Back in the Day is a column that looks back at key moments in the history of lesbians and bisexual women in entertainment.
When Radclyffe Hall’s infamous novel The Well of Loneliness was published in London in 1928, it was greeted with a wave of hostile criticism: “Acts of the most horrible, unnatural and disgusting obscenity,” wrote one critic. James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, stated, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.”
All this for a novel that did not contain any sex act other than kissing. That is, between women.
Credited with helping to define lesbianism in the twentieth century, The Well of Loneliness was the first English novel written by a lesbian to focus openly on homosexuality.
While critics and readers alike disagree on whether the novel was beneficial or harmful to lesbians at the time, it is undeniable that The Well has had a major impact on countless lesbians’ lives since its publication.
By the time of Radclyffe Hall’s death in 1943, The Well of Loneliness had been translated into numerous different languages and remains in print today.
Historian Lillian Faderman has theorized, “There was probably no lesbian in the four decades between 1928 and the late 1960s capable of reading English or any of the eleven languages into which the book was translated who was unfamiliar with The Well of Loneliness.”
The novel tells the story of Stephen Mary Olivia Gertrude Gordon, named Stephen because her father so desired a son that when he found that his wife had delivered him a daughter, he chose to keep the name he had selected for a boy. Stephen’s father, Sir Phillip Gordon, is a wealthy Englishman who dotes upon his daughter, but realizes during her childhood that she is an invert—the psychological classification, at the time, for a lesbian.
As a child, Stephen enjoys dressing up in boys’ clothing, often acts boyish, and falls in love with the housemaid, Collins.
As she grows up she develops many traditionally masculine traits, including athleticism. After her father’s death, Stephen decides to become a writer; she also meets Mary Llewelyn and falls in love with her, and they live together in Paris where they become part of the gay and lesbian café society of the 1920s.
But this “gay” life only masks a reality of pain and despair, as “inverts” not rejected by mainstream society as abnormal and repulsive.” Unlike Stephen, Mary is not a “congenital invert”; she retains attractions to men despite her love for Stephen.
Knowing this, Stephen feels guilty for subjecting Mary to such a tragic life, and she resolves to separate from Mary in order to force her to return to the heterosexual world.
Because Mary will never leave her without great betrayal, Stephen lies to her and tells her that she’s been having an affair. Despondent, Mary leaves and falls into the willing arms of their friend Martin Hallam, whom Stephen has arranged to be waiting nearby.
At the very end of the book, Stephen kills herself, surrounded by the ghosts of their friends who have lived a life of torment because of their sexuality. Stephen pleads with her God, “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!”
The Well of Loneliness was published in the same year as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel about a gender-changing poet based on Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West. Its first edition even included a photo of Sackville-West dressed as a boy.
But Orlando’s lesbianism was elegantly woven into Woolf’s fantastical storytelling, whereas The Well was presented in all of Hall’s straightforward realism.
Consequently, The Well of Loneliness was charged with obscenity, despite the fact that, as Jeanette Winterson wrote in 1997 in The Times, “There are no descriptions of sex in it, no rude words, and the lesbian lovers do not live happily ever after.”
This obscenity trial remains one of the most infamous in history, and author Radclyffe Hall was as much on trial as her novel.
Hall claimed that The Well upheld a conventional heterosexual morality, as the character of Mary, who was not a true invert like Stephen Gordon, had to follow her heterosexual nature by ultimately marrying a man.
Hall believed in the conclusions of the sexologists of her time, including Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, who argued that lesbianism was not a matter of choice, but was an affliction caused by “congenital inversion” that was present from birth.
One of the main characteristics of inversion, according to Ellis, was a masculine appearance — a belief that continues to be a stereotype today.