“Something Primitive and Age-Old as Nature Herself”:
Lesbian Sexuality and the Permission of the Exotic
Considering the accusations of obscenity that dogged the book, very little sex happens in The Well of Loneliness. 1 There is the fetishistic worship of the housemaid Collins by a six-year-old Stephen Gordon, some fevered kissing (but no more) between teenage Stephen and Angela Crossby, and some rather more restrained kisses bestowed by Stephen on Mary Llewellyn until the fateful night in which “they were not divided.” 2 Like Stephen herself, the novel maintains a rigid physical self-control that only intensifies the roiling emotions kept by sheer force of will under the surface.
The one place that lesbian sexuality has permission to emerge, and Stephen can let down her guard, is at the Villa del Ciprés on the Canary Island of Tenerife. Tenerife, the largest of a cluster of about half a dozen islands and six more subislands off the border coast of Morocco and what is now Western Sahara, was—as it still is—a Spanish colony with an already long history of tourism in the 1920s. 3 Five centuries of Spanish occupation of and involvement in transcontinental trade in the Canary Islands had created a hybrid culture of indigenous Guanche, Spanish, North African, and sub-Saharan cultures and populations. 4 The islands' landscapes are dramatic, dotted with mountains and volcanoes. Some of the smaller islands are densely rocky; others, like Tenerife, are lush and fertile—not surpris-