Review by George Simmers. The Reading Groups have been looking at war books by women this month. The one I selected is better known for other reasons, but the Great War is central to it, and its take on the War is highly distinctive.
It is very common for books and stories written during the War years and in the 1920s to present the War as the answer to a problem. I think of this as the trope of the Fortunate War. in these stories, war brings out the best in people; it shows a woman which of two lovers she ought to choose; it gives the wastrel a purpose in life and it cures snobs of their snobbishness. This book is one of the most striking examples of a novel presenting the war as a wonderful opportunity.
The Well of Loneliness is notorious as the novel about lesbianism that was prosecuted and banned in 1928. At first it had been published without too much fuss, but then a campaign was whipped up by James Douglas in the Sunday Express. He had form for this – he had successfully led the attacks on D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow in 1915 and Rose Allatini’s Despised and Rejected in 1918. (He had tried to whip up official disapproval of Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady, too, but Bennett was canny, and made use of his establishment connections to protect himself from prosecution.
The Well of Loneliness is the story of a young woman who was christened Stephen. Her parents had been sure that they would produce a boy, and had fixed on that name, so they gave it to the girl anyway. She grew up a tomboy, liking to dress up as Nelson, and riding her pony astride rather than side-saddle. She dislikes being made to wear girlish clothes. At first her father is happy with this, but by the time she reaches she reaches teenage years and is clearly set in unwomanly ways, her parents have both become deeply worried about her. When her father dies she discovers at the back of his bookcase a copy of Kraft-Ebbing’s book about sexual abnormality, with notes about her written in the margin of the section on female ‘inverts’.
The book can never quite make up its mind whether homosexuality is a matter of nature or of nurture. Stephen’s father clearly encourages her in a non-girly direction to begin with, but the novel insists that she is the victim of her ‘nature’, bearing the ‘mark of Cain’.
As she grows up she is increasingly isolated; a close attachment to a married woman causes a serious rift with her her mother, and she seems fated to a lonely and unsatisfied life – until August 1914, which suddenly gives women like her their chance. Women are needed to work, and inverts are as welcome as anyone:
So, side by side with more fortunate women, worked Miss Smith who had been breeding dogs in the country; or Miss Oliphant who had been breeding nothing since birth but a litter of hefty complexes; or Miss Tring who had lived with a very dear friend in the humbler purlieus of Chelsea.
Old prejudices are set aside:
Yet now even really nice women with hairpins often found their less orthodox sisters quite useful.
Stephen becomes a driver for an Ambulance unit linked to the French Army, and her unfeminine skills, like driving, and the fortitude she learned on the hunting field come in useful. So greatly has war changed the world that it seems nothing will be ver quite the same again:
They were part of the universal convulsion and were being accepted as such, on their merits. And although their Sam Browne belts remained swordless, their hats and their caps without regimental badges,a battalion was formed in those terrible years that would never again be completely disbanded. War and death had given them a right to life, and life tasted sweet, very sweet to their palates. Later on would come bitterness, disillusion, but never again would such women submit to being driven back to their holes and corners. They had found themselves — thus the whirligig of war brings in its abrupt revenges.
There is mention of the suffering of the wounded, but the book is entirely behind the war effort, and sometimes the language strays into cheerleading propaganda:
Events gathered momentum. By the June of that year 700,000 United States soldiers, strong and comely men plucked from their native prairies, from their fields of tall corn, from their farms and their cities, were giving their lives in defence of freedom on the blood-soaked battlefields of France. They had little to gain and much to lose; it was not their war, yet they helped to fight it because they were young and their nation was young, and the ideals of youth are eternally hopeful.
Stephen is awarded the Croix de Guerre, and receives a scar on her face.
When the Armistice comes in 1918, some of the women celebrate, but others realise that this is the end of something special :
But funny, old, monosyllabic Blakeney with her curly white hair cropped as close as an Uhlan’s – Blakeney who had long ago done with emotions–quite suddenly laid her arms on the table and her head on her arms, and she wept, and she wept.
For Stephen this has been an especially fortunate war; not only has it brought her the chance to express and fulfil herself; it has also brought her Mary Llewellyn, her co-driver, who at first seems too fragile and feminine for the work, but under Stephen’s tuition proves good at it. The two of them form a deep bond. After the Armistice they go away together for a holiday. Stephen reveals her feelings to Mary, who hero-worships her, and in the book’s most notorious sentence: ‘And that night they were not divided.’
The post-war world is a disappointment; although in the War it had been possible to believe that: ‘never again would such women submit to being driven back to their holes and corners,’ the prejudices are by no means dead:
And what of the women who had worked in the war – those quiet, gaunt women she had seen about London? England had called them and they had come; for once, unabashed, they had faced the daylight. And now because they were not prepared to slink back and hide in their holes and corners, the very public whom they had served was the first to turn round and spit upon them; to cry: ‘Away with this canker in our midst, this nest of unrighteousness and corruption!
Stephen and Mary are shunned by nice people when their relationship is recognised. Stephen knows that Mary needs company, so they go to a place where they will be welcome: the bohemian left bank of Paris.
Here there is a community of sexual deviants and bohemians of various types. Radclyffe Hall describes them with distaste and scorn as a ‘miserable army’. One or two of them , such as a playwright probably based on Noel Coward, are quite lively, but most are ‘battered remnants of men […] who despised of the world, must despise themselves beyond all hope.’ they are ‘more hopeless than the veriest dregs of creation’. There is a lot of homosexual self-loathing going on in this part of the book.
Stephen eventually decides that life in Bohemia is no life for Mary, and so she pretends to be having an affair with someone else, a stratagem which drives Mary into the waiting arms of a man, Martin, who had been a soldier, and like Stephen has a scar on his face, and in fact is just like Stephen, only genuinely male. Stephen faces a lonely future, but one in which she has decided to be a truth-teller. In other words, she is going to write this book.
The book has its faults; its prose strays into the melodramatic and rhetorical. It is perhaps Hall’s fantasy of what her life should have been like; in reality she did not share Stephen’s wealthy upbringing, and her affairs with other women were probably less idealistically pure. She did not herself volunteer for war service; the Ambulance sections are based on a friend’s experience. Maybe Hall would have written a better book if she had written closer to her own experience. I gather that Lesbians today shy away from Hall’s depiction of them as imitation men.
But the book has strong virtues, too. It is an impassioned and angry book, and fascinating because it shows a woman trying to make sense of her own nature. It’s definitely a page-turner, too. Well worth reading.