14 March 2009
Rereading The Well of Loneliness
I have been enjoying my week's holiday so far by reading novels, something I can't usually do in term-time. I finished 'The Secret History', an old favorite, on Saturday and then picked up 'The Well of Loneliness', which I had not read in a very long time, much longer than I thought.
I realised that it had been a while when I came to a protracted reference to St. Therese of Lisieux on pages 264-266 that I did not remember. My former roommate is very much devoted to St. Therese and I have, consequently, heard much about her, had her picture hanging in my hallway and seen the movie (yes really). If I had read Well of Loneliness since she and I started sharing living space back in 2004, there could be no way that that would have escaped my notice.
I read Well of Loneliness, as most people do, because it was the first novel about lesbians, much referenced in other literature and also the subject of legal prosecution. When I first read it, when I first came out, I was an atheist. Not only was I an atheist, but I was quite militant about it. I started down the merry path to losing my faith for several reasons but one that looms above the others is my first girlfriend. Referring to her as a girlfriend is somewhat overstating the case because it was all very virginal and inchoate and unnamed but the sense of it is true. She was Roman Catholic, and eventually broke things off between us because of it. Nothing that happened between us ever felt like a sin, much less a mortal sin, to me. I had first begun to suspect that I might be gay when I was thirteen and it, remarkably, hadn't troubled me one bit. I was confident (rightly, as it turns out) that my parents would love me either way and nothing in my upbringing had disposed me to think that being gay was wrong or bad. Then, just as it was all starting to become clear to me at the age of fifteen, it suddenly took on the quality of sin. It was horribly confusing, to the point that I just stopped thinking about it and assumed that I must really be straight. Indeed, all the external evidence pointed in that direction. I was a very serious ballet student (hadn't mentioned that before, had I? I even had a tiny little professional career) and what could be more girly and normal than ballet?
Time went by, I went rigorously through the motions of being heterosexual and assumed that my dissatisfaction was the result of my quite serious devotion, religious in its quality, to my vocation. Gradually it became clear that things were not going to work out for me professionally and, rather than resigning myself to teaching dance for the rest of my life, I decided to go to university and there I took an Introduction to Philosophy course, which has had a pronounced effect on my life. It was in that class that I first learned how to think and think clearly; I took great joy that summer in pulling apart and setting in order all the woolly concepts in my mind.
In this way, I ended the summer an atheist and newly questioning my sexuality. When I went back to university that fall, I came out to my friends and proceeded to fall profoundly in love, quite to my surprise.
I managed, of course, to fall in love with a very religious girl who had been raised in one of those bible-thumping non-denominational southern churches. In the course of time, she too split up with me for religious reasons. But this time, it had the opposite effect on me. Because I was so in love with her, I started to reconsider God. It was impossible for me, so enamored, to ignore or dismiss anything so important to her.
In the aftermath, I found that my faith had grown back. It took some years but after I ended up living in the US and sharing a roof with my friend who was devoted to St. Therese, I started going to church. A year or so later I was confirmed and so began my tussle with the lesbianisms and the church.
This is why re-reading Well of Loneliness was so interesting to me. It is the only novel I know of that deals both with lesbians and the church in a positive way. There is a great deal more subtlety in the novel than I remembered and more than many grant to Radclyffe Hall. For one thing, she is genuinely concerned about the reconciliation of heterosexist society with gay people. There is an unusual lack of simple xenophobia and classism. Class anxiety is a theme in the book but the common bond among those who share "the mark of Cain" causes the characters to band together. The distress that heterosexism and homophobia exert on gay people is carefully delineated and exposed as prejudice. It is what my ex would call a 'golf lesbian'* attitude toward the world; an attitude that assumes that the norms of heterosexist society have intrinsic and essential worth but that accommodation must be made for non-heterosexuals.
However, Hall's attitude toward this accommodation is unusual even for today. She makes no apology for gender variation. There is, at least in America, considerable hostility from some gay people toward other gay people who "flaunt" too much or look too different and thereby harm the cause of acceptance.** Hall, on the other hand, accepts visible gender variation as a natural part of homosexual orientation.***
Hall challenges the church and challenges God for forsaking gay people instead of rejecting them out of hand, in the facile way that some (certainly not all - there are definitely thoughtful atheists authors out there****) authors do. This alone is enough to make me re-value the Well of Loneliness, cheesy anthropomorphy and all.
*The term 'golf lesbian' originates with her and is meant to indicate that post second-waver, white woman, acommodationist, 'we're just like everyone else and lesbians who are not like us should learn to behave' attitude.
**I have little patience for this; after all, straight people have expensive weddings, announce their banns in church, have baby showers, wear wedding rings, have sex all over the telly all the time, a rigorous dress and behavior code wherewith to recognize themselves and so on. If that's not flaunting one's sexuality, I don't know what would be.
***I do, of course, resent her attitude that 'normal' looking women are not really as gay as gender queer women being as I am more than a little on the feminine side (not femme and really, really not a 'lipstick lesbian.' I think I might have worn lipstick about four times in my life. I hate that term.)
**** In a somewhat gratuitous aside, I would like to mention that Ian McEwan is not one of them - blegh - not even to mention that he is a full-fledged member of the gender and patriarchy police.
The first picture is a holy card of St. Therese that I have borrowed from the blog Holy Cards For Your Inspiration and the second is that well-known one of Marguerite 'John' Radclyffe Hall and her lifelong partner Una Troubridge. I sincerely wish that blogger would allow for captions and footnotes, don't you?