I’m reading a beautiful novel called “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall, which takes place in the 1920’s and is classified as “Lesbian fiction.” It’s considered to be the very first novel to condemn homophobia and the unfair treatment of gay people. It was originally published in 1928.
While it’s not an autobiography, it is inspired by the author’s real life. It’s said to be the “thinly disguised story of Radclyffe Hall’s own life.” It’s about a woman named Stephen who is considered to be very different than the average woman. She’s somewhat masculine and is a lesbian. Even when she’s not open about her sexual orientation, people can kind of sense it. But this is the 20’s and not only is homosexuality condemned by society, it’s not even thought of much and almost never talked about. Even though people have an idea of the concept, it’s like they don’t even know what it’s called or how to even talk about it in words or fathom it. It’s so unheard of, it’s like there’s not even a word for it, it seems in this novel. They all have an idea about Stephen, that she’s not how she “should be.” As a child she was said not to have the “pretty little ways” of the other little girls. She wanted short hair and to be a boy.
Since she was a child, she worked out unlike other little girls. Now she’s muscular and considered to be unusual. She also fences “like a man.” She doesn’t like girly things and dresses in masculine suits with ties.
She is considered quite attractive, just not in a feminine way.
She’s kind of shy, lacks confidence, and often feels as if she’s being mocked by those around her.
But she knows what she wants and goes for it even though others criticize and exclude her. I love how Stephen loves and cares deeply for animals. And people too.
People know as a young woman she’s not romantically interested at all in men. And they do not like this at all. She is only interested in being friends with men.
But men/boys feel threatened by her because she’s better at boy activities than even they are.
Even Stephen herself doesn’t understand what is going on. She knows, as the people in her community suspect, that she’s only romantically attracted to women. She thinks there is something wrong with her but also she knows there’s nothing wrong with her. She knows her attraction and love for other women is not wrong or unnatural or immoral but she can’t help but feel in some way that there’s something “wrong” with her because of how others treat her.
To her, her love feels so right, so natural, so strong, it can’t possibly be wrong.
Most people won’t accept her. They gossip about her very unkindly. The only two people who seem to accept her, homosexuality and all, are her dad and her teacher.
The novel is about how she falls in love with a woman who loves her back and no one around them accepts this and won’t even let them in their houses. This puts a kind of strain on their relationship. Then a man comes along and says he can give Stephen’s lover the “respectability” that Stephen cannot if she will leave Stephen for him. This is a threat to their relationship and puts their love for one another to the test.
One of the most beautiful lines in the novel is:
“‘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 just 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 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.'” (pp. 154)
One of the characters in the book plans to say this to Stephen but she has to be careful or they both can get into social trouble if it’s overheard by others, Stephen for being a lesbian, the other character for supporting her .
Isn’t this beautiful?! While there’s nothing intrinsic to homosexuality itself that is painful or immoral or wrong or detrimental and there’s nothing about consensual adult homosexual encounters/relationships that is wrong, to many lgbtq people, it can feel that way because of the way others view and treat them or their sexuality. Homosexuality isn’t a burden. What is the burden, is having to put up with prejudicial attitudes and discrimination.
I think the line I shared above can apply to all of us with any situation we have whether good, bad, or neutral. We can have a situation that is painful or frustrating or distressing either because of the thing itself or the way people view the thing. For example when someone has depression or anxiety, that itself is not good, and on top of it, people often misunderstand or misjudge those who struggle with those disorders. And then there are even good things that can become painful because of how other people react. Like some goals and dreams some people have which may not be supported by friends and family of the person. For example, some people want to be an artist and the family won’t accept it, maybe thinking it’s pointless or that the person won’t get much money or get anywhere in life being an artist. But being an artist of any sort is a great thing! It’s amazing. But it won’t always feel that way with other people pressuring them to be/do something else. Stephen or anyone can have a beautiful romantic relationship with a lover of the same gender or even a different gender but it can feel “wrong” or painful because other people try to get in the way for whatever reason.
But as this line in the book shows, there’s always someone out there somewhere in a similar situation who can really be helped in some way by our stories. They may be feeling very lonely and hopeless and knowing examples of others in similar situations can bring them consolation, inspiration, motivation, and help them muster the strength to keep going.
It’s not always easy to share our stories because no matter what there’s always going to be those who criticize unnecessarily, mock, judge, try to get in the way…,whether they are friends, family, acquaintances, or strangers.
But I think it’s worth it to share our stories, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the taboo, and the unthinkable…to help others somehow. Some people want desperately to share their story of a life situation they experience/d but they are deathly afraid of being judged. It’s ok to be afraid. But I think we can “feel the fear and do it anyway.” There’s someone, many someones, out there who need us and can draw on our strength. When people criticize us unnecessarily and judge us negatively, we can love them and move forward, letting them judge and criticize. It has nothing to do with us or how we really are.
I love this book even though I haven’t read it all yet. It’s so beautiful, the story, the love, the imagery, the boldness, and how it’s written, almost poetically. The beauty and imagery just flow. And it’s written with passion and deep understanding as the author herself, has in reality experienced very similar circumstances as Stephen. It’s a very old story but it’s not written in a way that is hard to understand. I was expecting to not understand some things as the English language long ago wasn’t exactly the same as now and in some old texts they had to allude to certain taboo concepts like homosexuality, suicide, adultery…as those things were considered unthinkable. But this book is quite candid. It’s said to be “Shockingly candid for its time.”
There’s not much allusion. The author is upfront in her writing. I love the candor. The author, I feel, is a hero for having the courage to write this novel back then, when she would have been horribly judged and criticized, discriminated against. In fact, her novel was banned and her literary career was almost ended. Imagine how many people were/are helped and inspired by this novel. Sadly, these things linger even today but fortunately they are often less severe than way back then, still, they are all too common. I think this novel is a gift to the world (and I haven’t even read the entire thing yet. Lol) I’m happy she had the balls to write and get it published back then. Imagine the strength it took. Even today lgbtq people are discriminated against and the targets of prejudicial attitudes, so imagine how much more courage it took back in the 20’s to put her story out there!
So I find so much wisdom in the story and feel I must share it!
Much love to you! ❤
Xoxo Kim ❤