Is The Well of Loneliness (1928) the most depressing queer novel ever written? Judging by its contenders in early twentieth-century fiction, it can be tough to decide. What is more puzzling to me, however, is to know why such a well-behaved novel – as conservative in its structure and form as it is timid in its plea – has once been banned as obscene.
The story centres on Stephen Gordon, born in a female body in an upper-class British family. From an early age, Stephen feels at odds with her body and her inability to conform to social expectations. Her father, who avidly studies Kraft-Ebbing’s idea about female ‘inverts’, seems to be the only one who makes an effort to understand her: “Do you think I could be a man, supposing I tried very hard–or prayed, Father?”. She cuts her hair short, dresses in masculine clothes, and grows up as a tomboy: “I must be a boy, ’cause I feel exactly like one”.
We follow Stephen from childhood to middle age, as she struggles to live on her own terms. At seven, she falls in love with a housemaid. At twenty-one, she has an affair with a married woman – which drives her far apart from her mother, who resents Stephen for using “the word love in connection with (…) unnatural cravings of your unbalanced mind and undisciplined body.” Stephen’s fierce reply echoes throughout the book as a plea for recognition: “As my father loved you, I loved (…) It was good, good, good.”
After her father’s death, Stephen’s former governess Puddle is the only person who provides her with understanding and emotional support. When our protagonist begins to waste her nights trying to come to terms with her identity, “beating her mind against a blind problem, beating her spirit against a blank wall”, Puddle is torn between the wish to console her and the need to join the “conspiracy of silence”.
The words she never gets to say to Stephen give your book its pulse: “You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet – you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely. Have courage; do the best you can with your burden. But above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind. Let your life go to prove this – it would be a really great life-work, Stephen.”
Stephen becomes a mildly successful writer, travels to Paris, and makes her first contact with the city’s queer bohemian culture. During World War I, she serves at the front as an ambulance driver and falls in love with a colleague, Mary Llewellyn. After the war, they start to live together as a couple. However, our protagonist seems not to be destined to happiness in love: after a brief respite, they start to be rejected by polite society, Mary gradually wastes herself in a bohemian lifestyle, and Stephen feels unable to provide her with the protection and the “normal existence” she believes to be inherent in marriage and children.
As I said, it’s puzzling to me that such a well-behaved novel has been once considered obscene: its only sexual reference is very subdued and oblique (“she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover”; “that night, they were not divided“); there is a lot of homosexual self-loathing and guilt throughout the book; queer bohemian people are described as a “miserable army”, reproved and seen with scorn by Stephen; sexually deviant characters are portrayed as “dirty” for not fitting heteronormative models of relationship; sexuality is considered strictly in binary terms, and lesbianism, in particular, is presented in masculine terms; bisexuality is reproved as false, and femininity is belittled and infantilised, so that feminine lesbians are seen as inferior; and, finally, the book’s plea for respect seems to be reduced to the assertion that Mary and Stephen should be recognised as a couple to the extent that they fit the heteronormative model and thus to the extent that they do not offer any “threat” to social convention. So, where are we to find this book’s so-called obscene heart?
The novel is certainly obscene in its queer self-loathing, its petty moralism, its homophobic and misogynistic ideas – but none of these would have been the 1928 reasons for banning it. Novels stylistically more daring and more open to sexual deviance, like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) or Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936) have not suffered the opposition faced by your Well of Loneliness (1928). Why so?
The Well is indeed obscene in its melodrama – and this may be precisely the point where the book really managed to hit (and threat) the conventions of its time. Perhaps, the novel was a threat to these conventions, because you appropriated them and made them yours.
You paint your protagonist as a Christ-like figure, a martyr, a queer messiah, a bearer of the mark of Cain, the sign of shame and exile. Stephen is not only born on Christmas Eve, but also longs for martyrdom and dreams that she is Jesus. Stephen’s queer sexuality is conveyed as a God-given mark of Cain, so that your passionate defence of her is rendered as a religious argument: you take the biblical imagery usually applied to the condemnation of queer sexuality, and turn it into an imagery of defence and legitimization – and that’s one of the aspects that may have outraged some people as obscene, at the time of the book’s publication. It might even outrage some religious people now.
Instead of shunning Catholicism, you draw on it in your defence of Stephen: in your book, prejudice is equated with sin, as queer characters are stripped of their right to love and self-fulfilment. Instead of dropping your head and asking for forgiveness (or killing your protagonist in the end), you argue that Stephen should be accepted on her own terms and as an equal: “As my father loved you, I loved.”
Instead of experimenting with form so as to convey queerness in a oblique way (as your peers Woolf and Barnes), you appropriate an heteronormative mode (that of the sentimental, overwrought Victorian romance) so as to make a direct and explicit plea: you bring queer writing from the fringes to the centre of the whirlwind, the place where it is most likely to be a victim of prejudice. You take a realm which had previously been exclusively heterosexual and make it your home. “You’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else”.
If we are to understand genres as gendered institutions, then you went into the temple and overthrew the tables with your Well of Loneliness. And this might have seemed obscene by some of your 1928 readers.
To the extent that your book appropriates the conventions of Victorian romance, it is also limited by them. Your Well is this two-headed beast: an obscene and well-behaved beast. So, let me reframe my initial question: isn’t it obscene that, to this day, the most depressing queer novel ever written has still so much to say to so many people?
When my best friend came out as gay at sixteen, my mother, to my astonishment, suggested me that I should stop talking to him. When another friend came out as lesbian, her father beat her up to the point of disfigurement, and her mother told me later that “it was because he loved her”. When, at college, I conducted a survey about gay marriage, 53% of the students said they were against it. I remember one who got really angry at the survey itself, saying “this is clearly not legitimate in God’s eyes.” When a friend of a friend came out as gay, his Jewish parents made him undergo a series of a past-life regression therapy sessions to “help him fix his problems”. When, well into adulthood, another friend came out as gay, he lost his best friend.
So, what does it say about our society that, to this day, such a depressing book as The Well of Loneliness still figures in many coming out stories as a source of support? A friend once told me that this book made her cry. I didn’t cry, but I was angry – and The Well is at its best when it gets angry. “You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad”: its pulse beats as loud as ever.
About the book
- Penguin Modern Classics, 2015, 496 p. Goodreads
- Virago Modern Classics, 1990, 447 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1928
- My rating: 4 stars
- The book was banned as obscene and remained unpublished in the United Kingdom until 1949
- I read this book for the projects The Classics Club, Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen, and Speak its name.