Ways of being gay back in the day

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Back in the mid-1980s when I was in high school and just getting to know the gay world no article or book about gay literature, or gays in literature failed to mention The Well of Loneliness. The only thing I remember about any of that exegesis is that TWoL is a bedrock classic of gay lit, but that it is also a depresso-tragic tale that reinforces the tragic gay stereotype. In college when the book came up in a conversation some Lesbian friends admitted they thought it was boring. Although today I have a predilection for this kind of Virago publishing-niche book, I can understand why some would find it less than compelling–or at least those who don’t have a thing for early 20th century women’s fiction. And god knows Hall could have used a better editor to fix some of her needlessly bad sentence construction. But I digress.

In terms of LGBT issues, things have changed enormously since TWoL was published in 1928, and have even changed enormously since I first heard of the book 25 years ago. Those changes definitely had an impact on how I perceived this text. For sure the Lesbian main character in the book faced great challenges and could not live an open life but she was of an economic class that allowed her much more freedom and opportunity to at least be a Lesbian. A working class woman in the same period would likely not have been so lucky.

I think one of the analyses of this book and others of its ilk is that it seems only able to present gays and Lesbians as leading tragic, depressing, or debauched lives. In my vague recollections it seems like some blame the book for setting or reinforcing that notion, and suggesting that that tragic story line was required in order to get mainstream publishers to consider printing such things. The gays had to pay for their sins somehow or the reading public would burn the place down. Indeed this may have been the case. E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice which ultimately puts a positive spin on a gay character was written 1913-1914 but didn’t get published until the 1970s after Forster was dead. I know that Forster wanted it that way, but I wonder if he would have been able to get it published back in the day without killing off Maurice and Scudder? Perhaps there are other books from that period that had happy endings for gays?

One of the ways that today’s political and social climate has changed my view of the story is that I could see the ultimate final tragedy of the book (which I won’t disclose here) as being one that didn’t necessarily have to be about being gay. I could easily see how the final pages could have played out for a straight couple in a similar way if, perhaps not, for similar reasons.

Then there is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Written in 1956, it has similarities with TWoL in the need for a tragic end, but in many ways Baldwin’s characters are truly self loathing individuals in a way that Hall’s characters were not. Long story short, David is an American in Paris whose girlfriend/fiancee is traipsing around Spain while he falls in love with the beautiful Giovanni. Even from the relative freedom of Paris in the 1950s (I failed to mention that Hall’s book also largely takes place in Paris) society and family weigh heavy on David and cause no end of denial. So much so that even after a prolonged emotional and sexual relationship with Giovanni he seems perfectly able to pretend to himself that he is straight and sets in motion one tragedy after another. No one wins in this book.

Unlike Hall’s book I don’t think one can see this tragedy unfolding without the gay dimension. In fact their is no amount of cowardice in TWoL that comes close the David’s in GR. Happily, Baldwin, and I think to some extent Hall, led lives that were more open and fulfilling than the characters in their books.

One of the odd things about both TWoL and GR was how closely the experiences and feelings tracked with my own in the 1980s. Although things were way better in 1985 than they were in 1928, the emotional roller-coaster felt very similar. I wonder if it still feels that way for kids today.

11 thoughts on “Ways of being gay back in the day

  1. geoffwhaley.com March 26, 2015 / 7:58 am

    I agree completely. I stopped reading a lot of older LGBT fiction for a while after college as it was so exhausting to constantly be downtrodden and emotionally drained. I've gone back recently and can now appreciate how much has changed and what remains! Have you ever read Stone Butch Blues, that one was particularly fascinating with the blurring of gender and (what felt like) the beginning of trans* issues.

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  2. Anonymous March 26, 2015 / 12:06 pm

    yes it is hard to read and admit how hard it is to be gay whether out or not in early 19th century or 1985 or now esp for the young. thanks for reviewing.
    and totally recommend 'stone butch blues'…only bk i ever cried while reading and still couldn't stop reading….
    enjoy the cherry blossoms…:)
    quinn

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  3. Steerforth March 27, 2015 / 4:03 am

    Things seem to be going backwards in some places – Russia springs to mind – and when you look at a world map of countries where being gay is illegal, it's pretty depressing. I wonder if a novels written during repressive times in our society speak more directly to people in countries like, say, Egypt.

    I tried to read TWoL but gave up – the writing was so turgid. It's a pity that such a groundbreaking novel isn't more readable.

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  4. Chris Wolak March 28, 2015 / 8:48 am

    I adored Stone Butch Blues! Wish I still had my copy of it. Tried to get a copy of it for one of my nieces birthday's (she's studying gender issues) and I and couldn't find it anywhere other than at an exorbitant price. Granted the author, Leslie Feinberg, had just passed away so I'm hoping they come out with a new edition soon.

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  5. Chris Wolak March 28, 2015 / 9:14 am

    I remember being both excited and depressed while reading this book. In grad school in the 90s my department let me create my own reading exam on lesbian lit. I forget how many books were on the list but it was everything I could get my hands on back then. Perhaps 75 titles? The Well was one of the more enjoyable reads, both in storyline and writing quality. After the oral exam the committee asked me what my future research plans were with lesbian lit and I replied that I didn't want to read a lesbian novel for a long, long time. It was one of the most depression reading experiences of my life (stories of hopelessness, loneliness, cruelty, and abuse, not to mention some awful writing). After awhile I couldn't maintain academic objectivity. I still feel the same way and the LGBTQ books I read are pretty few and far between. Other commenters have mentioned Stone Butch Blues and that book knocked my socks off when it came out. I think the newish surge in trans lit is exciting and I might start reading more in that direction. Nevada was good. I think its still a roller coaster for most kids these days, perhaps even more confusing, in a different way, than the old days of pure self-loathing and hopelessness because you have one segment of the population embracing equality and others that want to legislate against gays or kill gays. As a middle aged lesbian I'm excited that there IS a public discourse nowadays, but sometimes I'm dismayed that its even still an issue.

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  6. Walker Louise March 28, 2015 / 1:27 pm

    What a great post! It definitely made me think. I find it interesting that you thought the challenges faced by Stephen is just a depressing LGBT character stereotype. I thought the themes within LGBT relationships could apply to any form of romantic relationships. The themes of emotionally abusive relationships, loving someone who society says you shouldn't and being in love with someone you know treats you poorly/you know you can't give them what they want are etc. can apply to any relationship (e.g. interracial, age gaps….)

    TWoL is very sad like you said but I also feel that Stephen showed a great dignity in how she responded to the world. Maurice also seems like an interesting read.

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  7. Thomas at My Porch March 29, 2015 / 1:26 pm

    I will have to look into Stone Butch Blues. Supposedly we are only two weeks away from peak blossoms. Little hard to believe at the moment.

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  8. Thomas at My Porch March 29, 2015 / 1:28 pm

    The Russia thing is mystifying. St. Petersburg used to be on my travel wish list, but I think I can safely skip it until further notice. The writing in TWoL is a bit turgid, but thankfully I can enjoy a bit of turgidity.

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  9. Thomas at My Porch March 29, 2015 / 1:33 pm

    I think the improved climate of 2015 allowed me to find TWoL fascinating rather than sad. Not that issues don't still exist, but it was nice to red it with a little detachment.

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  10. Thomas at My Porch March 29, 2015 / 1:37 pm

    I think we are actually on the same page I just may not have expressed myself very well. I do think that although there are issues particular to being an outsider and shunned by society at large, the relationship aspects of the book could indeed have be true for a couple of any sexuality.

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