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?


  1. Hurray - someone else who hated Ian McEwan! He is SO overrated.

    What denomination are you, if you don't mind me asking?

    Is Hall the woman standing up with a rather pensive, faraway look on her face?

  2. Hall is the pensive looking woman. I am that very odd and specific type of Anglican/Episcopalian known as Anglo-Catholic (of whom there are a fair few in Durham, I believe). It's a weird denomination: at my church we have people who are conservative enough not to want women to serve on the altar (though we do have them and sometimes they clebrate mass) and then at the same time our rector is always proclaiming socialism and feminist principles from the pulpit but we all seem to get along rather happily.
    I am glad I'm not the lone McEwan hater - it distresses me that he has become such a national figure. So reactionary!

  3. Hall and Troubridge and their particular coterie were all Roman Catholic, I should have specified, which is at least partly why 'Well of Loneliness' was slammed so badly by the Bloomsbury people, though the latter did support it through the profanity trial.

  4. Very interesting post, although i do, as you might expect, draw some slightly different conclusions on some aspects... ;o)

    It's been years since i read 'Well of Loneliness', although i'm likely to be re-reading it soon for a college project. My main memory was of feeling slightly disappointed when i realised how tame it actually was. (I had a simillar reaction to reading 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' for the first time.)

    I'm a fan of Virginia Woolf, and a big fan of the semi-detached Bloomsbury-ite EM Forster, but in general terms i'd say being slammed by the Bloomsbury Set as a whole was a mark of honour. Clive Bell seems to have been one of the most repugnant human beings ever to have lived.

  5. What about Maynard Keynes? (Apart from his economic brilliance that is apparently en route to save the world as we know it.) No, you're not wrong about Clive Bell. I, too, am a devout Forster-ite. I have read 'Howard's End' so many times (same with all the other novels but particularly 'Howard's End') that my conversation tends to be salted with allusions to it.
    I should probably re-read 'Picture of Dorian Gray.' I hadn't thought about it in years, and I was also disappointed by it when I first read it. I wonder what it would be like now.

  6. Did you have religious faith before you became an atheist? I think you alude to it in saying 'my faith had grown back' but I was just wondering when you first had faith (then lost it)?
    I became an atheist aged 10. It wasn't so much a case of loosing faith as realising I never had it in the first place. But then I was raised in the protestant-presbytarian-methodist-evangelical camp which stressed salvation by faith alone and faith had to be 'felt' or experienced rather than understood intellectually. I assumed this 'faith' to be a feeling akin to falling in love - something that couldn't be forced or acheived via any amount of good-deeding, praying, bible-reading or studying. Being of a fairly scientific mind, there being no evidence for the existence of God didn't help my belief either.
    I'm intrigued that a love-affair could 'bring you back' to faith. Had your girlfriend been of a completely different denomination or even a different religion altogether e.g Muslim, would you have found that equally hard to dismiss or was it that there was a foundation there already (you don't mention your prior faith which you lost but I'm assuming it was Catholic)?
    Sorry all the nosey questioning and I hope none of it sounds sneary. I'm always interested in stories of finding or loosing religious faith.
    I didn't manage to gst beyond the first 20 pages or so of Well of Loneliness. I can't quite remember why. I think it was something to do with the stlye. I will give it another go now that you've shown it to be more complex and subtle than I thought.
    I have somethines been jealous of people who have a definate sexual orientation one way or another. I have fallen in love with women and then, at other times men. The most of the dissapproval comes from my gay friends for not being one thing or another and therefore some sort of dabbler or traitor! Non-gay friends just assume I'm a hedonist slapper - out for whatever I can get. I'm not any of these things by a long stretch!I don't much like the term 'bisexual' but I suppse that's what I am. It does not seem to have many political/social-critique connections as with homosexuality, but prejudice and discrimination still abound.
    Ian McEwen - now there's an arrogant toss-pot!

  7. I love talking about church so please feel free to ask. I was raised Presbyterian: my family is half Scots and I come from a very long line of Presbyterian ministers. I did have faith as child, though I can remeber being periodically dissatisfied with its intensity.
    I think that I would have found it equally difficult to dismiss a belief in God if I had been dating a Muslim girl. I'm not sure that I would have become Muslim, though. I didn't go back to Christianity straight away either. It took about three years. For one thing, I had a difficult time with the idea of Jesus being a man and for another, I refused to go to a church that did not clearly accept gay people in its hierarchy as well as its laity. Then the Episcopal church ordained Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, so I started to consider the Episcopal church. In the end, I was dragged into church by my former roommate (she of the St. Therese devotion) and liked it so much that I never stopped going.
    The Anglo-catholic part of the Anglican/Episcopal church is pretty much the opposite of Presbyterian. We have sung mass with "smells and bells" and say the Angelus at the end of every service and have communion every week and the church is full of statues and candles and the pews have cushions. Not like the Presbyterians with their perpetual (at least in my experience) white walls and clear windows and hard wooden pews and rare communions.
    The first time I went, I was in deep conflict because it all seemed like so much idolatry but I really, really liked it. That, of course, made me even more sure that I was committing a sin by going to that church, because of that whole Calvinist enjoyment=sin thing. It took a good six months and a lot of reading for me to really let go of that.
    I still get into spiritually dry times but I find the liturgy and ritual of the church is helpful with that, something that one doesn't really get from the Presbyterians. It's asking a hard thing to require all the members of the church to summon up and kindle their own faith every single day.
    I used to be one of those people who thought that bisexual (or whichever term is preferred) people did not really exist. I think that's because I had only ever met 'bisexual' women who claimed bisexuality on the strength of having kissed a girl once while drunk but who had never been in a relationship with a woman and who would always choose a man over a woman and planned on getting married and having children without considering any alternative. However, I have now met some people who are genuinely bisexual (including that girl that I asked out) and I try not to be so rigid about categories of sexuality.
    It's nice to be affirmed in my dislike for Ian McEwan.

  8. This is a fascinating post. Sorry to be sort of a gawker here. You give me much food for thought, even where I disagree.

    (And I too suffer from the temptation to speak in the dialect of what I've most recently read--re: different post.)

  9. I'm so glad you found it interesting. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a silent reader on your blog, too. I will say I agree with you about the liberation of the washing machine: it ties in to a post I've been working on for a couple of weeks that will hopefully appear soon.
    It's good to know I'm not the only one who has novel-speak issues. I feel I reached the heights of it when once I said 'when we removed from ____,' in reference to a time my family had moved from one city to another.