to the main lover yet – I know you shouldn’t review a book halfway through but I need to share in order to keep me going through the pony bits). I understand from the foreword to my copy by Diana Souhami that Radclyffe Hall presented herself in a way we would now describe as butch and I can understand the argument for placing this book in the history of transgender rather than lesbian writing. There wasn’t a complete language for these differences at the time of writing and part of Hall’s heroic efforts is trying to bring it out of verbal nothingness into a languge of emotion if not of action – the book is very coy with no naughty bits to skip to.

I never quit on a book and I feel I owe Radclyffe Hall a reading for writing a game-changing depiction of love outside the boundaries of heterosexuality and marriage. Most works that are the first of their type don’t hold up to the scrutiny of the ages and the book is very dated, both in terms of literary achievement and politics. These days we can allow lesbian women to have traditional feminine attributes and for these women to have passions and aims of their own; to Hall, who aspired to manly virtues such as wealth, power, intelligence and compassion, the trappings of womanhood are frailty and weakness, and their interests limited to gossip and fashion. But the parts that convince, about Stephen’s longing for a relationship and to be able to live an acceptable public life, are touching because they clearly come from the heart. Although the amount of Catholic shame and the isolation from other women in the book is saddening, it is also understandable.


Written by Satu

June 22, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Posted in Books, Satu

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