The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

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Synopsis from Wikipedia:

The Well of Loneliness is a 1928 lesbian novel by the British author Radclyffe Hall. It follows the life of Stephen Gordon, an Englishwoman from an upper-class family whose “sexual inversion” (homosexuality) is apparent from an early age. She finds love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I, but their happiness together is marred by social isolation and rejection, which Hall depicts as having a debilitating effect on inverts.”

Before I write this review I want to make one thing abundantly clear, I am a straight, cisgender woman and I’m about to review a classic lesbian novel. I’m completely aware that I may be totally off-base or overly critical of this novel as far as the writing goes and some feminist issues I have. However, the book is extremely important as one of the first books to openly portray lesbian love and it was written at the height of the author’s career. It has been banned multiple times. This book has historical importance that cannot be emphasized enough.

On the other hand, I didn’t really care for this book on the whole. There were points of plot that snagged my engagement and some truly beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, Oh yes, and a horse’s death scene that had me weeping. However much of the book was overwrought with long passages of chest-beating self-hatred or overly florid declarations of love. It actually felt a bit too “John Galt-y” (from Atlas Shrugged) with lots of philosophical moaning in an effort to move people to tolerance.

What especially bugged me about this book was the poor view it has of femme lesbians. The two women Stephen has significant relationships with in the book are decidedly feminine. Angela has an affair with Stephen when Stephen is in her early twenties. Angela is married to a man and eventually even has an affair with another man. She is portrayed as a bored, greedy, and immature former prostitute who toys with Stephen and then throws her under the bus, so to speak, in an incredibly cruel way. Mary Llewellyn is viewed as simple, sweet, and innocent. She wants to be a housewife for Stephen and darn stockings and plan little treats. She absorbs the “little wifey” role and when she does gain independent friends Stephen won’t let her go out alone because little Mary’s lily white innocence about the cruel, cold world must be preserved. In the end, Stephen fakes an affair so Mary can run off with Stephen’s male friend (and former admirer) Martin. Contrast the duplicity of Angela and the submissive obnoxiousness of Mary with Stephen’s “mannish” manners, dress, and temperament and this lesbian novel comes off as femme hating.

I know this is an iconic book and it certainly deserves to be read and discussed, but more for historical significance as opposed to literary merit.

~~~ Stats ~~~

Started: 21 January 2016

Finished: 05 February 2016

Pages: 448 pages

Challenges: #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks, Back to the Classics Challenge, Virago project

Owned/Borrowed/Library: Owned

Stars: Two out of five stars

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