The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Eight

At seventeen Stephen was taller than Anna, who had used to be considered quite tall for a woman, but Stephen was nearly as tall as her father — not a beauty this, in the eyes of the neighbours.

Colonel Antrim would shake his head and remark: ‘I like ’em plump and compact, it’s more taking.’

Then his wife, who was certainly plump and compact, so compact in her stays that she felt rather breathless, would say: ‘But then Stephen is very unusual, almost — well, almost a wee bit unnatural — such a pity, poor child, it’s a terrible drawback; young men do hate that sort of thing, don’t they?’

But in spite of all this Stephen’s figure was handsome in a flat, broad-shouldered and slim flanked fashion; and her movements were purposeful, having fine poise, she moved with the easy assurance of the athlete. Her hands, although large for a woman, were slender and meticulously tended; she was proud of her hands. In face she had changed very little since childhood, still having Sir Philip’s wide, tolerant expression. What change there was only tended to strengthen the extraordinary likeness between father and daughter, for now that the bones of her face showed more clearly, as the childish fullness had gradually diminished, the formation of the resolute jaw was Sir Philip’s. His too the strong chin with its shade of a cleft; the well modelled, sensitive lips were his also. A fine face, very pleasing, yet with something about it that went ill with the hats on which Anna insisted — large hats trimmed with ribbons or roses or daisies, and supposed to be softening to the features.

Staring at her own reflection in the glass, Stephen would feel just a little uneasy: Am I queer looking or not?’ she would wonder, Suppose I wore my hair more like Mother’s?’ and then she would undo her splendid thick hair, and would part it in the middle and draw it back loosely.

The result was always far from becoming, so that Stephen would hastily plait it again. She now wore the plait screwed up very tightly in the nape of her neck with a bow of black ribbon. Anna hated this fashion and constantly said so, but Stephen was stubborn: ‘I’ve tried your way, Mother, and look like a scarecrow; you’re beautiful, darling, but your young daughter isn’t, which is jolly hard on you.’

She makes no effort to improve her appearance,’ Anna would reproach, very gravely.

These days there was constant warfare between them on the subject of clothes; quite a seemly warfare, for Stephen was learning to control her hot temper, and Anna was seldom anything but gentle. Nevertheless it was open warfare, the inevitable clash of two opposing natures who sought to express themselves in apparel, since clothes, after all, are a form of self-expression. The victory would now be on this side, now on that; sometimes Stephen would appear in a thick woollen jersey, or a suit of rough tweeds surreptitiously ordered from the excellent tailor in Malvern. Sometimes Anna would triumph, having journeyed to London to procure soft and very expensive dresses, which her daughter must wear in order to please her, because she would come home quite tired by such journeys. On the whole, Anna got her own way at this time, for Stephen would suddenly give up the contest, reduced to submission by Anna’s disappointment, always more efficacious than mere disapproval.

‘Here, give it to me!’ she would say rather gruffly, grabbing the delicate dress from her mother.

Then off she would rush and put it on all wrong, so that Anna would sigh in a kind of desperation, and would pat, readjust, unfasten and fasten, striving to make peace between wearer and model, whose inimical feelings were evidently mutual.

Came a day when Stephen was suddenly outspoken: ‘It’s my face,’ she announced, ‘something’s wrong with my face.’

‘Nonsense!’ exclaimed Anna, and her cheeks flushed a little, as though the girl’s words had been an offence, then she turned away quickly to hide her expression.

But Stephen had seen that fleeting expression, and she stood very still when her mother had left her, her own face growing heavy and sombre with anger, with a sense of some uncomprehended injustice. She wrenched off the dress and hurled it from her, longing intensely to rend it, to hurt it, longing to hurt herself in the process, yet filled all the while with that sense of injustice. But this mood changed abruptly to one of self pity; she wanted to sit down and weep over Stephen; on a sudden impulse she wanted to pray over Stephen as though she were someone apart, yet terribly personal too in her trouble. Going over to the dress she smoothed it out slowly; it seemed to have acquired an enormous importance; it seemed to have acquired the importance of prayer, the poor, crumpled thing lying crushed and dejected. Yet Stephen, these days, was not given to prayer, God had grown so unreal, so hard to believe in since she had studied Comparative Religion; engrossed in her studies she had somehow mislaid Him. But now, here she was, very wishful to pray, while not knowing how to explain her dilemma: ‘I’m terribly unhappy, dear, improbable God —’ would not be a very propitious beginning. And yet at this moment she was wanting a God and a tangible one, very kind and paternal; a God with a white flowing beard and wide forehead, a benevolent parent — Who would lean out of Heaven and turn His face sideways the better to listen from His cloud, upheld by cherubs and angels. What she wanted was a wise old family God, surrounded by endless heavenly relations. In spite of her troubles she began to laugh weakly, and the laughing was good for it killed self pity; nor can it have offended that Venerable Person whose image persists in the hearts of small children.

She donned the new dress with infinite precaution, pulling out its bows and arranging its ruffles. Her large hands were clumsy but now they were willing, very penitent hands full of deep resignation. They fumbled and paused, then continued to fumble with the endless small fastenings so cunningly hidden. She sighed once or twice but the sighs were quite patient, so perhaps in this Wise, after all, Stephen prayed.

2

Anna worried continually over her daughter; for one thing Stephen was a social disaster, yet at seventeen many a girl was presented, but the bare idea of this had terrified Stephen, and so it had had to be abandoned. At garden parties she was always a failure, seemingly ill at ease and ungracious. She shook hands much too hard, digging rings into fingers, this from sheer automatic nervous reaction. She spoke not at all, or else gabbled too freely, so that Anna grew vague in her own conversation; all eyes and ears she would be as she listened — it was certainly terribly hard on Anna. But if hard on Anna, it was harder on Stephen who dreaded these festive gatherings intensely; indeed her dread of them lacked all proportion, becoming a kind of unreasoning obsession. Every vestige of self-confidence seemed to’ desert her, so that Puddle, supposing she happened to be present would find herself grimly comparing this Stephen with the graceful, light-footed, proficient young athlete, with the clever and somewhat opinionated student who was fast outstripping her own powers as a teacher. Yes, Puddle would sit there grimly comparing, and would feel not a little uneasy as she did so. Then something of her pupil’s distress would reach her, so that perforce she would have to share it and as like as not she would want to shake Stephen.

Good Lord,’ she would think, ‘why can’t she hit back? It’s absurd, it’s outrageous to be so disgruntled by a handful of petty, half-educated yokels — a girl with her brain too, it’s simply outrageous! She’ll have to tackle life more forcibly than this, if she’s not going to let herself go under!’

But Stephen, completely oblivious of Puddle, would be deep in the throes of her old suspicion, the suspicion that had haunted her ever since childhood — she would fancy that people were laughing at her. So sensitive was she, that a half-heard sentence, a word, a glance, made her inwardly crumble. It might well be that people were not even thinking about her, much less discussing her appearance — no good, she would always imagine that the word, the glance, had some purely personal meaning. She would twitch at her hat with inadequate fingers, or walk clumsily, slouching a little as she did so, until Anna would whisper:

‘Hold your back up, you’re stooping.’

Or Puddle exclaim crossly: ‘What on earth’s the matter, Stephen!’ All of which only added to Stephen’s tribulation by making her still more self-conscious.

With other young girls she had nothing in common, while they, in their turn, found her irritating. She was shy to primness regarding certain subjects, and would actually blush if they happened to be mentioned. This would strike her companions as queer and absurd — after all, between girls — surely every one knew that at times one ought not to get one’s feet wet, that one didn’t play games, not at certain times — there was nothing to make all this fuss about surely! To see Stephen Gordon’s expression of horror if one so much as threw out a hint on the subject, was to feel that the thing must in some way be shameful, a kind of disgrace, a humiliation! And then she was odd about other things too; there were so many things that she didn’t like mentioned.

In the end, they completely lost patience with her, and they left her alone with her fads and her fancies, disliking the check that her presence imposed, disliking to feel that they dare not allude to even the necessary functions of nature without being made to feel immodest.

But at times Stephen hated her own isolation, and then she would make little awkward advances, while her eyes would grow rather apologetic, like the eyes of a dog who has been out of favour. She would try to appear quite at ease with her companions, as she joined in their light-hearted conversation. Strolling up to a group of young girls at a party, she would grin as though their small jokes amused her, or else listen gravely while they talked about clothes or some popular actor who had visited Malvern. As long as they refrained from too intimate details, she would fondly imagine that her interest passed muster. There she would stand with her strong arms folded, and her face somewhat strained in an effort of attention. While despising these girls, she yet longed to be like them — yes, indeed, at such moments she longed to be like them. It would suddenly strike her that they seemed very happy, very sure of themselves as they gossiped together. There was something so secure in their feminine conclaves, a secure sense of oneness, of mutual understanding; each in turn understood the other’s ambitions. They might have their jealousies, their quarrels even, but always she discerned underneath, that sense of oneness.

Poor Stephen! She could never impose upon them; they always saw through her as though she were a window. They knew well enough that she cared not so much as a jot about clothes and popular actors. Conversation would falter, then die down completely, her presence would dry up their springs of inspiration. She spoilt things while trying to make herself agreeable; they really liked her better when she was grumpy.

Could Stephen have met men on equal terms, she would always have chosen them as her companions; she preferred them because of their blunt, open outlook, and with men she had much in common — sport for instance. But men found her too clever if she ventured to expand, and too dull if she suddenly subsided into shyness. In addition to this there was something about her that antagonized slightly, an unconscious presumption. Shy though she might be, they sensed this presumption; it annoyed them, it made them feel on the defensive. She was handsome but much too large and unyielding both in body and mind, and they liked clinging women. They were oak-trees, preferring the feminine ivy. It might cling rather close, it might finally strangle, it frequently did, and yet they preferred it, and this being so, they resented Stephen, suspecting something of the acorn about her.

3

Stephen’s worst ordeals at this time were the dinners given in turn by a hospitable county. They were long, these dinners, overloaded with courses; they were heavy, being weighted with polite conversation; they were stately, by reason of the family silver; above all they were firmly conservative in spirit, as conservative as the marriage service itself, and almost as insistent upon sex distinction.

‘Captain Ramsay, will you take Miss Gordon in to dinner?’ A politely crooked arm: ‘Delighted, Miss Gordon.’

Then the solemn and very ridiculous procession, animals marching into Noah’s Ark two by two, very sure of divine protection — male and female created He them! Stephen’s skirt would be long and her foot might get entangled, and she with but one free hand at her disposal — the procession would stop and she would have stopped it! Intolerable thought, she had stopped the procession!

‘I’m so sorry, Captain Ramsay!’

‘I say, can I help you?’

‘No — it’s really — all right, I think I can manage —’

But oh, the utter confusion of spirit, the humiliating feeling that someone must be laughing, the resentment at having to cling to his arm for support, while Captain Ramsay looked patient.

‘Not much damage, I think you’ve just torn the frill, but I often wonder how you women manage. Imagine a man in a dress like that, too awful to think of — imagine me in it!’ Then a laugh, not unkindly but a trifle self-conscious, and rather more than a trifle complacent.

Safely steered to her seat at the long dinner-table, Stephen would struggle to smile and talk brightly, while her partner would think: ‘Lord, she’s heavy in hand; I wish I had the mother; now there’s a lovely woman!’

And Stephen would think: ‘I’m a bore, why is it?’ Then, ‘But if I were he I wouldn’t be a bore, I could just be myself; I’d feel perfectly natural.’

Her face would grow splotched with resentment and worry; she would feel her neck flush and her hands become awkward. Embarrassed, she would sit staring down at her hands, which would seem to be growing more and more awkward. No escape! No escape! Captain Ramsay was kind-hearted, he would try very hard to be complimentary; his grey eyes would try to express admiration, polite admiration as they rested on Stephen. His voice would sound softer and more confidential, the voice that nice men reserve for good women, protective, respectful, yet a little sex-conscious, a little expectant of a tentative response. But Stephen would feel herself growing more rigid with every kind word and gallant allusion. Openly hostile she would be feeling, as poor Captain Ramsay or some other victim was manfully trying to do his duty.

In such a mood as this she had once drunk champagne, one glass only, the first she had ever tasted. She had gulped it all down in sheer desperation — the result had not been Dutch courage but hiccups. Violent, insistent, incorrigible hiccups had echoed along the whole length of the table. One of those weird conversational lulls had been filled, as it were, to the brim with her hiccups. Then Anna had started to talk very loudly; Mrs. Antrim had smiled and so had their hostess. Their hostess had finally beckoned to the butler: ‘Give Miss Gordon a glass of water,’ she had whispered. After that, Stephen shunned champagne like the plague — better hopeless depression, she decided, than hiccups!

It was strange how little her fine brain seemed able to help her when she was trying to be social; in spite of her confident boasting to Raftery, it did not seem able to help her at all. Perhaps it was the clothes, for she lost all conceit the moment she was dressed as Anna would have her; at this period clothes greatly influenced Stephen, giving her confidence or the reverse. But be that as it might, people thought her peculiar, and with them that was tantamount to disapproval.

And thus, it was being borne in upon Stephen, that for her there was no real abiding city beyond the strong, friendly old gates of Morton, and she clung more and more to her home and to her father. Perplexed and unhappy she would seek out her father on all social occasions and would sit down beside him. Like a very small child this large muscular creature would sit down beside him because she felt lonely, and because youth most rightly resents isolation, and because she had not yet learnt her hard lesson — she had not yet learnt that the loneliest place in this world is the no-man’s-land of sex.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 20:51