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Life Arts

Radclyffe Hall, Sapphism, Sexology, and Speech Rights

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(1.)            educated spinster: college educated; usually professionally employed

(2.)            romantic "friends": middle-class women who engaged in lesbianism under the guise of "romantic friendship;" not identified as lesbian, or sexual invert; passed as straight, maybe married to a man[Faderman makes an interesting class distinction in noting that in the Nineteenth Century, trial records exist for genital relations between lower class women;however, no such records existed for "respectable" middle or upper class women]

(3.)            professional women: artists, settlement house workers, women's rights advocates, and so forth (distinguished from educated spinsters in that the former often were professionally employed within the pink ghettoes [e.g. teaching, nursing, clerical duties] whereas the latter were engaged in some other type of professional work)

(4.)            devoted companions: women in long-term, monogamous relationships who did not necessarily identify with the sexological definition of lesbian

(op. cit. at 13-36)

Applying Faderman's conceptual tools to Stephen Gordon, the protagonist of The Well of Loneliness, and, indirectly, to the author, Radclyffe "John" Hall, one emerges with the picture of a powerfully creative woman who accepted society's definition of her as a sexual invert and openly played the part.

Dressing in male clothing, straddling a horse, longing for the love of another woman, Stephen Gordon was from birth a classic sexological text book case study, queer and gender-bending as she was.

Her own mother found difficulty in loving her:

"She would awake at night and ponder this thing, scourging herself in an access of contrition; accusing herself of hardness of spirit, of being an unnatural mother. Sometimes she would shed slow miserable tears....She would think: 'I ought to be proud of the likeness....' Then back would come flooding that queer antagonism that almost amounted to anger.It would seem to Anna that she must be going mad, for this likeness to her husband would strike her as an outrage --- as though the poor, innocent seven-year-old Stephen were in some way a caricature of Sir Philip; a blemished, unworthy, maimed reproduction.....But now there were times when the child's soft would be almost distasteful to her, a certain crude lack of grace in her movements, a certain conscious defiance. Then the mother's mind would slip back to the days when this creature had clung to her breast, forcing her to love it by its utter weakness; and at this thought her eyes must fill again, for she came of a race of devoted mothers."

(Hall at 15-16)

Stephen, also like Radclyffe Hall, was a professional woman, an author, and devoted companion. Although in The Well of Loneliness Stephen's love relationship can not withstand the socio-cultural violence of social isolation and alienation, and while her relationship does not endure the consequences of deviation from the "norm," Radclyffe Hall enjoyed greater success in her own life through devoted, companionate lesbian relationships with at least two women; Mabel "Lady" Batten, who died prematurely, and Una Troubridge.

Some critics, including lesbians, have argued that The Well of Loneliness is about guilt and, therefore, stands as an example of the forced shame placed on lesbians by sexology's cold, calculating, dispassionate, and dehumanizing labeling of what amounts to not abnormal, but simply different behavior. This may well be a misreading of sexology, as many sexologists, including Ellis and Hirschfeld were sympathetic, if not empathetic, to sexual minorities. In fact, Havelock Ellis wrote a commentary for The Well of Loneliness praising the novel and its author.

That sexologists approached their subjects, indeed "discovered" them, through "positivist differences" in relation to heterosexuality seems indisputable. But Hall's book is perhaps better understood as a historically authentic description, if not a literary indictment, of a society so rigid and apprehensive about human sexuality as to be unable to recognize, yet alone accept, human sexual difference. Difference is not the same as abnormality, nor is variation the same as deviation.

The passages that describe Stephen's heartfelt longing, and desire to be who she is; to escape the loneliness that society creates for those who do not easily or readily fit the mold, is Hall's earnest plea to society to embrace, indeed celebrate, the diversity of human sexual experience and identity.

Hall's loneliness may also be viewed as a rejection of sexology's narrow definitions of sexual normativity. Hall, who was a devout Catholic, may have viewed her novel as a social manifesto appealing to society not to banish those who do not conform to its norms to the "well of loneliness;" just as Jesus associated with harlots, beggars, thieves, prostitutes and the downtrodden.

"Stephen was never to forget this summer when she fell quite simply and naturally in love, in accordance with the dictates of her nature...To [Stephen] there seemed nothing strange or unholy in the love she felt for Angela Crossby. To her it seemed an inevitable thing, as much a part of herself as breathing..." (ibid. at 146) "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 others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite selfless and fine as the rest of mankind. Let your life go to prove this – it would be a really great life-work Stephen." (op. cit. at 154)

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