Ruehl, Sonja. “Inverts and Experts: Radclyffe Hall and the Lesbian Identity” in Newton, Judith & Deborah Rosenfelt, eds. Feminist Criticism & Social Change: Sex, Class, and Race in Literature. New York: Methuen, 1985. pp: 165-180
Subject: An examination of the portrayal of lesbians in Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness.
Main Points: According to Ruehl, the 1928 publishing of The Well of Loneliness and the resulting obscenity trial “put lesbianism on the map” in England (165). Before that, lesbianism had only been discussed and understood in medical terms. The main authority behind this medical discourse was sexologist Havelock Ellis. His research helped transform understandings of lesbianism from being a moral, chosen sin into a biological state of being that couldn’t be helped by the lesbian. Therefore, lesbianism became a social problem instead of a sin. Because lesbians couldn’t do anything about their innate homosexuality, homosexuality should be tolerated (though Ruehl points out that Ellis himself never went as far as campaigning for tolerance).
Through this medical-psychological discourse, so-called deviant sexualities are organized into a scientific taxonomy or classification system (166). Moreover, these new, permanent categories not only make up a person’s identity; they are what defines it. Foucault points out that this new classification establishes new power structures and forms of power, which can often be used by the “normal” segments of society to suppress deviant identities. However, this creation and definition of identities also allows for the creation of a “reverse discourse.” In other words, once homosexuals are defined, individuals identifying as homosexuals can then form groups under the term as well as challenge, tweak, or completely redefine what the term means. Ruehl sees Hall’s The Well of Loneliness as an example of a reverse discourse. While Hall does not challenge Ellis’ discourse directly, she begins to open up space for other lesbians to speak for themselves by the very act of writing the novel about lesbian life and speaking as one herself (170). This allows room for the development of a reverse discourse.
Ruehl believes that, for the most part, Hall’s novel follows Ellis’ portrayal of “true” lesbians as “congenital inverts.” That is, they are masculine and desire feminine women. Ellis seemed to have trouble defining feminine lesbians and wondered if they were “true” inverts or not, since they were not masculine. He explained them away by claiming some people could be tempted by homosexuality. Hall’s main character, Stephen, is a masculine lesbian who falls in love with several feminine women, but ultimately wishes to spend her life with Mary, a girl from a lower class. In the end, Stephen “allows” Mary to wed a man so that she would not have to go through a harsh life. Several other examples like this (like the point that true inverts are sterile) are meant to illicit pity for lesbians, thus making the book a political act.
Class also plays into the story because Stephen comes from the aristocratic class, and as such, their values are placed in the hero status. Honor and “doing the right thing” (including letting Mary wed a man and live a normal life) are noted as praiseworthy. But that also goes along with Ellis’ claim that homosexuals should become the highest or best part of society. Since they are/should be sterile, lesbians should be able to cultivate a superior character and achieve moral excellence (173).
My Comments: This was a very interesting chapter and allowed me to finally know what The Well of Loneliness was all about. I also thought Foucault’s/Ruehl’s idea of “reverse discourse” was pretty helpful in explaining how individuals were able to use medical discourse to come up with an identity that they saw as more fitting.
For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews, here.