Women getting it on. With each other.
Even today, this premise strikes a chord with audiences. Imagine in 1928, when The Well of Loneliness was first published in England and America. Obscenity trials tried to ban the novel. Still the book sold 100,000 copies in its first year on the shelves. The Well was one of the first lesbian novels ever published, written by Radclyffe Hall, an English author and gay lady. The novel tells the story of Stephen Gordon, an English woman living at the turn of the century discovering and coming to terms with her sexuality.
Growing up in the late Victorian era, Stephen is acutely aware of being different but unsure of exactly what this difference is. After falling in love with a woman and being betrayed by the object of her affection, Stephen finally discovers that she is a homosexual, a term she learns after reading a psychology book in her father’s library.
When I first read The Well of Loneliness, I read its Wikipedia page immediately. I encountered the subject Sexology where I read that “some critics now argue that Stephen Gordon is a transman rather than a lesbian.” This perspective had not occurred to me before. What does this mean?
If Stephen is indeed transgender, that can mean a few different things. Stephen is trans in that she is beyond the confines of the gender norms of her time. As a child she imagines herself as the male hero’s of her favorite stories “She very much liked being read to; but now such stories so stirred her ambition that she longed intensely to live them. She Stephen, now longed to be William Tell, or Nelson,”(p.19).
She also enjoys escorting her mother through town taking her arm like a gentleman would. “She would look right and left for imaginary traffic, slipping a hand under Anna’s elbow.”(p.33) As an adult she wears men’s clothes,”…Stephen now dressed in tailor made clothes to which Anna had perforce to withdraw her opposition.” (p.129) .
Stephen is also athletic and at various points in the novel Hall describes her exercising and admiring her lean, strong muscles. Her masculine traits abound and her absolute disdain for the feminine things imposed upon her is apparent.
But does this mean she wants to be a man? Or is Stephen an athletic, masculine, independent woman? The Victorian Era is notorious for its puritanical social and sexual norms. When compared to the intense restrictions women faced in manner of dress and appropriate behavior, it is not outrageous that Stephen wanted something different. I’m sure other women did, as well.
In my opinion calling Stephen a transman will always be inaccurate because we know there is such a thing as a “butch” lesbian. An affinity for masculinity does not equate to desiring male anatomy. It’s too simplistic to simply say that a woman wearing men’s clothes and sleeping with women just wants to be a man. Perhaps if the novel were written today, Hall could have been more specific about Stephen’s desires. But as it stands, the novel is still the story of a woman who loves women, a real leader for her time.