"There is something mankind can never destroy in spite of an unreasoning will to destruction, and this is its own idealism, that integral part of its very being. The ageing and the cynical may make wars, but the young and idealistic must fight them, and thus there are bound to come quick reactions, blind impulses not always comprehended. Men will curse as they kill, yet accomplish deeds of self-sacrifice, giving their lives for others; poets will write with their pens dripped in blood, yet will write not of death, but of life eternal; strong and courteous friendships will be born, to endure in the face of enmity and destruction. And so persistent is this urge to the ideal, above all in the presence of a great disaster, that mankind, the willful destroyer of beauty, must immediately strive to create new beauties, lest it perish from a sense of its own desolation..." (Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness. Avon, 1981 at 284)
In The Well of Lonelinesss, Hall explores dualisms---butch/femme, inversion/extroversion, ab/normality, fe/male, un/natural, hetero/homosexual---that even today dominate a discourse of division and separation in Western societies. In 1928, when Hall's most well-known novel was published, frank discussion of homosexuality was nearly always couched in psychological jargon including that most neurotic of all psychologists, Sigmund Freud. Many today accuse Freud of writing no more than autobiographical fiction often centering on the "natural" inversion of lesbians (Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, eds. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past. Meridian, 1990 at 37-53, 281-293; and, Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. Penguin, 1991 at 12, 35-47).
That the book was both praised as courageous and condemned as immoral is unsurprising: if Radclyffe Hall had not chosen to write about sapphism, or disguised her lesbian characters as men, the novel may well have garnered far less attention. That Hall herself was an out and open lesbian, however, may well have foreclosed that possibility. If creative writing is a form of human self-exploration, a struggle with truth, a search for honesty, and a reflection of conscience, writing openly about "the love that dare not speak its name" may have been an inevitable literary destiny.Understanding the reception of The Well of Loneliness requires some knowledge of the historical context and nature of homo-affectional relations immediately prior to the onset of the fin de siècle.
In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, Lillian Faderman provides a comprehensive, critical assessment of the lesbian experience in the early decades of the last century.Odd Girls begins by examining women's same-sex relationships in the Mid- to Late-Nineteenth Century at about the time that the term "homosexual" is believed to have been coined. Women's same-sex relationships at this time were often denoted by the term "romantic friends" and were cherished, respectable relationships well within Victorian norms (Faderman at 1-2).
"What is apparent through [women's same-sex relationships] that have now been well documented by social historians is that women's intimate relationships were universally encouraged in centuries outside our own "(ibid. at 1). "Within boundaries (predictably male-defined boundaries), women's romantic friendships were desirable and respectable, often encouraged " (op. cit. at 2).
Victorian culture tended to deny the possibility of an autonomous female sexuality, even though intimacy, including physical intimacy, was the norm. Usually limited to kissing and non-genital petting, such physical intimacy was allowed as long as it did not cross the line from physical to sexual contact (op. cit.).
With the advent of the social science of sexology, the positivist study of human sexuality, a whole new vocabulary and grammar of sex was elucidated to uncover the hidden socio-cultural secrets of the sexes and to demystify both concepts of gender and sexuality. While the early scientific study of human sexuality attempted to categorize diverse forms of human relations, traditional same-sex relationships between women were de-normalized.
These new social proscriptions against traditional Victorian same-sex relations were, no doubt, viewed by many women with disdain.That many same-sex women's relations did, however, cross the boundary between female intimacy and genital contact is also well documented.
By 1928, when Hall published The Well of Loneliness, the category of the lesbian was firmly established erecting heterosexuality as the norm by which all other forms of sexual relations were to be judged and measured. After creating the category of lesbianism, sexologists went on to define a lesian as a female sexual invert, as "women trapped in men's bodies," a grotesque freak, and queer aberration, and an abomination of nature (op. cit. at 2-3).
According to Faderman, women were, hence, confined to four general alternatives with respect to same-sex inclinations:
(1.) they could refuse to accept the label denying that the sexual component of a same-sex relationship was central to that relationship (gender/sex neutral lesbian)
(2.) they could become so intimidated by the new norms that they would avoid same-sex relations, now viewed as abnormal, and repress their desire for same-sex relations (homophobe/social slave)
(3.) they might become so frightened of exposing and betraying their same-sex attachments that they would hide; such hiding behavior could encompass leading a double-life as well as passing as a man (closeted lesbian)
(4.) they could accept the sociologist's definition of lesbianism, define themselves as lesbian, and, thereby, set themselves apart from other women; rejection of heterosexual norms enabled women to be economically, socially, and sexually independent (liberated lesbian)
(op. cit. at 3-10)
Faderman also sketches a social typology of early twentieth-century lesbianism: