Saturday, November 05, 2011

Well, there's Loneliness: Hall's Unsympathetic Protagonist

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness. New York: Anchor, 1956 (1928).

The Well of Loneliness is frequently noted--with varying reactions--for its early descriptions of lesbian affection. Early in the book, and as a young girl, main character Stephen develops an affection for one of her family's female servants, even praying desperately to God that her servant's pains might be given to young Stephen. Her parents--the same ones who named her Stephen--are eager to curtail her passionate affection, the servant is let go, and young Stephen continues her uncomfortable childhood, bored with the traditional young lady activities expected of her, and defiantly choosing to dress in boyish apparel. The complications continue as she ages, and, thwarted on every side by the expectations of society, she desperately strives to find and keep love both close to home and, when necessity demands it, very far away.

The novel's lesbian message is emphatic and persistent, and the continuous drone of Stephen's frustrated longing grows old with time; it is preachy with an intent to change the reader, and the message would have been more powerful had Hall approached it with a little more subtlety. Some of the descriptions are elegant, and certain scenes are well-played, but as Stephen finds her desires thwarted at every turn, she takes on the characteristics of a madwoman, losing her head and bursting into a fury when the objects of her desire fail to reciprocate her love. At the same time, however, many of her friends and loved ones are portrayed more gently, and the tense uncertainty of Hall's companion Mary, given the choice between Stephen's bursts of passion and a sweeter and more acceptable coupling, is clearly torn, but her struggle is not simply between the desired and the acceptable: Stephen's crazed longing (and frequent abandonment) creates a friction that is in many ways unrelated to the novel's provocative sexual argument.

The Well of Loneliness provides a fascinating insight into the world and growing sexual tensions of the 1920s, and the world Hall creates is one that now seems much further away than it actually is. I found this novel problematic not because of its message, but because of its overt persistence and the entirely unsympathetic force with which its protagonist insisted upon having circumstances conform to her desires and expectations. For me, Stephen was entirely unsympathetic, and I found myself wishing far worse fates upon her than those imposed by her creator. (The status of monthly favourite is conferred upon this novel by sheer necessity).