Books To Lose Your Virginity To: If They Look Like You, Don't Even Think About It Mam!

Our topic today is The Well of Loneliness. And actually, I'm kind of (/completely) misleading you here because one should never lose their virginity to said novel. For those of you who didn't sign up for Gay/Lesbian lit in order to shag someone who wasn't your beard, TWOL is commonly referred to as "the Bible of Lesbianism", especially by those who date the opposite sex.

A primer: TWOL was published in 1928 and written by Radclyffe Hall. The main character, Stephen Gordon, is an upper class Englishwoman. Her parents expected a boy at birth, hence her name. Stephen is a tomboyish sort who very fond of horses, the house maid (Collins) and her Dad. She is not so fond of dresses, her mom (who disapproves of/is jealous of her), and any man giving her the eye. You can see where this is going. Stephen falls for Angela Crossby, who allows a little nooky (the skank!) but in the end denounces Stephen's declarations of love as unnatural. Stephen then learns that she is an invert (the old fashioned word for gay, it used to be thought that homosexuality was caused by an inversion of gender traits i.e. a woman who behaves like a man).

Stephen then moves to London, writes a couple of novels, falls in love with a fellow ambulance driver, Mary, during World War I, and eventually despairs that they can ever have a 'normal' life and so plots to 'deliver' Mary from their fraught existence.

Let's get to the good stuff. The entire novel is very overwrought and filled with self-sacrifice and self-loathing and very little of my favorite S word, SEX. This book used to be one of the only tomes available to curious females, though, so I'm going to try to give it its due. Stephen's interaction with Angela is mildly titillating, especially if you like overwritten emotional pot banging (I do!). A sample:
Her physical passion for Angela Crossby had aroused a strange response in her spirit, so that side by side with every hot impulse that led her at times beyond her own understanding, there would come an impulse not of the body; a fine selfless thing of great beauty and courage - she would gladly have given her body over to torment, have laid down her life if need be, for the sake of this woman whom she loved.
Stephen's relationship with Mary is more aggravating. They take a God awful time to get down to business but for you slow burning romantics there's plenty of meeting of minds, blushing of cheeks, brushing of hands and pretty declarations of devotion. Honestly, relationships of any nature can be fairly terrifying, especially when you're new to them, so this book feels a mite refreshing after Jean Auel's overheated hump-fest. When Stephen and Mary do consummate their love it's all very stars-in-your-eyes-and-the-halo-around-your-head but hey, that's what imaginations are for, right?

On a more serious note, The Well of Loneliness has a bad rap these days as obsolete, even offensive. While Stephen explains her inversion as innate, Hall also infers that environmental factors are also responsible (Stephen's name, her father's devotion etc.). Also, 'real lesbians' are butch and only 'real women' (femme) can pair with them. However, since 'real women' must naturally pair with men, lesbianism is an unresolvable state of affairs. Stephen is forced to sacrifice her love in order to 'free' Mary. This is not really what you want to be teaching anyone about how to live their life.

However, I have a soft spot for TWOL, even if it is dramatic, wordy and very very staid. Its depiction of the affection between women is disarmingly sweet and it captures the overwhelming confusion and alienation anyone questioning their sexuality would feel when coming out. Most of all, TWOL will make you thankful that it's not the only game in town anymore.

Well Of Loneliness/ Radclyffe Hall / Virago / PB, first edition: 1928

1 comment:

Julie Wilson said...

Have also heard this referred to as The Trans Bible, a reading that brought me to new heights of A-ha!


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