[Spécial écrivaines oubliées 4/9] With “The Well of Solitude”, she was the subject of the second great trial for homosexuality in England at the beginning of the 20th century. Yet history has retained only that of Oscar Wilde, thirty years earlier. It is urgent to rediscover this writer who defied all injustice.
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“You don’t understand, I trust my books, a great trust; one day i will go to the heights and i will force the world to m‘accept for who I am. It’s a question of time.” So says Stephen Gordon, the heroine of well of loneliness, who is like its author, Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, writer and lesbian. A prophetic phrase that responds to what will happen when the novel comes out in 1928: first the ban, then the huge success.
There is the book, there is the trial, there is the author. All three are exciting, but that the book is breathtaking, I confess, I had not expected. The Well of Solitude (The Well of Loneliness) is “a monument of lesbian culture”. And no doubt that’s why, any lesbian that I am, that I hadn’t read it. I imagined a sentimental and old-fashioned novel, of vaguely historical interest. Good lesson for me. Because however lesbian he is, and he is so magnificently, The Well of Solitude is a great book.
She called herself John
But let’s start with her, Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, born in England in 1880 and died in England in 1943, fifteen years in France between the two, upper-class and ultraclass. The photos show her with a tie, a tailored suit, often accompanied by a woman, a cigarette or a dog, often all three.
There is also this portrait of her by Charles Buchel, black tie tied high on a white collar, black jacket, gray waistcoat, monocle in hand, thin, short brown or maybe red hair, green eyes or gray, drooping, an air of Montesquiou by Whistler or Boldini, less arrogance, more tenderness. Radclyffe Hall, who called himself John, dressed as I said and, thirty years after Oscar Wilde’s trial, lived with a woman. It’s already not bad for the poise, and the elegance that this virtue always gives.
His novel speaks of homosexuality very directly and without the word being written.
The Well of Solitude appeared in London in 1928. Barely a few months later Orlando. A year later, with us, the last volume of The research, which no one ever said was a queer novel, which it is. Orlando was never worried. Nor Proust of course, but France is not England. Radclyffe Hall has already published five popular and award-winning books of poetry and three novels. His novel speaks of homosexuality very directly and without the word being written (Radclyffe Hall speaks of abnormals – “he was the most normal abnormal of all men” –, more often of inverts, like Proust; this is the time).
An absence without prudery
Its release was initially a success, 10,000 copies were sold, then a newspaper, the Saturday Journal, is offended. The Minister of the Interior then prosecuted the book and its author for obscenity and obtained a ban: the copies seized were destroyed in the cellars of Scotland Yard.
A second lawsuit followed, in the United States, lost at first instance and won on appeal: the book was authorized in America and sold a million copies. In France, it will be published by Gallimard in 1932 and reissued several times since. In England, it will be necessary to wait until 1949, more than twenty years, so that the censorship is lifted and the book again in the bookstores.
Less a plea for homosexuality than an indictment against the injustice of its reprobation and the cruelty of its consequences
The first thing that surprises is that, even at the time, it could have been considered obscene. Certainly not for the sex scenes, there are none (but it is an absence without prudery: “They were now only lovers in name. And this enforced abstinence was affecting Jamie’s work, as well as his nerves…”), but for his immorality. So much it is less a plea for homosexuality than an indictment against the injustice of its reprobation and the cruelty of its consequences, in particular, and as always, on women when they are poor.
“And, outside, there are happy people sleeping the sleep of the so-called just and upright. And when they do awaken, it will be to persecute those who, through no fault of their own, were set apart on their day of birth, deprived of all sympathy and understanding. They are inconsiderate, these people who sleep… and who is there to make them think, Miss Gordon?” An indictment as precise and calm as a demonstration, which one is surprised that he could not convince. But in a sense the trial and the ban prove what the book denounces. This is to say its accuracy, its truth.
A studio on rue Visconti, rue Jacob and the house of Natalie Clifford Barney… this milieu of female homosexuality in Paris
The losers against the winners
The Well of Solitude is a political book. Like all great books, it speaks for the vanquished, whoever they are, against the victors. It is also, therefore – and this is where I am amazed – a great novel tout court.
It is a fresco that makes worlds reappear; the English countryside at the beginning of the last century, then London and above all Paris, before and after the war, a studio in rue Visconti, rue Jacob and the house of Natalie Clifford Barney, this milieu of female homosexuality in Paris, which recomposed the social classes, a Paris that goes from the Ritz (again Proust) to Montmartre, from fox-trot to jazz, which recounts the shift from the world before the war to the one after.
It is a wonderful romance novel and a great book about childhood. And I pass some and I forget some. Ah yes, what a book! A last quote : “Those who have courage, also have a duty to perform.” I love this sentence.
The Well of Solitude by Marguerite Radclyffe Hall (Gallimard/“L’Imaginaire”), translated from English by Léo Lack, 574 p., €15. In bookstore.