”I would rather put a phial of prussic acid in the hands of a healthy girl or boy than the book in question.”
- James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express newspaper
Radclyffe Hall is famous for this controversial novel, the first published piece of lesbian fiction written in English (and/or, arguably, the first piece of transgender fiction written in English).
After writing The Well of Loneliness, Hall’s novel was turned down by three publishers who, although they praised the book, believed it was too controversial to sell. In April, 1928, when she did find a publisher (Jonathon Cape), she told him the novel required complete commitment and she would refuse to alter a single word. "I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world... So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction.”
The Well was about an upper-class English woman named Stephen Gordon, who is raised as the boy her parents wanted (which “explained” her inversion). She falls in love with Mary Llewellyn and the proceed to have a relationship while putting up with self-hatred, shame, social isolation and rejection. As would become the trend in lesbian fiction, The Well was not a happy read.
Jonathon Cape, who had been hesitant about publishing a scandalous book, started with a small print of 1500 copies. His instincts had been correct: the public was shocked by it (though it was fairly easy to shock these people. The Well’s graphic sex scene in its entirety is “and that night they were not divided”), and more importantly, the government and courts found it obscene.
Hall attempted to fight the censorship of her work, but was largely unsuccessful. At one point, Virginia Woolf argued on her side and assembled a list of supporters of Hall’s right to have the book published, including T.S. Eliot, Arnold Bennett, Vera Brittain, and Ethel Smyth. According to Woolf, the plan fell apart when Hall insisted the letter include her novel’s "artistic merit — even genius". Though the supporters didn’t think The Well should be suppressed, that didn’t necessarily mean they thought it was superbly written. (Hall’s writing style didn’t much appeal to modernist authors.)
The book stayed banned in the UK until 1949 for defending "unnatural practices between women". One judge ruled that no reasonable person could say a book that condoned toleration of sexual inverts was not obscene, and ordered the books destroyed at the defendant’s cost.
The controversy, which was repeated to a lesser degree in the US, even extended to having a lampoon published in 1928 called The Sink of Solitude that poked fun at both sides.
But criticism of The Well did not come from literary critics (such as the one quoted at the beginning of this novel) or homophobes alone. When Hall asked a friend for critique of the novel, her friend slapped her across the face in reply.
“Ideal anti-homosexual propaganda.”
- Henry Gerber, a gay activist
Although most glbtq readers at the time were thrilled to have a portrayal of a lesbian in literature, the ones that followed were not so impressed, including Henry Gerber, quoted above. Some objected at the theme of self-hatred and shame that is central to The Well. Another critique was the confusion of being transgender and homosexual. It has been argued that Stephen, the main character, was likely a transgender person, not a lesbian. One of the biggest complaints about the novel is that it describes lesbian life as joyless and painful to bear. (spoilers follow) It even had the kind of unhappy ending typical of classic lesbian fiction. Stephen kills herself so that her lover may be happy (a.k.a. straight), and Stephen succeeded in this sense, as Mary falls into a conveniently-placed man’s arms in her sorrow). This, critics accuse Hall, began the formula of punishing homosexual characters to gain “moral” ground. (spoilers end here) Other readers argue that this was merely an accurate portrayal of a lesbian lifestyle at the times and the difficulty surrounding them. If she had written an upbeat lesbian love story it would have been a betrayal of the homosexual reality of the time.
For all its accused faults, The Well is a staple on any lesbian reader’s bookshelf, and has been dubbed “the lesbian bible”. It may not be perfect, but it was the beginning of a genre, and laid the foundation for the lesbian novels that would follow years later.