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

By Green, Laura | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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


Green, Laura, Twentieth Century Literature


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?