In 1928, Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness. It was greeted with uproar, leading to the book being banned under the Obscene Publications Act . This was because Hall had chosen to write from the perspective of a lesbian protagonist, Stephen. Stephen is assigned female at birth but given a traditionally masculine name due to their parents’ desire for a male child; this begins a life of identity conflict. The depiction of Stephen’s complicated relationship with their sexuality and gender speaks to Hall’s lived experience with gender dysphoria. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that Hall believed that they were “a man trapped in a woman’s body”. Like the young Stephen, who likes to be called Nelson, Hall adopted a male pseudonym to write under, Radclyffe. A portrait of Hall painted in 1918 bears a striking resemblance to Stephen in their later years, which suggests that what makes The Well of Loneliness so heartrending is that the emotional anguish comes from the heart of the author. Hall’s experience as someone who did not identify as the gender assigned to them at birth, is such an important narrative to read and understand – and to have been writing this story as early as 1928 marks out Hall as a revolutionary.
Unfortunately, Hall’s novel does not provide a happy ever after. While there are moments of bliss, Stephen is ultimately punished – by themselves and by unsupportive friends – for their love of Mary and their gender expression. At the end of the novel, Stephen fakes an affair in order to drive Mary away due to guilt and pressure from Stephen’s childhood friend Martin. The other LGBTQ+ characters suffer similarly awful fates, leaving no one happy who isn’t heterosexual or able to enter into a performance of heterosexuality. As their adopted home and found family fall into ruins, it seems that Stephen’s life is doomed to unhappiness. This pessimism, from an author in tune with their protagonist, is deeply upsetting.
Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Timesis quite a leap from Hall’s novel, both in setting and narrative. It was published in the April of 2020, and situates its protagonist Ava in Hong Kong, working as a TEFL tutor. Ava’s “situationship” with Julian, an emotionally unavailable banker, is thrown into contrast with her meetings with Edith, who quickly provides outward affection and an interest in commitment. While many novels with bisexual characters (including The Well of Loneliness) will see such characters revert to a performance of a heterosexuality, Dolan gives space for her bisexual protagonist to experience her identity in full. In Hall’s novel, Stephen feels pressurized to push Mary towards a heterosexual relationship in order that she be happy in a deeply homophobic society. In Dolan’s, Ava is able to envisage a truly loving relationship with Edith that is viable and far less affected by external persecution. I’d argue that this suggests a shift in the way that LGBTQ+ relationships are perceived in today’s society, fundamentally for the better.
That being said, Dolan’s text isn’t free of fear. Ava worries constantly: about how her relationship with a woman will be perceived in Hong Kong; about the ethics of TEFL tutoring; about her reliance on Julian. The overthinking mind is very clearly represented in the novel and Dolan doesn’t shy away from the more brutal intrusive thoughts and self-deprecation that can come from overthinking. What is striking, however, is that Ava’s self-critical mindset is not directed solely toward her sexuality; more so it is the problem of upholding two relationships at once that causes the majority of her doubts. Dolan moves the main contention away from sexuality and into functionality of relationship: it is the human mind that is the focus, not external pressures and prejudices.
An important intersectional viewpoint comes from Dolan’s experience as a gay autistic person. The voices of LGBTQ+ people on the autism spectrum are so often invalidated because of prejudices on all sides: often, people wrongly assume that autistic people can’t feel empathyand therefore couldn’t possibly stray from the identity assigned to them at birth. Dolan’s literature does important work in showing how being autistic and being gay are not mutually exclusive. Authors like Dolan represent the importance of intersectionality in literature and the wider world; in 2021, it is these intersections that form some of the most needed viewpoints.
Dolan and Hall are pioneers, writers of LGBTQ+ narratives that have and will change the face of literature. Hall wrote a narrative of questioned identity and sexuality in the 1920s, and Dolan makes strides through her intersectional contemporary perspective. As Hall’s work falls into sorrow, however, Dolan is able to allow her protagonist the space and joy of a homosexual relationship, which I would hope nods to a far more accepting society today than the one that Hall grew up in.
In Pride Month, it is important to look back at LGBTQ+ struggles portrayed through literature, to understand where we have come from, but it is also crucial to look forward and understand the progress that needs to be made next. It is fundamental, too, to understand the importance of intersectionality – and through novelists like Dolan, it is possible to understand the ever-broadening space that LGBTQ+ literature navigates today.
– Millie Green
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