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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7.4 (2001) 487-519

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"Spoiled Identity"
Stephen Gordon's Loneliness and the Difficulties of Queer History

Heather K. Love

I sometimes have a queer feeling. I think: "Something very like this has happened before." The nasty things must not be repeated though.

--Radclyffe Hall to Evguenia Souline, 30 July 1937

Those who are failures from the start, downtrodden, crushed--it is they, the weakest, who must undermine life among men." 1 Nietzsche's diatribe against the "born failure" in The Genealogy of Morals anticipates a common reaction to the heroine of Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness. A few months after the novel's obscenity trial, a verse lampoon titled The Sink of Solitude appeared, mocking the fate of "pathetic post-war lesbians." 2 The following year Janet Flanner, writing more coolly in the New Yorker, quipped that Hall's "loneliness was greater than had been supposed." 3 From the moment of its publication, readers balked at the novel's melodramatic account of what Hall called "the tragical problem of sexual inversion." 4 But the readers who have reacted most adversely to the novel's dark portrait of inverted life are those whose experience Hall claimed to represent. The Well, still the most famous and most widely read lesbian novel, is also the novel most hated by lesbians themselves. Since gay liberation Hall's novel has been singularly out of step with the discourse of gay pride. One reader, voicing a common reaction, said that she "consider[ed] this book very bad news for lesbians." 5 According to a model of readerly contagion not unlike the poisoning effect of ressentiment that Nietzsche traces in the Genealogy, Hall's account of Stephen Gordon's life is a depressing spectacle that must undermine life among lesbians.

With its inverted heroine and its tragic view of same-sex relations, The Well has repeatedly come into conflict with contemporary understandings of the meaning [End Page 487] and shape of gay identity. During the 1970s the novel was attacked primarily for equating lesbianism with masculine identification; in the years of the "woman-loving-woman" its mannish heroine, its derogation of femininity, and its glorification of normative heterosexuality were anathema. While the recent recuperation of butch-fem practices and the growth of transgender studies have sparked renewed interest in the book, Hall's embrace of the discourse of congenital inversion is still at odds with the antiessentialism of contemporary theories of sexuality. The dissemination of the Foucauldian notion of "reverse discourse" has also led some critics to reconsider Hall's embrace of the language of inversion, but for many, such revisionism fails to exonerate the novel. Though Hall does make congenital inversion "speak in its own name," her use of the term cannot absorb the stigma associated with this medical discourse. In this sense, The Well might be said to give reverse discourse a bad name. 6

Behind such arguments over the novel's ideology one senses discomfort with the extreme sadness of The Well. Its association with internalized homophobia, erotic failure, and a stigmatizing discourse of gender inversion has allowed the novel to function as a synecdoche for the worst of life before Stonewall. So accepted is the link between The Well and this history of suffering that critics have found it convenient to refer to the "self-hating Radclyffe Hall tradition." 7 In her influential article "Zero Degree Deviancy" Catharine Stimpson takes The Well as the primary example of the tradition of "the dying fall," which she defines as "a narrative of damnation, of the lesbian's suffering as a lonely outcast." Such a narrative, Stimpson writes, "gives the homosexual, particularly the lesbian, riddling images of pity, self-pity, and of terror--in greater measure than it consoles." 8 Stimpson's attention to the text's "riddling" effects on the reader is typical of responses to the novel. Many readers understand Hall's dark portrait of lesbian life as not only an effect but...