Almost a century ago, Catholicism offered inspiration to authors striving to cope with a minority status.
The novelist Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943), whose The Well of Loneliness (1928) is expertly presented in an edition from Penguin Modern Classics, is a case in point. Hall’s protagonist Stephen, named after the first martyr of Christianity because her parents expected a boy, shares elements of a gender identity with the author, who was born Marguerite but later adopted the nickname John.
At age seven, Stephen develops a crush on her family’s housemaid Collins, presented in terms evoking Christian martyrdom. Stephen studies the Children’s Book of Scripture Stories and identifies with Christ on the cross, praying to share her beloved Collins’s affliction of housemaid’s knee.
The little girl implores to be allowed to “be hurt” as Jesus was. After her prayers go unanswered, little Stephen faults Jesus for “wanting all the pain for himself” as she continues her entreaties after bedtime, perspiring “in a veritable orgy of prayer.”
Stephen dreams “in some queer way she was Jesus, and that Collins was kneeling and kissing her hand. . . The dream was a mixture of rapture and discomfort.” Finally, the adult Stephen has a vision of crowds of sexual minorities from the past, present, and future who implore her to intercede in prayer on their behalf. She gasps: “God…We believe; we have told You we believe…We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us.
Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!”
This demand was also from the author, a Bournemouth-born heiress who converted to Catholicism in 1912, following the example of an early companion, Mabel Batten.
According to Hall’s biographer Richard Dellamora (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), The Well of Loneliness can be read as a “new Gospel … to affirm the saving power of love based in dissident desire” as a “testament both of faith and doubt”. Dellamora likens the novel to the French author Ernest Renan’s controversial Life of Jesus, which contained enough dubiousness that Oscar Wilde termed it the “gospel according to St Thomas”.
By merely advocating that sexual minorities be permitted to exist, Hall provoked a scandal, leading to trials and her novel being banned in the United Kingdom until the late 1940s, despite its containing nary a rude word or erotic scene.
Nevertheless, satirists leapt into the fray, and a caricature mockingly depicted Hall nailed to a cross. The author was outraged, especially considering that she had published just before Well of Loneliness what Dellamora terms the “most explicitly Catholic” of her novels, Adam’s Breed (Virago, 1985), about Gian-Luca Boselli, an Italian waiter who sheds his earthly possessions to become a forest hermit.
Still smarting from being travestied, Hall produced a new novel, Master of the House, an even more explicit Christian allegory about Christophe Benedict, a Provençal carpenter who has visions of a previous life as Jesus. Benedict is eventually crucified during the Great War after being posted to the Holy Land.
So involved did Hall become in the religious aura of the narrative that she claimed to have developed stigmata on her hands during the novel’s two-year gestation process. Yet questions remain about how much genuine empathy Hall absorbed about minorities other than her own.
She viewed LGBT people as suffering from a pathological handicap and congenital defect requiring medical treatment. Her depictions of gay men in The Well of Loneliness are hardly flattering, and her views on other minorities appear equally outdated.
In August 1937, Humbert Wolfe, a Home Office civil servant, granted an annual visa to Evguenia Souline, Hall’s lover based in France. Hall wrote to Souline in a letter collected by Joanne Glasgow (NYU Press, 1997), exulting: “I bless [Wolfe] and never again will I speak against the Jews for Humbert is a Jew though a Catholic jew [sic] and pious.’”
This promise would be soon forgotten, as another letter demonstrates. In March 1939, when European Fascist laws were already assailing minorities, Hall wrote to Souline, claiming that “Jews in general … hate us and they want to cause a European war, then a world revolution, in order to destroy us completely.”
Only in December 1942, shortly before her death, did Hall reconsider, noting to Evguenia: “The wholesale slaughter of the Jews is too fearful, the more so as one feels helpless to do anything for the poor devils – what a load of sin to have on the souls of those who conceived of this fiendish horror. As for the French who are delivering their Jews over to the Germans, as the papers say they are doing, well – I have no words.”
Perhaps when Hall was rendered speechless, ethics took charge, allowing her to become eloquent in her defence of fellow beleaguered minorities.