The Well of Loneliness (Radclyffe Hall)
This chapter opens with the example of Daniel Defoe’s ghost story “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal,” viewed as a lesbian love story but one in which one party is dead – a literal ghost – thus making the relationship impossible and unreal. The second example – Dennis Diderot’s La Religieuse – involves eroticized persecution of a young woman in a convent.
This chapter examines several lives in the context of sexological theory and the rise of the binary homosexual/heterosexual model of desire. Psychologists pathologized previous models and patterns of same-sex relationships and focused on the sexually adventurous, dominating, “mannish” woman as the core prototype of the lesbian. At heart, these models revolved around “gender inversion” seeing the homosexual (male or female) as someone whose entire life and personality partook of a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth (to use the current terminology).
This book addresses the question of why, given the attention paid (if patchily) by historians to women’s friendships, the subject of erotic F/F friendship is strikingly absent from study. This erasure makes it possible to argue for the absence of lesbians in the past, but the erasure goes beyond the erotic.
This chapter tackles John Radclyffe Hall and the sexologists’ “invert” as the next archetype. Hall was part of a subculture of “inverts” and their “wives” at a time when sexological theories were becoming familiar to the public. Despite the sexologists’ attempts to identify a unified theory of inversion, there were different models of female masculinity prevalent in same-sex circles. Female inversion (usually accompanied by homosexuality) was the model applied to women similar to Anne Lister: ones with a masculine identification and performance, who desired non-masculine women.
Bauer examines the discourse around female homosexuality at the turn of the 20th century in the context of the discipline of “sexology”, i.e., the supposedly scientific study of sexual desire and expression. Bauer points out that the dominant Foucaultian approach to historical understandings of sexuality has in many ways marginalized issues of gender, centering the male experience as the default. How does this gendering of sexual theory affect the ways in which sexuality is understood and studied?
By the 1920s, Freud was the primary source of attitudes in America towards same-sex love. Where Kraft-Ebing had considered sexual orientation to be inborn, Freud blamed childhood trauma and considered homosexuality to be “curable”. Both lumped men’s and women’s experiences together without considering the differences in social context.
Newton addresses the question, “Does the protagonist of Radclyffe Hall’s <i>The Well of Loneliness</i> represent an isolated literary invention or does she reflect an actual social category of the time?” The character of Stephen Gordon is, in some ways, the prototypical “mannish lesbian”: dressing in masculine styled clothing, rejecting female-coded behaviors and preferences. One might, in the current day and age--though not necessarily when Newton wrote this article--be more inclined to interpret Stephen Gordon as a trans man than as a lesbian.