Hall of Mirrors: Radclyffe Hall's the Well of Loneliness and Modernist Fictions of Identity

Article excerpt

In 1928, as she was preparing to appear as a defense witness in the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) for obscenity, Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter:

       At this moment our thoughts center upon Sapphism--we have to
       uphold the morality of that Well of all that's stagnant and
       lukewarm and neither one thing or the other; The Well of
       Loneliness. (Woolf 555; also qtd. in Cline 255) (1)

Woolf's response to The Well--privately caustic, publicly supportive--prefigures the ambivalence that the novel has famously continued to arouse among readers and critics. The Well appeared on the heels of the critical and popular acclaim accorded Hall's novel Adam's Breed (1926), recipient of the 1927 Prix Femina Vie Heureuse (which Woolf herself won the next year), and Hall's novels share certain concerns with Woolf's. Like Woolf, Hall created female protagonists who are artists (A Saturday Life) or writers (The Well of Loneliness), whose thwarted ambitions include an Oxbridge education (The Unlit Lamp), who may challenge conventional gender expectations (The Unlit Lamp, The Well of Loneliness), and whose lives are shaped by powerful (although in Hall's case almost entirely negative) mother figures who embody traditional feminine morality (The Unlit Lamp, The Well of Loneliness.) But Hall is not among the contemporary authors discussed in Woolf's literary journalism.

Woolf's dismissal of Hall has traditionally been read as a marking of the boundary between modernist aesthetics and the traditions of Victorian and Edwardian realism from which modernism distinguished itself. As Joanne Winning writes, Woolf "attempts to draw a line between [The Well of Loneliness] and other, more innovative literature being produced around it" (372)--including, presumably, Woolf's own covertly "Sapphic" Orlando, published shortly after The Well of Loneliness. (2) But the terms of Woolf's critique beg more questions about boundaries than they resolve: With respect to what counter-possibilities of motion and heat is the novel "stagnant and lukewarm"? What are the poles between which it falls, the "one thing" or "another" that it fails to be? According to what criteria, in other words, does Hall's novel exhibit the in-betweenness that seems to be the source of Woolf's unease? If it is in-betweenness that is at the root of negative responses to the novel, might it be possible to read that in-betweenness differently, as a source of the novel's strength rather than its weakness? Finally, might Hall's depiction of an "in-between" identity illuminate the problems of grounding narratives of identity in modernist narrative and beyond?

Certainly, Hall's curiously "lukewarm" stance toward her immediate literary context--the aesthetic context of high modernism and the intellectual context of Freudian theorizing--seems suggestivh278as a ground for Woolf's reaction. (3) "Neither one thing nor another" accurately describes The Well's relationships to, on the one hand, a Victorian narrative concern with the social and material milieus and, on the other hand, a modernist concern with interior consciousness. The Well's opening sentence--"Not very far from Upton-on-Severn--between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills--stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramley; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered" (11)--could not more firmly announce its nostalgia for agrarian, country-house society and, by extension, the traditional novel to which such a setting appertains. And yet Stephen Gordon's trajectory propels her firmly out of the milieu thus announced, into a future defined by exile. The "country seat" becomes a painful reminder, embodying "that inherent respect of [sic] the normal which nothing had ever been able to destroy [in Stephen] ... an added burden it was, handed down by the silent but watchful founders of Morton [Hall]" (430). Similarly, if the novel's plotting notably depends upon the conventions of the heterosexual romance, its climax, in which Stephen engineers her own romantic rejection and embraces authorship as a lonely, terrifying, but generative form of possession, makes clear Hall's belief that she and her heroine were plotting an alternative, if not entirely new, fictional trajectory. …